Representations of Family in Video Games

Traditional narrative forms of art overflow with examples of familial representation. Family plays an enormous part of many novels, films, and television shows. Many of these examples also demonstrate non-conventional family structures. This does not necessarily refer to same-sex couples or a woman with 27 cats. It often refers to groups like professional colleagues, circles of friends, or room mates. These de facto units have become a part of the constantly evolving definition of the modern family.

New Literature and the Family

New literature formats like hypertext and comic books also portray families quite often. Hypertext is a nebulous art form and comic books share subject matter with more traditional formats, so these frequent depictions are not unusual. This is not so, however, with video games. In many ways, the video game is the artistic step child of television and film. It is a multimedia art form like them, and has the potential for the same level of narrative structure, however it is differentiated by its unique interactive qualities. Despite these similarities, finding solid examples of families in video games is difficult.

Certainly “family” comes up often in video game back stories. Every character must have some kind of family. Even a character that is some kind of machine had a creator. But games lack the essential analysis and transformations inherent to an in-depth examination of the family unit. In a television show like Cheers, family issues are played out both for the ensemble cast as well as for the biological families of the individual characters. Their faults and actions and relationships come into play and into scrutiny. In video games, most familial depictions are pedestrian and inconsequential. A character has parents simply because he or she did not randomly burst into existence. His or her relationship with them is irrelevant and often any emotions displayed are banal and predictable. Parents are always concerned and proud. Siblings are always loyal but share a rivalry. If anything, video games say far more about the relationships between friends, lovers, and enemies than they do about family members.

Of course, this is all due in large part to the interactive aspect of video games and the adversarial nature of game mechanics. There are dating simulations and other programs which deal with human interaction on the level of the role playing game, but these do not handle human social interaction with the same narrative finesse seen in other situations.

Examples

Examples of familial depictions in games do exist. though often they are anemic and lack the specificity of other art forms. Below are brief summaries of familial depictions from some of the most popular video game franchises.

Super Mario Bros.

This is the most famous familial depiction in video games. The Mario Brothers, Mario and Luigi, are twined men, presumably Italian who as apocrypha states, worked as plumbers in Brooklyn before being warped to the Mushroom Kingdom where they have made their way as career heroes.

Luigi started out as a palette swapped version of Mario. The two shared little to no interaction outside of television and comic books until games began to become more sophisticated and dialogue and other theatrics were possible. Like most siblings, early depictions of Mario and Luigi depict them as sharing a strong sense of camaraderie and a healthy rivalry. In their joint appearances, Luigi was the default player 2 character, playing in tandem with Mario, or was an opponent in a head to head competition (Mario Bros.).

In later incarnations, Luigi began to become differentiated from Mario and other emotions and conflicts began to emerge. Luigi’s vocalizations demonstrated a sense of pride in himself, where Mario’s were simply celebratory exclamations. Though this continued the sense of rivalry between them, Luigi’s dialogue in more recent games depicts him as altruistically loyal to Mario. Most recently, in Super Paper Mario, Luigi defines himself to other characters as being “my bro’s bro.”

When Luigi is brainwashed by another character, he takes on an alternate persona– Mr. L, seen at right.. Comically, no one realizes who Mr. L is until the penultimate scene of the game. He is depicted as ruthless and brilliant– constructing a series of gigantic “Brobots” to fight Mario and his companions. This is in contrast with Luigi’s evil doppelganger character Waluigi, who is shown to be a bumbling ne’er do well a la Dirk Dastardly. Mr. L appears to be the most competent of Count Bleck’s minions save only for the one who betrays him and orchestrates much of the final play in the game. It is only in infamy that Luigi can begin to surpass his brother and yet even in this brainwashed state, he is unable to do so.

There is more to say about Mario and Luigi than about most video game characters who are family. Even so, Mario and Luigi both are defined more by their relationships with friends and enemies like Princess Peach, Bowser, Wario, or Donkey Kong than by each other. Though no one wants to play a game in which the deep psychological anguish experienced by Luigi is played out neurosis for neurosis, but as video games develop greater attention is being paid to these relationships.

Pokemon

Pokemon is one of the most individualistic franchises– particularly for a role playing game. The games follow a single hero as he or she sets out in the world clashing with rivals and villains by making use of the team of trained animals caught for just that purpose. Ethical considerations aside, there are very few family issues in these games. As stated earlier, the character has a family simply because he or she is human.

One could say that the Pokemon themselves are a depiction of familial life. This is not a statement about animal husbandry, rather, Pokemon chosen by the player act in concert to overcome their enemies. Like a family, they have to work as a unit to overcome the trials they encounter. Though this is an extremely loose interpretation, it does carry a message of unity also found in other media.

Grand Theft Auto

This game series follows various criminals on their path from low level hood to a position of greater infamy. Typically, entries in this series are so bereft of “family values” that to draw out any familial depictions in these games would be difficult. That being said, the way the internal politics work– in which characters jockey among one another to assert greater power– is similar to the situation in many family units where various family members vie for greater control, recognition, attention, or wealth. This type of depiction is not without artistic warrant. Similar themes are seen in crime dramas like The Sopranos or The Godfather.

Nintendogs

Like Pokemon, the Nintendogs series allows for the creation of a non-conventional family unit using animals. In these games, a player is able to purchase puppies whom he or she raises in a virtual nursery. This game allows for nurturing social interactions to occur. The player is the “parent” to these dogs and cares for them, disciplines them, and treats them as members of a surrogate virtual family. Cue the lady with the 27 Nintencats.

Final Fantasy

This series spans multiple titles and hundreds of characters over thousands of years. Narrowing familial depictions is a trial unto itself. However, numerous common themes emerge in the Final Fantasy mythos. The party of characters usually forms a cohesive unit. As with the example in Pokemon, these parties function as a team. The more balanced the team, the more successful their campaign will be. Other previously identified themes also emerge in this series– rivalry, love, abandonment, betrayal, and death all come into play.

The Sims

When people talk about families in video games, The Sims almost always springs to mind first. Since this is a people simulator, the relationships and issues involved in family life surface immediately. However, many of these instances are random or arbitrarily created by the user, they lack the magnitude of the artistic message seen in other games or media. Despite that, this is an excellent example of video games ability to depict family.

Moving Forward

Other examples in games surely exist. Feel free to post some in the comments section below. The video game is a relatively new media format and one with very unique properties. Therefore, many of the advanced social depictions which are so common and powerful in other media are as yet immature in games. In early titles, familial depictions were a de facto part of a game’s back story or merely allowed for differentiation in game play. Examples of this include the Mario brothers, or Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man. As time has progressed, these depictions and relationships have begun to evolve. The future will hold more such development as the art and the audience continue to grow

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