Terrible news: you’ve become a parent. In a video game.
Someone died, or something horrible happened, or maybe it was great and magical to begin with and then the horrible thing happened. Maybe you died, and that’s awful because you were a parent and now your child is alone in a dangerous world; maybe everything would be fine except your offspring has been kidnapped. Whatever the reason, you’re the parent or guardian of a human child and you’re in for a rough time.
Unless the game is about children, young people have only two purposes in video games: to be annoying sidekicks (and immediately expelled from your party in favour of a dog and a drunk old man) or to be a source of trauma and growth. If someone has children, the player will be given the chance to see them struggle with parenting in the worst possible ways allowed by the theme. Their significant other will die and they will have to go out into the world with their son and teach them to survive, which is difficult and challenging even for the actual god of war. They will need to rescue the child from death and worse, all the while thinking of the nightmarish fates that could be befalling them, a la Dishonored, or Silent Hill.
Even if things start in a positive place, emotionally stable and functional, the slap of video games’ heavy hand is never far away. Shadow of Mordor kills everyone in the Ranger’s family right after you stealth kiss your wife in the opening, leaving him to angst for all eternity, Fallout 4 shows a glimpse of the joys of being a new father then steals your son 200 years in the future, and The Last of Us spends 15 masterful minutes making sure you appreciate its adorable father-daughter relationship before tearing out your heart and stomping it into the dirt.
The games with traumatic parenting stories aren’t necessarily bad; many of them represent the finest art the industry has ever produced.
Here’s the thing about being a parent, though: sometimes it’s nice. In fact, most of the time it’s wonderful. Having kids can be a transformative experience filled with moments of joy, laughter, love and admiration. Is it hard sometimes? Absolutely. I have three boys, and some of the most difficult and stressful times in my life have been because of them. But much of the parenting experience is happy, or normal. Most days are about making lunches and listening to them talk nonsense for hours, or taking them places and watching them just run around being unfinished human blobs.
Yet the overwhelming purpose of children and parents alike in game narratives is to die and generate sadness, or to live on and be a burden which may or may not lead to an important lesson.
This trend is especially brutal when it comes to mothers, who almost never survive long enough to matter much to anyone beyond the emotional value of their memory. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Detroit: Become Human, Fallout 3, Heavy Rain, God of War, The Last of Us, Dishonored, and The Walking Dead to name a few all kill off their mother figures (or hide them away) with the game barely even begun. There are plenty of others. It’s bad enough that there is a real-life stigma around parenting that implicitly suggests your life after having a kid is a whirlwind of chaos from which you can never escape. This is not an imaginary point that needs to be hammered home by every second video game.
Stories need conflict, is the argument. Nobody wants to see a happy family dealing with nothing in particular. It’s a common assertion about narratives in general that action requires characters deal with obstacles.
But defining potential conflict for parents purely in terms of how uncomfortable, stressful and emotionally taxing the act of raising children can be for the characters is narrow thinking. The Sims, while not a narrative-driven game, manages to cast parenting in a realistic light, positioning the act of having children in the first place as a player choice, and attaching positive motivations to them by investing parents and players in their success, however they choose to define it. Dream Daddy does an nice job of representing characters who manage to be both happy, functional fathers and also human beings who want to date other hot dads. And it may be shallow, but the constant inclusion of a supportive mother figure in each Pokémon game—whom the player can visit throughout their adventure for moral cheerleading and mechanical benefit—is a much appreciated break from the cavalcade of tragedy.
My favourite example of a gaming parent is the King of All Cosmos. Katamari Damacy‘s arrogant, clumsy and probably-drunk father figure is an excellent example of how a parent-child relationship doesn’t need to be played as if the game were competing in the misery olympics. The Prince and the King have a strained relationship at best, and the King is by all accounts a pretty horrible, messy person, but the tone is light and the ridiculous dialogue still hints at a genuine emotional connection. They have fun, they connect, they roll up big balls of stuff and it’s not a metaphor for the difficulties of having a dad who’s codpiece is the size of the moon.
Consider, even, that something as vast, varied and vital to the world as parenting could even be used as a positive motivator in game narratives. Imagine if a father adventured out into the wilderness to care for his family, not because they were sick or in danger, but because he wanted to be a good parent. Imagine an RPG about a mother of five who gains her power by connecting to her children and forming some sort of Mother Voltron to smite evil.
Maybe it would not entirely break the whole concept of a video game story to have two happy, healthy parents who are alive and care for their living children without spiralling into a pit of despair, and perhaps during the week they are super spies that take down Nazi robots. There’s even a wealth of material sitting, unused, with regard to games that weave the act of parenting into whatever other activities the player might engage in. Why stop at romantic companions in Mass Effect when you could also parent through dialogue trees and watch your space kids grow up to be the perfect space adults?
These are just some possibilities that become apparent if you simply stop looking at parenting as just a way to tell stories about how parenting is really hard. Everyone already knows it’s hard. Think instead about the excitement and magic inherent in the idea of taking control of a new life and guiding it along one of a million potential paths toward adulthood. Think of the feeling you get when you’re allowed to take care of animals in games, or given free reign to design, build and destroy a whole city.
Raising kids isn’t a burden, it’s a power fantasy, and games love power fantasies.
Perhaps now we’ve gotten all of these crying fathers and absent mums out of our system as an industry, we could start to look further into the spectrum of life experience that parenting represents. Given the importance of raising children in pretty much any society, it seems a waste to only ever look at things through the grim lens of everything that could possibly go wrong. Many have postulated that the overall increase in stories about fathers dealing with the tribulations of having kids is a symptom of so many game designers reaching their 30s and 40s while also having children of their own.
If that’s the case, and given that the overall saturation of video games in society means, statistically, a lot of parents play games, then it might be time for the industry to grow past the look how grown up we are phase, and start telling a wider range of stories. Including ones about happy, healthy parents.