AAA video game development has once again decreed that it is time for us all to think about dads, and who am I to ignore the call? This time David Jaffe’s tits, gore, sex minigames and bystander murder simulator God of War has been revived as an exploration of being a murder dad. Impressively, God of War has managed to not only be a series predicated on killing gods that somehow doesn’t appeal to me on any level, but also reinvented itself as an unholy amalgam of seemingly every video game trend I was already sick of several years ago. Full disclosure: I haven’t played the new God of War and I am very unlikely to ever do so, I also absolutely am bitter about how easy it seems to be for AAA games to receive glowing praise for endlessly repackaging themselves. In light of both of those things, the actual mention of God of War in this article will be light at best, largely functioning to provide me a board to dive into considering the evolving role (more accurately symbology) of the video game child character, a board that I will be making use of immediately.
(TW: familial abuse mentions)
Video games have long had a strange relationship with children, though that isn’t exactly unique to the medium by any means – there’s enough movies out there about faceless villains threatening the hero’s family life and we’re all used to cringing when the child actor gets dragged on screen to have some stilted pathos wrung out of. My earliest two memories that come to mind with regards to children and video games are the many mid-2000s controversies over What Our Children Are Consuming, and the fascinating dialectic of Bethesda trying not to produce games in which the player murders children and fans who staunchly opposed them. While the former is by no means irrelevant to the latter I will largely be omitting the wider public and marketing concern around children’s consumption and focusing solely on what video games have to say about what a child even is.
Arbitrary though it is I’m going to start with Fallout 3 and Oblivion in the mid-2000s for a basis of popular, story-focused games around the time of the online console generation. These two games show a company grappling with the idea of presenting child characters into the genre they have built up. The first – Oblivion, chose to utterly dodge the issue by including no child NPCs in the game whatsoever, the understood reason being that these games afford the player the ability to kill any character they please and therefore to include children would be enabling the player to kill them. Fallout 3, on the other hand, chose to include child characters (and indeed has the player very briefly be one for some slapdash attempt at fatherly bonding prior to the story) and simply made it so that violent actions had no impact upon them, rather inelegantly making you able to attack children but also not acknowledging any impact of the blows. Both approaches don’t really bring the children in question into the picture as characters rather than potential legal threats, and in the case of Fallout 3, something of a bizarre community of wasteland children that functions as a deliberately aggravating roadblock trading on the player’s presumed frustration at not simply being able to bypass them with violence (a frustration that the mods relating to them can attest to). Child characters were wanted not to be meaningful actors or participants in the story but instead set dressing whose inclusion would improve verisimilitude but seemed to introduce a risky puzzle for the creators.
Though those are simply the games of one company, I think the general ideas therein reflect a cross-industry view of including children in games (at least games marketed to adults). Children were a thing you could sprinkle into non-combat zones, much like trees or some other landscaping tool; sometimes they’d be involved in side quests or a cutscene or some such but rarely would they be of any consequence. In Fable II, children are a progression milestone you can obtain via giving enough gifts to any random NPC to get married. They are then unceremoniously killed off screen by the villain for pathos points. Fire Emblem would much later revitalise itself with a system where the characters you marry off to each other instantly have their, now adult, child appear from the future, their actual childhood mostly left up to the imagination.
Enter The Last of Us and the immaculate conception of miracle child Ellie. She crashes into the plot in a manner akin to the Children of Men scene where all the dirty bloodied soldiers and the desperate uprising fighters stop all the warring to gaze in awe as Clive Owen escorts the first child born into this bleak childless hellscape in decades. The symbol of the father and child, and the power which it wields, is a central matter to this essay that I will return to later. The previous description of Ellie and The Last of Us is, as you may have noticed, broadly incorrect and unfair. The trend of sad father and vulnerable daughter video games was in full force already with games like Dishonored already having spun their entire narratives around the concept, and Bioshock: Infinite plowing into it in the same year in its uniquely hamfisted ideological nightmare of a plot. I would however argue that The Last of Us is where the sad dad story really reached its critical peak, everyone loved this game and they loved it in large part for its narrative focus on the adoptive relationship between Ellie and Joel. Here was a child character that was not only a fully fledged participant in the story, but one who was always present and commonly mechanically useful to the player. She helped traverse landscapes, she solved puzzles, she took in the sights alongside you, she even dispatched enemies in a pinch. In short she was no damsel-in-distress, an archetype that underpins the evolution of the threatened daughter figure, the transition between love interests and wives that need saving to daughters that need saving happening upsettingly seamlessly as the industry’s imagination shifted from the adolescent to the parental. An archetype that the industry was desperate to put some distance on to show they could have female characters that didn’t have to operate in these roles, an industry to whom Ellie was therefore a saviour unto herself. Her plot-mandated need to die by the hand of the standard video game morally-gray-minority-led revolutionaries so her immune cells could be used to create a nationwide cure taking on something of an, if not sinister, then troubling edge in this context.
Of course though Ellie is every bit the damsel-in-distress figure, she fills in for the child we see Joel failing to save earlier in his life, and until she is in Joel’s care she is simply a commodity or even a macguffin. Joel’s immediate intervention is on grounds of distrust for the group responsible for her and his role is to chaperone her across the country. She is immediately a replacement daughter and she will, throughout the game, be menaced by all manner of dangerous outsiders to the family, right down to the end where Joel shoots his way through the doctors trying to use her as a zombie apocalypse cure even against Ellie’s own wishes. Ellie isn’t trapped in a tower with a dragon, but in the end, she is passed from caretaker to caretaker who all want something from her, her one action based on her own agency being immediately overruled by her new father figure. The game doesn’t itself comment either way on Joel’s actions, but he is the sympathetic viewpoint character that frames all the events of the story. He is there to lead the player into their own parental affection for Ellie that culminates in the question “Would you sacrifice your daughter to save the world?”.
The troubling thing about all this is that it is all framed around Joel’s agency. I do not lay the blame for this culture at the feet of Naughty Dog and I would go as far as to say it seems that at least on some level they wanted to actively subvert it. This is a cultural phenomenon that runs to the heart of western culture -”How far would you go for your family?” is the most standard question you can ask in media at this point. Video games have adopted what movies like Taken have traded on for years – the threat of the outsider upon the family unit, in particular the symbol of the white daughter.
From Daily Mail articles about the “ravenous migrant hordes” preying on your daughters to the US firearms industries that operate entirely on the manufacture of a state of constant fear of a violent and racialised Other and even the culture of RULES FOR DATING MY DAUGHTER t-shirts, the nuclear family unit and the commodified image of the desirable daughter underpins western society itself. The family is the unit by which the majority are encouraged to identify with the goals of the state, it is the protection and creation of the family that is said to give a man’s life meaning. Killer cops are just doing what they’re told for the sake of their families and yours, foreign nations are bombed as they are said to have designs upon our vulnerable and desirable nation. Their fleeing citizens are detained and tortured at our borders because of the threat they supposedly pose to our vulnerable and desirable jobs and daughters.
In short, the social image of the daughter has a lot of crossover with the social image of the ever-vulnerable and threatened nation. The slogans of modern day Nazis concern securing the existence of the white state for the continuation of white children alongside ones about the importance of the beauty of the white woman. In this sense, the drive for games about the constantly kidnapped and ever valuable white daughter come from a very similar place as the previous trend of games about the foreign invader and the terrorist. Now, I’m not saying all of these video game writers are Nazis, but what I am saying is the ideological preoccupations of the far right are intertwined with the values of our white supremacist, male dominated and heterosexual family unit focused western social mores. As such these things inevitably find expression in our media output, even if the intent is completely innocent (which I would argue from a marketing focused corporation never truly could be). My argument is that, taken as a whole, the video games industry moved on from its confusion with how to handle children in games by adopting a prescribed and socially sanctioned narrative about the struggles of fatherhood. It did this seeking emotional depth and to be classifiable as serious art, it latched onto this story over and over again because its imagination is limited to that of the people with any power in the industry, the imagination of the heterosexual family man recently grown from struggling with an adolescent masculinity into settling down and worrying about being a father. In so doing, much as it always has, video games turned to the kind of relationships they admired in other media, the narratives about human life they’ve passively consumed from the west’s cultural output for their entire life. The video game power fantasy shifted from getting the girl to assuaging the fear of losing family life (note how many young online right wingers are obsessed with not getting the dates they are owed and how many older ones are obsessed with divorce courts and custody).
So, broadly, culture expresses and reabsorbs itself in an evolution of presentation but not meaningfully shifting in values. These stories became the sign of a new age in video games and, alongside the cinematic presentation and gloss Naughty Dog has already become famous for with Uncharted, a new standard was established. MMOs copied WoW endlessly for over a decade, shooters copied Call of Duty and the standard for narrative seriousness is the figure of the conflicted but protective father and his varyingly well presented (Ellie being a more realised character than most) and under threat daughter. Very few if any subversions of this trend exist, with Nier being a notable exception that simply converted from a story about a brother to a father (though in both cases the younger female family member aspect stands). Ciri and Geralt too stand apart as a pair who exist on fairly egalitarian grounds, Geralt’s saving the damsel quest being subverted by Ciri herself taking command of the story at the end and leaving Geralt behind to wonder what happened. Even there though, with its presentation of her controlling biological father keen to push Ciri back into the exaggeratedly delicate and childlike image he has hanging of her on his wall, The Witcher 3 still opens with the encouragement to view Ciri as your daughter who needs saving from otherworldly invaders.
A child in video games, then, evolved from a textureless prop and potential legal/cultural issue to a very detailed and much more human prop that stands as a symbol of how the medium has matured (one might even say writers like me conspire to take that precious symbol from it in much the same way as others have come for the damsels). By this point the sad dad story is something of a joke about the formulaic creativity at work in games. This, however, has not hindered the creation and release of the new God of War game that hinges on transforming Kratos from the macho rage-fueled avatar of violence (who I believe killed his own family no less) and having sex with whatever women you damn well want of the old gaming world into the conflicted father figure of the new one. A microcosm of how far we’ve come if you will. Already the game is being heaped in the same kind of glowing praise you expect of AAA productions, it’s pretty, it plays nice, it’s taken on a serious tone about fathers and it’s a whole new wonderfully realised direction etc. etc. You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve all seen this by now (but let’s be honest, the cycle of excitement for well-produced action movies never fades either) but in actuality you would be wrong! This game features the complicated relationship of a father and his son NOT the conflicted protector dynamic of our daughters past, long have they returned to the home safe and sound.
We’ve entered now into the modern age, an age of angry young men on twitter, men raised on gaming who are enabling or outright joining hate groups and harassing minorities with the power of global communications. It is time, then, for fathers to worry about the directions they have taken with their sons. The boys of the world are losing their minds to a culture of male-domination and possessiveness, their inability to acquire the women they covet is leading them to crusades against the emasculating and wife-stealing (cucking if you will) influence of left-wing politics and immigrants. John Kratos has no idea how this is happening, but he’ll be damned if its going to happen with his son; he’s going to get an education in how to be a proper honorable man and not one of these weird possessive internet shut-ins. Kratos, of course, doesn’t actually care about any of that but he and his child cannot help but be a symbol of the hegemonic family of the day. Kratos more accurately is concerned that his child doesn’t have what it takes to survive the harsh wilderness of video game Norway and to slaughter every living being that comes into view.
This is no story of daughters, mothers and wives – this is a child destined to one day take up the father role himself. He has to learn to protect the borders of his world, he has to learn to feed his family, he has to learn to be firm and self-assured. He has to become Kratos and the amalgam father figure who will go on to make decisions for all the NPCs in his own life. The concern here is twofold in the social imagination of the industry – 1. Have our sons been lacking male role models to teach them the responsibility of the family and how to treat women well as a result? (the liberal concern) and 2. Have we failed to take our sons out to hunt deer enough so they’ll become pinnacles of manliness who can not only take ownership of a family of their own but stand against a world that seeks to take it from them (the conservative concern). Of course the 2 facets are really one and the same, the concern isn’t so much about the sons as it is the fathers, or rather, “Have we been inputting the right interactions to turn our sons into fathers?” with everything I’ve established the social idea of fatherhood entails
In Kratos’ E3 trailer, the father experiments with tough love, he fills in the gaps in hunting education left by the boy’s mother by learning to temper his aggression and mete it out responsibly as punishment. He embodies the knowledge that the child is frustrating and driven to irrationality and reaction over thought, along with embodying the patience the father has to learn in order to drive it out of the son. Of course, in the trailer alone, he also embodies the things these ideals try to paper over, he demands his son hunt with no help and then immediately berates his son for not waiting for his instruction. In the world of fatherly law there can be no wrong on his part and any failing must have arisen from outside: the mother’s unfinished teaching, the child’s impatience or a worldwide conspiracy to undermine white heterosexual values, for instance.
The cultural image of the father and the daughter reflect the man and his nation. In this he is locked into an unending cycle of paranoia that he responds to with violence that only increases his paranoia. The state and whiteness have infinite power to find solace in to protect your family from threats, but the state and whiteness are also always on the very cusp of eradication by those same threats and they require the individual man to fight for them at all costs – “How far would you go to save your daughter-nation?” In the same way the image of the father and the son, who is better described as a father-in-training, creates its own loop of violence – the son has to be moulded into a father at all costs, lest the daughter-nation have no protectors, but as the son is afforded the exact amount of freedom necessary to prove the rugged individualism they stand to inherit, they inevitably slip up and all that rage and fear about threats to the family rises up. The modern crisis of fatherhood is the fear that by failing to perform enough prescribed masculine fathering, the sons of the modern day have become self-obsessed demons who threaten to tear the fabric of the honorable family man image. Not to mention the presumption of good will on the part of the male provider needing to be upheld in a world where familial abuse is rife and women are routinely dragged into the dirt for so much as mentioning it.
That the protector father role is built upon violence, and also that it supersedes the will of those it is placed in control of, can be seen in another tale of changing focus across a game series. Telltale’s The Walking Dead games grabbed adoring attention for the touching story of a man and his accidentally adopted daughter in the zombie apocalypse (hmm), he kept her safe and tended to her needs and in the end every other character died in the pursuit of keeping her safe. Those two were notably not a white family unit, and the ending revolves around her having to go out on her own, but the image of the protector and teacher father both come into play there. While ultimately fulfilling the daughter kidnapping plot focused on the family-trauma-based revenge of another man (whose wife has literally been reduced to an object in his bag,) Clem is afforded a lot of space to grow and treated as someone with agency and understandable weaknesses that she deserves patience for. Conversely in the sequel Sarah, a young generically video-game-mentally-ill and anxiety-ridden girl, is not provided any of that. The plot to Sarah generally follows the idea that her father coddles her too much by keeping the reality of the world from her, she’ll bungle some simple task or fail to read a social cue correctly and cause problems for everyone and get punished for it, initially with degrees of derision and later with physical violence. The running theme to Sarah is that she is a burden, and the question the story asks with her is: can you afford to keep burdens with you; her only real act of self-preservation comes when the player (as Clem no less) can choose to slap her or abandon her to her panic surrounded by zombies, the slap magically toughening her up to escape.
This too is echoed by Ben in the original, a teenager who might as well still be a child. Ben is constantly messing things up for the survivors in ways that start to seem utterly unrealistic as the narrative clearly wants you to think he’s a liability. Though it all happens as something of a test of morals inside of the ruin of a encampment that would’ve had him thrown out, Ben is still presented as basically a father-in-training who just can’t live up to the ideal. Ben, in short, will not man up, and is constantly yelled at by the other fathers he is stuck with, one of whom shortly earlier would’ve done anything to save his bitten and undead-turning son to the point of denial. This father’s refusal to reckon with the impending turning of his son endangered the group, but his scenes were all about the understandable anger and tragedy of being a father in a fallen world. Ben is just there to fail at masculinity and get credited with nearly bringing down the whole group multiple times because of it; he even loses track of Clem when left to temporarily look out for her. Here the tragic father denied his family doesn’t care to protect a youth outside of his ownership, and the reflection in the sequel can be seen in Sarah, who by virtue of her not living up to a social ideal is basically exempt from everyone else’s consideration as a child figure.
More accurately, she and Ben are cast into the role of failed children, to whom the rest of society looks on as a drain. Ben is only able to function with the guidance of the men who keep considering leaving him to die, and Sarah has been made weak by a father who coddles her. Ben is fixed by the intervention of the father, and Sarah is ruined by a doting man who can’t do his fatherly duties or adapt to a changed world. This narrative is not only the voice of the games, but the standard social backdrop upon which mental illness, “juvenile delinquency” and a general idea that a new generation of young adults failed to be socialised into these socially cohesive roles (it’s here that the total focus on the heterosexual family as a root of artistic emotional content really comes to a head for me). These stories say “we are raising our children wrong;” they say that a crisis is always just around the corner and that if fathers don’t adapt to the times they will raise children who cannot survive a world that’s coming to take them (my exploration of what it means to be socially designated a child and who it is done to is relevant here).
That the very image of the possessive male power figure failing to grasp the world as it changes is the currency these new fascists are converted on is lost on this structure. The image is what is at stake, these boys are giving men a bad name, and they cannot figure out how to stop it, because to do so would require the investigation of what it means to position men as the owners of society, and to do that would be to cede ground to feminisation, to SJWs, to people who at varying parts of the spectrum of visible western political life are seen to be either misguided and well-meaning threats to national cohesion and safety, or at others part, of a conspiracy theory based on barely concealed anti-Semitism that suggests The Other is twisting reality to supplant the white man.
In the wake of gaming’s prominent fascist outbreaks in recent years, some tried to recapitulate their own socially reactionary brands of entertainment by casting the perpetrators as nerd shut-ins with little to do with them. The more reasonable ones had a point that was being taken too far, it was said, and now is the time for video game masculinity to look inward and ask how that happened. Unfortunately it has no capacity to answer that in a way that doesn’t involve setting the stage for it all to happen into perpetuity, not least of all because women aren’t to be involved in the answer. The video game father has a public image to shift and a generation to teach, but his lessons are nothing new, and let’s be honest, neither are his games. Cultural masculinity is embarrassed by the violent outbursts of its sons and for good reason, because in their possessive and jilted rage they embody the true face of male-domination with none of the mythology that shields it. Kratos’ task is to take himself and his son from one side of these optics to the other.
Nier erased himself entirely from his own narrative for the sake of leaving the world to his daughter, Geralt looked on as the girl he’d raised went off to save the world on her own terms (passing through one of his most hated contrivances, a portal, no less) having had her own adventure and her own life literally on different worlds. Kratos will, in all likelihood ,kill a lot of monsters and teach a boy to do the same so that some day he can save an Ellie or avenge a dead wife. Failing that, at least he’ll always be ready to do what he has to to fend off the braying chaotic influences just on the edge of the light of his civilization.
Joel stepped in against Ellie’s wishes to prevent her sacrifice at the hands of a rabble of socially progressive would-be world saviours, the father came close to losing the daughter to the outside world. Kratos takes up a mother’s unfinished parenting to teach a boy to never allow it to get that far. In a world where art games can “only be about capitalism and gender” someone needed to take the reins and teach us what proper masculinity is, and who better than the now aged and wise Kratos who has (presumably) left his days of slaughtering random civilians for health pickups and quick time event one night stands behind him.
We live in a world where dominant culture and even popular left-wing thought is toying with abandoning abortion rights and laws attempting to restrict gender presentation and roles rear their heads all too frequently. It is crucial that a culture that casts men as violent conflicted protectors and women as precious commodities to keep from the world until they are to breed be scrutinised. It is a culture that we absorb passively from birth through our social mores, our education, our media and that we recreate through our own actions, even those who interrogate it in themselves find themselves blind-sided by recapitulations of it. If leftists can be convinced to abandon women’s rights as a bargaining chip to acquire some sort of economic stability, then it is not a stretch to suggest men with all the right thoughts and all the right things to say about women in their lives can be made to see those same women as property through the lens of the mandated social role of the father. An important task of criticism is to cut to the heart of matters like these and to prevent these social drifts towards limiting and harmful heterosexual capitalist norms wherever they arise. Gleeful ignorance to the iconography that has got to where we are does neither the cheap supportive words we’ve all learned to throw out by now nor the people they are supposedly meant to uplift justice. Justice cannot be about patching up a wound, decorating the bandages and moving on until the next injury.