In 2K Marin’s science fiction video game BioShock 2 and Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, it’s not the imminent end of the world that drives the protagonists to action, but the love of a parent.
In Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 3 title Heavy Rain, the cornerstone of the game’s multi-threaded plot is a father’s relationship with his son.
Emotional themes: Heavy Rain and Mass Effect 2 feature parents as protagonists and family relationships as central plot elements.
It’s been called the “Daddening” of video games, and it’s made parenting, and the bundle of experiences and emotions it entails, a popular motif in a number of recent big budget titles. In a blog post on game blog Kotaku, games journalist Stephen Totilo (who coined the phrase) calls it “an effective method for getting the player to feel something”.
“In a video game, (being a parent can) intensify the feelings of panic or tragedy or desperation that the disastrous settings for so many games already call for,” he writes.
Depictions of familial relations have been rare in the medium, restricted either to a bullet-point in a character’s backstory, or for quick-and-dirty sentimentality. But 2010 has seen a number of titles that have attempted to use video-game tropes to offer something more meaningful on the institution of the family.
In BioWare’s Mass Effect 2, for example, four of the game’s 10 main characters have troubled histories with their kith and kin. At every stage, the game also forces you to make uncomfortable choices on behalf of these characters. One such situation, for example, involves discovering that the father of the protagonist’s trusted friend has been responsible for horrible acts of brutality through blatant abuse of power and authority. In another, a companion asks for your help against her paranoid, controlling, but unfortunately powerful, father. The game makes these choices as grey as possible, and never devolves into black and white morality.
BioShock 2 has the player take on the role of a “Big Daddy”, a half-human heap of metal conditioned to protect a little girl called “Little Sister”. The BioShock games are set in a dystopian underwater city called Rapture. The first game centred around the fall of Rapture’s ideology and explored themes of free will and utopianism. The second game adds ruminations on parental love and obsession, exploring the strange dynamics of the perverse, genetically engineered connection between a Little Sister and a Big Daddy. Being first-person shooters, both games are still ostensibly about putting a bullet through the enemy’s head, but the game expertly balances the “gamey” concerns of running and shooting with the larger themes of love and loss.
In Heavy Rain, parenting takes centrestage in one thread of the plot. The game opens with a harrowing interactive scene in a mall, where a couple lose track of one of their sons in a crowded shop, and search frantically for him. The scene ends in horrible tragedy, and is a gut-wrenchingly powerful way to open the game. Heavy Rain’s persistent focus on the mundane and everyday helps give it a uniquely intimate setting, helped by the novel (and sometimes irritating) control scheme that lets you interact with the environment in interesting ways.
In Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, which released on 13 April for the Xbox 360 and will soon be ported to the PC, special agent Sam Fisher is driven to desperation by the death of his daughter. The game’s striking visual style projects objectives and backstory on to walls and other in-game environments (thereby keeping you immersed in the story at all times)—and it frequently reiterates the urgency and need for Sam’s mission through the memories and flashbacks of his daughter.
At its most basic level, the invocation of parenting themes in video games may be seen as a convenient framing device for designers. Stories of vengeance are easy to couch in the language of the family, and the loss of a child or sibling is an easy way to evoke emotion in a poorly written game.
But the crop of recent titles doesn’t cheat in this fashion. In Heavy Rain, BioShock 2 and Mass Effect 2, the exploration of the fractured, sometimes tragic bonds between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, is central to the game’s emotional pay-off. This welcome depth makes them better games, and makes us better players.
Mass Effect 2 and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction are available for the Xbox 360 and PC platforms. The PC versions of both are priced at Rs999. BioShock 2 is available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, and is priced at Rs699 for the PC version. Heavy Rain is available for PlayStation 3 only and is priced at Rs2,499.