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April 23, 2018

The Battle for Everyone’s Sons (I Mean Souls)

*looks at God of War 4*

*looks at Yakuza 6*

*narrows eyes*

Video games?  We need to talk.

All right, look.  Look.  I know that what I’m going to say next is probably going to be controversial.  It’s going to be needlessly conservative -- regressive, even, and trying to push back against a potentially-brighter future just because of muh prefrunciz.  But even if this ends up going nowhere, I feel like I need to make my peace right now before it eats away at me like a flesh-eating parasite.

So.  Video games.  Here I am with Kirby: Star Allies, and enjoying it quite a bit.  But then in one week, we get two heavy-hitters for the PS4.  In the blue corner, the Dragon of Dojima returns for his final (?) game in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life.  In the red corner, the Ghost of Sparta makes his return after a long absence in God of War 4…well, technically just titled God of War, but let’s not kid ourselves here.  It’s God of War 4.  I’m assuming that if the two of them were to tag team, they would weigh in at 60+ hours of real time eaten up.  Probably more.  But I’m okay with the time vampirism for now.

My real concern is this: are we firmly in the Fatherhood Arc of the video game canon now?  That is, will a lot of the big names and franchises from here on out going to try and make a stab at legitimacy -- or at least some semblance of evolution -- by having the main character/player in charge of a child who’s along for the adventure?

I don’t know.  But I sure hope not.

Let me finish before you break out the torches and pitchforks.  For starters, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to have games explore parent-child relationships.  I’m all for it, assuming that it’s done well.  As a proponent of strong storytelling in games, it’s not hard to see the potential and the impressive results that could follow.  But there are some VERY important requirements and caveats here.  You can’t just expect success or accolades by saying “HE’S A DAD NOW!” and waiting for the perfect scores to rain down.  At least, that’s what I’d hope for.  As one of the eight dread lords who -- gasp -- didn’t like The Last of Us, I’ve got no problems admitting that I’m bitter about how a game that just barely scrapes up to “OK” has turned into a seminal part of the gaming canon.  I guess that’s just the power of Joel Grumpybuns, Naughty Dog’s budget, and a handy-dandy sonar beard.

I’m an idealist, but I’m not an idiot.  (Usually.)  The video game industry has been chasing trends for decades; whenever one or two guys find some semblance of success and introduce “the next big thing”, everybody and their uncle rushes out to match that success -- not with an original product, but with a cheap copy.  (Friendly reminder that, if not for Sonic, we may never have gotten Awesome Possum.)  2D fighters, 3D fighters, brown and gray “realism”, MMOs, gritty reboots, modern military shooters, open-world sandboxes, battle royales…the list is long and filled with the broken bodies of countless failures.

So now I guess we’re gonna go into the Gruff Dad Arc.  If we haven’t already.

I expect that by the time you read this, there will simultaneously be articles that go “God of War 4 is the best-selling GoW game to date” or “God of War 4 sells a million jillion copies on day one”.  I don’t know what the number is, but it will sell.  First-party Sony title + rave reviews + a near-bottomless budget = cash money.  And because it will sell -- regardless of whether the hype proves to be justified, or the game holds up to gamer scrutiny months, weeks, or just days down the line -- it’s going to send a message to the rest of the industry.  “THROW IN MORE DADS!” the execs will cry from their myriad perches and keeps.  “MORE DADS!  MORE DADS!”

And it’s not as if we’ve starved for dad games already.  Again, Yakuza 6 is here simultaneously and features Kiryu suddenly being charged with taking care of Haruka’s (?) baby.  The Last of Us had fatherhood on lockdown.  So did BioShock Infinite.  So did Telltale’s The Walking Dead (the first season, at a minimum, but the third followed suit).  Red Dead Redemption and Borderlands 2 had children in some capacity, as did The Witcher 3.  The Evil Within 2 is no stranger to the concept, and neither are Watch Dogs 1 or Assassin’s Creed: Origins.  Dead Rising 2 brought the franchise into the fold as well, even if Capcom ran that back almost immediately.  Even Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and the Tomb Raider reboot can’t escape from father figures.  None of those games played the concept in exactly the same way, mind, but still…that’s a lot of Father’s Day cards to grab from Walgreen's.

I get it.  Gamers are getting older.  The devs are getting older.  Life happens, and there’s no better way to show maturity -- to relate to changing experiences in the day-to-day routine -- than to inject some offspring into the mix.  But it feels like we’re in danger of hitting a saturation point, as we have countless times before.  I have many issues with The Last of Us, but I can at least nod respectfully for trying to do something different from another game about a marine, a space marine, or a slightly different space marine.  It was blander than an old loaf of bread, but the effort was there.  The concept was there.  And now I’m legitimately worried that it’s going to be everywhere -- with everyone suddenly trying to capitalize, and many opportunists doing it poorly.  Given the quality of game stories on average…well…I have reservations.

Hell, I’ve got reservations about God of War 4, and given that my brother nabbed his (and therefore my) copy on Day 1, no questions asked, it’s too late to raise a hand in objection.  Many questions have been spinning through my head.  Such as: are the devs really trying to redeem and endear us to Kratos, one of gaming’s most infamous unrepentant murderers by design?  Can they scrub away years of the cultural zeitgeist by making him look sad (despite his spiffy new beard) and gluing an innocent little boy to his side?  Is this going to represent the genuine result of a well-realized creative vision, or just a cynical, overwrought attempt to pull at the heart strings?

I’m worried, guys.  I’m really worried.  But despite my fears, I’m not as worried as I was before.  I’ve seen some of GoW4 now -- nothing too substantial, and nothing too far in -- and right now I think it’s…fine.  I’m interested.  I’m intrigued.  I want to see more, which is more than what I would’ve said two months ago (“You just do your thing over there, and I’ll be over here”).  I’m not sold on Old Kratos just yet, because how could anyone after such a short snippet, but I’m not utterly repulsed by him.  

He and his son Atreus seem like they’re making strides toward something more than a clone of TLoU, though it already succeeds by virtue of having (based on my observation) much better gameplay.  And if what I’ve heard in passing online is true, then there are parts of the story that really will give me what I want.  That is, more substance besides “LOOK AT THIS FAMILY!  LOOK AT IT!”  Maybe I just got off on the wrong foot with the concept; maybe it's less of a "dad game" issue and more of a "Naughty Dog mucking things up" issue.

So maybe I’ll give it a go one of these days.  But if I d, it’ll be well after I put more time into Yakuza 6.

Yes, God of War 4 has me intrigued -- peeking around the corner to see if it’s safe.  Conversely, I’ve thrown myself onto the live grenade that is Yakuza 6, and I’d do it again if I had more innards to rupture.  I am intensely in love with the game -- as dramatic as previous entries, if not more so, but filled with satisfying arcade-style combat, minigames of all kinds, and goofiness that even Will Ferrell at his best couldn’t match.  The game (and the franchise) should be a disaster based on tonal shifts alone, yet here we are.  I’m itching for the chance to learn my next Heat Action…even if the chance to do brutal power bombs is a filling one.

But what about Kiryu being a dad?  Yes, that’s certainly a factor, and proof that the trend is real, give or take a variable.  But in the context of Yakuza 6, Kiryu is more grandfather than father now, least of all because of his age.  Also, Kiryu has been a father figure for ages now; he’s had Haruka, AKA the daughter of his old flame he’s become a guardian of, but he’s also been an orphanage patriarch for at least three games prior.  So he’s not just jumping on the bandwagon.  He drove the bandwagon a couple of times, and now he’s become a passenger after doing his service.

It still remains to be seen how well Kiryu will handle fatherhood, and/or what it means for him to care for a child in spite of his dealings with organized crime.  Will it even factor in at all?  It could (and likely will), but we’re talking about a baby here.  He might as well be a MacGuffin that poops every now and then.  Meanwhile, Haruka is in a coma after a car accident -- which may or may not be part of a conspiracy -- with no telling if she’ll wake up at all.  And meanwhile again, Kiryu says goodbye to the orphanage while he goes to paint the streets of Japan red.  Or if you’re me, you head to the arcade to play some Virtua Fighter 5.

I’m so happy to have Yakuza 6 in my life, but there’s still a nagging voice in the back of my head whispering “what about fatherhood, thooooooooooooo?”  What if it stumbles along the way?  Will I be okay with that?  Will I even welcome it at all, given the thrills gained just from random thug fights on the streets?  Will Yakuza 6, or God of War 4, or any given game from here on out threaten to prove the futility of mixing dramatic narratives out to touch the heartstrings with intense, adrenaline-thumping combat and outrageous spectacle?  I mean, not to play the atonal card or anything, but GoW4 is a game that has you burning your wife’s corpse as per a ritual in one hour, and then giving some hyped-up Norse warrior a suplex in the next.

I don’t know what’ll happen with these games, or future dad games, or anything up and down the industry.  But I do hope for three things.  One: if this is truly the start of a new mindset, then every game that caters to it should, if not must, be good.  Two: even if this is the new hotness with everybody who tries bringing their A-game, please, please, please don’t let every game follow the trend.  There are more ways to make us care about characters, worlds, and stories beyond making us fret over sons and daughters.  Find them.  Use them.  Three: give us a little parity here.  How about adding in some mothers along the way, guys?  Kratos’ new wife is dead from the first minute on, Haruka’s in a coma, and the number of dead mothers in the list above is dense.  Can somebody throw us a bone?

Oh wait.  Somebody already did.  To the sixth power.

Somebody should do a post on that game one of these days.

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