As adults, we are informed by and reaffirm our perceptions of childhood in artistic works. Children's literature, a - wholly unique and interesting genre - reflects adult perspectives on childhood, both affirming and establishing a child's independence. This trend of self-empowerment, often rendered by the protagonist's autonomy from familial relationships, is mirrored in videogames.
The vast majority of our videogame heroes and heroines have no relatives to speak of. Yet, many of these playable characters are of the age to have living parents and children of their own. Parenting aside, surely some of these characters should have siblings. The lack of family ties stretches across genre's. From Samus to the Prince of Persia, our games are inhabited by a disproportionate number of "only-children" whose adventures do not concern their parents or family in the slightest.
This same anomaly populates the world of children's literature as well. Alice's adventure in wonderland is family free, although her adult obligations are alluded to before her plummet down the rabbit hole. The protagonists of The Phantom Tollbooth and Young Wizards series also find a chance to leave their family at home, opting to risk life and limb without the comfortable safety net. This parental disconnect seems particularly strange considering parents often read these stories to their own children.
There is a curative property in the solitary journey of stories like Alice in Wonderland, Where The Wild Things Are, and Coraline. A fantastic experience undertaken by oneself, these works suggest, can strengthen one's ability to deal with or appreciate reality.Roald Dahl's Matilda is an interesting work specifically because her adventure culminates in complete freedom from her biological family. Her empowerment frees her from familial constraints.
Most games follow a protagonist strangely devoid of family ties. When family members are mentioned, they usually exist on the peripheries. Alex Mercer of Prototype is given information by his sister Dana, but her presence could just as easily be filled by a nameless NPC with hacker skills. The fact her brother is a murderous freak doesn't seem to faze her; their sister-brother relationship is insubstantial. Similarly, Adam Fenix, Marcus's father in Gears of War, becomes a cinematic plot twist rather than a meaningful father. As an older example, the eagerness with which Chrono leaves his mother in Chronotrigger resembles the nature of child protagonists in Children's Literature.
Just as common in the kids' books are the tragic circumstances that separate children from their families. Harry Potter, Wizard of Oz, James and the Giant Peach, Wise Child, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ann of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden all follow the exploits of orphaned children, being various popular examples among many works of this kind. There are, in addition, plenty of works whose protagonists live as though they were orphans, including The Giver (in which 'family' means very little) and The Chronicles of Narnia. Children's books display a shockingly high rate of severed families.
Videogames share this trend - the games that mention family members often refer to the deceased. Similar to literature, a family member's death frequently punctuates the beginning of a game protagonist's adventure. Nearly every Final Fantasy lead is an orphan of some kind, with RPGs like Legend of Dragoon and Dragon Quest V following suit. It's not just an RPG or fantasy trope however. Kratos of God of War loses his entire family and Sam Fisher of Splinter Cell loses his daughter. Harry Mason of Silent Hill and Fallout 3's protagonist both lose one family member while another goes missing, driving their journey forward.
While there are some interesting counter examples in Children's Literature, such as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Peter Pan (in some regards), there are few examples of meaningful family relationships in videogames. The explanation is reasonable enough: independence empowers protagonists in both mediums by freeing them of familial burdens. Nurturing self-empowerment and self-identity is important for children, and the same can be said for videogame players in regards to game mechanics. Family obligations, like visiting your mother, do not make for entertaining gameplay.
The prominent lack of family relationships is lamentable and the trend far more concerning than the lack of family members in any one game. Perhaps a partial explanation for the lack of families is because videogames are, by and large, childish. That is to say they are created to appeal to a wide audience that includes children and young teens. Publishers are well aware children and young-adults regularly consume M rated games. The result is a medium that shares thematic trends with children and young-adult fiction. This isn't a bad thing. I hope my adoration for Children's Literature is apparent by now.
Perhaps the cultural approach provides a better explanation. Western culture has deep individualist traits, with the meaning of family and obligation changing dramatically over the past century. Whether this trends appearance in Japanese games is the result of Western influence or something else entirely I am not sure. It could be natural that a young medium, with a desire to empower players, imbuing their avatars with great powers, would apply tropes commonly found in kids' books. They have, after all, accomplished so much in this regard.
Orphan stories are classic, appearing in some of the earliest written and oral tales. Again, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the exploits of family-free adventurer. The lack of diversity, however, breeds stagnation. Family relationships inform the lives of millions of gamers, why shouldn't they inform the lives of playable characters as well?