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Susana and Becky Talk Dads And Daughters In Video Games, Part 1
by Becky Chambers | 12:30 pm, September 13th, 2013
This conversation utterly, completely, unforgivingly spoils The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us. Endings included. You have been warned.
Back in June, I had a problem. The Last of Us was coming out, and I couldn’t play it. I wanted to play it. A lot. It looked awesome, yes, but I was also itching to compare it with two games I had played, both of which featured a male player character and a well-written pseudo-daughter companion. I couldn’t help but notice that all three games had come out within little over twelve months of each other. There had to be something to that. There had to be. But alas, I, sans PS3, could not complete the trifecta.
Susana, however, could.
And so it was that she and I jumped on Skype last weekend, ready to pick apart the surrogate dads and daughters that garnered so much critical acclaim (including our own) — Lee and Clementine, Booker and Elizabeth, Ellie and Joel. Turns out we had a lot to say. As such, we’re splitting our conversation in two parts, the first of which focuses on taboos, mentors, and parallels. We dive into the nitty gritty plot details right off the bat, so if you haven’t played all of these games, or if you need a refresher on their respective stories, I’d recommend brushing up here (TWD), here (BSI), and here (TLoU).
We hope you enjoy.
Becky: We should probably start with the player characters, rather than the companions. I feel like all of them have similar grounding. It sounds like, from what you’ve told me about The Last of Us, that these are all guys who have done bad things, and are aware of it, and are not seeking redemption.
Susana: I wouldn’t characterize Joel as having done bad things, but as not being primarily interested in doing good things. He doesn’t really feel like there’s a line, so much. For him, it’s about survival. Survive and endure.
Becky: I think of the other two, Booker is the more similar character. At the beginning of the game, he does not care about who this girl is that he’s been sent to go get. His entire assignment is “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” He’s supposed to go to Columbia and kidnap Elizabeth and bring her back to his employers. And for most of the game — well, not most, I would say maybe half of the game — that is his primary concern. Lee is a little different, because Lee very quickly decides — he doesn’t even really decide that Clementine is going to be under his wing, she just winds up there. But it’s interesting that all three are guys who have experienced loss, and — and they’re not good guys. They’re all dealing with these massive emotional issues, and their anchor is the girl they’re caring for. I mean, at least in Walking Dead and BioShock Infinite — Clementine and Elizabeth are the emotional centers of those games. They are the nexus around which all else revolves. And it sounds like that’s the case with Ellie as well.
Susana: I think I would agree with that. The Last of Us does a really good job of presenting [Ellie] emotionally. The way she acts as an NPC is very — she’s not the character that has three lines of stock dialogue that are randomly generated. When you walk around rooms, she walks around and looks at stuff, leans on things. At one point she pulls out a joke book, because she feels that the mood needs to be lightened. She never becomes the annoying teenager. She’s very serious, and someone actually questions her at one point in the game, asking how she’s not terrified of everything. It’s just like, oh, this is what a fourteen year old would be like in this society. I didn’t know that The Last of Us was set twenty years [after the outbreak] when I started playing it. I found that be to a really interesting setting.
Becky: That’s another parallel I noticed. It’s very easy to compare The Walking Dead and The Last of Us because we’re dealing with two zombie apocalypse stories. BioShock Infinite, on the surface, looks like the outlier. It’s a very different setting. But all of these games deal with broken worlds. These are worlds where something has gone horribly wrong, and you’re in the thick of it. That’s the thing — The Walking Dead starts at the outbreak, but a lot of time passes in between episodes, so you’re going deeper and deeper into it. And BioShock — you enter this world that already exists. It is there, it is thriving, but it’s crumbling. It’s just rotten inside. And I think that’s interesting, these stories about these very flawed, wounded people, existing in these worlds where everything’s falling apart. And I wonder, now that I’m thinking about it — you have both of those things together, and then you have a girl. And she’s an innocent. You know, she’s not — well, hmm. I was about to say she’s not corrupted by the world yet, but that’s not really true. I mean, both Clementine and Elizabeth eventually kill people. Ellie kills people. I feel like there’s something there. I need to chew on it for a while.
Susana: This is a sort of distinction that I make with some other characters in comics. The thing about giving your male character a female partner is that if you make her an underage girl — it’s pretty much the only way to do it, narratively, in mediums like American comics and American movies, and in video games, the only way to do it that says these two characters are not going to have a sexual or romantic relationship.
Susana: And it’s also a way of saying, hey, straight men who are playing this game, this character is not here for you to objectify. You can’t — to put it mildly, we have a pretty strong taboo about that kind of thing. (laughter)
Becky: (laughter) Yeah.
Susana: It’s how [you can] have a female character and guarantee that no one is going to expect them to have a romantic or sexual relationship with the main character, or to expect them to be objectified by the game or comic. I think it’s honestly shorthand for — I mean, I don’t want to say that you can’t relate to a character that you are also sexually attracted to —
Becky: Yeah, but it removes that element. It just makes it so it’s like, okay, we’re not going to be discussing this, this is now off the table.
Susana: It’s off the table. We need you to relate to this character on a different level. Or, at least from a different standpoint.
Becky: Right, exactly. What’s interesting about that is that Clementine and Ellie are obviously way off the table —
Susana: That is not to say that I have not seen Ellie porn, because I have.
Becky: Thanks, internet.
Susana: I expected better of you, Tumblr.
Becky: Elizabeth, on the other hand, is nineteen years old. And going through the game, not knowing that she is the player character’s daughter, and — and you know, it’s a first-person game, so you are Booker, looking at her. And I was really surprised through the whole thing, while I was playing it. Because she is a nineteen year old woman, she is very pretty, you know, she’s very charming and charismatic, and she’s badass in her own way, but you don’t get the camera angles that you would normally expect. You know, it doesn’t focus on her boobs, it doesn’t focus on her ass, it’s just this person sharing this space with you. And there is banter, but there is nothing flirtatious about it.
Susana: There’s no flirting, there’s no innuendo.
Becky: Yeah, yeah. I think if you were to look at a picture of Elizabeth, you could say, wow, she’s really attractive, but when you are in the game — just the way that it’s presented, I think it’s difficult to sexualize her within that context. And I say that even with — I know there are people who disagree about this point, but later in the game she changes her outfit. She finds this dress that belonged to her mother. And, you know, it’s 1912, so we’re talking corsets. And she’s got cleavage, yeah, but — I didn’t feel it was a super sexualized outfit. I just thought it was an outfit that was period appropriate. And later [in the game], there is a scene where [Booker] helps her tie her corset back up — she’s on an operating table, and he’s just rescued her. And I have read some people who interpreted that scene [as suggestive], but — maybe this is just me, coming from a faire background, in that lacing corsets is just not a sexy thing for me. (laughter) And maybe it’s also that’s she’s just had this device removed, like, that was implanted into her spine, and you have to pull it out — I saw nothing sexy about that scene. I saw it as helping someone back into her clothing. I just thought — I mean, I have to commend the developers for [how Booker looked at Elizabeth], because it was obvious that they were very careful about it.
Susana: On the other hand, it’s kind of — it’s not even kind of sad, it’s sad that in order to have a platonic relationship between male and female main characters of a game or movie or comic, in many cases, they have to be of an age separation or familial relationship, so that our strongest cultural taboos are in the way.
Becky: Yeah, I completely agree.
Susana: I just felt like that needs saying. (laughter)
Becky: (laughter) Now that you’ve put it in that context, I’m almost disappointed that [Elizabeth] was [Booker’s] daughter. Because for most of the game, I thought, this is kind of cool, they have this rapport, but it’s very — for lack of a better term, professional?
Becky: Platonic, yes, but it’s — it’s sort of out of necessity. They both need each other for something.
Susana: Ah, yeah.
Becky: And even though he eventually cares for her — even when they’re at the point that they do care, they do look after each other, more and more you get the sense in the game that Elizabeth is the one in control, and the reason that you are with her is because you have a skill set that she does not. It’s a very pragmatic sort of relationship, I think, even though there is an emotional connection there. Because, of course, by the end, Booker is really working to save her just to save her. It doesn’t have anything to do with the job anymore. So it’s — see, now I wish that they had just been friends. (laughter)
Susana: (laughter) Yeah. One of the other ways we could look at this latest crop of secondary characters is that — we could see it as a symptom of the video game industry aging. And the people making games are now actually parents, and maybe want to make games about that experience.
Becky: I thought that, too. I’ve seen a lot of stuff on Twitter, or various blog posts here and there, you know, nothing in particular — this mass sentiment of all of a sudden realizing, “What if it was my daughter playing this?” Or, “I have a daughter now, what games am I going to be able to give her?” You see this popping up a lot in gaming circles, this awareness of, oh shit, wait a minute, what can I show my kid?
Susana: (laughter) I mean, nerd girls are whatever, but, oh wait, my kid!
Becky: My kid! (laughter) But yeah, I do wonder if that [shift in perspective] is where this is coming from. Because you have these three games that appeared independently within a very short amount of time. I mean, they’re really different games. The two that I played, I adored them, you know, they were amazing, and totally their own. But the three games of the last twelve months where everyone is saying, “Oh my god, it’s so good, it’s the most immersive thing ever, I’ve never had an emotional connection like this with a game,” all have this father/daughter relationship.
Susana: Another way to look at it might be connected to the ways that boys are encouraged to approach their heroes, as opposed to ways that girls are encouraged to approach their heroes. I’ve always felt that girls are much more encouraged to want to be, you know, the Disney princesses, whereas boys, it’s much more — you want to be Robin. You want to work with [your heroes], you want to be taught by them. There’s no real notion in all the princess stuff of some sort of apprenticeship. Girls are already supposed to be little princesses. For boys — maybe it’s just because I’m so into comics, but there’s so much more evidence of there being a place for boys being mentored by their heroes. And it may just be that in a male-dominated industry, you’ve got a lot of stories that involve a character and a character’s protégé, and then, if the protégé — once it’s a duo that represents both genders, maybe it’s something that universally bridges [the gap between] women players who are looking to identify with a female character, and male players who have this strong cultural imprint of the mentor/student relationship. It resonates with everyone.
Becky: That is a really good point. And I have a relevant comment, but quick sidebar — while you were mentioning the princess-mentor thing, I thought of one instance where there’s a princess-ship [Author’s note: I stand by this term]. And this is only because I’ve been watching a ton of Sailor Moon lately.
Susana: I’ve never watched Sailor Moon. I really should.
Becky: You — That’s a conversation for another time. But yeah, Sailor Moon and Sailor Chibi Moon.
Susana: Is that the pink one?
Becky: Yeah, she’s Sailor Moon’s apprentice.
Susana: Now that you say that, there’s like, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch — you have to go to the witches and the magic-using characters —
Susana: Not the princesses, the women who are of an archetype that 400 years ago —
Becky: Oh god, now I want to talk about that. (laughter) I feel like that’s —
Susana: That’s a whole other discussion. (laughter)
Becky: Okay, we should table that. I’m taking it back to Clementine. Clementine, I felt, had a very apprentice-ish relationship with Lee. Because she is nine years old, you know. I think of me at nine years old, I did not really have a lot of life skills at that point. I could do long division. But she’s very savvy, she’s very intelligent, and that — that is the thing I really love about her character, is that she is not a useless little girl. You know what I mean? I know that sounds awful the way I say it —
Susana: She’s not the talking sack of flour that you have to take through the game.
Becky: She’s not Ico.
Susana: (laughter) Yeah. She’s not a MacGuffin.
Becky: She’s not a MacGuffin. Exactly. The scenes that made me the most attached to her are the scenes in which Lee is teaching her something. Scenes about food, or even just emotional lessons. You’ll get this overlay text when [you’ve made] a decision that affects how the game goes, a plot decision. You get this little message that says “Clementine will remember that.” You have this constant sense that everything you say, she is listening to, and she is absorbing it. Which is exactly what children do with parents.
Susana: That’s the worst. And by the worst, I mean the best.
Becky: I think my favorite scene in the whole thing is the scene where Lee teaches Clementine how to use a gun. I mean, I — I have a dislike of real guns from the get-go, so I had this aversion to putting this loaded weapon into a kid’s hands, but it was a beautiful scene. You’re like, okay, I don’t really want to be arming a nine-year-old, but she needs to know how to do this. And it’s oddly tender, and eventually, that is the thing that leads her to saving him near the end of the game. [Author's note: This is referring to Clementine shooting the Stranger, which is a conditional event that not all players experience.]
Susana: Yeah, Ellie doesn’t — for the first third of the game, Joel is adamant that Ellie will not have a gun, that she just needs to follow him and stay close. That is the extent to which he will allow her to participate in what they are doing. It isn’t until — the first time that she kills somebody, she grabs a pistol off the ground as he’s being held underwater by this assailant, and he’s grasping for his pistol, which is just out of reach, and she winds up grabbing it and shooting the guy in the head. And from that point, he’s like, okay, keep the gun, you know how the safety works, you’re good. And about a half hour later in gameplay, he finds her a sniper’s nest, gives her the rifle, and is like, I’m going to sneak out there, if I get in trouble, I need you to help me. And from that point on, Ellie is an active participant in all of the fights. As soon as you’re not in stealth anymore, once you go into straight combat, she just starts shooting zombies. Which is very handy. (laughter).
Becky: Would you call that — okay, the first time Elizabeth kills someone, it’s a very clear loss-of-innocence moment.
Susana: For Ellie, it’s — they make it clear that she’s bothered by it, but they didn’t do that through a cut scene, they did it through her body language. Instead of wandering around and looking at stuff, she was mostly just leaning against something and staring at her feet. And she was not talking at the same frequency she was before. Throughout the game, the ambient, out-of-cut-scene Ellie wandering around really communicated that she was unhappy or thinking about something or hesitant. It was great.
Becky: That’s very similar to Elizabeth. She goes around, she looks at things, she comments on things. There’s this wonderful little moment where she finds a body, and kneels down next to it, and crosses its hands over its chest. Stuff like that, where she’s interacting with the environment. And she also has body language. You can definitely tell when Elizabeth is not happy with you. Which also drew me in all the more. I really did feel like I was in that space with that person, and I needed to be mindful of what I was doing, because it was affecting her.
Susana: Yeah, the times when I was separated from Ellie in the game were the scariest parts. Because there’s no one else around. And it was just me, and I was like, no, I need another person to be here! It’s so scary in this basement!
Becky: From what you’ve told me, I think all three games — the third act is, now you are separated and now you have to find her. Like the scene you were talking about at the hospital, where you have to find [Ellie]. Clementine is kidnapped, and you have to go find her in Savannah. Elizabeth gets taken from you, and it was — it was one of the most harrowing, angering experiences I’ve ever had in a game. All of the games have that moment of “now she is gone, and you are lost without her.” Because that’s definitely how I felt in The Walking Dead and BioShock — I need to get to her, because I can’t play this without her.
Stay tuned for part two, in which we discuss good dads, bad moms, and a whole lot of genderswapping.
Susana Polo is her boss.