[20 June 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Father of mine
Tell me where have you been
You know I just closed my eyes
My whole world disappeared
Father of mine
Take me back to the day
Yeah when I was still your golden boy
Back before you went away
—“Father of Mine”, Everclear
Having daddy issues is a tale at least as old as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Sigmund Freud, of course, used that story as a metaphor for describing psychological development and the way that individuals challenge authority and take on responsibility themselves as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Beyond this metaphor for the development of the psyche personally, Jung and others like him would see the social significance of such stories within the greater culture. Struggle with the previous generation for authority is often understood metaphorically through such tales of sons struggling with or coming to terms with the father. Of course in that sense, the story of grappling with the father, while fairly ubiquitous in Western culture (Zeus and Cronus, Isaac and his two sons, David and Absalom, etc.) changes a bit depending on the time and place that it comes from.
Late 20th century American culture has been dominated by the voice of the Baby Boomer generation, and that generation’s tales of father-son and also father-daughter conflict often reflect attitudes associated with the group that would come of age during the ‘60s and that would largely begin taking its place as the dominant voice in media and entertainment by the ‘70s. The original Star Wars trilogy, for instance, has at its center a story very much about coping with daddy issues, a story very reflective of shifting attitudes about authority and how that generation understood its “daddy”.
Born in 1944 (about two years before the year many see as being the beginning of the boom), George Lucas grew up alongside Boomers and witnessed profound changes in the fabric of American culture, as well. Lucas originally may have conceived of Luke Skywalker as a son learning about his father’s past as a war hero via the abbreviated description of Anakin Skywalker by Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), a kind enough description of the “Greatest Generation” of heroes preceding Luke. As a product of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, the trilogy took a darker turn as Darth Vader was revealed as Luke’s war hero father turned corrupt authoritarian. Consider also Don Henley’s critique of government through a similar metaphor of fatherhood and its corruption of innocence when he discusses Ronald Reagan in his song, “End of the Innocence”: “Armchair warriors often fail / And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales / Lawyers clean up all details / Since daddy had to lie”. The trilogy represents a denial of father and a denial of authority as corruptible and corrupting, although it also suggests that the next generation has the hope of, perhaps, fixing daddy, eventually making him “right” again.
Similarly, Cameron Crowe (a late Boomer, born in 1957 on the cusp of the advent of Generation X) tells the story of a daughter confronted with the corruptible quality of fathers in Say Anything… (1989). Diane Court, and her slacker boyfriend Lloyd Dobler, may resemble Generation X in a movie written seemingly for that generation, however, the message of getting back on your feet and moving away from the legacy of such a father is still a conclusion seemingly much more Boomer than X. Indeed, few of the X generation would be much older than about 19 in 1989 (depending on whose definition of the generation you are using). The transition to their voices dominating media like television and film would have to wait until the late ‘90s and the first decade of the milleninum as they reached their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, representations of fathers in the last ten years are those of somewhat invisible figures that are still haunting presences in many of X’s stories. Spiking divorce rates in the years of X’s childhood lead one to shows like Lost, a series full to brimming with characters with daddy issues. Jack Shepherd and John Locke, as just two examples, both struggle with absent fathers that they do not easily deny or embrace.
It’s interesting, then, that video games, a medium initially pioneered by the Boomers but generally limited to simplistic stories of frogs crossing busy streets to find their way home and plumbers saving damsels in distress, have come of age alongside Generation X and are now telling their stories through different eyes. Gone is the cartoonishly evil figure of authoritarianism from the story of more contemporary parent-child relations, replaced with a concern about the distance that exists between fathers and their children and a concern about how such parents influence their children. Two releases this year arrive with coincidentally similar focuses on the relationship between children and their fathers, Bioshock 2 and Red Dead Redmption.
While the first Bioshock concerned a father-son relationship, that relationship took a back seat to themes concerning free will and control, the libertine and the slave. Certainly, the relationship between Andrew Ryan and Jack Ryan is distant (since the player inhabiting the role of Jack is unaware Anrew Ryan is his father at all at the beginning of the game), any potential struggle between the two’s philosophies is determined by an outsider who forces Jack to kill Ryan. Largely, the interest of the game seems to be in exploring the illusion of free will (in video games specifically and by extension more broadly in real life) and less interested in familial concerns.
Perhaps more interesting to examining issues related to family is the game’s more simple assumption about relations between fathers and little girls. The dynamic that exists between Little Sisters and Big Daddies is a compelling one and seems to underscore the idea that a little girl needs a daddy to protect her. In some sense, it’s unsurprising that the game’s sequel would take this concern for potentially lost and unprotected children (specifically masculine protection of the feminine child) and make it its most central focus as it examines the relationship between a daughter and her long distant father.
Long distant is, of course, an understatement, considering that Eleanor Lamb’s Big Daddy has been quite literally dead and gone for most of her childhood. The opening scene of the game explains the circumstance of the severing of the relationship (again, a very literal psychic linkage) between herself and her father. If children who “lose” a parent to divorce often attempt to figure out who is to blame, there is no doubt here. Eleanor’s mother, Sofia Lamb, is the one who is less literally, but also who is still very directly responsible for the gun to daddy’s head. The idea that mommy is keeping the children distant from the man who fathered her children is very much present here and simplified to an almost childlike understanding through the overt display of brutality between the parents.
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
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.