Did you know that Family Day is a real public holiday in Ontario and other parts of Canada? It’s true. I didn’t believe it when I first moved here either, but they give people the day off work and school and everything, so you know it’s legit.
The rest of North America may not get to partake of the Family Day festivities, but it’s reason enough to take a look back at some of the most memorable families in gaming. Try to picture each surname as the title of a 1980s network sitcom for maximum enjoyment.
The Blackmores – Stacking
The Blackmores are a truly complementary family unit. They just fit together, and the picture isn’t complete until every member is present and accounted for.
Then again, they were literally made for each other. Like everyone else in Double Fine’s Stacking, the Blackmores are matryoshka. While the Russian nesting dolls serve as the inspiration for some clever gameplay, they also capture the parental desire to shelter the smallest members of the family, keeping the children tucked away to save them from the cruel industrial world that might lead them astray.
Fortunately, Stacking understands that parents can’t protect the kids forever. You have to let them out to make their own way because you won’t always be around if an evil Baron kidnaps you and imprisons you in his factories.
Aside from that all-too-common exception, there’s something undeniably sweet about the impulse. Children never truly grow up in the eyes of their parents, so there will always be a place for Charlie should he ever return to the nest.
The Kahns (Shao Kahn, Sindel, Kitana, and Mileena) – Mortal Kombat
While many people will express a desire to strangle obnoxious family members (on a related note, go see The Babadook), most of us would never, ever consider doing it. The Kahns are the exception. The ruling family of Outworld will kick, punch, stab, bite, scream, fan, and hammer each other to resolve their disputes, and they have an especially nasty habit of finishing what they started.
Then again, Shao Kahn makes Homer Simpson look tame, so I can’t really blame Kitana or Sindel for wanting to kill him in the most violent ways possible. He’s an absolutely appalling manifestation of patriarchal entitlement, and it’s fun to dish out the sweet revenge he so richly deserves. Mortal Kombat may be an exaggerated cartoon reality, but at least it’s a cathartic way to release that pent-up family tension.
The Mars Family – Heavy Rain
Press X to Jason.
On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a great example.
The Johnsons – GTA: San Andreas
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has always portrayed family as a front for organized crime, but the series reached its peak with the (slightly) more traditional Johnson family in 2004’s GTA: San Andreas. Siblings Sweet, CJ, and Kendl are initially drawn together following the murder of their mother, and the trauma renews ties that can withstand the trials of poverty and the spoils of success.
Later, after being betrayed by childhood friends Biggie Smalls and Easy E – er, Big Smoke and Ryder – CJ eventually builds a criminal empire with the help of new pals like Wu Zi Mu and prospective brother-in-law Cesar. But CJ still can’t escape the pull of the homestead, returning and jeopardizing everything to help Sweet put things right in the neighborhood.
No matter how far you go, you can never escape your family. They’re the people that have to be there for you whenever things get rough. It’s only fair that you do the same for them.
Naiee and Naia – Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Brothers communicates the idea of family solely through its mechanics. The left analog stick controls one brother while the right stick controls the other, and you’ll need to use both to solve a series of puzzles that can only be done in pairs.
It’s awkward at first (that’s true of siblings in general), but you eventually adjust until it becomes impossible to imagine one brother without the other. Naiee and Naia can both drive you mad but the bond is real and vitally codependent. There are some people that you need – people that also mean a lot to you – that you have to deal despite any aggravations. It’s family. That’s just how it is.
I can’t think of a more perfect metaphor, a notion that resonates even more strongly during the game’s memorable coda. Dad is counting on you, and there’s no way you could ever let him down.
Wife, Son, Mother-in-Law, and Uncle – Papers, Please
Family is as much a commitment as it is a sentiment. No game captures that more poignantly than Lucas Pope’s brilliant Papers, Please, where your family compels you to keep getting up to do a job you hate. As much as we’d like to focus on the good times, the truth is that family living often comes with more than its share of bad, and you have to shoulder that burden because people will die if you let them down.
Fortunately, positive memories can be an equally powerful motivator, and Papers, Please offers that glimmer of hope that you can reach if you work through all the adversity. That’s the struggle at the heart of the game. You’re driven in a way that only makes sense if you care about other people more than yourself, demonstrating no matter how bad things get, there’s something inherently good at the core that’s always worth defending.
Joel, Sarah, Ellie, Tess, and Tommy – The Last of Us
A found family is no less meaningful than the one you happen to be born with, and the shifting dynamics of The Last of Us are beautiful depictions of both. Joel draws his strength from those closest to him. Whether the bond is paternal, fraternal, or romantic, those relationships provide a reason to keep going during an apocalypse.
The Last of Us is also a troubling reminder that while family can be noble, it isn’t always rational. As much as we say we’d like to do what’s best for the group, people often make exceptions for those closest to them. The Last of Us is a phenomenal representation of that selective blindness, leading to a conclusion that is at once heartwarming, terrifying, and deeply human. Family can bring out the worst in us just as easily as it brings out the best in us, which is why it will continue to serve as the basis for so much drama in gaming.