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2020 Was Hopefully the Cusp of the Overdue Momification of Games

It's time for the mom game wave.

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, Hades, and Tell Me Why to follow.

I know I don’t speak only for myself when I say I’m tired of games centering on dads. The last decade in gaming saw the rise of the dadification of games. As male developers aged and started families, their experiences served as inspiration for some of the most popular and renowned narratives. God of War, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Dishonored, Heavy Rain, Bioshock Infinite, the Yakuza series, the majority of Final Fantasy games: some of the most well-known games of the last decade have centered on father figures and stories.

There are a few notable exceptions, some of them being: Life is Strange 2, Bayonetta 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Dragon Age: Inquisition, post-season one of The Walking Dead, Night in the Woods, and Mass Effect. But these games are mostly tangentially about motherhood; few of these narratives explicitly center the main plot around it, or even let you play as mothers. Still, they’ve been integral to the medium as it has slowly, but surely, begun pushing for more stories that define parenthood outside the lens of fatherhood.

It’s because of video game stories like these that 2020 has arguably been the singular year that has most centered motherhood thus far. The start of the new decade has felt like it’s cemented a hope I had for this upcoming generation: that we’re on the cusp of the deeply overdue momification of games. I like to write at least one piece a year on this subject, so I wish to use this essay as a reflection on what I see as the most notable examples of motherhood representation in games this year. 

Let’s start with The Last of Us Part II, which is undeniably a dad game. The central narrative of The Last of Us Part II focuses on Ellie’s grief over Joel’s murder at the start of the game. It’s a game as much about how she processes that trauma as it is about her relationship with Joel. But it’s hard to say it’s ever truly about just her, and that’s without considering half of the game is dedicated to its deuteragonist Abby. Abby’s familial relationship with Lev can be interpreted as a sibling one as much as a mother-son relationship that parallels Ellie and Joel’s from the first game. However, it isn’t a concrete example of motherhood, especially considering that her arc is deeply tied to her father’s like Ellie’s is — and that the presence of mothers goes largely ignored.

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It’s only until the end of The Last of Us Part II that the main narrative explicitly incorporates mothers. By the end, Ellie’s girlfriend Dina has given birth to their son J.J. As she takes upon a more traditionally maternal role, Ellie wrestles with how her unaddressed PTSD has exacerbated the pressure to be a present mother and partner. Ultimately, there isn’t space in her life for her to be a mother before she can start healing, so she discards the role in favor of achieving vengeance for her father figure.

The game ends on a hopeful note as she is finally able to let go of Joel and come to terms with his death. Ellie leans his guitar against the windowsill of the home that once belonged to her and Dina, and begins walking down her own path. Where that path takes her is only anyone’s guess, and it’s not one we’ll know anytime soon. But the idea of this being a path in which she is no longer under Joel’s shadow is awfully exciting to me. 

The possibility of a future in which The Last of Us stops fixating on fatherhood is why I desperately want a third game in a series I once felt painfully ambivalent about. I’d like to hope that the ending of The Last of Us Part II will pave the way for the series narrative to someday address its bizarre exclusion of mothers. I yearn for a game in which Ellie will come back to Dina and try to be the partner she wasn’t able to. For a game in which she will try to be present in her son’s life in the ways Joel sadly won’t be for her ever again. For a game in which Ellie learns about what it takes to be a mother — for her mother tragically wasn’t in her life long enough to show her — and to seek the forgiveness she wanted to give Joel before the chance was robbed from them. 

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Meanwhile, Hades knows how to balance a story about fatherhood without ignoring the existence of mothers. It’s often mentioned as a game about Zagreus escaping hell and his father Hades — which isn’t inaccurate by any means. But it’s also just as much a story about a young man literally going through hell to reunite with his mother, Persephone. As the prince of the underworld, Zagreus forgoes the comfort of the life he’s known to find the mother he has not. He’s not dying over and over again because he hates his dad as much as because he wishes to realize a connection with his biological mother.

Persephone isn’t Zagreus’ only mother, either. While Nyx isn’t his biological mother, she has nonetheless raised him with love and his best interests at heart. Her style of motherhood is perhaps a tad unorthodox — it’s measured, calculating but affectionate, distant when she knows it needs to be. She believes her son Hypnos is too dependent on her, so she asks him to not engage in conversation with her. When she tells him he has “demonstrated sustained competence” and “measurable progress,” and that his “efforts are to be commended,” he assumes she’s relaying a message of support from someone else rather than displaying genuine appreciation.

“I know it is not effortless, to be of use,” she tells Hypnos. “Continue to do well. I shall be watching.”

She insists her many children take care of themselves, but she is also always undeniably concerned for their safety and well-being. She is eager to support Zagreus in his mission to find Persephone, going as far as asking him to destroy Hades so that he can escape. Hades is a story about how we navigate the complications of the family system — and one that asserts found family is potentially, and often, as important as biological family. There is never hostility between Persephone and Nyx; in fact, the two deeply respect each other and their roles in Zagreus’ life and growth. Persephone missed Nyx and Cerberus the most once she left the Underworld, and upon returning, she conveys her gratitude to Nyx as his foster mother and the catalyst for her reunion with Zagreus.

More so than either of these stories, Tell Me Why explicitly revolves around motherhood in ways few games have so far. It’s the story of twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan, who reunite in their hometown of Delos Crossing to sell their childhood home. This forces them to face the trauma of their mother’s murder, which tragically occurred at the hands of one of the twins. As they reconcile their differing childhood memories, they also reconcile with who Mary Ann was — the flaws they so vividly remember, the virtues they struggle to see, and the humanity in her that they slowly uncover.

tell me why mary ann

It’s in its exploration of Mary Ann that Tell Me Why is most affecting for me. While her mental health issues are never given a name, it’s as much a story about her complications and motivations as it is about how she lives on through her children. She is dead before the events of the game transpire, but her presence is everywhere — it’s in the objects scattered around Tyler and Alyson’s childhood home; in the Book of Goblins filled with fairytales that Mary Ann would read to her children; in the emotional destruction her death left in its wake among the people of this intimate Alaskan town that feels frozen in time.

Discovering more about Mary Ann culminates in a gorgeous and poetic exploration of a secret loft that contains complex fairytale-themed puzzles. As the twins gradually solve them, they make sense of the life she kept hidden from them: she was a woman who fled an over imposing family to find her own independence. This path took her to Delos Crossing, where she eventually fell pregnant and had to raise her children on her own. But before having Tyler and Alyson, she had and lost her first baby, a boy she had named Leo whom she never spoke of.

Ultimately, the truth about the circumstances around her death is never made certain. What is made certain is her complexity as a deeply troubled woman who struggled to provide for her children, but attempted to anyway. As a mother who tried to learn about Tyler’s gender, keeping an educational book on how to raise a trans child on her desk, in order to be a better parent. As a member of the Delos Crossing community who had an affair with her best friend’s husband, cared about having an eco-friendly lifestyle, and raised her children with a heavily sheltered upbringing because she depended on them entirely for her emotional stability. As an artist and storyteller who saw her creativity as a means to connect with her children and as the only tool she could afford to help her with her traumas.

Tell Me Why doesn’t end in Tyler and Alyson entirely making peace with all the nuances in their mother; in reducing her to a specific trope or a neat image. Mary Ann is deeply complicated, as is motherhood — as is family. In the last moments, she is largely still an enigma. With her being gone, so is the possibility of her children and the audience understanding her further. And that’s perhaps the biggest tragedy in a sad story about grief and memories. The Ronan twins will spend the rest of their lives untangling the confusion, love, fear, resentment, and regret they associate with the gradually disappearing memories they have of her — just like most of us will, or already have, after losing our loved ones.

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There’s no telling which games will come out in 2021, as there are few guarantees in the COVID-19 era. However, we already know that a few wonderful-looking indie games focusing on mothers are on the way. There’s Open Roads, the latest game from Fullbright (Gone Home, Tacoma) in which a young woman and her mother embark on a road trip to uncover a family mystery. There’s Venba, a narrative cooking game about food, family, love, and loss in which you’ll play as an Indian mother who has immigrated to Canada with her family in the 1980s. There’s Dustborn, which stars an ex-con named Pax who has been hired to transport a mysterious package and is four-months pregnant.

There are few limits to the stories video games can tell. Hopefully, we are on the cusp of a new generation of videogame storytelling — one in which the narrative experiences coming out of this industry will increasingly value mothers and motherhood. The near future is uncertain, but it feels promising to me. I hope to see next year reward us with even more stories that humanize women and the roles they can embody.

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Natalie Flores

Natalie is Fanbyte's Featured Contributor, with bylines at places like VICE, Polygon, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine, and more.

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