I am not a father. The possibility of my becoming a father is still up in the air; it seems a distant prospect, like a future that belongs to someone who isn’t quite me. Perhaps I will become that person one day, and perhaps I will not.
My experiences playing the father have come in two recent games: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Bioshock 2, both of which are games centered heavily on the idea of what it means to be a father, and how parenthood might relate to the people that our children become.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was a game that I played quickly enough after its release that I entered into the experience with no expectations beyond those suggested by its namesake. With themes of ice and typical Silent Hill monstrosities, it appeared to be another entry into a series that had lost all sense of creative storytelling.
By the end of this short gem, I found that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The game, like the original Silent Hill, places you in the role of Harry Mason, who is searching for his daughter in the town of Silent Hill. Throughout the game, the player believes that Harry is simultaneously being psychoanalyzed by a therapist, though the relation to the events in the game is kept masterfully ambiguous until the game’s conclusion.
After that conclusion, every event that transpired in the game is suddenly turned on its head, and you discover that nothing has happened in the way that you think it happened (and not just in a typical Silent Hill sort of way). Seemingly insignificant events suddenly become deeply uncomfortable, and it’s all tied to this idea of fatherhood.
Can you tell I’m being careful with what I say? Well, watch out, because the discretion ends here.
Upon the discovery that you’ve actually been acting as Harry’s daughter Cheryl during the psychoanalysis sessions, and that Harry has been dead for many, many years, the player begins to see that the entire game has simply been a fantasy of what Cheryl wished her father was, and the player’s own actions eventually affect the final scene in the game, where you learn what kind of a father Harry (and by extension, the player) was.
The effect upon the player is immediate. All of the unsettling scenes that Harry comes across in the game — those that have also unsettled the player — are suddenly made far more horrifying as you realize that they were all a part of this broken young girl’s life. Even for a person who isn’t a parent, you can’t help but feel a paternal or maternal unease, as if any child you bring into the world will be subject to those same horrors, and perhaps worse.
The feeling is only intensified during that final cutscene, in which, depending on your actions during the game, you learn just how terrible of a father Harry was to his daughter prior to his death.
On my first playthrough, I was shown to be a coward, bullied by my wife, and left unable to properly care for my daughter. It’s not a matter of “Harry was a bad father. Deal with it.” It’s a matter of “You made Harry into a bad father. Way to go.”
It’s almost unfair; until the end of the game, you have no idea that your actions have any relevance to your daughter’s life outside of “I have to find her”. By the end, you’ll be questioning every one of your actions, wishing you could do them over again.
Bioshock 2 surprised me with its late-game parenting themes as well. I was well aware of the right and wrong choices the player makes: adopting good, harvesting bad. The whole Big Daddy/Little Sister interchange is quite obvious, and I knew that, playing as a Big Daddy, themes of being a father would come up.
I didn’t, however, expect the game to bring forth some of those same emotions that Shattered Memories did.
The moment that the game clicked with me (which, unsurprisingly, is going to be a spoliery one!) was the first time you see your daughter, Eleanor, in the flesh, lying on a bed in a sort of isolation chamber. Sure, picking up a Little Sister and seeing a bit of joy come to her face before you lift her onto your shoulder was nice, but such fleeting connections couldn’t do much in the way of engaging my emotions. However, this young woman had been calling me father throughout my travels in Rapture, and, naturally, I began to believe it, despite not feeling much like a father.
This all changed when Eleanor put on the Big Sister suit and began to fight at my side. Strangely enough, it felt wrong to me. “I can’t allow her to fight,” I told myself, despite her abilities far exceeding mine. “I can’t put her in danger!”
What really changed the experience for me, however, was the moment in which Eleanor told my character that she had been watching me all along, essentially forming her own personality based on my actions. There was no hint throughout the game that this was the case; like Shattered Memories, I was an unwitting role model. I immediately regretted an act of revenge and felt thankful that I did not allow myself such indulgence more than once.
It’s an interesting theme throughout both games: we become role models for our children, even during the times we think no one is watching. It’s a strange theme for a video game, which is such a solitary experience in most cases. Games are the places that we allow ourselves to indulge in murder and revenge, and we would be horrified if our children learned from our behavior in video games. Yet that is exactly the message that both of these games send.
Is this message meant as a commentary on video game violence? Probably not. Rather, both games seem to suggest that both love and fatherhood (and parenting by proxy) may surprise us when we least expect it, and we cannot be careless in our approach to the possibility.
Bioshock 2 especially seems to support this, as Eleanor’s “mother” Sofia speaks more than once about the fact that neither she nor the player character ever asked to be a parent. Indeed, the game’s revelations support the fact that none of these Big Daddies necessarily wanted their roles, but were instead forced into them by their bond to a child.
How different is this from what we call love and parenthood?
“Love is just a chemical. We give it meaning by choice” is a declaration heard near the end of the game, and it seems to sum up the basic theme of the game. I am confident in saying that a large portion of people who played Bioshock 2 paid no mind to the meaning of love and parenthood throughout. It’s a choice: you can assign meaning to the themes in the game, or you can ignore them, treating it as nothing more than a rescue mission.
But the game does have plenty to say about parenthood, especially adoptive parenthood. Years ago, I had a college English teacher who wrote a wonderful chronicle of her experience with open adoption, learning to develop a bond with a child that was not biologically hers. I bring this up because Bioshock 2 hit the same note for me. What does it mean to love a child? What does it mean to be a parent? How is this different when you didn’t provide life to the child? All of these questions are given an answer in the game.
So, how does Bioshock 2 ultimately understand the role of the father? Like the first game, you’re given the opportunity to get good and evil endings, but in each case, you’ll see that your daughter, Eleanor, was affected by your actions, and the person that she becomes is essentially who you chose to be throughout the course of the game.
It’s a quite literal transition, at least in the good ending. The father becomes a part of the daughter as she extracts the life from the player character, and the player’s view is transferred to Eleanor. The child, on the other hand, becomes the parent. When Eleanor is seen surrounded by the little sisters, it’s made quite clear that we are to see her as an adoptive mother for them; the father is dead, giving way to the mother. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t talking in biological terms. All that matters is the bond.
The game concludes with a monologue from Eleanor in which she says, “You are my conscience, father, and I need you to guide me. You will always be with me now, father; your memories, your drives. And when I need you, you’ll be there on my shoulder, whispering.”
You then see her drop the Big Daddy doll into the ocean. It’s an interesting way to treat the concept of player death. The player dies, sure, but it feels more like the death of a father who is no longer needed anymore, at least physically. Your job as the player, like your job as a father, is finished.
For me, it’s an ending that is far more touching than that of the original Bioshock, giving far more opportunity to appeal personally to the player. Like Shattered Memories, our actions are given the weight of a morality far deeper than most games offer. No, neither has a perfect morality system. But consequence is real, perhaps not in the game, but in its ability to engender in the player a feeling of guilt, regret, or embarrassment.
Before playing these games, I didn’t believe that a videogame could make me think so deeply about parenthood and its potential terrors, struggles, and joys. While it remains to be seen whether Bioshock 2 will have the same lasting effect, Shattered Memories is a game that I still think about, if only for its ability to show that even the smallest actions can have a deep effect upon the ones who look to us for guidance.