Exploring Fatherhood in Games

That powerful and important social concepts can permeate such a diverse group of games is a testament to our very human desire to examine big ideas through play.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, and The Walking Dead Season 1.

In the very last scene of The Last of Us, after Joel and Ellie have formed an inseparable bond, traversed half the country, killed hundreds of infected humans to stay alive, and put their own safety in the hands of one another, Ellie asks Joel a question, and without batting an eye, he answers her with a complete lie.

The moment is the culmination of a story arc that transforms Joel from a sole survivor, reduced to savagery after the loss of his daughter, back into a father figure. What might normally be a moment to celebrate, the affirmation of a parental relationship between Joel and Ellie, is instead a dark conclusion to their story. In those last few moments, The Last of Us finishes a much longer tale that pokes and prods at the idea of fatherhood.

Interestingly, the game's depiction of fatherhood, especially strained fatherhood, is no surprise coming from an aging industry so heavily dominated by men. We have seen this theme pop up in several notable games in the recent past. Dead Space 3's John Carver deals with some parenting issues and the new Lara Croft in Tomb Raider has her own father figure to consider in the form of the character named Roth. BioShock Infinite took daddy issues to the extreme, and Assassin's Creed III went all the way back to the 18th century to find its own brand of parental resentment.

Still, The Last of Us stands out as a particularly interesting examination of fatherhood and trauma. In many ways, the game seeks to re-examine common feelings toward parenting. Two other notable games also offer up definitions of fatherhood pushed to extremes. Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead.

All three games define fatherhood around the act of protection, primarily physical protection. And in each of these games, the protagonist fails -- at least temporarily -- to protect their ward. In Ethan's case, his cheery family reflected in his pristine home collapses when he loses a son in a car accident. Later, when his other son goes missing, the game essentially tests Ethan's ability to reclaim his protective-father status.

For Telltale's Lee, protecting Clementine defines nearly all his motivations. Tellingly, in one of the game's more shocking moments, Lee dreams Clementine becomes a zombie, the potential failure of this new role as father figure turned into nightmare.

As for The Last of Us, Joel's own protective instincts are starkly revealed in the final act but more on that later. His initial failure shapes his character throughout the game. Sarah, his daughter introduced during the stunning introduction, seems kind and well adjusted. She's a good kid. But already the landscape defines Joel as a father who struggles.

The absence of a second parental figure is never addressed, but it is palpable as Joel begins the game as the sole provider of Sarah's safety. It is quickly clear that Joel works late hours and misses out on some of Sarah's life. Her glib response to how she afforded a gift for his birthday (she sells drugs on the side) is an endearing recognition of his absence in some parts of her life. The seeds of Joel's ongoing guilt are written in those brief early moments.

All three games also define fatherhood through small and mundane acts of everyday life: Ethan fixing his son a sandwich, for example, Lee cutting Clementine's hair, or Joel making small talk with Ellie about ice cream trucks and advertisements. Still, all three occur amid extreme surroundings: a broken home, the temporary safety of a boxcar, or the streets of an abandoned city. These games explore parenting as a shared process, but one uniquely transformed through trauma.

When placed in troubling scenarios, the normative fatherly role becomes deeply distorted. For Ethan, protecting his child could mean murdering an innocent man. For Lee, the singular duty of protecting Clementine could mean abandoning other norms, like keeping children away from guns. Most notably, The Last of Us has the audacity to undermine the protective role of the father figure through Joel's final lie. To save Ellie, he potentially sells out the fate of mankind.

In the apocalypse, the meaning of social norms are fluid and everything matters. We see this theme played out through Bill, whose solitary life keeps him safe but alone. This also plays out in Henry and Sam's relationship when something as simple as brotherly pressure and shame tragically define a child's last moments. In the world of The Last of Us, big concepts like fatherhood are fluid but are as important as ever. One story represents the solitary island Joel could become, the other how little, normal, petty things can ruin a relationship.

Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead, and The Last of Us, when viewed in that order with an eye towards parentage, display an incredible arc of fatherhood. The first re-establishes the normative father role through transgression, the second augments the norm to satisfy the needs of a world transformed, and the third undermines any nascent concept of fatherhood by questioning the ethics of normative fatherly behavior when pushed to an extreme.

Interestingly, all of these games explore the theme of fatherhood through unique game systems (although yes, they also use heavy amounts of scripted events). That powerful and important social concepts can permeate such a diverse group of games is a testament to our very human desire to examine big ideas through play. Now if we could just get a more diverse group of game makers, we may find even more games exploring themes of motherhood.

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