[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?