Gamer Limit Banner

[We Need to Talk is a weekly feature that puts you in the driver's seat of the discussion. Got something to say? Hit up the comments and keep the discussion alive. Got a lot to say? Register for a Gamer Limit blog and write a response.]

With games having an increasingly narrative focus, it’s natural that some common storytelling themes have begun to emerge. No, I don’t mean themes like “saving the world.” Games are beginning to be about things, tackling themes that are more personal to both the game’s creators and its audience. They’re demonstrating a level of personal involvement in the narrative that seemed to be absent from gaming for quite some time.

It’s only natural that some of these themes overlap, and that the industry as a whole might follow some sort of narrative trend, putting games on the same path, though their journeys may be quite different. I’ve already noticed some that recur in some wildly different games.

The idea for this week’s theme actually came to be thanks to fatherhood (a concept I’ve written about once before) and a desire to revisit my thoughts on that. In my original piece, I compared Bioshock 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and since then, I’ve played through a huge list of games in which themes of fatherhood run deep. Heavy Rain is one obvious example: the entire game is centered around answering the question “How far would you go to save your son?”

Pressing X to Jason aside, it does some interesting things to develop a father/son relationship in a way that not many other games have before it. Spinning your sons in circles in the backyard and giving them airplane rides separate the player from any sense of danger in the development of a bond for the character’s children. Instead of caring about them because they’re in danger (which, of course, does happen later), the initial bond is developed in a more mundane way, but one that is also truer to what players are likely to experience in their own lives.

Nier is another recent game that touches fatherhood in a surprisingly similar way to Heavy Rain. In it, the main character’s daughter is sick with a debilitating illness that will eventually turn fatal, and he must go on a quest to find a cure. Later, the poor girl gets kidnapped (seriously, this girl’s got a hard life) and the main character must set off to rescue her. There’s also some dark force that’s creating crazy monsters and threatening to destroy the world, but, whatever. Children!

In all honestly, the parenthood themes are far more compelling than the “save the world” plot. As in Heavy Rain, Nier (or whatever the player names the main character) seems willing to do whatever it takes to save his daughter, and is actually quite calloused about it for the majority of the game. Additionally, some quiet moments allow the player to develop a bond with the daughter, including some admittedly annoying fetch quests to get her medicine, and some bedside talks that serve to give the player a reason to fight for this man’s child.

Then there’s Red Dead Redemption, which doesn’t really begin to focus on fatherhood until late in the game. However, it always has a sort of minor focus on family: John’s main drive throughout the game is to get his family back from the government’s clutches. But once John’s work is done, he returns home to live a quiet life with his family. A large part of this is his son Jack, who he hopes will grow up to be a good man, unlike the way he sees himself.

The player completes a series of “missions” with John’s son that focus quite heavily on fatherhood. For example, one mission takes John and Jack on a hunt, with John demonstrating to Jack how to find game, make the kill, and skin the fallen animal. Jack then makes his own attempt at hunting, and the player simply gets to watch. Now, thanks to the game’s AI limitations, this doesn’t work out as well as you might hope, but it’s still a cool moment. As a father, you get to (in theory) see the effects of your teaching upon your child.

This is made even more poignant after the game’s conclusion, which (yes, spoilers) sees the death of John, and the transfer of player control away from John to Jack. Not only is control transferred, but also all of the progress that the player made. Essentially, the son becomes exactly who the father was, aside from a different voice and slightly different appearance. Certainly feels like a strong statement about the power of fatherhood to me.

It has been quite fascinating to me to see such a theme soak into so many games these last twelve months, and I’m left wondering how many other games that I haven’t had the chance to play also touch upon fatherhood. It certainly seems to be a concept that’s on the mind of a lot of game writers lately.

So, what other themes or concepts have you seen emerge from the games of the past months?

  1. I’m glad games are starting to make more of an effort in narrative. I think games in 2010, and over the past couple of years, have really stressed character development. Mass Effect 2 being a prime example of how important it is for surrounding characters to grow in front of your eyes and provide a meaningful connection. Heavy Rain is the same although I felt it to be extremely rushed, which is what took me out of the game altogether.

  2. Outside of the games themselves, it really seems like this is the year that shattered the pattern of the holiday-heavy release schedule for marquee titles.

    I’ve never played this much win before the summer drought in my life.

    • And all that “win” has been spread over several months instead of having to choose and then play catchup later. It’s like the industry is finally figuring out that it needs to differentiate it’s release schedule from the typical movie/music/media ones already in place. Hopefully that’s a trend that continues.

  3. Mass Effect 2 takes the “daddy issues” crown as far as I’m concerned. As much as I appreciated the focus on character’s lives and backstory, after about the third time I was expecting every new character to immediately launch into a crying session over having a bad father/being a bad father.

    I got to communicate with Mac Walters (the lead writer) on Bioware’s forums around the time of the release, and apparently he was really sensitive about that. Needless to say, he didn’t take too kindly to my assertion that he was turning “daddy issues” into a worthless trope.

    Again, while I appreciate the new focus, it isn’t hard to drive an idea into the ground. The last thing I want to see is a good narrative that comes across as “beating a dead horse”.

  4. I’m definitely glad to see more mature themes in games (and not just an M sticker on the packaging). The indie game scene has touched on these themes with such depth and regularity that it’s about time to see them start to infiltrate the mainstream.

    And although parenthood is a good, easy place to start, I want to see things that don’t tug at strings in such a clichéd way. The greater themes of morality and civilization touched upon in RDR was far more interesting to me than what was mentioned in the article (but I’m not to the end yet, so maybe it’ll wow me into changing my mind) and I’m hoping that those things are what really push us forward.

    I’d like to see a GTA styled game where you’re the law instead of the lawless. Or the businessman instead of the robber. Or the prostitute instead of the dude who’s gonna kill her and get his money back after she leaves the car.

  5. avatar Keith

    One theme Ive noticed, that has nothing to do with storyline, is that developers are more and more likely to make you shell out 60+ bones so you can be a beta tester. I am sick to death of games , like Red Dead Redemption, that are released with woefully insufficent play testing.

    As good as the story telling is in that game it still had quite a number of bugs/glitches and the issues with multiplayer eventually led me to trade it in. I could not play public matches in RDR and when I tried the game would consistantly lockup on a load screen.

    RDR is not the ‘lone gunman’ in this senario either just the most recent. BFBC2 had MAJOR issues at launch. Before that I remember Tekken and Divinity 2 both had issues, the latter being just plain awful. But I have to say that Alpha Protocol takes the cake. Obsidian should be kneecapped for that craptastic voyage into broken gameplay-ville. Sega should be slapped just for having anything to do with it.

    I find this trend totally unacceptable. Gamefly will be getting ALOT more of my business as long as this continues.

    ps. Water DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE INSTANTLY. Im looking at YOU Rockstar.

    • I haven’t had any issues with the games you mentioned. I got RDR for PS3 the week after launch and it’s been perfectly fine (although I can’t say I went swimming at any point)… and I had BFBC2 preordered on the 360 and although there was a game breaking glitch on the main game which I seem to be the only one afflicted with, the online was strong from the get-go.

      I’m with you that there should be more time spent with play-testing so our experience is better from the start, but I think one of the problems with more complex games and more complex systems is that there are gonna be more and more problems that testers just can’t find in the time they’re given.

      At least they’re able and willing to patch them post-release. Having something like that happen on the SNES or PSone woulda just meant you were screwed.

    • I agree about the water killing people instantly thing. It really should be completely unacceptable at this point.

  6. avatar Laurent

    i played all 100 and none are as fun as if snooeme made a 1x1x1x before renewal server where you can multi client alot of characters with only one computer it sucks balls since iro valkyrie deleted all characters on the server and deleted before renewal it used to be? the only 1x1x1x rates that had before renewal just say @froakentoken2 to make it notify me a response if snooeme made such a server

    • avatar Mastar

      On the meetings of the pecrjot groups the students raised some ideas for Agenda. They had discussions that were sometimes not very easy. According to them the most important themes for us were Education and Social matters.

Leave a Reply