In a personal essay, Jenn Frank used 90s simulation Creatures to talk about her disconnection from motherhood – both physical and mental. It's worth your time if you haven't read it already and I'm not here to rip into her article – but I do want to pick up on one point.
There's an implication nestled in the final lines that her experience with Creatures tells her what she would be like as a mother. And zing! went my abstraction alarm.
The Abstraction, Take Two
I've written before about the problem of game abstractions that convert complex situations into simpler, bite-sized symbols but at that time I was weighing in on how gamifying real warfare was a dangerous thing. Abstractions in games are essential but, you know, sometimes every designer in the world gets attached to the same bloody abstraction.
Film and literature have managed to explore all of the different aspects of parenthood but, so far, games have achieved very little other than parenthood as an escort mission. That's all children are – something to get injured, blown up, lost, murdered or kidnapped. Their single purpose, in the frightening universe of games, are to be helpless.
In the widely panned Amy, the entire game is an escort mission. Ethan's storyline in Heavy Rain is primarily concerned with the failure to protect one's own children. In the Splinter Cell saaaaaaga, Sam Fisher has a daughter called Sarah and in the first game she's simply wallpaper to demonstrate what an upstanding all-American guy her dad is; later in the series, she represents parental failure as Sam "fails" to protect her from harm.
Austin Breed went a little further with A Mother In Festerwood that I discussed last year, and depicts the escort mission as a balancing act. What do you choose? Smother or foster independence? Still, your son will almost definitely get killed in that game, so I'm not sure it's as nuanced as I'd like.
I struggle to think of examples of parenting in games that aren't escort missions. There is an absolute gold minefield of complex topics that games could start exploring.
Wake Up and Smell The Poopucchino
The day after your first child is born is a special day. It's a day when you are suddenly expected to go from zero to hero. Here you are, take care of this small, ugly fleshling that communicates in binary: crying and not crying. (Don't worry, the ugly will soon shed to reveal a literally exploitative level of cuteness.)
Game idea #1: Hilarity ensues as the player struggles to interpret the baby's demands. Is the nappy full? Is the baby hungry? Is the baby hot? Is the baby tired? Good luck! Co-op option available!
But the truth is, you're tethered to this child now. I'm not crazy when I say the escort mission analogy is back-to-front. It's more like they are escorting you.
Game idea #2: Reverse escort. Can you escape your child to get the household chores done? That dirty laundry ain't gonna clean itself!
Hey, how about trying to do something as a couple. I mean, apart from watching television or play bedroom golf (as if you had the energy, ha ha). You'll need to negotiate with other parents, possibly friends or the grandparents, to get some special time and keep your marriage/partnership fresh.
Game idea #3: Organise a baby-sitting co-op that doesn't fall into the “recession” trap of the Capital Hill Babysitting Cooperative. Learn about the economics of money supply at the same time! Hardcore mode DLC - go go single parent!
There's a lot of sleep deprivation, which gets better over time but will continue to be a problem for several years. It's not just because you get woken up in the middle of the night. If you want to get grown-up things done it can be tricky to find private time when the children are up and about. So, gradually, you find yourself borrowing more and more from what used to be sleep time.
Game idea #4: Finding time to... ah, hang on... increpare's nightmarish The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights does have a sort of stab at sleep deprivation but then goes all WTF NSFW OMFG. Go have a gander but for the love of God it is not safe for work. And, I warn you, it is not safe for the children. Just like this article.
That Was The Easy Stuff
Okay, we've grabbed all the low-hanging fruit. What about thorny issues, moral dilemmas? Let's see the studio audience come up with some game design implementations for this shit.
Life/Life Balance. There's a constant tug-of-war between devotion to your child and finding time for yourself. It's unhealthy to dedicate 100% of your time to children. For one, a parent with their own interests is an interesting parent. But more seriously, it'll eat away at your soul and not having a life will make you an irritable gorilla. Plus, ponder the so-called “game over” condition. One day, the children'll move out. And leave you with a big black gaping sucking vacuum hole of empty in your life. Prepare for this day!
Game idea #5: Bugger. I think Richard Hofmeier sort of covered some of this with Melanie in Cart Life. But you can do better, game designers!
Tough Love. A parent simply cannot let a child do exactly what he or she wants. The simplest example is the bedtime cry. Some children find bedtime traumatic and the natural response is to rush in and hug those tears away. But that creates... a dependency. They can't have you forever. At some point you've got to walk away and let them cry. “Tough love” is a serious hurdle for all parents – because it's about finding the right sweet spot between being soft and being harsh. When you're a bit tired, well-intended notions of tough love can easily turn into venting anger.
Game idea #6: Find strategies to defuse tantrums and reduce their frequency. Watch out for creating hazardous dependencies! Give children chocolate every time they were upset but now they cry whenever they demand chocolate? Oops! The great thing about this game is that there's so little feedback! It's impossible to tell if your decisions are making an impact or not. Do you stay the course or try something else?
Accepting Things Go Wrong. Children go through phases and bad moods. You're never sure if these mood swings are your fault. Then you notice you're yelling at them fifty times a day and, let's be honest, you're the grown-up. We all know it's not easy dealing with someone this irrational but these things happen. They are normal. Things go wrong. Just fix it.
Game idea #7: Umm, errm... thinking...
Teaching Shame. You're going to have to explain why they can't just take their underwear off anywhere they feel like. That it's not good manners to belch in public. When you signed up to be a parent, no one told you it was your job to take their innocence and turn it into shame.
Game idea #8: Umm... chase your child running around in their underwear? Fuck, that sounds like the kind of bad game idea that would get you in court.
The Urge To Stay Alive. The most surprising thing I noticed after about two years of being a parent is the strong urge to not be dead. It's not that I was casual about life previously but definitely some sort of critical mental switch had flipped and even a little hypochondria kicked in. I can't die. I can't do that to my wife and my children. I can't let that happen.
Game idea #9: Passage on steroids. Play as a father who then dies and then switch to be the widowed mother to experience life alone. And after all the heartache it turns out to be just a bad dream. Sweet Jesus. At least I hope it does.
So what have we learned? We have learned that parenthood is a lot more messy and multi-dimensional than being an eighteen-year-long escort mission.
I'm sure there are games out there which have done interesting things with parenting, no doubt half of them in the interactive fiction space. Write in the comments if there are some titles I'm ignorant of... or simply forgot about in my fevered typing madness.
You know, maybe I'm just getting this all out of proportion. Oh, what's this? Rock Paper Shotgun posted a video today! Of a game about a “relationship between a mother and her children”. Well--