I’ll never know what it’s like to be a father.
I’m a woman. So, there is that. But I think I should be able to dimly grasp what it’s like to be a Dad. Several recent video games have featured troubled fathers as their protagonists, which should pose the perfect opportunity for me to finally feel fatherhood. And yet, I find myself struggling to empathize with any of these Dad Simulators.
What’s my problem? I had no trouble self-inserting as Marcus Fenix in Gears of War or Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. If anything, I have a history of role-playing with a higher level of immersion and emotional commitment than most other gamers I know.
So, I expected to feel protective—yes, even fatherly, whatever that means—towards Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite and towards Ellie in The Last of Us. Anyone’s heart would soften at Elizabeth’s dreams of seeing Paris after a lifetime locked in a tower, or Ellie’s humble joy as she sees the outside world for the first time: “you can’t beat that view, huh?” At ages twenty and fourteen, respectively, both women have spent their lives sheltered from society due to their genetic good luck: Elizabeth can create portals between worlds in Bioshock Infinite, and Ellie is immune to the zombie virus that has infected the world in The Last of Us. Both women do not know what it’s like to live a normal life—even a normal life according to apocalyptic standards. They’re special.
The few other people these young women have met in their sheltered lives have sought to control them and their mysterious gifts. But the player never quite gets that privilege (or, at least, not for long). You primarily interact with these women as an outsider, and eventually, as a mentor. You grow into a father figure role. You fall in love with these two young women, but not in that way—in a different way, a paternalistic way.
But in both games, you do not play a very good role model. Infinite’s Booker and The Last of Us’s Joel expose their daughter figures early on to an outside world filled with violence, and both men expect their young partners to get used to that violence—and fast. Although Ellie reacts slightly better at first to threats of violence and a life spent on the run, both Elizabeth and Ellie come to terms with this new life over time. By the end of each title, these young women regularly aid you in combat: Elizabeth uses her world-bending powers to provide you items and shelter, and Ellie eventually gets permission from Joel to wield guns and a bow and arrow.
Both games also implement a puzzling “fix” to a problem that often slows down games that require you to protect an AI character. In these games, enemies cannot “see” Elizabeth and Ellie. Both women can scurry across a battlefield unnoticed and unhurt. They affect the battle insofar as they can help you, but they’re never a burden, except perhaps on Dad’s conscience. They make charming observations, tell stories or jokes, and try to break down their fathers’ emotionally withholding exteriors—but they do not add stress to battle situations.
These women are not the Samwise to your Frodo, nor the Dom Santiago to your Marcus Fenix. They are not your best friend, nor are they your equal in combat. These women are your daughters, and gosh, are they both the best possible daughter a father could hope to have. Who could ask for someone more beautiful, more charming, or more capable? And she can’t even get hurt … unless it’s a cut-scene and the narrative calls for it. That’s barely even your fault.
Since you play as the grouchy member of the unlikely duo, you will start out both stories irritated that you have to deal with a young woman. Both Booker and Joel have lost a daughter already in the past; they’re reluctant to get close to another young woman, especially one who reminds them of their prior loss. But both women are a package quest: They must be delivered in order to obtain a reward necessary for you to survive. What’s more, both of these women make for such charming “packages” that you can’t help but feel attached. As the delivery process gets more and more complicated, both Booker and Joel feel less uncaring about the terms of the deal at stake than they did at their stories’ outsets.
So why didn’t I feel attached to Elizabeth and Ellie, like I was supposed to? Oh, I did—I wanted the very best for them. I wanted them to escape their fathers as soon as possible.
(Spoilers for Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us to follow.)
It isn’t possible, though. The ending of Bioshock Infinite does not feature Elizabeth saying “Get over this on your own, Dad(s), because I’m going to Paris.” Nor does The Last of Us end with Ellie striking out on her own, nor does it even end with her making a decision about her own welfare. The end of The Last of Us involves several adults making a choice about whether Ellie should live or die without asking her opinion on the matter, and as a sort of bonus, they lie to her about what’s at stake both before and after they make this decision about her.
Elizabeth and Ellie’s situations are not so different, but one key difference is that Elizabeth knows the facts of her situation, and her actions bring about the game’s ultimate ending. If Booker had been the one calling the shots at the end of Bioshock Infinite, it might have featured an ending closer to the one in The Last of Us, in which Ellie doesn’t know the full truth of her situation and she never has the opportunity to decide what she wants to do about it. Joel doesn’t tell Ellie the truth because he fears that if he does she’ll decide to leave him.
Both Elizabeth and Ellie grow up sequestered from society. Ellie explicitly reiterates her fear of being alone throughout the game. And yet both women would be better off alone; at the very least, they deserve better guardians than the ones they get, but children don’t usually get to pick out their fathers in real life, either. In these games, the player also has to cope with playing as the protagonist provided, and the endings don’t offer much substantial choice either. Both of these games offer only one ending, and your actions throughout the game don’t alter how it plays out.
The reason I referred to both Gears of War and Tomb Raider at the top of this piece is because these two games are about Daddy Issues, too—but you play as the kid in both games. In Gears of War 3, Marcus Fenix reunites with his father, but he does not ever manage to earn his father’s approval. In Tomb Raider, Lara Croft resents her late father’s reputation as a hard-headed fighter; by the game’s end, she has embraced and applied his lessons about survival, no longer reluctant or alienated by her legacy. Although Lara and Marcus are fundamentally different characters who each make different decisions, I found it easier to relate to both of them than to Booker or to Joel.
I also found it easier to relate to both Elizabeth and Ellie, but although The Last of Us allows the player to inhabit Ellie in its penultimate chapter (after which perspective returns to Joel), Bioshock Infinite does not ever let us see through Elizabeth’s eyes. Both games seem to expect the player to be more interested in keeping an eye on Elizabeth and Ellie, rather than the alternative. As a result, Elizabeth and Ellie both seem defined by your ability to watch over them, specifically by watching them and listening to them; they have the dialogue, the charisma, and the beauty. You’re stuck with the troubled sociopath who capitalizes on Stockholm Syndrome to keep a charming woman around.
It seems as though other players managed to feel paternal and protective easily enough, though, especially in The Last of Us. In NeoGAF’s spoiler-laden thread about “The Morality of The Last of Us”, and in the comments on Russ Frushtick’s Polygon story about the ending of the game, I read that, although some players were disappointed in Joel’s decision, most felt it was in-character, and several more thought Joel had made the right choice (comparisons to Liam Neeson’s character in Taken sprang up in the NeoGAF thread). Meanwhile, I couldn’t get over the part where Joel made this choice for Ellie.
Perhaps fourteen is too young to make one’s own decisions by some people’s standards; I don’t think so, though, especially in Ellie’s unique case. Elizabeth’s choice at the end of Bioshock Infinite broke my heart—was there no other way? No route that eventually ended in Paris and happiness? But at least Elizabeth had been allowed to see her fate and decide on her response. I never expected The Last of Us’s ending, an almost-perfect opposite from Bioshock Infinite, to make me feel even worse.
When I tweeted about how I didn’t think I “got” The Last of Us, a few strangers tweeted back to tell me that perhaps it’s because I don’t understand what it’s like to be a father. Some other games critics cheered me up by joking with me that if the game hadn’t made me feel like I understood fatherhood, then it hadn’t done its job.
On the contrary, I don’t think it’s practical to expect many people to empathize with the kind of fatherhood that The Last of Us depicts: a self-involved parenting style that, in theory, puts one’s child above everyone else, but actually just seems to be about putting one’s own comfort above that child’s decisions, dreams or personality. Joel makes a decision that makes him feel better, but it’s certainly not “for” Ellie. Russ Frushtick wrote in his column about this uncomfortable ending: “the audience doesn’t always know what’s best for it.” In the case of this game, apparently daughters don’t always know what’s best for them, either. Good thing their fathers are there to decide for them.
By making Elizabeth and Ellie into fully realized people—albeit women who are mere “packages” to be delivered, and who are ignorable-yet-helpful placeholders in combat, but who allow the player to ignore such simplistic readings with the sheer force of their humanity and charm—the developers of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us prompted me to cry out in involuntary shock at their games’ endings. But they have not made me understand or empathize with their depictions of fatherhood. In Bioshock Infinite’s case, I’m not sure whose situation I’m meant to feel worst about, but in The Last of Us’s case, I doubt I was supposed to end the game by rooting for Ellie to surprise us all by evolving into a Kerrigan-esque queen of the Infected in The Last of Us 2.
It’s not even just that I can’t empathize with fathers; I think I’m just playing the wrong Dad Simulators. I can’t empathize with playing as a character that has immense social and physical power and misuses it to hurt the characters in the game that I have come to like, seemingly at the game’s behest. I don’t want to play a game and feel as though agency and value has been misattributed to the incorrect person; I find it difficult to even finish such games. It would be like playing through the latest Tomb Raider as Captain Conrad Roth, or worse, Dr. James Whitman. It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s not just about wanting to play as a good guy, or as a hero; I find the prospect of playing as a villain compelling, and I gave Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line more credit than they may have deserved just for trying out such a tricky trope. But the idea of playing a game that encourages me to respect someone as a person, but then asks me to make bad decisions on their behalf…that, I cannot do, at least not without loud protestations from my brain.
Perhaps it is the realism of the situation presented in The Last of Us and in Bioshock Infinite that disturbs me the most. Real life includes plenty of bad parents. We are meant to empathize with this father’s feelings of regret and failure, because he tried. We are not meant to think too hard about the years that this daughter figure spent sequestered from other people, or the fact that this relationship is the only one she’s ever had (so, gas-lighting her into believing it is a normal, loving relationship is terrifyingly easy, because she has no point of comparison), nor the fact that she has never been allowed to make a decision for herself and might want to know what it’s like to do that.
These two games (and a handful of others, perhaps most famously Heavy Rain) highlight the difficulty of a father coping with the loss of a child, as well as the stress of protecting a child. Yet the game-logic of using a child as an object for a rescue mission or a package to be delivered, no matter how charming or human that package may seem in the narrative, does not adequately portray what I imagine is the true stress of fatherhood.
Forgive my assumption, since I do not know what it like to be a father and I never will, but I would guess that the hardest part of that role is the realization that, try as you might, you can’t control who your kid turns out to be, you can’t decide everything for them, and even if you try to impose structure, it may not go as planned. You can’t prevent your child from growing up and leaving you. One way to get around that in a game, at least, is to create a system that prevents daughters from leaving their fathers because the only possible escape from them is death. Having tripped while walking in these particular fathers’ shoes, I think I can understand why my daughter might make that choice.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.