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?