You’ve seen it a thousand times over—fathers as catalysts for heroic transformations in the video game universe. Either that or they’re just some really sad dads... but they are no less prevalent. There are inexhaustible numbers of tropes available for adaptation that allow this trend to thrive and continue. There are apparently also some pretty catchy tropes that keep mothers in at the low-to-no level of existence. But why?
Is There Any Room For Mothers In The Video Game Universe?
It would be fair to say that the invisibility of mothers is more a symptom of a larger issue in modern storytelling than it is a pitfall of video game writing alone. But while it's becoming more common to see a female heroine in a film or #TV show, #VideoGames remain a few steps behind.
While it might not be something that you think about often, video games don't just lack women, they tend to lack the woman—the one who gives life to our heroes. The heroes and even the heroines that we do see in our games all have pasts that make them who they are. That backstory may be only a small part of the whole affair, if it's mentioned at all, but that only serves to make the situation even more baffling.
It would seem that there are many game writers out there that prefer to subvert the maternal narrative in some of the most unfortunate ways—generally by silencing them or making them into evil caricatures. It's pretty depressing. How can things be made better though? To figure things out, we'll have to think about where things are at right now—what are video game mothers like right now and what could they be?
Which Qualities Make Up The Most Memorable Mothers In Video Games?
I wanted to get a better idea of not only the game moms that we've got, but the ones that players tend to love the most. Across all of the lists and forums that I read, the mentions were mostly quasi-moms or mothers that aren't even fully-developed characters. One list that I found specifically mentioned its choice to exclude dark/evil mothers; that list had five moms on it.
If you're curious, the moms that tend to get mentioned most on the internet are:
- Ness' Mom (EarthBound)
- Mother Brain (Metroid)
- Your mom from the #Pokémon games
- Mad Moxxi (Borderlands)
The mom from the Pokémon series is a non-character, Ness' Mom is only two steps ahead of that with just a touch of story on her belt, Mother Brain isn't even a human being and Mad Moxxi is maybe every video game mom trope wrapped into one. Cool, internet. Good one!
Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from these picks. They paint a pretty clear picture of the guidelines that set the standard for creating these characters. What are those points? Well, when it comes to game moms, a few things will most likely be true...
Most Moms Are A Little Bit Twisted
Well-known evil moms: Dahlia Gillespie (Silent Hill), Lady Comstock (BioShock Infinite), Alma Wade (F.E.A.R.), Mother (Binding of Isaac)
The traditional perspective on motherhood brings to mind images of selflessness, unconditional love and lifelong nurturing. In many games, however, we are left with a slew of mothers that tend to represent everything that could go wrong in a mother-child relationship. We see this happen most often with older mothers.
These are the mothers that sacrifice their children, use them as pawns on their way to power or flat out try to kill them. Why? I'm not sure but it's probably just because someone out there still thinks this topsy-turvy take on motherhood keeps things interesting. Is it though?
When Moms Are Good, They Tend To Be Simple (Or Simply Fake)
Your favorite "mom"s: Alma Wade (F.E.A.R.), Poké Mom
Sometimes, the mothers aren't even human. I realize that Alma is a pretty evil mom... but she's also a paranormal entity. To top things off, she sexually assaulted the protagonist. Mother Brain, the fan favorite I mentioned above, she's another evil fake mom—she's literally just an evil brain. Why not Uncle Brain, Nintendo? Uncles can stink too. They can.
On the other side of the spectrum, we've got N.A.R.Ms (Not A Real Mom). These are the mothers who aren't the birth mother of your protagonist but end up taking on a mother role anyway. These may be distant relatives or characters that are simply female and... older than your character. While they are usually positive women, it's a little annoying that when the moms are gone all together, that void has to be filled with the nearest female. You can't have your cake (dead moms) and eat it too (good fake moms), guys!
Interestingly enough, these mothers are the ones that we tend to see when games feature mothers that are both alive and still in the lives of our protagonists. The other lively group is slightly less... morally sound.
Sex Workers, Fallen Queens And Divorceés—Oh My!
Famously deviant mothers: Amanda de Santa (#GTAV), Oliver's mother (Ni No Kuni), Matriarch Benezia (Mass Effect)
When they're not good or evil, moms in games occupy this strange neutral space. They come all the way from the land populated by retired exotic dancers, criminals and boss ladies to become the mediocre mothers and wives. They don't make much of a splash, but the things that they manage to do usually leave quite an impression anyway. Just look at Michael de Santa from Grand Theft Auto V. He's so moved, he needs a therapist and his children are little sh*ts.
Other things that we tend to see are mothers that are sources of misery in failing marriages. In Heavy Rain, Ethan Mars' wife appears to have left him because he couldn't save his child from being hit by a car after running into the street. After that, Ethan's depression and blackouts turn him into the sad dad of the century and, as it usually goes with this situation, his son hates him. All aboard the pity train...
...And When They're None Of Those, They're Dead
Famous moms who are no longer with us: Nathan Drake's Mom (Uncharted), Jake Muller's Mom (Resident Evil 6), Link's Mom (Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
Not every video game mom has to be a bad mom. They can be truly inspirational characters that drive our favorite protagonists to conquer all odds and achieve great things. But, chances are, if the mothers are doing all of that they're probably dead or missing.
Video games have brought us back to a time (probably the mid-19th century) during which mothers were nearly fifty times more likely to die in childbirth than they are now in real life. When they are lucky enough to survive that, they may commit suicide, get murdered or simply disappear.
Never fear though, they'll come back as a spirit to tell your protagonist who their father is and how much better he was than everyone else, how much he loved you or how bad he is. Either way, she's there to make sure you keep moving on Daddy-Issues brand fuel. If she's not busy bringing you closer to dad, she's busy being your dad.
Even As A Mom, You Have To Play The Dad's Story
Let's consider Fallout 4. Much like the other games in the franchise, you can play as a male or a female. This is a sensible move that doesn't really demand any applause for inclusivity because the storylines are always a little loose in that respect. For some reason, this changed in Fallout 4.
Why can't I buy that the protagonist could have been a man or a woman? Because the game's live-action opener and closer slap you in the face with bro-y war-themed narratives. A man and his dog walk down the road, the mother dies protecting the child in her arms, these are tropes that you can't just shake by throwing a woman-shaped skin over the character.
The #Fallout series is not unique in this concept. You see the same thing replicate itself in other open world RPG types that allow to gender switch. Longer hair doesn't hide the glaring reliance on conventional storytelling.
What Is The Best Case Scenario From Video Game Moms?
The solution to this problem may be a lot like the solution to the rest of the industry's representation issues—write better stories with better characters. If the team isn't equipped to do this, they should hire people that are—more women. Or, at least, people that are more willing to tell these stories the way they are meant to be told.
Even daughters tend to fare better than mothers, though not by much. They are generally relegated to mentally unsound fighting machines or damsels in distress.
Are there paternal instances of each of the roles I mentioned? Of course. There are even some great motherly characters out there with complex stories and personalities that are on par, if not better than, the roles of their male counterparts. But the issue was never whether or not those things exist at all—they do, though few and far between. The issue is consistency. For every one maternal story told thoughtfully, there will be ten more about fathers.
Making this better is probably not as simple as substituting genders in the stories that we’re used to these days. After all, most of these stories aren't very interesting—the brooding white guy in his mid-thirties with a penchant for fighting, harsh words and no living family to speak of is getting a bit old.
Mama-level magic is something that can already be incredible in real life. The day that we can see this power manifest itself in the lives of our characters with increased frequency and authenticity can't come soon enough.
Who is your favorite game-changing video game mom? What about Overwatch's Ana?