[Spoiler alert for BioShock, Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, I Am Alive, Deadlight, Final Fantasy X, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Red Dead Redemption.]
There’s a lot of writing discussing social injustices with regards to video games, notably regarding the misrepresentation and exclusion of women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters. However, while not a social injustice, there are other aspects of our identities that generally fail to be included. They may give us less pause, but focusing on them could also expand the variety of stories we get told year after year in game after game.
If one were to assess the breadth of gaming narratives, it’d be easy to conclude that families are fucked up beyond belief… or they will be soon. We’ve all heard the old story of your wife being brutally murdered and your daughter kidnapped by an evil villain. (In case you haven’t, let Anita Sarkeesian elucidate you.)
But the threat towards the family unit goes even deeper. Here are a handful of examples from popular games:
Bioshock: You’re the bastard child of the megalomaniacal leader of the underwater city of Rapture, stolen away by his sworn enemy as a baby. You have to kill him to proceed.
Bioshock Infinite: Your wife died, and you sold your child to… yourself from another dimension and time. You don’t even realize the girl you’ve been tasked with saving is your daughter.
The Last of Us: Joel’s daughter is killed at the beginning of the outbreak, and he becomes estranged from his brother in the following years. The wife is already out of the picture before the game starts.
I Am Alive and Deadlight: You are separated from your wife and daughter and spend the game searching for them only to fail (for different reasons respectively).
Final Fantasy X: Tidus’ dad is an abusive jerk who abandons his family. The end.
I could go on for a long time, of course, but it would only belabor the point. Suffice it to say that most games like to mess with the family unit.
It makes for a good twist sometimes, sure, but think of all the evil you know of that has nothing to do with your family. You’ve probably had a handful of arguments with your parents, but it wouldn’t delight you to find out they are evil masterminds working hard to undermine your life’s accomplishments. If you’re married, in all likelihood, you don’t want your wife to die gruesomely and to lose your child to someone you may have never met before. If you do, seek counseling. [The Mishima family definitely needs that… ~Ed. Nick]
However, stories like these serve to perpetuate an odd truth when you put them all together.
I’m not going to knock unconventional families. I personally find a lot of solace in my friendships. But I am one person, not all. My husband talks with his parents in Rome every day. My friends spend holidays surrounded by parents, siblings, and relatives. Work parties are filled with dressed up spouses and children running around. It’s not a coincidence that people go out of their ways to include their families because they are also defined by them.
But if a game doesn’t make you a lone hero, it often groups you with people you’ve just met. There is an obvious purpose behind doing this in some stories, which is to have an excuse to tell everyone’s history and increase the bond between the player and the other characters. Neither you nor the primary protagonist knows these people that well, so the writers can enhance them with sad cutscenes about their troubled pasts and future twists in the narrative where they may betray you.
RPGs are the worst offenders when it comes to this. The characters that we spent three Mass Effect games growing to love and care for are all unrelated. In fact, in one of Shepard’s possible histories, his/her actual family died in the past and, in another, is mysteriously absent. Family members of other characters who join your cause are the sources of much trouble, such as Samara’s troublemaking daughter, Morinth; Miranda’s clone-happy father who kidnaps her sister; and Liara’s mother, whom you have to kill to proceed.
Although the writing behind the series of events that bring unlikely people/creatures together in gamesm like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, and even Ni No Kuni is astounding, often brilliant, I ponder where all of their living, not evil parents, siblings, and children may be. Some popular games, like Call of Duty and XCOM, hide the answer to this question behind employment. Your circumstances are a byproduct of your job, and returning to your family becomes an unwritten goal after you’ve completed it. You’ve got a world to save first, if they don’t get killed while you try to do so.
Sometimes You Just Need to Look Around You
Though most games have you acting alone or part of a random group, there are some games, which portray and include family in a positive way. I know I called out RPGs, but one of the surprising twists in Final Fantasy VIII is that your party, save for Rinoa, comprised your family all along. Once everyone realizes that Guardian Forces have addled their memories, they remember they all lived in an orphanage and grew up together. Defeating Edea is actually more about saving an important mother figure.
Last year’s critical hit, Gone Home, had you acting alone, searching the Greenbriar family home on a dark and stormy night, but family is front and center in the plot. You spend hours getting to know Kaitlin’s mother, father, and sister, all of whom you never actually meet. The mysterious house, with its lonely atmosphere and hidden secrets, provides the drama that bonds players with the Greenbriars and instills compassion for their individual stories.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons starts with the loss of their mother and an ailing father, but the game is completely reliant on the bond between the eponymous brothers. The player has to control both of them to surpass puzzles and obstacles, and the unique control scheme makes two siblings and extension of his or her hands. The Novelist focuses on finding ways to bring a man closer to his wife and child through player interjection. Just like in real life, the results can be mixed and are realistic for that reason.
There are even some good examples in unlikely places. Uncharted seems to be about Nathan and his foolish conquests. However, the third game reveals that his partner, Sully, may not be related by blood, but is more or less Nathan’s adoptive father and has always supported him. Grand Theft Auto IV is semi-focused on Niko’s complicated relationship with his cousin, Roman, which can be enhanced through the flawed dating mechanic.
Red Dead Redemption may mostly be about John reuniting with his family, but rather than end the game there, Rockstar had something else in mind. After returning to his farm, the next set of missions see John performing trivial tasks with his family members, all of which enhance their characters and his relationships with them. Despite being an open-world game, you’re obligated to spend time with those closest to you. (Of course, this serves a darker purpose, but let’s not go there.)
But Wait, There’s More That Can Be Done
My study here does serve a larger purpose. While I appreciate how some games find ways to incorporate family, there are some real no-brainers that could and should be implemented. For example, let’s address RPGs. Instead of the twist being that your party was your family all along, what if you could just venture into and save the world with them? JRPGs like putting teenagers in charge of being saviors, so clearly the minimum age for everybody to be fit and capable is not that high.
Even more obvious than RPGs is games featuring narratives with integrated cooperative multiplayer, such as Left 4 Dead and Borderlands. You can’t tell me that all families are ripped apart in zombie stories; The Walking Dead TV show features a family. If the son was older, and the developers behind the actual TV tie-in game actually exerted effort, the family that slays together could actually stay together! And the talented writer behind Borderlands 2, Anthony Burch, whose fame was earned through videos made with his family, could easily write up some insane family foursome with unique skills to tear up Pandora.
Even in games that only let the player control one character throughout the whole narrative could integrate family. Instead of needing to be rescued, dying to develop your character, or turning out to be evil, they could be joining you as useful NPCs or aiding you through other means.
When I speak of family, I mean all kinds. You could have an Army of Two-style game with a lesbian couple. The next Grand Theft Auto with multiple protagonists could focus on some messed up trio of cousins, whose bonds both strengthen and annoy them. Imagine a survival horror game featuring a married couple and their adopted children, where a whole defenseless family needs to hide and solve puzzles.
Just as easily as straight white cis-male protagonists could be replaced with women, people of color, or gay characters without affecting gameplay; multiple unrelated characters, both playable and not, could be replaced with families. Your close bonds with your siblings, parents, or otherwise could be as easily represented as those you have with your best friends.
They say, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Well, many games don’t even let you choose your friends, so make them family instead.