Games have often been accused of poor writing, of paper thin plots and even thinner characters. For much of the life of games as a medium it's been... well frankly it's been true. Developers didn't particularly care for a good story. For #VideoGames, story was something you threw in the manual for your customer to idly flip through on the way home from the store. It was often simply a flimsy justification for gameplay—the collard greens you order with your fried chicken so you can pretend you're eating vegetables as well.
There's been exceptions of course, the adventure game and RPG genres especially brought us some great tales in the early days, but it's only over the last decade or so that games as a whole have begun to approach their potential as a storytelling medium.
The Sad Dad Revolution
The Sad Dad development in game storytelling was sort of an inevitability. Designers were getting older, starting families, settling down, and it was time for their games to settle down with them. Video games had long trafficked in the juvenile power fantasy, the kind of thing that excites us when we're teens. Characters were hyper-virile men with almost unlimited power, space marines and super soldiers who barely spoke and certainly didn't particularly care for anyone. It was fun, but it wasn't particularly deep, and as both designers and gamers aged, they wanted something more, they wanted dads.
The Sad Dad character, as they've come to be known, is still a power fantasy in its own way, just a different, older, more caring kind. It's the fantasy of men who've come to know the joys of fatherhood, and combines their worries about their child being hurt with the fantasy of being the person strong enough to never let that happen. The Sad Dad story is a story of abandoning your lone-wolf roots to take up the mantle of father and guardian. Joel from #TheLastOfUs goes from a shit-heel smuggler to a loving father, Ethan from Heavy Rain must push himself to the limits to rescue his son, Corvo uses his years of cool assassin training to rescue his daughter from those who want to control her in #Dishonored2 and Booker must teach his surrogate daughter the valuable lesson that fighting racism is just as bad as being a literal slaver.
These were the first steps towards a style of storytelling that embraces real character arcs and attempts to connect and communicate a message with their audience on an emotional level. Of course, the characters having the arcs were all handsome-but-grizzled middle aged men, and the audience they assumed they were communicating with were probably slightly less handsome-but-grizzled middle-aged men.
Daughters, Daughters, Everywhere
One notable part of the Sad Dad revolution was all these daughters, daughters for days that the sad dads must protect and learn to love. Except for Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain, almost every sad dad dating back to Harry Mason in Silent Hill has had a daughter to begrudgingly guard. Now I'm not going to say it's because of paternalistic assumptions about girls needing to be protected more than boys, or a slight fear of male emotional intimacy among american men, but I am going to heavily imply it through this sentence.
What the games designers didn't quite plan for, was how popular those daughters would become. Characters like Ellie from The Last Of Us, Clementine from The Walking Dead and Emily from Dishonored captured the audience's imaginations with their spitfire attitudes and stubborn spirits, even when some of them were given comparatively little screen time. While many game designers happen to be middle-aged white dudes with kids, the overall gaming audience is a lot more diverse. 52% of gamers are women, and an audience starved for interesting, non-sexualized female characters in games to identify with get pretty excited when they find some. Especially if those female characters happen to be charming, well-rounded and kind of badass.
Bring On The Rad Daughters
So game developers were left with an odd conundrum. They'd designed games around the stories of their sad dads, and after all was said and done it turns out that a lot of people liked their daughters more. What were they to do?
There's only one real answer if you're a smart designer who realizes that there's a big chunk of audience who you've been ignoring, and that's to bring on the logical follow-up to the sad dad, the rad daughter. Gamers are finally getting what we've been wanting for years. We're seeing a generation of female heroines who aren't known first and foremost by their cup-size. The rad daughters are women with actual character arcs and awesome talents given their own stories and development, and it's awesome!
While their promotion from side characters to featured performers may have come about from a happy accident, it's still gratifying to see developers realize that their audience do want to see a more diverse choice of protagonists in their games. Studios like Naughty Dog (who are also spinning off an Uncharted DLC pack with a pair of cool ladies in the lead) could have kept on chugging like the old days, telling the stories of sad dads and their world-weary cynicism, but they listened to their audiences and gave us something awesome to look forward to in the future of gaming, a generation of rad daughters, all grown up and ready to kick some ass. Judging by Ellie in The Last Of Us Part 2 Trailer, no one better stand in their way.
Are you excited by the new wave of Female protagonists in games? Got a favorite character you love? Let us know in the comments!