Thick as Thieves: Your Analysis of Video Game Siblings

Mass Effect Andromeda

I tabulated, categorized, and scrawled down all your thoughts and hope to present them in a somewhat coherent format in this followup to part one of “Thick as Thieves.”

It might seem like investigating the theme of siblings in games seems less relevant in comparison to other representation problems. I argue that it could be equally as salient, seeing as ‘family’ is a particularly complex sociological concept. Ask anyone who they consider their family to be, and wholly differing answers will be received. Change the question to what they consider a family to be, and once again, definitions will vary massively with each interpretation.

And that doesn’t even get started on the question, ‘What does family mean to you?’ The only commonality to be found in countless translations of the concept is the theme of “emotional bondedness and ‘we-ness.'”

What players and audiences are shown as ‘family’ can challenge and reinforce societal convention, both within the individuals who comprise those concepts and by holding up a mirror for the player to examine their own relationships. As one respondent identified, some players view their favorite characters as family, and others have found family in gaming communities and fellow fans.

All in all, family is an abstraction that also interacts with the intersection of gender, race, sexuality, disability, and other identifiers, and should be considered as seriously as the aforementioned markers in media.

Now for your comments! To begin, let’s look at what you like about sibling characters in games right now.

tales-from-the-borderlands

Predominantly, respondents valued realism and memorable, non-tropey dynamics, almost always citing examples from the games they’d interacted with to support their statements:

  • “Sasha and Fiona [in Tales From The Borderlands] have a fantastic relationship — sisters who are best friends, always looking out for one another in every way possible. They’re not portrayed as overly idyllic, though, and they have their spats and disagreements like real human beings.”
  • “While you never see the Greenbriar sisters [in Gone Home] interact, you always get the sense that they were very close, and that their relationship was healthy.”
  • “Love [the Hawke siblings in Dragon Age II] dynamic! You can tell they’re [sic] siblings, especially in regards to Carver with his inferiority complex (which does not make him a bad character/person).”
  • “I think Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was a really, really good game that showed the connection of two characters through your actions while playing the game rather than just telling you about their relationship in a cutscene or whatever.”
  • “Aurora and the tragic relationships with her sisters in Child of Light. I was heartbroken when her seemingly kind sister Norah betrayed her.”
  • “I love the representation of Jacob and Evie Frye [in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate]. They fight, they squabble, they always have each other’s backs, but they aren’t caught in lockstep with each other. I feel like theirs is one of the most ‘real’ sibling relationships I’ve ever seen in a game. I’d love to see more games stepping up to this level of a relationship.”

undertale

More generalized praise was found in the writers’ attention to characterization and narrative of a particular game:

  • “I will say that when writers are committed to presenting sibling relationships in their games (i.e. Ace Attorney, Undertale, Gravity Ghost, Mario RPGs) they do a very good job of conveying how much the siblings care for each other, and showcasing the specific bond that siblings have.”
  • “Games that can balance the individual characters with their sibling bonds are much more fulfilling and showcase how varied and unique the relationship between siblings can be.”
  • “Most sibling relationships I’ve encountered in video games have always made the characters involved shine; it gives them extra dimension (I guess is the right word?). Even if those relationships aren’t always positive.”
  • “The thing I find the best about sibling bonds in narration is when a bond is tested and is stressed, but rebounds.”
  • “I don’t have any real complaints with the types of siblings we see in games. There are loads of different types of siblings present in games, so I’m fine with what we have. I’m not a big fan of Evil Brother/Sister relationships, but I get that they can sometimes make for really good stories.”

final-fantasy

Games that championed personal relatability with their characters fared better, which is kind of to be expected. However, with respondents coming from all kinds of backgrounds, the criticisms of sibling representation were quite varied.

Rivalries — whether it be competition or aggression — were not received well when there wasn’t any clear evidence of emotional connection or shared humor. There was also a practically unanimous agreement that women siblings and sisters got the short straw in games:

  • “Sometimes female siblings’ deaths or misfortunes [only] progress the brother’s story and it’s obnoxious.”
  • “I wish there were more sisters. It feels like no one wants to see a sibling (or any) relationship where both are girls.”
  • “Relationships between sisters; they are either non-existent or very antagonistic (though this is, admittedly, a problem that isn’t exclusive to video games).”
  • “Not enough sister relationships. Game companies mostly seem to want to put in at least one man (or two!) to make sure there aren’t too many women. And it’s a sad thing to see.”
  • “There’s definitely a deficit of sister-sister relationships, and I think this reflects a deficit of female characters in games in general.”
  • “We need more sisters. Straight up.”

oxenfree

Writers must also move away from normative depictions of the family and favor nuance and diversity, as echoed by a few of you:

  • “Alex and Jonas [Oxenfree]. There aren’t many step-sibling relationships in games.”
  • “Boy-Girl siblings so strictly follow the gender binary. Most siblings shown are super white. It’s all very normative. Very rarely is the girl the older sibling, and when she is, she’s frequently ‘a bitch’ (a term I hate). Not satisfied, but things are slowly getting better.”
  • “I’d like to see siblings [being] more supportive without being co-dependent. Sometimes the dynamics can become parental, almost, and often self-sacrificing. When not this, it usually flips to being antagonistic. I’d just like something more balanced.”
  • “I think the various relationships between full siblings have been well-represented in games. What I’d like to see more reflected on are half- and step-siblings. There’s really not much of them out there (at least not in games I’ve played).”
  • “I’d just like to see more family ties and different kinds of family ties to characters in general.”

dragon-age-ii

There was about an even split of satisfaction to dissatisfaction with sibling representation in video games, showing there’s no easy way to discuss the concept of family in this medium. The justifications provided between these two camps were very specific to the respondent:

  • “The reason Hawke, Carver, and Bethany [in Dragon Age II] are my favorite is because they don’t have a perfect relationship. They make mistakes and don’t always treat each other right, but they try, and you can make the choice to have stronger relationships with your [sic] siblings, whether those are antagonistic or friendly. You don’t have to be best friends with someone to love them and relationships are never perfect all the time. More media should have relationships between siblings that are not either perfect or terrible.”
  • “The relationships in video games are better than the ones I have with my own siblings, so I guess I’m satisfied. It gives me an idea of what they might be like anyway.”
  • “Complex relationships [sic] remind me of the relationships I have with my own siblings.”
  • “I’m not a great sister sometimes (more so in the past) and seeing sibling relationships where one sibling screws up and the other forgives them makes me hopeful.”
  • “Pointing out Hawke and Bethany/Carver [in Dragon Age II], I really liked that their relationships were completely different; Hawke’s relationship to both mimicked reality, as most people don’t seem to have the same relationship with different siblings.”
  • “I don’t see siblings very often in video games. I think for a long time there’s been a trend toward protagonists who have no family ties whatsoever, whether that be for ease of making them a blank slate for the player or because family might clash with the gritty themes the game is trying to go for. I’m an only child, personally, but I think the interpersonal interactions between siblings are really interesting, and in video games, I tend to feel instantly very protective of them.”

mass effect

With such diverse responses, it would be hard to apply one blanket solution to people’s thoughts and concerns regarding sibling bonds in games. Thankfully! We have more than a few suggestions, and they all sound rad:

  • “In my opinion, on the RPG front, having a sibling in the game would be a great way to expose a history. In some circumstances (unless starting the game as a child i.e. Fallout 3), there is little to nothing known about a character’s past other than what can be read in a codex or on a terminal. Having a sibling poke you about how you eat, how you approach dialogue or interact with others can speak volumes about your past. It would add layers and complexity to an otherwise unknown or mundane “Pre-hero” backstory. Having an endearing or quirky little sister/brother as a party member or important NPC would make the feels all the more impactful when something funny, serious, or — Maker forbid — tragic occurs.”
  • “I feel like there could be a lot better representation of siblings in entertainment media in general. A lot of the time, when siblings come up, they are a tool for whichever character matters’ backstory. (i.e. Main cast character had a sibling, but they are dead / lost / a betrayer and no longer considered family / etc. This seems very common.) I like seeing siblings who are both important and who, at the very least, care about each other in a positive way, and would like to see more of that in general, which includes video games as a medium.”
  • “I would like to see more games explore close relationships between siblings. Not necessarily that they get along, but they have a strong bond.”
  • “I think what I’d like to see is something where the sibling dynamic is at the core of a game, instead of out on the fringes. Dragon Age, for all it being one of my favorite (and most hated) games, benches half of the sibling equation in a way that sometimes can be deep, but mostly involves my being unimpressed and disappointed such powerful characters aren’t seen in a prominent role. The narratives in these story driven games tend to show the older sibling as confident and forced to run a mission or quest to help their younger sibling. While caring for younger siblings is indeed a taxing thing that sometimes requires getting them out of trouble, it’s a bit exhausting to see it limited to just that.

All in all, I’d like to see something closer to the lines of the Alex and Kara Danvers’ dynamic from Supergirl in a game. While the show itself is lacking in many departments, having its sisters as the show’s core is delightful and refreshing in a way I haven’t experienced before. That they’re written as both being just as important — even while the younger sister is learning, while still being the core dynamic — is something that would motivate me to actually buy a game.”

  • “I honestly think we need more positive sibling relationships. I think a lot of these are good beginnings, but I’d love to see it explored and utilized more.”
  • “The ones I’ve seen tend to be supportive, which is good, but I think it would be interesting to see one sibling plotting quietly in the background against the other.”
  • “Generally okay, but there’s a bigger focus on siblings of the same gender sometimes. And usually, the sister(s) are some kind of rouge or mage, while the brother(s) are warriors. A little more diversity with game classes would be cool!”

That’s a wrap, as they say. Thank you all so so so much once again! Here’s hoping writers hear your compliments and criticisms and we can wreck the expectations of what family is in this day and age, while racking up those achievements. See you soon! 🙂

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