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Susana And Becky Talk Dads And Daughters In Video Games, Part 2
by Becky Chambers | 12:30 pm, September 20th, 2013
This conversation utterly, completely, unforgivingly spoils The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us. Endings included. And we spoil Shelter in this one, too. You have been warned.
Welcome to part two of our conversation (if you’re just joining us, you can find part one here). In this half, we discuss families, societal context, and how changes to the characters’ genders might have affected their reception. Let us return to two apartments, an ocean apart, in which their respective inhabitants are talking themselves hoarse…
Becky: I was really anticipating that we were going to have some conversation about sacrifice, because that’s where I thought Last of Us was going to go — and it didn’t! And I don’t know what to make of it. It’s blown my whole thing out of the water.
Susana: (laughter) Yeah, I know.
Becky: Because both Walking Dead and BioShock end with the death of the player character. And in Walking Dead, you feel like you’ve succeeded, because Clementine is okay. And in BioShock, you don’t fight back when [Elizabeth] pushes you underwater. You understand that this needs to be done, and it needs to be done for her, just as much as for everything else.
Susana: And then The Last of Us is just like, “fuck you.” (laughter)
Becky: (laughter) “Fuck you, this is my kid!” I need to think about [the ending] for a while, because I don’t know what it’s saying. Well, like you said [prior to the recorded conversation], that ending is just a question. And I don’t know what my answer to that question is.
Susana: Yeah, you really expect The Last of Us to be about sacrifice, and it’s not. In a really huge way. It’s really about — I think if you had to pick a theme that all of the people that you meet — I’m thinking about the named, speaking roles — is really about whether the cost of having to look out for somebody, in order to have an emotional connection, is worth it in a situation as dire as they are in. Whether it’s better to have that emotional connection and risk either getting physically hurt, because you are taking care of somebody who is not as good at taking care of themselves as you are, or emotionally hurt when you can’t take care of them anymore. I’ve been thinking a lot about the title of The Last of Us, and what it means. And I go back and forth on trying to decide whether The Last of Us is just a name for the society of the game, or whether The Last of Us is who Ellie was going to sacrifice for, or if The Last of Us is just the last of us. Like, who you consider to be “us,” and how that has to change really drastically.
Becky: That actually reminds me quite a bit of the ending — well, my ending to The Walking Dead. Because not everybody chooses to let Clementine go without killing Lee. I actually found out that most people have her shoot him. I am apparently in the minority in this, in that I was just like, no, leave, it’s okay. And he tells her — you know, it’s the whole “Clementine will remember that” thing —
Becky: — that basically his reasoning for telling her, no, just leave me, don’t kill me, is that we still have to have compassion. We still have to care for each other. And if you do this all the time, killing is going to become too easy. He doesn’t want her to get hard. And I can see it going the other way, too. You could make the argument that teaching her — that insisting that she shoot him is teaching her that it is sometimes a mercy. But I saw it more that Lee’s sacrifice was — you know, it’s out of love for her, because it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s one more zombie in the world. What matters is that she remembers — I don’t know, I wanted her last thought of him to be of him doing something kind for her, not of his brains on the wall. You know what I mean?
Becky: I just thought of that when you were picking apart the title. Because it sounds like, from what you’re telling me of the game, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like Ellie and Joel are really the only two characters in the game who really care about each other. I mean, I’m sure there are other people with lots of different relationships —
Susana: Yeah, no, there’s — there’s a brother duo that I haven’t talked about. And then Tom — Joel’s brother’s town, there are kids, he’s got a wife, they love each other. You don’t get any first-hand looks at the community, but you get the sense that it works. So I wouldn’t say that there are no characters who have solid interpersonal relationships and who wind up okay, but there are very few.
Becky: It sounds kind of like there’s a recurring theme of “if you have kids, you are okay.” You were saying that was the criteria to get into that one community —
Susana: Except they’re all dead.
Becky: Well. Yes. (laughter) But they loved each other.
Susana: And the cannibal community also has couples and children.
Becky: Eeeeeew. Yuck. Ugh, no.
Becky: At the end of BioShock Infinite, if you wait until after the credits — because the last thing you see before that is Elizabeth standing in the river where she has just drowned you, and all of the iterations of herself vanishing, because without you, she disappears as well. But at the end, you get this little cut scene, with Booker in his office, and he — I don’t remember if he wakes up, or just sits up and is all of a sudden kind of aware that something weird has happened, and he goes into the other room calling his daughter’s name, the implication being that she is still there, as an infant, and that we’ve started over. So he has ended the game as — it’s not exactly a victory, but he’s ended with his family intact, and no harm done. And you can’t call it a victory in The Last of Us, either, but the message there is that — hmm. (laughter)
Susana: (laughter) Yeah, welcome to the end of The Last of Us.
Becky: God. I’m almost glad I didn’t play it, because that would be driving me nuts. It’s already driving me nuts. That’s such a weird message. That’s such an atypical message for a game like that.
Susana: And so well-presented. Presented without anybody being like, “But did you make the RIGHT decision, JOEL??!!”
Becky: Maybe this goes without saying, but — no, I think it’s relevant. I think the really good thing about all of these companions is that even though I wasn’t playing them — I mean, I obviously love a female protagonist, I love being able to play as a woman —
Susana: Yeah, and playing as Ellie was awesome. Terrifying, but — she has the same ability as Joel to, you know, if you sneak up behind a guy, you can get the instant kill. But whereas Joel wraps his left arm around the guy’s neck, and then with a shiv, you know, just into the throat, and drops the guy.
Becky: As you do.
Susana: Ellie, she’s like, fourteen, and at least a hundred pounds lighter than Joel, she actually leaps onto her enemies, piggyback style, stabs them repeatedly in the throat, jumps off, and as they double over, guts them.
Susana: Yeah, it’s so much more violent. And we got to winter, and she’s just hunting deer in the snow with a bow and arrow, and I was just like, great! We’ve turned into Tomb Raider! Tomb Raider is so much more relaxing than this!
Becky: (laughter) Tomb Raider is not a relaxing game!
Susana: (laughter) No! Tomb Raider is also horrifically violent!
Becky: That’s the thing with all three of these, is I wasn’t playing as [the female companion], and yet the game was totally about them. Each of these games, I’ve heard people say that, you know, this is Clementine’s story, this is Elizabeth’s story, this is Ellie’s story.
Susana: With The Last of Us, I feel it’s pretty even. Joel definitely has an arc.
Becky: Now I’m contemplating a possibility that I know won’t — it may happen, not any time soon. But wouldn’t it be great to have a game with a female player character where you also had one of these amazing daughter companions? I would play that game.
Susana: That’d be pretty great. Or, like, a female player character with a young boy. I think about that a lot in terms of comics, superhero comics, because you have so many people — you know, these male characters, and you go, okay, well, we really need better female representation, give them a female sidekick or a female partner, a female spin-off character.
Becky: I’m actually now thinking about — we’re going full circle back to the earlier mentor conversation — this just jumped into my head, something a friend of mine said during a D&D session once. I had just rolled this ranger, and I was explaining her backstory, and I was talking about her mentor. In the course of explaining her relationship to her mentor, I referred to her mentor as “she,” and my friend says, he says, “Oh! I didn’t — “ And he just kind of stops, and thinks about it. He looked a little puzzled. And I said, “what?” And he says, “I don’t know, I just assumed that her mentor would be a man. I don’t know why.” We didn’t really dig into it, we just went back to playing, but it was that — I think you do expect that, you do expect the mentor to be a dude. And maybe that’s why these games are very easy to get pulled into —
Susana: Yeah, to expect that — you already know instinctively how that relationship is going to go, or you have an idea in your head of how it’s going to go.
Becky: Mmm-hmm, because you’re coming into these games, and you’re going to play this badass character, and there’s a girl with him — and yeah, I think you’re right, it’s a dynamic that we are comfortable with, where it’s like, if this girl is going to learn to be violent — I mean, all three games have scenes with her killing someone. And [the player is] fine with it. It’s accepted within that [relationship]. And I wonder — I think the dynamics of that scene would be different if it was a female mentor, teaching her young charge to kill.
Susana: Or what if the genders were swapped?
Becky: …yeah, wow.
Susana: God, I would play the shit out of a genderswapped The Last of Us. Oh my god.
Becky: But can you imagine the commentary around that? A woman teaching her son to kill?
Susana: Yeah, it’s also [about] the different way that we treat single parents. That’s the thing that all these games are, they’re all single dads. We treat single dads, we consider — and when I say “we,” I mean society, not we at The Mary Sue, or me and my friends — but we have different ideas about what a single dad is, versus a single mom. And we have very different ideas about what it’s like when you tell a story about a mother losing her children, and what it’s like when you tell a story about a father losing his children.
Becky: I’m very aware of this. I just played a mother badger.
Susana: (laughter) Oh, good, you’ve brought in Shelter. Excellent.
Becky: (laughter) Yeah, I know, totally relevant —
Susana: No! (laughter) Shelter is a survival game, with a female parent, and a bunch of secondary child characters —
Becky: And there’s sacrifice! Because, spoiler alert, she dies in the end —
Becky: And I watched my last cub run into the forest, and I knew it was all worth it. But, yeah, I mean — god, I would love to play that game.
Susana: But can you imagine a video game with a fifty-year-old female protagonist who does not want to take care of a young boy, because she lost her child?
Becky: (slow exhale)
Susana: And not only that, but — Joel says at one point in the game, when Ellie asks him about his daughter Sarah, and he’s like, “Well, I had her really young.”
Becky: Yeah. Oof.
Susana: Because we also have that thing about young single mothers.
Becky: Yeah. Holy shit. Okay, I have two thoughts on this. One, I would love to play it, because I have never seen that story. Anywhere. And two — oh, I think it’d be such a divisive game. (laughter)
Susana: Particularly the ending. The ending would read so much differently. Because women are supposed to sacrifice everything for their children.
Becky: Yeah, like, I could see — okay, genderswapped Last of Us, right? I could see that same ending working out fine with a mother figure, because yeah, mothers are going to protect their kids above all else.
Susana: Yeah, it’s those mothering instincts. We don’t talk about fathering instincts.
Becky: That is — I’ve never considered that. That’s an excellent point. See, now I’m just going through all these games and putting a woman in the player character roles. Actually — and I don’t know what this says about whatever it is I’ve internalized, I’m imagining that last scene [in BioShock Infinite] with Elizabeth drowning Booker, but I’m imagining her drowning her mother. And somehow that’s way darker to me. I don’t know what that says, I don’t like that that’s my reaction, but —
Susana: Yeah, we don’t like to talk about bad mothers. We don’t like to talk about women who do not take immediately to motherhood. Back when we did power grids every week — the first year that we did a Mother’s Day power grid, we did Best Moms In Fiction, and my mom made me promise that the next year we’d do the worst, so that she would feel good about things. (laughter) So the next year [for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day], we did Worst Moms and Worst Dads. And it was so much easier to make a list of ten bad dads in fiction. It couldn’t just be like, oh, my dad’s a bad guy. It had to be, my dad has been personally terrible to me. But moms — we were pulling grandmothers, and surrogate moms. We’re so much less okay with telling stories about women who are bad at being parents than we are with just throwing in the evil dad.
Becky: We’re comfy with the evil stepmother.
Susana: Yeah, we’re very comfortable with women being evil to children that are not their own. But it’s very difficult to find stories about women who are actually just bad at being mothers. It’s just something that we don’t explore a lot in fiction.
Becky: I think we should. I think it makes things more interesting. And I think it’s more honest. Ahh, I really want to play all these games that don’t exist.
Susana: All these hypothetical genderswapped male-protagonist-female-sub-protagonist games.
Becky: And I think — god, I think so many people would hate that character. And the thing is, you look at all the dudes from these games, you look at Booker, and you look at Lee, and you look at Joel, and nobody hates them for being detached at first. Nobody is like, “oh, that guy’s a dick.” I mean, that’d be the first thing someone would say about a female character [like that]: “oh, what a bitch.”
Susana: Yeah, like, what’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she hugging that kid?
Becky: I think of the three, Lee is the most — oh my god, I was about to say maternal. Ugh.
Becky: Yeah, see? Ugh, god, that gets in deep. Oh, that’s gross. No, Lee is the most — he’s the kindest to Clementine. Even so, at first, he’s a little bit like, ehhhhh, you are not my kid, I am not a father.
Susana: Well, to be fair, Clementine’s also the youngest of the three.
Becky: True. That’s easier to be pulled toward.
Susana: And it’s also easier, I would say, as an adult, to impose upon the personal space of someone [young] in the way that you need to do to be nurturing and comforting in extreme situations.
Becky: So, in conclusion, we’ve just provided creative folks with a wealth of ideas for games that people will hate.
Becky: And I, ah — I really think you should watch Sailor Moon.
Susana Polo is her boss.