[This piece was written as a part of Critical Distance‘s June 2016 Blogs of the Round Table feature]
Videogame fiction, like a lot of adventure fiction for young people, places the central character in the position of rescuing a loved one. Often the loved one our hero must rescue is a damsel in distress with an implicit romantic/sexual relationship between them as the reward. The consequence of this fiction becoming a pattern is that it frames the romantic/sexual relationship with the damsel as a prize to be won,1 kind of like scoring a big payday for a job well done when romance/sexuality is a human activity involving human beings who all bring their history and agency into the activity, be they damsels or not. A dude in distress is not the same as a damsel because there is not the same political history of men-as-possessions valued by agential, socially active women. Still, the underlying attitude of a romantic/sexual prize at the end of a hard day’s work still lingers in the kind of heroic quest to put a ring on it, even when the typically gendered narrative is shifted. So even though reversing the normalized gender relationship in, say, Primal, Dreamfall or Toren is not the same thing as a male hero questing for his lady’s heart, I still think there is an underlying possessiveness to the trope.
In epics like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Æneids, The Tale of Genji, Ishtar, Vikram and the Vampire or whatever else motivations tended toward upholding class or kingdom, morality tales may have involved love or family but they did were not as imperative to the hero’s goals. Obviously, values now are different then they were in previous centuries. Duh. But even if the more individualistically driven quest for one’s love overshadows or overlaps the quest for social standing or social good in contemporary epic fictions, questing on behalf of family, particularly parents or their surrogates, seems to treat people less as possessions and more as a representative of social duty.
As the sort of archetypal videogame damsel in distress, Princess Toadstool/Peach in Super Mario Bros., even though she’s royalty, is a thing to chase after; an excuse to run through 8 worlds of platforming adventure culminating in that most inoffensive expressions of physical intimacy: the Smooch of Victory.2 It’s fairly obvious why quests to save family are not laced with the same desires, but what is interesting about them is that they seem to be more invested in fulfilling a larger duty than in winning personal glory or individual success. Phantasy Star‘s Alis may be offered the throne at the end of her journey, but she is ostensibly motivated to overthrow an unjust ruler.3 Alis’s quest begins with the death of her brother but from there she seems more invested in public good rather than personal achievement. Still, Alis’s relationship to her brother is tangential, but when a videogame hero sets out on behalf of a parent there seems to be a greater emphasis on duty, either to a community or just the family. In any case, the message is not one of personal achievement but of doing what is required simply because it’s required. That strikes me as a very different approach than the journey for love where the victor lands in a clearly better situation then the one they set out in.
Parents in videogames seem to often be either absent, dead, relegated to the margins, or they’re villains to be overcome. Mothers, if they appear at all, tend to be saintly victims while fathers are more likely to be antagonists than not. Framing parents as non-existent, conveniently dead or as enemies to overcome isn’t a problem limited to games, of course, but it is striking how strong the pattern is in recent decades. Yet when parenthood is represented as a core relationship in a game it comes with themes of duty and pro-socialization in a way that other relationship motivations don’t.
Take Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, in which the player controls two brothers trekking across a fairy tale countryside searching for a medicinal herb that will cure their father’s illness. Initially the world seems fairly whimsical and fun, very much like a fairy tale with goblins, giants and witches that offer a token of danger more to provide lessons then fear. As the adventure continues, the fantastical world becomes less Disney and more Grimm brothers where disease and gory death lurks around every corner, especially for poor people. While the boys’ mother is conveniently dead, their journey is motivated more by necessity then to accomplish something. Neither of them seem particularly like they want to be on an adventure: they’re doing it because they have to. Especially as the game takes them farther from home and the violence around them becomes more palpable, the family suffers more loss. The tone of their experiences doesn’t emphasize what they stand to gain—there is no smooch awaiting them in the final castle—but instead it focuses on the duty they have to one another.
The very idea of duty runs contrary to positive reinforcement models usually structured in games. Frequently narrative progress mirrors a player and player character’s gradual accumulation of things,4 which, again, culminates not just in saving the world and preserving the status quo, but in some personal triumph represented by declaring ownership of property or declaring a damsel rescued and secured as property. But the stakes are different in Brothers: there is no achievement, just a sick dad with little time left. Ultimately loss cannot be prevented, only shifted elsewhere. The boys in Brothers do what they need to for their family because they must.
A similar dynamic is at play in The Banner Saga and its sequel. In the twentieth century fiction has speculated on the end of the world extensively; probably because in the twentieth century several modes of ending the world became far more plausible then ever before. But where The Lord of the Rings treats apocalypse as an epic showdown between armies or Terminator as a moment in history that can be scratched out and corrected like an accounting error, The Banner Saga‘s apocalypse burns slowly and lingers. Across two games the world ends slowly; taking long enough for people to starve to death. It’s a death by a thousand cuts, hastily bandaged in panicked self-preservation. Apocalypse is constant erasure of land and people that moves quickly enough that disaster is evident but too slowly to demand immediate, decisive, unified action. Under these circumstances, the main character of the first, Rook and of the second, either Rook or his daughter Alette, depending on how the player ends the first game, is not so much a saviour or hero as another refugee trying to hold everybody together.5
The relationship between Alette and Rook extends to their relationship to the entire caravan. Although the mother is conveniently dead and off screen (again), the long march across the continent is motivated more by a duty toward family extended to the rest of the clan. The best hope is doing right by the family and minimizing loss, not saving the world or winning the day. Both parent and child work for others under stressful conditions.
Unlike The Legend of Zelda or any in the Final Fantasy series, where altruism and heroism are celebrated as aspects of an individual and validate the worlds that these characters seek to save, these narratives based on parental relationships and familial duties tend toward more hostile atmospheres where the implicit assumption is that these characters are required by an unspoken imperative to act on behalf of their family. Even in games that centre on group dynamics and interpersonal connections,6 these relationships develop and valorize in a way that the quest to save the family is motivated by an unspoken (unspeakable?) duty. I’m not sure what that means, if anything, but the rare inclusion of the child-parent (almost always father) relationship seems to carry with it an emphasis on duty.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong, while it allows more role-playing than any of the games above, also stresses family duty in the player character’s search for their surrogate father. However, while they may play aloof and self-interested, the player’s foster-brother, Duncan, sacrifices far more in the search and is far more committed to finding the father-figure. Hong Kong offers both a more typical relationship with a person as a token representing achievement through the player character’s relationship and the sacrifice for a parent as a part of one’s duty through Duncan. Although the different relationships cause some tension between Duncan and the PC, ultimately there is a tacit understanding that Duncan is more invested in the relationship as an understanding between family members than the PC, who searches for their father primarily because that’s the overarching goal guiding the rest of the game along.
At this point I’m realizing how invisible mothers are outside a non-canonical interaction between Robin and Lucina in Fire Emblem: Awakening7 and a general thematic approach in Lost Odyssey.8 Otherwise motherhood is reduced to a handful of vague mentions as vaguely helpful side characters, corpses that need avenging or paranormal villains that need to be put down. While fathers can exist to demonstrate duty, mothers seem to be entirely erased.9
I’m not sure what conclusion I’m trying to reach here, but when a game’s central relationship is between a parent and children then there is a unique emphasis on duty to others rather than on the relationship as either a reward or a representation of reward. Preserving a family relationship, while not necessarily about preserving the status quo, seems more geared to weathering hardship then building something better. That dynamic is interesting to me even if games seem wholly detached from the particularities of motherhood.
1 Sarkeesian, Anita. “Damsel in Distress (Part 1).” Feminist Frequency. March 7 2013.
2 Sarkeesian, Anita. “Women as Reward.” Feminist Frequency. August 31 2015.
3 Filipowich, Mark. “Mobility as a Weapon in Phantasy Star.” bigtallwords. April 25 2014.
4 Beirne, Stephen. “Level 99 Capitalist.” Normally Rascal. June 4 2014.
5 Filipowich, Mark. “We Are One: JRPGs, the Group Journey, and the Mechanics of Cooperation.” PopMatters. April 2 2013.
6 Filipowich, Mark. “Resource Based Humanity.” bigtallwords. May 6 2015.
7 Filipowich. Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 9: Fire Emblem: Awakening.” bigtallwords. January 26 2015.
8 Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 6: Lost Odyssey.” bigtallwords. July 3 2013.
9 Smith, Carly. “Gaming’s Mom Problem: Why do we refuse to feature moms in games?” Polygon. November 10 2014.
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Further reading: Blackmon, Samantha. “Why Writing and Playing Video Games are Alike; Or, A Public Apology to My Mother.” Not Your Mama’s Gamer. January 9 2015.
Frank, Jenn. “Playing God: On Death, Motherhood and ‘Creatures’.” Unwinnable. January 27 2012.
Farr, Denis. “Trade Wars to Facebook Games.” Vorpal Bunny Ranch.” February 16 2011.
Kirk, Robin. “How World of Warcraft helped me through my divorce.” Salon. January 19 2011.