There’s an ongoing trend in triple-A action-adventure games that I wonder is worth analysing, one that Just Cause 3 brought into rather sharp relief. Has anyone else noticed that an awful lot of these action game heroes are becoming dads?
Not literally. Rico Rodriguez is not an actual father as far as we know; I couldn’t imagine him slipping the D into anything, except perhaps a ballistic missile. He seems to have bypassed the entire squishy biological phase of becoming a father and gone straight to the ‘father figure’ stage. He’s wearing a full-on Dad Beard and weathered blue jeans, and taken on a mentor role to the rest of the resistance movement, including his younger, more hot-headed friend. He would not look the slightest bit out of place parachuting into a Home Depot and hookshotting his way to the wood section to pick up some 2x4s for his new shed.
It’s a stark contrast to how he was back in Just Cause 2, a permanently angry Johnny Cash lookalike dressed head to foot in black, arbitrarily picking one of three rebel groups to work for (or indeed working for all of them) because the ideology wasn’t as important to him as the gleeful destruction. Now, in Just Cause 3, suddenly he’s got to be responsible, he’s got actual investment in the revolution, he’s taking things a lot more seriously. In the plot, anyway. Under player control he’s most often nailing cows to people.
The father figure trope has been very firmly defining itself as standard for narrative action gaming for the last few years. The immediate examples that spring to mind are The Last Of Us and Bioshock Infinite (and Bioshock 2 to a lesser extent), games in which fatherhood is a very overt theme. The strong, masculine but ultimately gentle and providing Papa Bear teamed with the lost, angsty young girl in need of guidance. This is where the trend is at it’s most obvious.
But plenty of other recent games display at least some elements of heroic father figures, even established characters seem to be changing into dads before our very eyes. Geralt in Witcher 3 seeks his proxy daughter. Master Chief has gone from lone wolf to leading a small unit of impromptu family members. Metal Gear Solid shifted focus from the never-quite-properly-socialised action hero shenanigans of Solid Snake to the firm, full-bearded leadership of Big Boss. Even the new Tomb Raiders found a way to put the concept of fatherhood front and centre in games ostensibly about an action lady.
If you look at the male protagonists of a few years back, immaturity was the prevailing trend. A lack of social graces. You either had your big fat unrealistically-muscled vessels for furious teenage angst like your Kratos and your Marcus Fenix, or you’d have your ‘strong silent type’, unemotional and aloof, the kind of hero that appealed to the self-conscious and socially awkward. Your Gordon Freemans, your J. C. Dentons, your Jack from Bioshocks. The emotional spectrum on display was nothing but extremes – fiery reds and cold blues.
So what does this all mean? Well, despite what each generation of moral guardians would have us believe, video games do not influence the personalities of the players; rather, it is the personalities of the players that influence the games. The audience creates the art, not the other way around. It’s quite Darwinian, really; new ideas are being tested and sold in every medium at all times, the ones that get popular do so because they speak to a current prevailing mindset. People have been writing sexy fan fiction almost as long as literature has existed, and most of it is better written than 50 Shades Of Grey, but 50 Shades just happened to come around at the right time to tick all the boxes demanded by a generation of sexually frustrated women.
So it’s entirely possible that the trend for dad-protagonist is fueled by the predominantly male audience of action games growing old and entering the dad mindset themselves. A lot of men my age in their early thirties who grew up alongside video games and remain devotees are now dads themselves, and it’s well known that the most influential creators and trope-definers of popular culture tend to be aged around 30-35. That’s why popular culture is always nostalgic for a period exactly 20 years ago, when the 30-35s were going through their golden years of childhood.
Which is the simple answer and therefore an unsatisfying one. Obviously dads can’t be the only ones playing video games, there are a still a lot of younger men making up the demographic. Maybe this trend indicates that the dad is becoming more of an aspirational figure, as ongoing global financial difficulties and acts of violence make the cooler-headed, responsible attitude more desirable than aloof self-interest. I can’t be the only one who thinks ISIS would have never been a problem if they’d had some kind of firm unyielding patriarch to spank all their little botties.
Speaking of spanking, there’s also the whole gender roles thing. The old model of princess-rescuing doesn’t carry the uncomplicated charm it used to, now it comes with all the usual arguing about objectification and personal agency. That is happily skirted around if you frame the relationship as father/daughter and not based around tempestuous love interest. It also gives the hero the finer motive of familial loyalty rather than a need to get their rocks off and assert their highly masculine success with the ladies. But when you think about it, the lead female is still reliant on the lead male, and their entire identity centres around the relationship with the bloke. The only real difference is that we can (hopefully) be certain that the lead male and lead female aren’t going to pork. So perhaps there’s also a prudish element to all this. After all, dads tend to be desexualised figures. They’ve already done the sexing part and now they have too many responsibilities to fritter about in the skivvy with harlots.
Well, I’m no psychologist. I just wanted to make the point that, if Uncharted 4 comes out and suddenly Nathan Drake’s dragging a sprog around because his trip to the Cambodian deathzone coincided with visitation weekend, then I fucking called it.