As a storytelling medium, video games haven’t spent much time tackling the concept of fatherhood as yet. Sure, there have been plenty of fathers in video games, some good and some downright evil, but explorations of what fatherhood means or looks like, have been limited at best.
Looking back and trying to remember all the fathers (and father figures) depicted in video games, it became clear to me that fatherhood is most often used as a plot device or back-story element. Here are some typical story lines; dad is killed early on (along with the rest of the family) which inspires the protagonist’s quest for revenge… Dad was absent, physically or emotionally, leaving behind a screwed up son (it’s always a son) obsessed with finding dad and reconnecting with him or fighting him to reconcile the past… Dad is a mad scientist whose experiments disrupt the natural order just a bit too much, requiring the protagonist son to violently clean up dad’s unholy mess.
Other times, the father in the game is the protagonist and his status as a father serves merely as an excuse to gun down thousands of nameless, faceless villains in the name of protecting his family or avenging their brutal deaths. In the end, no matter what plot forwarding purposes the father figure serves, we rarely see these video game fathers spending time with their kids, raising them, or doing any actual parenting.
But the times, they are a-changin’. Over the past few years, multiple games have challenged these one note depictions of fatherhood and in a few cases served as pretty interesting explorations of what fatherhood means, looks like and feels like. This doesn’t mean their explorations have all been warm and fuzzy mind you, but even the less positive depictions have strayed from the historic norm and addressed the concept of fatherhood head on.
A prime example of this is Papo & Yo, a game ostensibly about a boy and his friendship with a monster. The game is actually a playable metaphor for (and in many ways a reenactment of) the game creator (Vander Caballero)’s relationship with his alcoholic and drug addicted father. In the game players control Quico, a Brazilian boy who “discovers” an otherworldly favela while hiding from his abusive, alcoholic dad in a closet one day. In his fantasy land, Quico’s favorite toy becomes an animated guide and his dad becomes a monster addicted to poisonous frogs that turn him from a gentle playmate into an enraged and deadly threat. Quico tries to help “Monster” by keeping him away from the poisonous frogs, calming him with special fruit when necessary and eventually seeking to cure him. Meanwhile, Quico deals with memories/flashbacks of his father’s drunken misdeeds and abuses throughout his quest.
Papo & Yo explores the terror of living with an abusive, alcoholic father in a creative way that doesn’t involve guns, vengeful offspring or other hyper-masculine cliches. And despite its fantasy setting, it’s one of the more honest and real depictions of fatherhood gone wrong (as seen through the eyes of a child) that gamers will ever encounter.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Octodad and the sequel Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Unlike Papo & Yo, the Octodad games are humorous and as far as I know, not explicitly designed to be a metaphor for anything. In the Octodad games, players control an octopus who’s pretending to be a human, husband and father to his human wife and kids. It sounds weird and it’s meant to be weird… but also lighthearted and fun. The game’s humor comes from the challenge of trying to control Octodad’s rather ungainly limbs as he dresses as a human and engages in human tasks. Throughout the game, players must complete simple household chores like doing the dishes and interacting with the wife and kids without being so uncoordinated and floppy that Octodad gives away his true nature. The goal is to fool everyone into thinking that he is in fact human (oh, and he has to avoid being turned into sushi by a chef who’s figured him out).
Part of what I love about the game (beyond the silly fun) is the way it makes players virtually engage in dad (and husband) like activities. The sort of mundane, non-violent experiences that typical fathers have… like playing with the kids, tucking them in at night and doing household chores. Plus, there are some tender moments in the game between Octodad and his kids and after fumbling through his virtual life for a while, it’s hard to argue that Octodad isn’t a damn good father.
But honestly, I can’t help but wonder if the Octodad games really aren’t meant to be read as one big metaphor for fatherhood and family life? I find it impossible not to attach meaning to the game. Perhaps the hidden message is; fatherhood and married life are difficult and you’re going to feel like an uncoordinated cephalopod out of water most of the time, but if you keep trying, stay present, show love and affection and “fake it ’till you make it,” you’ll figure it out one day. And better yet, your family will love and appreciate you all the more for it.
Finally, there’s my favorite video game dad (and that’s saying a lot because Octodad is hard to beat); Lee Everett of Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead. Lee was not a biological dad in his virtual world, but after the zombie apocalypse he became an adoptive one by taking care of an abandoned girl named Clementine. Quick side note; not only is Lee one of video game’s best father figures, he’s also one of video game’s best written black characters (granted his story starts off disappointingly… he’s on his way to prison for murdering his wife’s lover when the zombie apocalypse begins, but his story progresses in some wonderful ways from there).
With Lee, players get to control a character who chooses to care for a young child when it would have been much easier to abandon her. On top of this, Lee does all the things a father should to care for this child he found (or rather, players can choose to make him do those things if they wish although the story does push Lee in that direction regardless of what choices the player makes). Lee’s relationship with Clementine goes beyond the basics of providing protection and teaching useful skills however. In fact, Lee sees your “father as protector” and raises you nurturing, tenderness, care and affection at levels previously unseen in video games.
Lee’s story ultimately ends when he sacrifices his own life to save Clementine (mass media can’t have a black father sticking around too long I guess). His death is a sad and tender moment with Clementine and it resulted in one of only two video game moments that have ever made me cry.
I should also note that while Lee deserves a great deal of praise and adoration, he’s not the only caring and present father in the game series… just my favorite. Judging by the amount of tribute videos to Lee and Clementine, I’m not the only one who feels that way either. By the way, I should also mention The Last of Us, another recent game that focuses on a post-apocalyptic adoptive father/daughter relationship rivaling that of Lee and Clementine’s (or so I hear). I didn’t discuss it because sadly, I haven’t been able to play it yet.
So there you have it, my thoughts on three games that approach fatherhood with nuance and respect, just in time for father’s day. If you haven’t checked any of these games out, what are you waiting for? All three are great, highly enjoyable games in their own right. If like me you’re hoping that realism in video games will finally include more realistic story lines as well as amazing visual detail then it’s hard not to get excited… or at least be intrigued by these games. They give me hope that video games can, and will, take on more adult themes that address deeper and more personal topics than we’ve seen in the past. In the mean time, if you know a good dad don’t forget to hug him on father’s day and thank him for not being a frog eating monster or a secret octopus. He probably won’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but he’ll appreciate the love and recognition anyway!