Father's Day Is Over, But Daddy Issues Remain in 'Bioshock 2' and 'Red Dead Redemption'

by G. Christopher Williams

20 June 2010

From Bioshock 2 

What Kind of a Daddy Are You?

Bioshock 2 is no indictment of daddy for indiscretions past or future potential corruptibility, rather, it becomes a kind of wish fulfillment of the idea that daddy might come back, fighting his way back into his role. Daddy is coming for Eleanor, and what the game’s fascinating morality system (which effects what kind of decisions that not only the player makes, but the constantly watchful Eleanor is learning) suggests is that she is depending on him to make things right by showing her how to live and ultimately what to do with mommy (punish or forgive her) for violating and dividing the family. 

Eleanor “learns” through several key decisions made by the player to kill or allow characters important to the plot to live earlier in the story. These choices shape the player to some degree, but even more significantly, these choices effect how the player (as a literal) daddy will effect the moral choices that Eleanor makes in the game’s multiple endings. The absent father’s influence on Eleanor becomes important once again through his return and subsequent intrusion on Eleanor’s life.

From Red Dead Redemption

From Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar’s own 2010 release, Red Dead Redemption, paints a far less idealized or heroic image of a distant father, though, replacing it with a figure more ambivalent, more ambiguous in relation to his son’s development. Nevertheless, in the also coincidentally similar conclusion to the game (it also features a final act that turns tutorial activities guided by John Marston into a training ground for the son that he has long been distant from, Jack Marston), it attempts to reach some sort of resolution about how a son distanced from his father might become part of that father’s legacy by “finishing what his father started”. It also allows the player to become that finished product by transitioning from John as an avatar to Jack.

Like Eleanor, Jack is drawn to his absent father, despite the fact that the two have been kept distant from one another by he and his mother’s kidnapping at the hands of federal agents. Jack’s own feelings, though, are considerably more complex (and, again, less idealized) than Eleanor’s about his father’s return. He blames the older Marston for not teaching him to be a man and is angry with him for having left he and his mother, while at the same time as the player’s interactions with Jack (playing as John Marston) show, he desperately fears being separated from him again. 

Throughout the final ten missions in which John Marston tends his ranch and trains his boy and when riding with Jack, if the player (as John) gets too far ahead or too far behind Jack, Jack begins pleading with his father not to leave him or asks where he is going in a desperate tone. The kid is angry with his father and at the same time fears desperately any intimation of repeated abandonment. Certainly enough children of divorce have been confused by fathers appearing and disappearing in their lives—only to come back, again—and what that intimates. Rockstar allows us to understand the tragedy from both sides by hearing Jack’s fear as they play as John, and then becoming the product of abandonment as they take on the role of Jack.

In this sense, both Jack and Eleanor become rather powerful voices for the confusion of Generation X about their own fathers and the authority that they represent, longing for their return, idealizing that return, and also fearing and disbelieving it. The ambiguity of both games’ conclusions speak to the overall ambiguity that X seems to feel that their own conflicts with fathers might or might not resolve. 

In Bioshock 2, the multiple endings depending on daddy’s choices leave the possibility that Eleanor could be terribly corrupted by the legacy and lessons of a distant father or ultimately turn into a compassionate and forgiving person. The final say is determined by the decisions of the “surrogate father”, the player (possibly one that hopefully makes better decisions than the long absent, actual ones).

Red Dead Redemption offers only one ending, yet it’s ambiguous conclusion leaves us with a Jack Marston, trained by his father with all the skills necessary to exact a revenge. Jack’s independence and ability to finally “be a man” on his own may be a good thing. However, the single minded brutality that this “freedom” is represented by may be a less than desirable legacy for a son, or any child, to inherit.

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