Daddy Issues: A Look at Paternalistic Trends in Games

Bioshock infinite, Elizabeth

Booker, while being a daddy, doesn’t really do much with his daughter. Of course he doesn’t know who she really is. But also, there is very little growth or change in behavior between the two over the course of the game. Though Elizabeth is one of the more “present” daughters here, her accompanying daddy in battle, her omnipresence, works as a detriment to her as a character. She quickly becomes a glorified ammo and health dispenser. And while it is nice that the player does not have to constantly worry about her in combat, her incessant AI barks and, well, dispenser-of-items mechanic does reduce her to a very stiff, very robotic entity, great voiceacting or not. And she doesn’t learn, or evolve, or do anything but dispense ammo and coins and occasionally change the landscape of the battle arenas. 

Which sets Elizabeth in sharp contrast to Ellie, the brattish, involuntary foster daughter of Joel, lead protagonist of Naughty Dog’s The Road of video games, The Last of Us. The dynamics of the in-game relationship between Joel and Ellie may be just as static as the one between Booker and Elizabeth, as in that the player has no choice on the way the story evolves. But still Ellie is a much more rounded character in comparison, the relationship between the two feeling much more natural in comparison. She hits old man Joel right in the ticker, filling a hole his real daughter left there after being brutally gunned down at the outbreak of the game’s zombie plague. And that alone takes half the game. Joel is a very reluctant guy, who only slowly opens up to his protegee.

Through the course of the game, the two characters become closer, more open, and mutually dependent on one another. Ellie evolves, grows, both as a character but also mechanically. In the game’s first third, she is mostly just there. Scurrying around, doing the best she can not to get eaten by zombies or shot by bandits. But with the progress of  the game that changes. Joel manages – on and off screen – to teach her a few tricks. She becomes a more useful sidekick and eventually almost as competent a video game character as her foster dad. 

The Last of Us Sunset

Personally I would argue Ellie and Joel enjoy being the best written characters with the most depth to them out of all the ones listed here. That depth that has several reasons. One of which is that they spend a lot of time together, since The Last of Us spans about a year of in-game time, compared to all the others, who either spend most of the game apart, or have a lot less time, less fabula, together. All of which allows for a lot of interaction and a lot of actual character development. On their own and in relation to one another. Also, given that The Last  of Us is the most grounded game with the least amount of fantasy or science fiction tropes flying around, the narrative can focus on the characters much more effectively, since it it not necessary for the writers to explain how the world the story is set in works. 

The result is staggering. Even if the player’s input will not be reflected by Ellie in any way, the two of them are so well written that it matters little. The player has a chance to get to know these people and why they act the way they do towards one another. This is done especially well in parts of the game where the player controls Ellie. Who evolves into one of the strongest female characters in video games over the course of the narrative. Joel might start out as her protector, but eventually she protects him, her ersatz daddy, just as well. Ellie rarely needs rescue, either mechanically or dramatically, except for the very end of the game. And that final rescue of her is far from an “everything is alright now” moment. The relationship between those two characters is truly something to behold.

In conclusion, it seems daddy and his favourite daughter duos are quite the trend in video games these days. Those duos make the mostly male protagonists appear more likeable, more approachable, more human. It almost seems the video game industry has started to slowly acknowledge the growing age of the audience and has started to pander to young dads now. 

Only in some rare cases though will these duos do the girls and their roles in the story justice. This is where The Last of Us truly stands out, and it makes me hope that we will see more of that in the future, fewer “video game protagonists” and more characters, more people, more persons through whose eyes we can experience our video game adventures.