“Where are the mothers in videogames?” people started to ask a couple of years ago. The answer was kind of obvious: in the fridge. In countless games across all platforms, games began with a dead wife and an equally dead or often kidnapped child, leaving the male protagonist to kick, punch, shoot, and ‘splode his way through armies of enemies to get revenge/rescue any surviving family members. Sure, the games didn’t explore fatherhood in a very meaningful way, but they featured fathers as playable characters.
Looking at a list of characters that Kotaku published for Mother’s Day in 2009, we see a lot of RPG characters’ mothers, a dappling of female characters across genres who protected or shepherded a child character for some amount of time, and a couple of fighting game characters. None of the characters in the list truly qualify as a main character, and most aren’t even playable. A Polygon article by Carly Smith made this observation:
Fathers are portrayed as heroes for their sacrifices and willingness to do anything to protect their family…games often frame mothers as the signifying tie to home.
In other words, if the mother isn’t dead, she’s in a purely supporting role, usually emotional. She’s the parent, in one way or another, that the player leaves behind.
However, there have been a few notable instances of playable mother characters… but it may not be a change for the better.
Three indie horror games, A Mother’s Inferno (2013), The Park (2015), and Through the Woods 2016) all feature similar stories: a son is taken, and the player controls the mother, struggling through a suddenly supernatural landscape to find her child. Doesn’t sound incredibly different from the standard father storyline- but except for A Mother’s Inferno, the mothers are weaponless. Actually, A Mother’s Inferno stands out in several ways.
It is the only game where the mother uses violence to get to her child, it is the only game that doesn’t go into detail about the mother’s backstory, and it is the only game where the mother and child are happily reunited.
In the other two, the mothers provide narration as they look for their children, solving simple puzzles in a more survival horror type environment. Early on, both admit that they had trouble bonding with their children at the beginning, using descriptions that sound very like postpartum depression. As more backstory is revealed, the mothers admit feelings of guilt and inadequacy, as well as confessing to things like substance abuse, domestic violence, financial issues, and worrying about maintaining custody of their children. Totally normal things to be worried about, and even the bad decisions are understandable parts of human nature. So why are the endings of these games punishments for the mothers?
Spoiler alert: the kids don’t live, and the mothers succumb to madness or end up trapped in the supernatural realm.
Other spoiler alert: in 2014 indie darling Among the Sleep, where you play as a toddler in a nightmare world, one of the monsters is revealed to be the baby’s mother, who’s implied to be dealing with alcoholism in addition to the baby’s father seeking sole custody.
From my point of view, there are two ways to interpret this strange trend, and depending on which you choose, these long-awaited representations of mothers are either a step in the right direction or a brand new way to stick female characters in a box. Let’s start with the potentially positive.
Statistically, mothers are still more likely to be granted primary or full custody of children in divorce proceedings, and there are plenty of stereotypes about the strength, dedication, and unconditional love of mothers enmeshed in our cultural ideals. Even in cases where the mother is abusive toward her children even into adulthood, if that child chooses to cut ties with their mother they will “often face family members who call up as advocates for their mother and demand apologies”, according to Dr. Susan Forward in her book Mothers Who Can’t Love.She points out that “it’s quite common for even a well-meaning friend of relative to discount an unloved [child]’s pain or blame [them] when [they] look for sympathy.” This unsupportive attitude persists despite factual evidence; the Administration for Children and Families has released annual reports on child abuse and the perpetrators of abuse. For the last three years, mothers are twice as often the sole perpetrators of abuse and seven times as likely to be participating in abuse with a nonparent figure.
In an editorial for Huffington Post, Lyz Lenz wrote:
It seems almost ridiculous to have to say this, but [mothers] (stay-at-home, work-at-home or otherwise) don’t need a pedestal and pandering, we need the space to be people — flawed people.
The mothers in these games are certainly flawed, and are guilty of some form of poor parenting: neglect, manipulative behavior, and usually implied abuse of some form. They are not good mothers, and like the not-good fathers of videogames (Booker from Bioshock Infinite, the nameless protagonist from P.T.), they are given a chance at redemption. The fact that there are some actions that you can’t ever make up for is just a hard truth.
It is another hard truth that mothers are expected to perform a disproportionate share of the emotional labor, and if they fail to meet these expectations, they face a lot of criticism and labeling that isn’t done with men. The same way female attorneys are penalized for being “aggressive and domineering” when similar behaviors are standard for their male counterparts, mothers are expected to keep track of a high volume of tasks that seemingly do not occur to fathers: sending thank-you cards, planning family celebrations and vacations, not to mention helping kids maintain emotional equilibrium during times of stress- like divorce, being evicted, or dealing with the death of a family member.
It goes back to Smith’s idea that the mother is the tie to home. While acknowledging the humanity of a mother could be deemed progressive, creating a world in which their failure has resulted in a horrifying distortion of reality that ends in their deaths and the deaths of their children feeds into the idea that without the mother, the family will fall apart. Aside from being an archaic idea that discounts the ability of men to parent, the pressure of that expectation is implied to be part of what fed the characters’ breakdowns and bad behaviors in the first place.
It’s disappointing that the first wave of mother characters at the center of some very well-made indie games are mostly made to be punished. The humanity that is granted them actually only serves to make them monsters deserving of their terrible ends. We can only hope that the next time our protagonist is a mom, she can be a fully realized character, able to survive her own flaws.