For our second video on motherhood in games, we examine the heroic mothers we get to play, and how the experience of playing as a mom differs from playing as a dad. Where are gaming’s Ripleys?
As usual, a transcript is available under the cut.
Last episode, we discussed how horror films and many games force us to confront the abject in the form of monstrous mothers. It is then the game’s–and by proxy, our–job to return this breakdown of meaning to order–usually by shooting the monster in the face. We applied Barbara Creed’s reading of Alien to gaming in order to understand what these texts have to say about monstrous mothers, but this left us to wonder where we could find gaming’s Ripleys. Do heroes ever show maternal traits?
What makes Alien unique is that it counteracts its monstrous mother with another woman as its hero–its return to paternal law and symbolic order. There’s a reason we see Ripley in her underwear–she’s the reassuring image of a desirable woman to counteract all the horrifying images of mothers we’ve been subjected to throughout the film. But Aliens–and to a lesser extent, Alien–also assigns its female protagonist maternal signifiers to counteract the terror of the archaic mother and justify her violence. In Newt and Jones, Ripley has what Creed calls a reassuring fetish object that reminds the audience what “proper” motherhood and femininity look like, and thus makes her own violence acceptable. The idea is that her entry into a male space of action is more palatable when she’s using the flamethrower to protect her surrogate daughter rather than just because she’s (understandably) angry.
The acceptable, reassuring mother vs the monstrous mother is a well-worn conflict in film; it’s probably the reason why Final Fantasy super mom Tifa Lockhart is the only female character to fight monster mom’s progeny in the animated film, and it’s certainly why Silent Hill’s Harry Mason became Rose De Silva in the game’s film adaptation. But games are fundamentally different than films; we are given a part to play in the drama.
So what of our heroic mothers in gaming? Surprisingly, for Aliens being so influential to the gaming aesthetic, there are comparatively few Ripleys running around. We’ve discussed in previous videos how Parasite Eve’s Aya Brea follows Ripley’s arc in Aliens to the series’ detriment, but even then, we see little of her relationship with her surrogate daughter when we play–this is reserved for cut-scenes at the end of the second and third games. We see the greatest parallel in only one of the two gendered tracks in Mass Effect 3. In both the male and female versions of the game, each act is bookended by the appearance of a little boy Shepard failed to save in the game’s opening moments. Playing the game as a female Commander Shepard adds an interesting, and perhaps troubling, dimension. While one could play the game as a male Commander Shepard without batting an eye, changing Shepard’s gender recalls a history of motherhood in horror and science fiction. Suddenly the image of this child and Shepard’s drive to reach him, takes on a maternal shade, which colors her presence in the space–it is no longer just a pronoun switch, but another example in a long line of female action heroes whose capacity for motherhood justifies their transgressive violence.
We see shades of Ripley in other games, too, but rarely to such pointed dramatic effect. Most notably in these games, the maternal protagonist is rarely–if ever–the biological parent of their charge, and, especially in the case of Beyond Good and Evil, the ultimate goal isn’t to save a child, rather an affiliation with orphans serves to signify a heroic and compassionate protagonist early in the game. You know Jade’s a good person not because she fights monsters, but because she fights monsters that threaten the orphanage she lives out of. And while this is an important facet of Jade’s overall character, it is not what drives her–and you as the player–to action. Similarly, in Final Fantasy VI, Terra finds solace and purpose to fight on in a group of orphans, but we as players are not asked to identify with her new motherly role. Unlike playing as famous gaming dads like Joel or Harry, children are not our goal. The result leaves motherhood in a strange narrative limbo where it does not affect our actions. At best, this still makes for compelling narrative stakes. At worst, it’s motherhood-as-footnote. This is literally the case in the fighting game Soul Calibur; where Sophitia’s biography makes note of her status as a wife and mother, but this fact is hidden away in pages of text most players will never read, and has no bearing on the actions all players take. It is purely narrative–something to add color and nothing more.
At its least interesting, motherhood functions in games as an excuse to remove a character from the action, something we see in other Final Fantasy games. Rosa retires as a party member in Final Fantasy IV’s sequel once she experiences pregnancy and childbirth, and Final Fantasy X-2 sees Lulu sidelined due to an impending birth–despite the fact that the game seems to use the exact same character model from X. This again serves a purely narrative purpose; where Ripley’s motherhood was a call to action, these games treat it like a life sentence.
We as players are rarely motivated by the implications of motherhood–at least so far as we are expected to be motivated by the paternal instinct to protect in games like Bioshock 2, The Walking Dead, and The Last of Us. For the mothers of gaming, being a mother mostly adds color or is an excuse to bow out of the action. I wonder why this is? Will we ever see our Ripley blowing away monsters with a flamethrower with one hand and sheltering Newt with the other? I don’t know. But here’s some food for thought: after Bioshock Infinite’s release last year, Courtney Stanton posted this brutal takedown of the practice of “daddening” games on her blog:
“Young straight white dude game devs are becoming old straight white dude game devs and thus the pretty big-titted girl is now your daughter-love-object not your erection-lust-object, whoops.”
Perhaps “dad” games aren’t as grown up as we thought; either way it looks like gaming could use more nuanced and interesting representations of parenthood. Maybe then we’ll get our Ripley.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mother’s in gaming, who are some motherly heroes or villains we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments and make sure to subscribe to keep up to date with all our latest videos.
NORA: “I told you didn’t I? Mom’s are tough!”
NARRATOR: “12 seconds later.”
NORA: [caught in an explosion] “Ah!”