Portraying relationships in games, or where did all the mothers go?

We’ve had a slew of powerful storytelling games released recently featuring characters who are strongly defined by their relationships.  For example, the Big Daddy/ Little Sister relationship in Bioshock 2. Father/ Son in Heavy Rain. Father/ Son again with Sazh in FF13.

This is an important step in storytelling, because many of us are defined by our relationships at least as much as our ‘stats and abilities’. If relationships in stories ring true, then a lot of players will identify far more easily with those characters. I was struck by The Brainy Gamer’s reaction to Bioshock 2, which was that it was the closest he had ever come in a game to conveying what it meant to be a father. We do feel emotional about our own relationships. And that’s a deep vein to mine for storytellers. Not only that, but because of the peculiarly interactive nature of games, a well portrayed relationship allows the player to actually experience it themselves in a very immersive way. You don’t have to feel protective over a game character’s child … but you can, and you might.

But why does it always have to be fathers?

Half the freaking NPCs in Wrath have father issues. Arthas, Darion Morgraine, Garrosh and Varian, for a start. Not to mention the initially poignant but quickly tiring scene between Saurfang and his Son in ICC. All three of the examples I gave above (Bioshock 2, Heavy Rain, FF13) feature father issues.

Do none of these people have mothers? In FF13, the only mother who is featured is Hope’s mother, who makes a brief appearance before dying tragically in order to give him a suitably emo backstory. That, by the way, is the function of mothers in heroic fantasy.

And yet … in the article referenced above, TBG compares Bioshock 2 to The Odyssey. And Homer wasn’t shy about portraying strong women, and strong female relationships. People in Ancient Greek Myth had mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives, who were an important part of their lives. (They also had husbands, sons, fathers, etc etc.)

FF13 does redeem itself with some strong female characters, with strong female relationships. For example, Lightning is cool and badass. But when you see the relationship that she has with her little sister (fiercely protective, guilty about not having had faith in her, suspicious of her boyfriend) the character really rings true.  Fang is badass, laconic, and bristling with bravado (it was a stroke of genius to give her an Aussie accent in the translation, I keep expecting her to crack open a can of lager) and her relationship with the bouncy, chirpy Vanille is one of very deep affection and probably more. More than that, they both obviously look out for each other.

The obvious answer is that games are written mostly by men, and many of these men are also fathers so they write what they know. But part of the skill of writing is also to be able to research and write what you don’t. It still doesn’t explain why so many heroic characters in games either focus solely on their fathers, or have mothers who conveniently died in the backstory.

We do have some good female characters. And any powerful and well written relationships are better than none. But isn’t anyone else feeling that the constant focus on father/son relationships is getting a bit tired?

20 thoughts on “Portraying relationships in games, or where did all the mothers go?

  1. Fallout III :- Trecking after the father that just abandonded you and then having to convince him to let you be the muscle to his brains for his plan to save ‘a bunch of folk if not exactly the world’. And Dady got the only big time voice actor (LiamN) Personaly I ignored him and went off to do my own thing.

    You have a point. I dont recall any standout female characters apart from Morrigan (who you could sleep with) in any recent games…..and thats a shame. Even worse I dont recall any female ‘Bad Guys’ either. Vampire Masq had some pretty intresting characters both male and female but that was years ago….I guess Civ had various female leaders?

  2. No actually: the irony is that a lot of us men grow up with not really knowing our fathers, while very rarely in comparison do people not know their mothers. What you see too much of in games we see too little of in real life.

    They don’t portray mothers because they take them for granted (as well as it tends to sap the badass if your barbarian dotes on his mom.) But every guy has father issues normally: when they are absent it gets amplified.

  3. Mom’s dont tend to be the image of the badass do they? I mean they often can be but the kids dont see it.
    Bayonetta was meant to be a cool, witty female badass witch but I think they slipped over the line into sex object a little to far? Dont know didnt play it myself.
    Intrestingly many of the actualy cool female characters in games I can think of are Japanese made…despite all the recent hysteria about hentai games.

    • Mom’s dont tend to be the image of the badass do they? I mean they often can be but the kids dont see it.

      Well, there’s always the Mama Bear archetype, where the mother shows that she’s an unstoppable force if her children are threatened. For example, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is primarily interested in protecting the orphanage she runs.

  4. What are we talking about now?
    The lack of strong female heroes or missing Moms in the background of a hero’s development?

    Because the former is definitely a stereotype hero image, while the latter is simply due to sociological development or growing up.

    Boys growing up with no father figure have problems. Biologically speaking, when Testosterone transforms a boy into a man, it does transfer a lot of power to a childish body. How that energy is used is very much depending on the way Man in a grown ups surrounding do use it.
    For Instance yobs (don’t know any other translation, sorry) rioting in a neighborhood either have no father figure or a too strong father figure.
    While girls growing up with no father, are driven into a stronger relation with their mother.
    Their are plenty of discussions about that topic, which I don’t want to judge about. It’s just for illustrating, that for a hero background, father issues are an easy choice.

    Remember that the classical hero drama (Homer for instance)is about the ambivalence between rage and responsibility.

    • I’m not really talking about female heroes/ characters. But about how so many defining character relationships seem to be about fathers. It’s like game designers are totally obsessed with it. I just think that increasingly we’re getting relationships portrayed which are actually about being a father, and I wonder why no one wants to write about women. Older sisters, mothers, aunts, that sort of thing.

      I have a personal stake in this, since my mother died when I was 12 and I was brought up by my dad. So I’d love to see more games about the relationships characters have with their mothers, because I’d like to vicariously live through it.

      But loads of people come from unconventional backgrounds, so it’s not as if I’m that unusual really.

      • I felt that Cortana from the Halo games was a kind of mother figure for the Master Chief.

        I can’t think of any others though.

      • Aside from a few exceptions, families in general are pretty rare in video games. One major exception is Chrono Trigger.

        Chrono Trigger did feature the mothers of five protagonists: Crono’s, Lucca’s, Marle’s, Robo’s (sort of, he was built) and Magus’. Of these, Crono’s and Marle’s mothers are simply like any other NPCs, uttering just a few lines and not generally doing anything. On the other hand, there is a storyline about how Lucca’s mother’s accident was the spark that drove her to learn about machines.

        Finally, there’s Magus, who has issues, to say the least. Being a queen, his mother was somewhat distant and thus he tended to rely on his big sister, Schala. To avoid spoilers, let’s just say that it ended badly, and by the time the other protagonists meet Magus for the first time, he’s a bitter, brooding villain.

      • Although I get your point, I think it is not because we are experiencing a change of how relationships are portrayed.

        You already mentioned it in between the lines, Games are made by boys for boys mostly. We are talking about reaching the majority here. You could also bring up, that the way females are presented in games is similar to what Heidi Klum serves her audience in casting shows. Nobody would actually want to play Sophie Scholl.
        At this point we are getting close to discussions about roles in society and how they changed, which I do not want to open here.

        Just let me say, I am with you. It would actually be a vital alternation from the existing flood.

  5. Dragon Age Origins was pretty good on mothers – the city elf origin had you being inspired by your warrior mother while your dad was pretty insipid, while the human noble origin involved your mother heroically sacrificing herself to cover your escape.

  6. The last one I can think of in a game was Lost Odessey, which had ancient, grizzled and infamous pirate dude acting like a little around his immortal, permanently youthful mother. Though it was played mostly for laughs.

  7. Most game designers are men? And so think of parental relationships in terms of theirs with their own children?
    Also, given the shooting/killing/fast-driving central to so many games, traditionalist views of gender roles would put them into the “masculine” arena. Though this will hopefully be less the case as games become more widely played, and more emphasis is placed on social interaction and storyline. Maybe there should be a variant Bechdel test for games?

  8. I think of female healers and tanks as the mothers. They bandage our wounds and get in the face of anyone who threatens their offspring. It’s an unspoken relationship.

  9. “But isn’t anyone else feeling that the constant focus on father/son relationships is getting a bit tired?”

    Totally. That, and often-intertwined tale of the noble hero what got corrupted and now be totally evils. Can’t pick up a rock in Azeroth without finding one or the others.

    Personallies, I thinks is because game designers watched Star Wars too many times as kids, and picked up a Skywalker fixation.

  10. Wotcha Spinks,
    It might not have been a relationship, but I thought the revelation in Fable that it was Mother who was the famous adventurer, and Father *was* just a farmer was really cool, and it did have an effect on the way I played the game.
    I didn’t want to just beat the Bad Guy, I wanted to destroy him utterly.

  11. Don’t forget that in most children’s books, fathers are either absent, or far less important than the mothers. They’re rarely even on equal terms of importance to the family.

    If you ever saw the Combos commercials (pizza pretzel things I guess) the people that protested it weren’t mothers, but fathers, because they felt they were being represented as uncaring and irresponsible. Though honestly, the commercials were funny, so screw those whiners.

    Also, gaming is still (if you don’t count casual games where this is a non issue) still predominately male. Easier to make guys be in a father role than make guys be in a mom’s role. (Because we are all irresponsible llolololololo)

    Also, the focus on the Big Daddy probably would not have changed much to at all, considering it was a parent/child relationship, not a father/daughter one. I enjoyed it, especially that the pace at the end of the game sent me rushing through halls rather than my previous measured pace, even though I knew the sense of urgency was psychological and not at all actually timed.

    And Blizzard’s junk just does not count because they are terrible at writing. Remember the major plot twist in Warcraft 3? Sargeras blows up world tree, gets blown up himself. I did not even slightly care about this outcome at the time because I knew it wouldn’t affect the inevitable expansion by adding something to the Night Elves. Which it didn’t. Nothing changed at all except you did the Night Elf missions first, which were also INCREDIBLY boring.

    In the end, daddy issues is usually a crutch for bad writing (note: See Caprica for further information. Hard to be disappointed by it too after seeing the finale of BSG though)

    I agree we could use more games like Bayonetta. Though the marketing on Bayonetta was terrible. It looked like a purely gratuitous game, rather than one about kicking absolutely everyone’s ass. Note that Metroid with its reveal (zomg the main character is a female!?) was only 23 years ago. I think we’re progressing just fine.

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