The original version of this article was a little different. To commemorate Mother’s Day, I had planned to make a small list of mothers in video games, something similar to lists we’ve made for Family Day, Valentine’s Day, and a few other holidays. It’s a thing I like to do sometimes, a fun excuse to revisit old favorites in a way that lines up with the calendar.
OK, so it’s not the most original idea. That’s why you should read Carly Smith’s article about mothers in games before reading this one.
I bring it up because a strange thing happened when I sat down to make the list. I drew a blank. I just couldn’t come up with any characters that felt worthy of inclusion. That’s not to say that there are no mothers in video games – in fact, I’m kind of hoping you’ll point out some of the great characters I missed – but the ones that come immediately to mind aren’t terribly interesting characters. My list was still at zero and I was already trying to justify adding Mother Brain from Metroid.
It speaks to a glaring shortcoming of the medium. While gaming is rife with maternal surrogates (Aeris, Yuna, the rest of Final Fantasy), there are far too few actual mothers represented in video games. The mothers that are present are usually there as foils. They’re either wives stuffed into refrigerators to give the male protagonist someone to mourn, or else they’re cogs in larger family units, cardboard authority figures propped up to keep the traditional nuclear family intact and not characters with independent personalities of their own. Your mother sends you out on your way when you leave home in Pokemon, and you know she’ll be there waiting in the exact same place whenever you return home.
But that’s where we’re at with gaming. There’s an entire franchise called Mother where the title works better as metaphor than description.
It’s telling that I would have had an easier time coming up with a list for Father’s Day than Mother’s Day, since gaming has done a better job of grappling with the nuances and trials of parenthood through men. Heavy Rain, for instance, chronicles the terrible things that Ethan is willing to go through to save his son, while his wife is discarded shortly after the game’s inciting incident. Gaming has also given us attentive fathers like Barret (FFVII) and Joel (The Last of Us), as well as negligent ones like Kratos and absentee fathers whose parenthood won’t affect the gameplay.
The situation is comparable in indie games, where dad is the player reference in The Castle Doctrine, The Novelist, and Papers, Please. Though the mothers play a role in all of those games, that role is more symbolic than human. They stand as paragons of virtue present to nurture other characters in an uncomplicated and compliant way, or else they’re background props that tell us more about the setting than the people. They don’t get to affect the plot. As in Octodad, they’re only there to provide some context for the hero.
At one level, the problem reflects the more general lack of diversity in gaming. There are so many male protagonists that they’re allowed to have some variance in their representation. It stands to reason that some protagonists would be fathers and a few of those would have stories worth telling. We’ll hopefully get better representations of mothers as more women make games and tell their stories.
But that doesn’t excuse the industry’s woefully simplistic approach to maternity, which constantly reinforces the message that motherhood is incompatible with adventure. Lulu is a core member of the party in Final Fantasy X, but she’s relegated to the sidelines when she becomes pregnant in the sequel, the only woman from the original cast not to be incorporated into the party in FFX-2. Morrigan similarly gets pushed into a research role by the time we reach Dragon Age: Inquisition, and that’s probably a best-case scenario. Morrigan remains a mysterious, powerful figure with a considerable amount of agency, creating the impression that she makes her own decisions.
At the same time, those decisions conveniently absolve Bioware of the responsibility of juggling motherhood and combat. The lesson? Adventuring is for the single ladies, not those with any kind of attachment.
The same is not true of fatherhood, which does not make Joel or Barret any less effective combatants. While men can be present fathers despite a comical lack of qualifications (Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite), motherhood is often depicted as a form of delusional psychosis (Brigid Tenenbaum in Bioshock), as if women can no longer be trusted to make rational decisions as soon as the nesting instinct kicks in.
It creates the false impression that maternity is too difficult to explore through an interactive medium. In truth, developers are just unwilling. I’ve written before that Tess is the most underappreciated character in The Last of Us, and I’d further argue the animosity towards her is perhaps one of the most glaring examples of the double standard. Tess is remarkably similar to Joel, but whereas Joel is viewed as hardened and sympathetic, Tess is often regarded as a killjoy rather than a survivor. Everything she does in the game makes sense, but she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt because people don’t want to hear a woman saying the things that need to be said.
Some of that likely has to do with the fact that she’s an NPC, but that also kind of proves the point. Tess doesn’t get to be the main character, and that, in turn, makes her expendable. I’d happily play a version of The Last of Us with Ellie and Tess rather than Ellie and Joel, but I can’t think of any major studio bold enough to make it.
As lazy as it is, a paternal relationship is at least present in a game like Shadow of Mordor, and that’s what makes the current state of the industry so shameful. There are so many human connections that could be explored through interactivity, yet there’s a flagrant lack of stories about women. As that changes – and as it is with men – some depictions will be better than others. There’s no ‘right’ way to depict any type of character.
But there will never be any compelling maternal characters if gaming refuses to create them. The relationships in my real life are far more varied and diverse than what I play in video games, and it’s sad that gaming thinks that everyday diversity is somehow not relatable to audiences. The Babadook is one of the most affecting movies I’ve seen in years. The themes resonate regardless of gender.
That’s ultimately why I’m writing now. I’m a white dude. Gaming has already provided plenty of people who look like me. If I’m being selfish, it’s only because I’m tired of the same old story and we’re long overdue for some new ones. But it’s not about me. The simple truth is that all people deserve to see their experiences reflected in the art they consume, and that diversity will only lead to better games for the rest of us. There’s so much more to the human experience than fatherhood. Making a list of mothers in video games should never be a challenge.