Let’s cut to the chase here: we don’t see a lot of mothers in our video games. Sure, they exist … to die off for a character’s angsty development, to be mentioned offhandedly in a single line of dialogue or to not be mentioned at all. Video games almost put film to shame in how quickly the medium tosses motherhood into the bin of inapplicability.
As someone raised by a single mother because the father was more interested in a power dynamic than a loving family, I’d be lying if I said this trend didn’t piss me off a little. I see every single day how motherhood is undervalued and mocked in the form of archaic laws (no country-wide maternity leave in the U.S., for starters) and casual terminology (baby mama, teenage mom, welfare queen, etc.) while fatherhood is postulated as something heroic. Even deadbeat dads can expect entire sitcoms and movies dedicated to them!
This problem goes a lot deeper than go-to tropes or lazy writing—it’s reflective of a myopic cultural attitude toward women and the role we are often pressured to be in. This steady devaluing of motherhood is aided by a never-ending deluge of protagonists who are men written from their perspectives for presumed consumption by men. While fatherhood is a separate can of worms that shouldn’t be shoved to the wayside (the previously mentioned lauding of deadbeat dads is a problem), the unfortunate fact is that is what usually happens to mothers. Fridged, passive caretaker, forgotten, Not Mentioned At All, or demonized are usually the names of the game, if you’ll pardon the pun.
“Now, hold up,” I tend to hear. “Fathers are killed off, too! In fact, one of the most common clichés in any media is a character going to avenge a father’s death. A lot of fathers are even portrayed in a less than appealing light, so why the focus on mothers?” And to that question I’ll answer with another: how often do you see a character spurned to action from the death of their mom? Even if a mother and father are killed, who tends to get the most focus in the narrative? I can hear the list shrinking already.
Let’s think of some instances in which the mother is unceremoniously taken out of the picture or demoted to a minor role with little development: God Of War‘s Kratos loses his wife and child in the beginning of the game, Serge of Chrono Cross has a stay-at-home mom who does little as you search for his more influential father, and Radiata Stories’ lead Jack Russell talks to his caretaker sister for a few quick moments before running off in his father’s name—to name a few. Hope Estheim’s mother (Final Fantasy XIII) exists in an interesting duality of fridging and motivation, as she’s killed off to serve as character development for her son, but also breaks the cycle of the father being the most important figure in someone’s life. While all of these examples can be justified within the story, look at the overall pattern: how often do you see this, but flipped?
While boys and men regularly don’t have a mother or much of a lady role model in the video games we generally see, young girls and women are often in the same boat in favor of a parent who is a man. Tripitaka of Enslaved: Odyssey To The West tries to reunite with her father after being kidnapped and Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider reboot finds guidance in an adoptive father figure. Yuna of Final Fantasy X looks up to her summoner father with nary a mention of her mother and Ashelia B’Nargin Dalmasca mourns the death of her father in Final Fantasy XII with … also no mention of her mother (I’m starting to see a pattern here, Square Enix).
In the meantime, I can’t think of, well, any protagonists who are men that look to a mother or mother figure to inspire, guide, and motivate them. Unless they’re dead and gone, that is.
Video games with dads—both protagonist and narratively significant—are rather plentiful. You play as one in Red Dead Redemption, the aforementioned God Of War, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Walking Dead: Season One, and Last Of Us, again, to just name a few. Final Fantasy X (and VII and VIII and IX and XII and XIII and—you get the idea) all have many prominent father figures with a mother figure here and there. Classic dads include Dr. Light of Mega Man and Bowser of the Mario franchise. You can even take a cursory glance at the media repository TVTropes.org and the sheer size disparity in parent trope content will speak for itself.
By contrast, I can think of only a few games where the protagonist or significant supporting character is a mother, but they are good examples indeed. Beyond Good And Evil’s Jade is the adoptive mother of an orphanage and the recent Alien: Isolation has you searching for the whereabouts of your missing mom. You play as the silent and determined nameless badger mother from 2012’s indie title Shelter. Amaterasu from Okami, while not a parent in the traditional sense, is referred to by her fellow deities as “the mother of us all” in regards to her protection of Japan. Marlene from Last Of Us looks after a young girl when her parents disappear and Flemeth from Dragon Age is a well-known fan favorite.
Don’t let it be said that traditional mom roles also can’t sit favorably in the gamer consciousness. Pokémon is well-known for having a lady parent help you save your money and Animal Crossing’s doting mom regularly sends you letters, presents, and interesting stories about your dad. I have a personal favorite in the minor character Mother Superior of Red Dead Redemption, the head nun of a Mexican monastery who packs a few surprises in response to the dangerous environment she lives in. Lastly, Samara from Mass Effect, while compelling, is an anomaly I want to touch on and not just in the vein of mothers being given a rare glimpse of the spotlight.
Mass Effect, a series that I absolutely adore, still baffled me in its overuse of dads. Almost every single squadmate you have has some beef or past beef with their father (Wrex, Tali, Miranda, Jacob, Ashley, Grunt, Garrus—then Thane, who is a father) with mothers existing as a quick mention or, say it with me now: Not At All. Samara even feels like a technicality since she belongs to an all-women race of aliens. Before I come off as too bitter (oh, who am I kidding!), Samara is an excellent character, whose motherhood is lightly touched upon in the second game and expanded upon in the third.
[Spoilers for Mass Effect 2 and 3] After going on a mission to kill (or recruit, depending on how Renegade you are) Samara’s violent daughter Morinth in Mass Effect 2, you have the opportunity of meeting her other two daughters at the Ardat-Yakshi monastery they live at in Mass Effect 3. The game takes turns both tragic and touching as you explore their isolation and their distant, but respectful perspective toward their mother. While it was not meant to be more than a single character-building side mission, I nonetheless had my interest piqued at the future between this mother and her estranged daughters. My only wish was that she (and the Rachni Queen) weren’t a break in a weird pattern of an otherwise inclusive series. [/Spoilers]
Families come in many shapes and sizes. I’m not advocating for a binary view of parenthood. In fact, if I did so, I’d be the world’s biggest hypocrite, as again, not only was I raised by a single mother, I’m biracial and she is deaf. If anyone knows what it’s like to be left out of the mainstream media lens, it’s us! Motherhood’s constant reduction due to its intersections of gender, sexuality, and economic interests, though, is an issue that needs to be tackled with more than just a handwave. While women parental figures are allowed to exist in the video game sphere, it’s a lukewarm acknowledgement not unlike their place in film or television: an afterthought, a storytelling device, or out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
Motherhood is not boring or forgettable. Instead of treating mothers like a narrative obstacle to be shoved past in order to get to the Fun Stuff or as a tool for someone’s growth (seeing a few similarities with other lady-centric tropes, come to think of it), treat them like the heroines they are capable of being. My mom rescued me from an abusive situation when I was just a baby, at great risk to herself, and supported me growing up when many (including my relatives) would’ve rather seen me fail. In a world unwelcoming and hostile to a little brown girl who didn’t fit convention, she filled my open hands with pencils and paper to feed my hungry imagination and shielded me when people—mostly men—tried to take advantage of me. Had she not raised me the way she did, I’m genuinely unsure how I would’ve turned out.
She was, and still is, my hero.