Monday, August 10, 2009

Family Matters: Children's Literature and Videogames

A child at play is a lesson in imagination. On their lonesome, children can vanquish dragons, scale the walls of ancient castles, sail pirate ships across vast oceans, and march with monsters. A child's mind at play is a fascinating machine, able to disentangle itself from the burdens of reality. What child did not spend time dreaming of solitary heroics, acting out a selfish fantasy?

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?


  1. There are a few good counterexamples in games as well. Fable 2 has relationship mechanics including marriage and children, and being an absentee fiance/parent can lead to a divorce or worse, your child wandering off to a dangerous dungeon (the game provides you a chance to save him/her, though). There's also the indie game Iji, where the protagonist's main ally is her brother, providing her information, direction and moral support (and a few quarrels between siblings as well).

  2. Actually Dragon quest V completely revolves around family. And although certain family members might get kidnapped/killed during the game (I'll not get specific, because I'm already threading into spoiler territory here), the vast majority of it you're traveling with either your father/wife/children and are attempting to restore your family.

  3. You mentioned the individiualist Western Culture but some of the games you mention, the SquareEnix games in particular are Japanese in orgin.

    Therefore being a result of eastern culture which has a strong emphasis on family.

  4. I recently played the recent translation of Mother 3, a game that definitely involves meaningful familial relationships. The relationships between the family's mother, father, and two sons (along with everyone else in their village)—and how they change and are ripped asunder—are very central to the game's story. (Even the title of the game testifies to its unique focus on family.) If you haven't played it yet, Mr. Albor, I suggest that you try doing so; it's a great and different game, worth playing.

  5. First off, thanks for all the excellent comments. It's exactly what I was hoping for.

    @ Hirvox

    I completely forgot about Fable 2. That is a strange example though, because having a family is completely optional. I didn't have a wife or child at all because all the relationships seemed so fake and corny. Which explains why I glossed over in this piece.

    @ Frosty

    The interesting thing for me in Dragon Quest V was that two very important family members were killed. You are right though, the fact their relationship with the hero is established in the first place is notable and unique. I think DQV we can safely say follows this trend while also remaining in the counter-example category.

    @ Cyberstrike

    You've got me on the eastern culture bit. To be honest, I have a hard time explaining that myself. I think Frosty's comment above is a nice take on the blending of Japanese games with western culture. There is a long history of the two cultures following each other's lead.

    One thing I didn't mention in my post is the fact the loss of a family member is a really terrifying occurrence for a child, especially parents. This partly explains why its a frequent occurence in Children's Lit. and could explain its appearance in Japanese titles. I've you have any ideas I'd love to hear them.

    @ Joshua

    Scott and I talked a bit about Mother 3 on our Father's Day podcast. I haven't played it and I'd really like to. As I recall, Scott was telling me your father and mother serve a utilitarian purpose by facilitating health recovery and saves. When you talk to them, I understood that your actions didn't elicit much of a response considering the gravity of the situation. Do you think Ness goes on his adventures with the comfort of familial relationships with him? Or is it something else entirely?

  6. You're thinking of Mother 2, aka Earthbound, which I was about to bring up... The parents play background supportive roles, but seem markedly oblivious to what's going on, perhaps referencing children and especially teenager's cultural disconnect with their parents, and a feeling that they fail to understand the kids. Also, the father is basically your bank, rewarding you for your adventures, and your mother is basically all about emotional security. You even occasionally get homesick if you don't call your mother - and ONLY your mother, the father doesn't help. It's the stereotypical Japanese view of familial relationships with a father who is largely absent but provides materially for the family, and a mother who is largely supportive but uninvolved. Earthbound is actually a really interesting look at Japanese cultural norms with respect to family, in an exaggerated satirical way.

    I can think of one other notable exception to the lack of family in games: the Dentons in Deus Ex. Your brother plays a large role in the game, and they cleverly play off your familial attachment. They make him instantly sympathetic, and he will even sacrifice his life for you if you let him. It was definitely the strongest familial link I've felt in a game. The parents are notably absent, but some parental relationships are dealt with through other characters. It's sad to me that that a game from 10 years ago is the most recent example that comes to mind of families written into a game specifically as families.

  7. Yes, Earthbound's story is quite different from that of its sequel, Mother 3. Both are satirical and subversive, but Mother 3's plot, from beginning to end, is much more serious and cohesive. Rather than dealing with the zany adventures of traveling kids fighting wacky evil, it focuses on one village, one family, and one boy's dealing with loss. I think it's all the better for it; the result is pretty emotional.

    I don't know, though, if I want to agree that emphasis on family is particular to Asian games. I definitely understand your examples, but I think that there's a danger of exaggerating the disparity on either end without more complete evidence. Whether or not it exists, though, it would have interesting ramifications.

    But regardless if such a pattern is true, it would be worth creating a compendium of historical examples of use of family in games from many cultures and—even better—many developers.

    Incidentally, looking at the article's picture, I'd love for someone to try tackling the idea of a kid escaping to an imaginary world from his parents, etc., in the manner of Where the Wild Things Are or The Neverending Story. Off the top of my head, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance did something like that, but with no family involved.

  8. @ Julian

    Correct! Wrong game entirely. I think I would prefer getting my hands on the translated Mother 3 in this case, but I was intrigued by Mother 2 when Scott mentioned is also.

    Deus Ex is another great example. My experience with that game, however, was short-lived and many years ago. Unless the familial stuff was late in the game, it didn't stick with me. That is an easy game to go back to.

    @ Joshua

    I would love to create a historical compendium of games. Sadly, there is just not enough grant money going around that lets me play videogames all day. Even if there were more Asian games with an emphasis on family, I wonder how many would actually include the protagonist's family as opposed to secondary characters.

    Also, would Psychonauts count for your kid in the imaginary world away from parents genre?

  9. I'm curious to know (most likely because it's been in my focus a lot lately) how you feel Mirror's Edge treats a familial relationship and whether it's worth comparing to the other examples here. Obviously Faith's sister Kate is the main objective of the game and thus it isn't possible for it to be explored in a way that other games might allow, but by having the relationship in the first place it could potentially lead to some interesting things occurring in the sequel(s).

    A comment on my neck of the woods recently mentioned a desire to see this relationship explored more and after seeing it be suggested, I couldn't agree more. Not only would it pose interesting situations for the game's narrative, it could also make way for some great gameplay dynamics too using Faith's runner skills as well as Kate's skills as an ex-cop.

    So yeah, how do you feel Mirror's Edge fits into all of this, or if it even does at all?

  10. @ Steven

    The post wasn't intended to weed out and analyze family relationships, but comment and the lack thereof, so I'm glad we are having this sort of conversation in the comments.

    Mirror's Edge I think is a good example for the piece. Part of the reason Faith has chosen her 'runner' lifestyle is because her parents were killed protesting. That lines up nicely with the kids' book trope.

    There are a couple touching scenes(intended pun referring to their hug) between the sisters, but their relationship was pretty dry. Also, her motivation for much of the game is to help/rescue her sister, very much a solitary act. So although she is motivated by her sibling, their relationship is anything but normal. But again, I don't think its fleshed out enough.

    Like yourself, I would love to see some duel-sister action in the next game, maybe even some local co-op play. We've been needing a bad ass sibling duo like Double Dragon for a long time.

  11. SInce family relationships are so important and poignant, creating a family for the character you as a player want to invest your own traits into would perhaps feel weird. But you do really strike a point though: I started thinking about "meaningfull relationships" with parents in video games and came up with final fantasy x in which your father has disappeared and is possibly dead, and metal gear solid in which the main character actually killed ze's own father!

  12. Funny you should mention Chrono Trigger - I certainly agree with Chrono and his mother, but Lucca's family provides an example in the other direction. The "rescue Lucca's mother" side quest in particular was one of the reasons why I found that game surprisingly moving.

  13. @ David

    True. But funny enough, I failed that quest in my playthrough. Lucca's mother still becomes crippled. A notable exception, but not as effect for me.

  14. The inclusion of more serious familial ties in video games does seem to be rare, but when they pull it off, I feel they do it well: Lightning and her sister Serah (I thought it was pretty unique for a JRPG main character to fight for a family member rather than a love interest); Hero and Nanami of Suikoden 2 (adopted as well, but never having mentioned that in a weird way); Prince, Lymselia, Arshtat, Ferid, Sialeeds, and Haswar of Suikoden 5 (a believable yet distressed extended family); Harry and Cheryl/Heather; and of course Ethan, his wife, Shaun and Jason. And not to forget the most iconic brotherly duo - Mario & Luigi, who stick through thick and thin together.

    I find it interesting that in Pokemon games, fathers are almost never present and mothers let you out of the house and into the wild unknown within 5 minutes of the game starting. However in Heart Gold/Soul Silver, your mom calls pretty regularly and NPCs encourage you to keep in contact with your mom. I'm not sure what this teaches kids.