Last week we started this series off on a light-hearted note; anything involving choreographed dancing can’t be too grave. For this week, though, I would like to talk about something a bit more serious. As a story-telling medium, video games have a lot of potential, due to their interactive nature. However, while we’ve rescued a countless number of princess from castles and saved the earth from every conceivable threat, there is still quite a lot of unused potential in video game story-telling. One example of this is the lack of good representations of family in games. Oh, don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of families in games. However, rarely do these ever amount to more than a generic NPC with “Mom” as their name. Familial relationships can be used to much greater effect; they can help players feel more connected to the game and characters, and even provide players with additional motivation. Therefore, its important to recognize when games do use these relationships to good effect.
An underrated gem of this console generation, Nier is a very strange RPG from Square Enix that incorporates elements of dungeon crawlers, hack n’ slash, shoot ’em ups, and even text adventures. The game takes place in what seems to be a stereotypical fantasy setting, where strange ethereal monsters roam the countryside. After his daughter, Yonah, is stricken with a fatal disease called the Black Scrawl, the titular Nier joins forces with a talking book, a foul-mouthed lady, and a strange young man to save her. Like I said, odd. By far, the highlight of Nier is its characters, who are complicated, interesting, and well written. However, the relationship that steals the spotlight is the one between Nier and Yonah. Every action that you take in the game is dedicated to saving her life; Nier is completely devoted and consumed by this drive. Over the course of the game, this passion is translated to the player, and the game’s twists, turns, trials, and tribulations become that much more meaningful as a result. Nier is full of little things that help to deepen this relationship like how, during loading screens, you read short letters that Yonah has written to her diary. In the end, this bond between father and daughter makes the entire game better as a whole and will stick with players long after the credits have rolled.
Dragon Quest V
Sorry in advance, but this one’s going to require a few spoilers to the story, so just go ahead and skip to the next one if you want to experience it fresh.
The Dragon Quest franchise is not usually well regarded for its story; in most cases the plot is little more than window dressing to exploration and combat. However, Dragon Quest V stands as an exception, and this is mainly due to the heavy presence of family throughout the game. You begin the game as a small boy, journeying with your father across the world in search of the Legendary Hero. When tragedy strikes, the game jumps forward in time, where your character has grown into an adult. Taking on the mantle of hero, you return to your homeland, are crowned king, and most importantly get married. The game then goes through another time skip, and in a surprise twist, players take on the role of their children as they search for the missing king and queen. This family dynamic is brilliant, and keeps players invested in their party members. By the end of the game, taking on the ultimate evil with your wife and children by your side is exciting and gratifying. Even with a minimalist Dragon Quest story, the fact that V lets you play through both losing and starting a family is very powerful. Its a shame that it’s a mechanic that has been so underutilized since then.
The most recent Persona games for the Playstation 2 have been highly regarded by both critics and fans and for good reason. With an interesting mix of dungeon crawling, monster collecting, and relationship building, Atlus’ games offer players a unique experience. However I must say that, of the two PS2 games, I found myself more engrossed in Persona 4, mainly due to the strength of the supporting characters (anyone noticing a theme yet?). Your party members are conflicted, interesting characters, and its a pleasure to get to know them better. The same can be said for you family. Unlike in the third game, which has you playing as an orphaned amnesiac, the first people you meet in Persona 4 are your uncle, Dojima, and cousin Nanako. Throughout the course of the game, the two of them, especially Nanako, are a constant presence; when you come home after school, she is always waiting for you with an enthusiastic greeting. You’ll help her with chores, invite her to hang out with your friends, and watch tv with her (even that damned Junes song can’t ruin the moment). As you progress through their social links, you learn about the struggles your family has been through and help them to become even closer. This makes the events later in the game all the more dramatic and emotional. The time you spent building your relationship with them will become another motivation that will drive you to solve Persona 4‘s mysteries and stop the person behind the murders.
One of the most beloved RPG’s of the Super Nintendo era, Earthbound is a game with a very bizarre style. Between time traveling alien insects, violent, wandering hippies, and a young martial artist named Poo, the world of Earthbound is full of bizarre sights and sounds. That’s why the appearance of a family is so reassuring and comforting. Unlike most RPG’s, where your family is gunned down, stabbed, burned, etc. at the beginning of the game, Ness’ parents and sister have a constant presence throughout. You can return home and sleep in your own bed whenever you want. Even if you can’t make it home, you can still call them up on the phone. When you do so, your mother and father will give you little words of encouragement, like “Stay safe.” or “Do your best!”. In fact, there is a status aliment that Ness can have called “Homesick” which causes him to think about home during battle, making him miss turns. In a clever touch, the only way to cure homesickness is to call home. These small moments help to connect players to Ness, and reminds them that, world-saving destiny aside, he’s still just a little kid deep down. Those little conversations prove that you don’t need elaborate pre-rendered cutscenes to engage a player emotionally.
The Walking Dead
As you may more may not be aware, I love last year’s episodic adventure game, The Walking Dead. It is an amazing experience, and is probably the best example of the power of video games as an interactive story-telling medium. Throughout the game, you are forced to make tough choices: Whose plan is the best? Should we trust these newcomers? Which one of our group should I let die? The choices left to the player are difficult and, in many cases, unfair. Why can’t anyone ever get along? Over the course of five episodes, you’re forced to deal with characters who complain, argue, and find new ways to put the entire group in danger. The question then comes up: why should I stay with these people? Wouldn’t I be better off alone? The answer to this is Clementine, the first character you meet in the game who doesn’t try to eat your face. Although she’s still a little girl, Clementine is no damsel in distress; your first meeting comes when she comes to your aid after she has already spending several days on her own. Still, as tensions rise and the worst case scenarios come to pass, you can’t help but feel protective for her. The relationship between Lee and Clementine is one of the most raw and heartfelt that I’ve seen in any medium. Even better is the fact that the player takes an active role in its development. Through a well-written dialogue system and brief moments of action, each players can craft exactly how their Lee treats Clementine, which gives a level of immersion that draws players deeper into the twisted world of The Walking Dead. By the end of Episode 5, I mirrored Lee’s determination, and the only thing I cared about was ensuring that little girl’s safety. I must say, its an amazing feeling, and that’s not something I expect to hear from a game.
These are all great examples of how much impact taking the time to develop a realistic familial relationship can have in a game. However, its sad to say that the reason that most games don’t hit the same emotional notes isn’t because they don’t recognize the concept, but because they don’t try very hard to portray the relationships in a way that players will identify with. Here’s just a couple of games that could have used a bit more thought.
Final Fantasy XIII
Man, it sure does seem like I enjoy picking on this one, doesn’t it? If that is the case, its only because I saw all the potential that was squandered by the game. In the opening sequence, literally within the first 20 minutes, we see a mother plunge to her death. When her son, Hope, joins your party, it turns out that he is driven by the desire for revenge against Snow (ugh, what’s with these names?), the man he blames for not saving her. This should be an emotional moment, but its so poorly written, I just wanted him to either get over it or just go ahead and stab Snow. Similarly, the entire point of the game, for at least half of your party, is to rescue Lightning’s sister, Serah. However, I can’t even remember a time when I actually cared about accomplishing that. In both cases, both of these reactions are disappointing, and a sign of how poorly fleshed out these relationships were.
Super Mario Bros.
Here’s an interesting thought: Mario and Luigi Mario, one of the oldest families in all of gaming, has been around for almost thirty years now. That’s a really long time, but try to think about this: how much do you know about them, aside from the most shallow traits. We know that Luigi has an inferiority complex, after years of being in his brother’s shadow. And….. that’s about it. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t it about time that we, as players, get a chance to get to know the Mario Brothers better? Now I know what you’re thinking. “But Jimmy, who wants to find out more about the Mario Brothers? It’s just a platforming game; that would be stupid.” To which I respond, “Hey, it can’t be any worse than the Super Mario Bros. movie.”
Have any good examples of families in games, either good or bad? Share them in the comments below.