When it comes to “family safe” Christian entertainment, rarely do we see a father as anything other than the stalwart family leader. These fathers are the moral compass, their goodness stemming from rock solid spirituality and communion with God. When this sort of father receives news he is dying from cancer, for instance, he puts his house in order and trusts on God to see the family through. He does not drive out into the desert to start a mobile meth lab to support his family — though that certainly makes for more exciting television.
The fathers in these games may not be sacrificing the same thing, but they all must make some sort of sacrifice that affects their families for better or for worse.Outside of Christian entertainment, the depiction of the father is more varied across film, television and literature (though with a perceptible skew toward being weak or inept). As in these other media, the character of the father has developed more depth and nuance in video games. The sheer number of video games makes it impossible to give thoughtful reflection on every father depicted, so I will look at just a few of the fathers that have touched the inner fears and joys of my own experience as a father, husband and Christian.
Jim Peyton (Lost Planet 3)
Very few fathers fit the southern, roughneck archetype as well as Lost Planet 3’s Jim Peyton voiced by Bill Watterson. Peyton is a new father, struggling to make a living to provide for his family on Earth. When the call goes out to those who wish to make a fortune in hazard utility work on a frozen alien planet, Peyton says goodbye to his wife and child for the promise of a lifetime of financial stability. Peyton’s story is not only compelling (and worthy of a nomination from the Writer’s Guild of America for outstanding achievement in video game writing in 2014) but it provides an exploration of family tribalism: Would you leave behind your family at the chance to help save the human race?
Those who have watched Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar may be familiar with this question as the character of Jim Peyton has similarities with Cooper, the father played by Matthew McConaughey (including a southern accent) that involve the challenge of empathy on a global level. Early civilization saw priorities centered around the survival of the immediate family and blood relatives. As time marched on the sphere of empathy expanded to those who identified under a common banner, normally religion, which became known as tribalism. Tribalism expanded to include a sense of nationalism and — as conceived in the future when interplanetary relationships develop — eventually loyalty to humanity as a whole, in contrast to the alien populations on other planets.
Cooper from Interstellar had to choose between saving the Earth and never seeing his young children until they were much older. Jim Peyton has to choose between saving a population of refugees from a standing corporate army on the lost planet or ever seeing his wife and child again.
Self-preservation is a strong instinct, possibly the strongest we have as human beings. This extends as our family grows to varying degrees. When my son was two years old, I took him to the water splash area at Universal Studios. As we played, it turns out we were standing under a large tank of water which dumps out on top of unsuspecting people every few minutes, a fact of which we were blissfully unaware. The warning alarm went off and I saw the bucket tipping. I dodged out of the way but in my hurry I completely forgot to grab my son, an action which makes me a candidate for Worst Father of the Year. My son was fine and suffered nothing more than being wet for a few hours, but the incident filled me with shame for weeks afterwards.
The question I asked myself while the credits for Lost Planet 3 ran across the screen was, “Would I be able or willing to sacrifice my ability to see my family for the greater good of a neighbor, country or world? What would that stalwart father in the ‘family safe’ dramas do?”
Ethan Mars (Heavy Rain)
Players begin Heavy Rain by controlling Ethan Mars at the peak of his life. He is happily married, has two healthy sons and a financially secure position as an architect. The player is introduced to Ethan by having him perform mundane activities: taking a shower, brushing his teeth, setting up for one of his son’s birthday party, and playing with his kids outside. This establishes a sense of intimacy with Ethan that draws you in. It is very clear that Ethan loves his wife and two sons, is happy with his architectural career and upper middle class lifestyle. But Ethan’s paradise does not last. One of his sons dies in a tragic car accident when he slips away from Ethan outside a crowded shopping mall. Ethan slides into despair as he and his wife divorce and share custody of their remaining child.
The kidnapping of this remaining child by the “Origami Killer” serves as the heart of the story. The game has the player taking control of an ensemble cast, all involved in helping track down the killer, but it is Ethan that the killer reaches out to. He demands that Ethan complete a series of tests to obtain the location of his son before his son dies.
Ethan, and by proxy the player, is directly tasked with answering the question, “How far will you go to save your child?” Will you drive the wrong way down a highway at 65 miles per hour? Will you chop off a finger? Would you carefully navigate an obstacle course of lethal electric traps? The character is ultimately as sacrificial as the player wants them to be. You can refuse to have Ethan partake in the Origami Killer’s twisted challenges or you can endanger, mutilate and nearly kill yourself for information that will hopefully lead you to your imprisoned child.
The interactive narrative of Heavy Rain lets the player decide the level of self-sacrifice found within Ethan Mars. My own experience with the game had me doing everything I could to find my son — only failing in the end because of the limitations of my skills as a gamer rather than any sort of unwillingness to continue on. I remember cringing when I pressed the button to bring the cleaver down on Ethan’s hand.
Heavy Rain provided me, and anyone who immerses themselves in the universe of the game, a reflection of who they are as a person and a father.
Joel (The Last of Us)
Abraham was given with the unthinkable task of leading his son up a mountain, binding him on a stone altar and offering him as a sacrifice to God. It is even more unthinkable to consider that Abraham and Isaac performed their respective roles obediently. The Bible does not tell us of an internal struggle in the minds of Isaac or Abraham, but it would not be a stretch to say that as human beings, they had some kind of struggle. The Bible does tell us that both father and son made the climb and both were found faithful to God who provided a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac.
The Last of Us is a story where our father figure, Joel, is placed in a situation not unlike Abraham’s. Cordyceps, a fungus, has mutated, infecting humans and causing an epidemic of zombie-like monsters who wipe out the majority of the world’s population. The game opens the night of the outbreak with Joel and his daughter attempting to make it to a military outpost for protection. Climbing the hill to the outpost Joel’s daughter is shot and killed leaving Joel a bitter, hollow man.
In the walled city of Boston, many years later, Joel is simply surviving when he is charged with taking Ellie, a young girl who is the first to show a natural immunity to the Cordyceps fungus, to a research facility in Salt Lake City. Scientists at this facility will hopefully be able to adapt Ellie’s natural immunity and develop a cure for the human race.
The United States is a large country to travel by foot and the assorted abandoned car. Seasons come and go, people encountered and friendships forged — only to be torn apart by the infected or bandits. Through the everpresent toils and hardships a father/daughter bond is formed between Joel and Ellie, one tempered by the constant threat of danger and the struggle for survival from both the infected and the basest elements of humanity.
The bond is stretched to the utmost when Joel realizes what Ellie has known since the journey began: the procedure to find out what makes her immune will kill her. Ellie has been waiting for her turn to die, for a chance to make the sacrifices of those they have lost on the journey meaningful. Like the biblical Isaac, Ellie knows what her part is and is willing to play it. Joel, on the other hand, is not so willing a participant.
Joel is now in a position where he once again is faced with losing a daughter. Regardless of Ellie’s wishes and that her death might mean an end to the savage way of life, it is a sacrifice he is not willing to make. The depth of Joel’s depravity and selfishness are seen in the closing scene of the game. Joel has told Ellie that the procedure did not work. Ellie demands that Joel swear that this is true. In this moment the player hopes that Joel will confess and redeem himself. Joel instead replies, “I swear.”
Very few games are able to produce a strong emotional reaction the way The Last of Us did for me. While Ellie was not Joel’s daughter, as a father I recognized the bond that formed between the two characters, and as much as I despised Joel for his betrayal, I found myself feeling genuine empathy for this man who had suffered so much and only wanted a chance at a normal life. Joel’s choice is wrong on almost every level, but I still couldn’t shake my empathy for him.
Monster (Papo & Yo)
Sometimes fathers are not the stalwart protectors we wish they would be. Sometimes fathers can be the source of much pain, anger and sorrow, as Papo & Yo so exquisitely shows.
Vander Caballero, the designer of Papo & Yo, created the game as a sort of autobiography revolving around his youth dealing with an abusive and alcoholic father. The game opens with Quico, a young boy cowering in his closet as the shadow of an angry father storms outside the walls. Clutching his favorite toy Lula, Quico watches as a portal forms on the wall of the closet. He escapes through portal in the closet wall, to a dream-like favella where Lula is alive and a girl named Alejandra guides Quico through this dream world.
Quico encounters the titular Monster shortly after his journey begins. Both Lula and Alejandra warn Quico that Monster is dangerous but despite these warnings Quico befriends the creature which seems docile and playful. This lasts until Monster eats a frog and becomes enraged, bent on harming Quico until he can be calmed down with more rotten fruit.
This tenuous relationship between Quico and Monster is the center of the gameplay. Monster must help lift heavy objects or manipulate the environment so that Quico can advance while always dealing with the dangerous addiction to eating frogs from which Monster is suffering.
At one point in the game, a dream sequence occurs that explains the connection between Quico’s father and Monster and the reason for Quico’s fathers reliance on the bottle. In this moment we see that, not only is Monster an external reflection from Quico’s point of view, but the internal feelings of his guilt-ridden father.
At journey’s end for Quico, the hope of being able to “cure” monster is gone. The boy lures Monster into a deep slumber and proceeds to push him into a dark abyss. By this action, the player, along with Quico, has let go of the father and the hope of being able to fix him.
While I can’t relate to the specific details of the cause of Quico’s father’s pain, what I can empathize with is a sense of failure, of failing myself, my wife and my son. Failure will come to us all at some point in our lives. How we deal with that failure differs from person to person, but one thing Papo & Yo reminded me of is to always be slow to anger and remember that God is in control, not me.
A Father’s Dilemma: Making the Right Choice
The last three decades of video game development have brought players from experiencing the simplicity of Pong to the complex entertainment experiences of today: games that explore incredibly powerful narratives.
The four different narratives of the games featuring fathers examined here all have a common element: sacrifice. The fathers in these games may not be sacrificing the same thing, but they all must make some sort of sacrifice that affects their families for better or for worse. Jim Peyton willingly sacrifices seeing his family again in order to save the lives of hundreds of innocent people. Ethan Mars, in his broken state, finds the strength to put himself in mortal peril in order to save the life of his son. They both sacrifice themselves.
The other end of the spectrum shows us what can happen when a father sacrifices others for his own end. Joel not only robs Ellie of her choice to help save humanity, he destroys the the possibility of others continuing the work even without her. Joel lies to everyone, including Ellie, in his desperate wish to have a daughter again. Quico’s father sacrificed his relationship with his son in favor of the bottle to avoid his own guilt and fears. The bottle held more solace to him than any possible forgiveness or closure and the result was a son who hid in closets and “killed” his father in his imagination to detach himself from feeling anything for him.
The impact fathers have on their children cannot be overstated. Proverbs 22:6 reminds us that when a father trains a child correctly, that child will not depart from wisdom as he or she grows older. Video game fathers may just be artistic creations, but ones capable of dispensing the sort wisdom and caution found in Proverbs nonetheless. Real-life fathers just have to be vigilant enough to see it.