Dads in Video Games: How They're Delivering the Paternal Emotion We Crave

The poignant side of combat and fantasy gaming.
19 June 2016, 11:50am
Sony opened their E3 conference with the trailer for the new God of War. Image courtesy of Sony

A child playing, learning to hunt, and struggling to confront the death of an animal are some of the unexpected themes in the newest trailed for God of War. The series is known for gore, shouting, and fighting on a gargantuan scale. At this year's E3 conference, Sony decided to open with this oddly touching display of troubled fatherhood.

Kratos is a man who has killed almost every Greek god in history yet struggles to comfort his son. It is a very human vulnerability in a fantastical story, and also an angle that has got people’s attention. Kratos is not alone with his less than idyllic fatherhood. Hideo Kojima’s trailer for his upcoming game Death Stranding features Norman Reedus (known for his role on The Walking Dead) naked on a beach attached to a baby by an umbilical cord. Reedus holds the child, crying over its tiny fragile body, until it turns into black oil. A much more unusual and avant-garde take on parental anxieties, but the symbolism makes it clear. The helplessness and disconnect that a father can feel rang true in both these trailers.

Kratos and son.jpg

Kratos and his son contemplating a dead deer. Image courtesy of Sony

Games exploring more mature emotional themes is nothing particularly new, but at E3 this year, trailers such as God of War, Death Stranding, and Detroit showed us the appetite is as great as ever for games with an edge to them. Of course, most of the games shown at E3 are still focused on gameplay mechanics, graphics, and combat systems rather than the vulnerabilities of the protagonist. Whether or not fans of _God of War _will take to Kratos and his Kratos Jr. is yet to be seen.

Why has this prevalence of emotional hooks in games seemed to steadily increase? A number of reasons come to mind. For anybody who follows video games, it is apparent that we now live in a post-The Last of Us world. Naughty Dog’s critically-acclaimed and beautifully written action-adventure survival horror game is the poster boy for games with engaging narratives and emotional maturity. The sight of Kratos’ son hunting was so strikingly similar to a moment in _The Last of Us _that it was not missed by those that watched the trailer. The game's resonance showed developers that there was commercial success to be found in games with grown-up stories and themes. On a slightly more cynical level, _The Last of Us _may have also set a marketing precedent. As with most things, games often follow trends. Genre-defining, commercial monoliths such as _Call of Duty _and _Grand Theft Auto _lead to numerous other titles along the same vein.

Ellie and Joel from 'The Last of Us.' Image courtesy Naughty Dog 

At events like E3 the games industry can often feel saturated. Games are an expensive commodity and most people will only be able to buy a couple every once in a while. With so much choice, it can take something special to really stand out. Very quickly things we once wanted in games become dull buzzwords, such as the open world feature. There are so many games that include it—and so many that fail to populate or make their huge worlds interesting—that it’s very easy to dismiss it as a marketing ploy. A trailer that has some kind of emotional hook? A promising shot at being more memorable. Perhaps it is the carer-child relationship a lot of people will be able to relate to. If a game throws a young character into danger, our hearts instinctually lurch. The natural protector instinct we have gives us a clear emotional attachment to the characters in front of us. Assuming, of course, that they are presented well.

We are also growing up. The average age of a person who plays games is thirty one years old. It’s not surprising that developers are creating more games that echo the experiences of their audience as well as themselves. There will always be a place for games that are pure entertainment; not everything has to be a heart-wrenching journey. Games aren’t changing from one thing to the other, but they are growing in variety. So don’t worry, once you’ve been faced with all the paternal anxiety you aren't prepared to process—Super Mario Galaxy and Overwatch will be there to comfort you.


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