What Video Games Have to Say About the More Traumatic Side of Parent-Children Relationships

I played three games based on the fraught relationship between kids and their parents to see which was most like my own experiences.

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Nov 19 2015, 8:40am

A screenshot from 'Open the Door and Smile', via YouTube

I doubt anything in life affects you so profoundly as your relationship with your parents. They're your first point of human contact, the ones who lay down the rules and ideals, your earliest and most enduring example of how best to behave.

Now video games have acclimated to the idea that their subject matter can extend beyond fighting and fantasy, I'm not surprised there are so many about parents and childhood. We all have memories and feelings about our own growing up – either good or bad, the things people experience as children, and the relationships they have with their parents, resonate into adulthood, providing the new wave of video games a universal, emotive topic with which to experiment. During their beginnings, video games recreated simple, tangible physical scenarios, like tennis, roulette and a shooting gallery. As they foray into literature and the evocative, and wish to make a clear statement about where they're at, games reach for the most affecting and familiar human experience.

I recently played three games about parents and childhood: Papo & Yo, Open the Door and Smile and Talks With My Mom.

A screenshot from 'Papo & Yo'

Minority Media's Papo & Yo of 2012 is too wrapped in imagery and metaphor. Ostensibly recalling the relationship between a young boy and his alcoholic father, it's timid and convenient, and I think downplays the complexity of that situation. Playing as the kid, you must leap between platforms and complete puzzles in order to avoid "monster", a hulking muscular creature that gets violent if it consumes glowing green frogs.

Occasionally, you must corral monster into lifting you into previously inaccessible areas and helping you throw switches – as much as he's angry, and drunk on the frogs, he can be docile, sleepy, even warm, and prove instrumental to your progress. The symbolism is straightforward enough and I appreciate Papo & Yo's designer Vander Caballero not wanting to throw the game's father figure completely under the bus – I still see my dad sometimes, too. But the game's other central conceit, whereby you can lift environmental objects like walkways, tunnels and even entire houses, rings very false – to me, at least.

Aesthetically, Papo & Yo is about the boy escaping into his own imagination: at the start of the game, while hiding from his dad inside a cupboard, he steps through a portal, emerging into a magical world where his favourite toy has come to life, his dad is the literal monster and he has developed the aforementioned power to manipulate his surroundings. But that impresses a kind of liberation, a freedom, an escape that in my experience in these situations doesn't exist. Papo & Yo implies that trauma can unlock and make more powerful a child's sense of imagination – it's as if the abuse the boy suffers somehow gives him superpowers, and an enhanced ability to escape from his troubles.

But for myself and everyone I've ever spoken to about these kinds of issues, the opposite is true: a bad childhood and an abusive parent destroy your sense of wonderment and you become damaged. Unlike the boy, able to traverse his environment with supernatural grace, you feel trapped and isolated. Unlike Papo & Yo's colourful aesthetic and narrative suggest, growing up like this is neither pretty nor character building. You spend years trying to deal with it. Innocent, childish abandon is something you never get to enjoy. A traumatic childhood is very hard to escape.

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But if Papo & Yo dances around childhood and parenting, Open the Door and Smile is eager to shock. You play a mother, about to be visited by legal representatives who are deciding whether or not you will be granted custody of your child. Before they arrive you must hide evidence of your drug addiction, gather your nerves and, if you choose, beat yourself up in order to make it seem like your ex-partner, who is contending custody also, is abusing you. This is a game where parents are addicts, squabblers and liars, and any love or commitment they have for their child is motivated primarily by a desire to one up each other.

But the player introduces an element of sympathy – what could be a misanthropic, despairing game about selfish parents gains complexity once you're playing as "yourself", and are perhaps more compelled to understand and reason your actions than if you were viewing them entirely from the outside. Papo & Yo occasionally feels sorry for the monster, but doesn't try to find an explanation for his behaviour. Open the Door and Smilemade by Arnage for Ludum Dare 33 in August 2015 – understands something important when it comes to reconciling with troubled parents: they have their own problems. It borders on the gratuitous and, given it's only a few minutes long, feels like something of a cheap, emotional sucker punch, but Open the Door and Smile recognises an important nuance in fractured parent/child relationships, and approaches it head on.

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Talks With My Mom, made in 2014 by Vaida, is also sympathetic towards troubled parents, but it doesn't downplay or euphemise the damage those parents pass on to their children. A young girl tries to explain to her mother that she prefers wearing boy's clothes, that she isn't interested in becoming a woman like on TV and that she is not heterosexual, but the mother refuses to listen – this is all just a phase and her girl will, must, fit in. You can't choose the dialogue, you can merely click through it, but the time you take before tapping on to the next utterance shapes the conversations. Are you wounded by your mother's words and need a long time before you can reply, or angry, and quick to defend yourself?

Papo & Yo takes too far a step back. You aren't interacting with your father, in a meaningful way – you're experimenting with the monster, to see what you need to do to get to the next level. Open the Door and Smile has no direct interaction with other characters – relationships are implied but not shown or experienced first-hand. Talks With My Mom actually depicts the interpersonal dynamics between parent and child. They talk, they argue, they struggle to clearly communicate and understand each other. And when the daughter goes to bed, we see her thoughts, troubled by what her mother is doing and guilty about what she perceives as her shortcomings.

This, for me, is what it was like between my parents and me, and what it's still like. Interacting with your parent in Talks With My Mom is stifled and claustrophobic – you can partially control the flow of conversation, but you can't really influence it, and are limited to the daughter's already-written replies. Your expression is limited in Talks With My Mom. You "talk" but you can't fully share or articulate yourself.

When I speak with family, family with whom I have a strained relationship and a difficult past, I always come away feeling like I haven't made myself clear, that I've been intimidated and stumbled over my words, misrepresented myself and held back on honesty for their benefit. I think a lot of the problems I've encountered, and probably others, begin with an inability or reluctance to communicate. If Talks With My Mom is the most resonant game I've played about parents and children, it's because, rather than look at aftershocks or symptoms, it pulls abuse and alienation, and the frustration I've felt about being unable to stop or change it, up by the root.

@mostsincerelyed

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