I can buy video game's depiction of intergalactic war, sure. Gaming portrayals of romance are a tougher sell. But there's another kind of love that's suddenly popular in games and is being done well: The love of being a dad.
I write this article from the disadvantaged position of being married and not being a father. It's possible that what you're about to read is tainted by my gullibility in believing in something I've not experienced. My admiration for the the way modern video games portray the love a father has for his child — as opposed to the ways they often falter at believable marriages and dating situations — may be due to nothing more than my inexperience, the fact that I've been a father only as many times as I've experienced intergalactic war. Being married is something I've done one time more than that, happily and continuously.
I will nevertheless dare suggest, in this week leading to Valentine's Day, that video games are still not the great portrayers of believable romance, less accomplished at that feat than chick flicks and breath mint commercials. There may be some successes with romantic love in games, but not as many as there are attempts at depicting it.
Being a dad, however, is becoming nearly as popular in video games as health bars and shotguns and, to my playing sensibilities, nearly as successful. I believe we are now experiencing a period of video game history that high school text books will look back upon as The Daddening Of Video Games.
For years, video game dads have not been us. They've primarily been non-playable characters. More specifically, they've been your dad. Your dad who is dying and hopes you can pick up his sword and fight. Your dad who is evil and is hoping you won't pick up a sword and fight. There have been glimpses of what it would be like to be a dad in video games — you were Pac-Man, after all, and therefore possibly the father of Pac-Man Jr., with all the concerns that entails? — but usually dad was some other guy. And seldom, at least in the hundreds of games I played, was I a video game dad. I was the son. I was Marcus Fenix, bold son. I was anonymous Fallout 3 hero, heroic son searching for dad. I was Solid Snake, son of someone or other, though I was often confused as to who dad actually was.
Recently, as in 2010 again and again, I've been playing as dad. Roles have been reversed. The Wii's Silent Hill Shattered Memories, one of the last of my 2009 backlog games that I finished early this year, had me as dad Harry Mason, looking for his daughter, Cheryl. The point of the game is that you are a dad, motivated to do just one thing: find your daughter. Shattered Memories is a remake of an older game, yes, and a sign that being a dad isn't brand-new to games, but let's explore further without majorly spoiling games, don't worry.
This week we get Bioshock 2, where you are, as the box art shows and as our review explained, a Big Daddy, trying to reacquaint yourself with the Little Sister who was put in the series' paternal Big Daddying care. You know, Big Daddys protect the Little Sisters, let them cling to their backs, etc.
This week we'll also be running a review of Heavy Rain, a game I previously noted in a preview, offers an early gameplay moment of — get this — having to choose which of your two sons you're going to play with first in the backyard. These are the kinds of choices hero father Ethan Mars must face.
In all three of the above cases, trust me, there are a lot of dad issues in the game. In fact, being a good dad proves to be a major theme in all three, as far as I've played in each game (which is a lot).
Where is all this dad stuff coming from? Is it the aging of gamers and the game developers who make games? Consider that even the Next Big Thing in video game technology, Microsoft's Project Natal had as its technical showpiece last E3, Milo & Kate, an advanced simulation of, if not being a dad, seemingly of being a parent, of interacting with and caring for a little boy.
Maybe being a dad is the rage. Maybe it's in vogue, like being a bald space Marine in games used to be.
From my gamer perspective, I believe some of the new popularity of being an in-game dad may be gaming's increased comfort with depicting virtual children among virtual adults. I recall interviewing Milo and Fable creator Peter Molyneux several years ago in advance of the first Fable and having him explain to me how, in that do-anything game, the developers removed children from the main town. The game's testers had given in to too many temptations to kill the kids. By Fable II, however, there weren't just kids all over the place, but you could have kids. You could be a mom or a dad and raise a child. I guess gamers can be expected to be more grown-up now.
In my roles as a video game dad, I've learned that fatherhood is mostly about caring for someone who is fairly helpless. In that way, dadness in video games appears to be a good motivator for searching for something that can't just save itself. You'll be more motivated to find your lost daughter than a bunch of dead crows or even a heart container, perhaps? It's also a good shorthand for making the player be a capable protector. As a Big Daddy, I was more motivated to protect my daughterly Little Sisters in Bioshock 2 than I was to protect the annoyingly incapable President's daughter in Resident Evil 4.
Most effectively, I've found in these recent games, being a video game dad is an effective method for getting the player to feel something. Needless to say that not everything that happens to your sons and daughters in the new Silent Hill, Heavy Rain and Bioshock 2 is positive. Treading lightly here and identifying only the plot of Silent Hill, we've got a game that begins, post-car-crash, with your daughter lost. You are in a dark and snowy city, with a flashlight to illuminate a small percentage of the blackness depicted on your TV screen. You walk slowly and run only slightly faster. And with a tap of your A button, you can call for your daughter. She won't hear you. She wouldn't show up, not so early in the game, hours before the story of what's really happening unfolds. But I would like to meet the player who didn't press the A button and then press it again, who didn't get into the role-play of being a dad, hoping against hope to hear his daughter call back to him. Being a dad in a game may not be the next big breakthrough in fun, but it sure makes the point of what the stakes are.
The ideal of video game romance is that a game can make another character so alluring that you would believe you could fall in love with him or her. That's still a tricky love to get right in virtual worlds where your potential lovers are run by computer programs.
The ideal of video game fatherhood, I've experienced recently, is that that the unconditional love a father will hopefully feel for their child can, in a video game, intensify the feelings of panic or tragedy or desperation that the disastrous settings for so many games already call for.
The ideal of video game fatherhood is that it can motivate the player to greater and more heroic action.
And the ideal, quite simply, is that it can make you care, by giving you the visual shorthand for someone you can care about, a virtual son or daughter, as helpless and dependent on you as so many non-controllable characters you've experienced in games before. But for this one, it makes sense, because, hey, you're their dad and you love them.