Opinion: Against games using dead kids as plot devices

It’s hard for me to remember when I first saw it. I’ve been playing video games since I was seven years old and finally allowed to use the family computer. I’ve watched this industry grow over the past 20 some-odd years. I’ve watched gameplay evolve and narratives explore deep, interesting, and sometimes complex topics. And maybe this evolution is why this particular narrative tic has become increasingly popular over the years.

I’m speaking about this growing tendency in games to use a child’s death as a plot device.

The memory that sticks out most to me is watching a Let’s Play of The Last of Us in 2013. I watched through the start of the game, a scene almost everyone who has come into contact with modern games is at least marginally aware of. Joel and his daughter, Sarah, are trying to escape the panic of a recent outbreak. We see the game through her eyes. That is, until the narrative shifts: Sarah gets shot. She dies in Joel’s arms during the panic.

The acting and directing in this moment are powerful. It’s expertly framed and sets up the characterization of Joel in a way that allows players to sympathize with his loss. The Last of Us received critical acclaim for its storytelling, which I believe was rightly deserved.

But that’s probably when I first started noticing the pattern.

Heavy Rain (2010) gained infamy for its melodramatic, awkward writing.

Years earlier, David Cage had released Heavy Rain for the PS3. One of the central characters, Ethan Mars, loses his son during the first segment of the game. It was clear that this was supposed to be the emotional catalyst for the player, and while Heavy Rain did receive some acclaim, Cage’s overdramatics and lack of subtleties left it open to criticism and mockery.

I’m not blaming The Last of Us or Heavy Rain for the inception of the trope; it existed in media long before these games came into development. But it’s undeniably become increasingly popular, as developers and studios aim to push the boundaries of the products and stories they create. And maybe these two games are where it stems from, the financial success, the critical acclaim. The praise for drawing out these strong emotions in their players.

It felt like a hollow character motivation, even when I knew the exact situation in which his son had died.

Last year, I reviewed Assassin’s Creed: Origins. The game puts players in the shoes of Bayek, a Medjay bent on revenge for his son’s death. I’m not sure if I was numb to it or if I was bothered by this singular emotion being the most prominent on the wide spectrum of grief. I went from area to area, hunting down the members of this unjust, ancient order Bayek believed had robbed him of his son. The child’s name and face were used time and time again to push me from one objective to the next. It felt like a hollow character motivation, even when I knew the exact situation in which his son had died.

Origins continued to push this plot point into other narratives in the game. Another set of crucial story-related NPCs, Hotephres and his wife Khenut, lose their daughter Shadya at the hands of this order. You have to use your Eagle Vision to locate her body and dive into the river which she’s been drowned to retrieve her corpse. After this, both Hotephres and Khenut swear vengeance and pledge to assist Bayek in his takedown of this group. Their daughter is never mentioned again.

Assassin's Creed: Origins (2017)

Assassin’s Creed: Origins (2017) uses the death of Bayek’s son to propel the plot.

Shadows of Mordor, Watch_Dogs, and countless other titles over the years share this trope. A child close to the protagonist dies and they’re out for revenge. The player character is angry, but that’s it.

They’re just angry.

That’s the only real emotion these bereaved parents express or reveal; just this single aspect of a traumatic and life-changing event. Even in Heavy Rain, the exception to this rule in that we do see Ethan’s life in shambles after his son’s death, these stories fumble any real exploration of grief, and in relation to NPC characters this event is often relegated to a short line of extra dialogue.

More recently, David Cage’s Detroit: Become Human tries to explore this with some subtlety through interactions with one of the major side characters. Hank Anderson is a lieutenant at the Detroit Police Department and at best is a functioning alcoholic. Only through carefully navigating conversations with him and looking at certain key items in his house can you actually ask him about the death of his son. Even then he’s mostly standoffish. He doesn’t want to talk about it. That felt unbelievably real to me, outside of the end of one of the routes in which Cage’s love of exposition kicks in and it sweeps away any previous subtlety. However, this seemingly inconsequential and optional path of dialogue deeply resonated with me. I was left thinking about Hank’s behavior, his reaction to my prying, the scene where you find him on the floor of his home, passed out drunk with a revolver a few inches away from his hand and a photograph of his son face down on his dining room table.

This matters to me, and stuck with me, because I was the silent observer to this grief. I’m not talking about murder or a quest for revenge after the death of a loved one. I’m talking about the grief a parent, or a loved one, experiences after the death of their child.

That Dragon, Cancer (2016) is an autobiographical game about a couple wrestling with the knowledge their child will die.

That Dragon, Cancer (2016) is an autobiographical game about a couple wrestling with the knowledge their child will die.

I lost my brother when I was a kid. I remember watching my father sink himself into work, inevitably going down the path toward alcoholism, while my mother mourned, desperate to disconnect herself from the death of my brother. It’s rare I ever see these expressions of grief accurately reflected in media of any kind, as most of these narratives barely skim the surface of how this event can change lives, marriages, or relationships. So many narratives use this as a plot device to further progression without realizing the implications or emotional toll this can have on people; how these events stick with us and continue to shape us.

It’s rare I ever see these expressions of grief accurately reflected in media of any kind.

I’m still coping with my brother’s death. So is my mother. My father is still a functioning alcoholic. We’re all still dealing with our grief the only way we can.

It doesn’t just go away. The rage and anger at the circumstances of his death rarely feel vindicated.

I’m not asking that game narratives cater specifically to me or my experience. But I am asking for care to be taken and for consideration to be given when writers use a child’s death to advance a story. I don’t want see this kind of event fall into the same careless cycle as other tropes in media. I don’t want this trauma and this pain to be used without discretion because I believe that games can do better. Smaller titles like That Dragon, Cancer have proven that we can tackle grief and express it in a meaningful way. I’d like to believe that triple-A titles could do the same if given the right care.

Video games invite us to empathize with our player characters, to explore branching paths and narratives in a way that’s become increasingly popular and accessible. I genuinely believe that through games people can experience powerful, complex emotions, including grief — and maybe better understand those going through it. But as far as using dead kids to send heroes on a revenge quest, I think we’ve seen enough.