It’s interesting that as videogame developers grow older, the characters they create do, too. As the technological freedom to tell deeper backstories in games has expanded, the protagonists have come to better reflect their creators. In the past the young scrappy faces of games development may not have always had the opportunity to indulge their character’s inner life, but the videogames of today depict many rites of passage into adulthood, from commitment and marriage, to starting a family, and even the grittiest and toughest characters are given some amount of emotional depth. Ethan Mars is a grieving father and lousy ex-husband. Joel from The Last of Us is a dad. Nathan Drake got married and had a kid. As the men who make our favorite videogames give themselves the freedom to grow up, our heroes grow up too.
But as the stories start to better reflect their creators, there’s one perspective that’s noticeably missing: motherhood. A predominantly male development scene has resulted in a medium that knows how to mimic the experience, but not sympathize with it. Many writers and developers know what it’s like to have a mother, but they don’t know what it’s like to be one. In a world already tragically light on female protagonists, this unique experience is overlooked and marginalized, relegated to backstory info screens and Wikia pages instead of explored through a nuanced and sympathetic lens.
Addressing this gap is Through the Woods, the debut game of Norwegian studio Antagonist. As a depiction of motherhood, it’s more direct than most, but it’s also not very positive. Most mothers in videogames are either villains or absentee parents (a byproduct of character writing that treats women as plot devices rather than protagonists) so this is nothing new. But Through the Woods takes it a step further, offering an honest portrayal of some of the doubts and difficulties that accompany this traditional female role with a thoughtful consideration absent from most maternal characters. Whether the game’s perspective is motivated by the developers’ negative or positive views of women is up for debate; on one hand, society is often reluctant to give women credit even within their assigned social roles, like motherhood, and thus depictions of capable mothers with their own sense of agency are few and far between. But on the other, it’s good to host a depiction of a person acting outside of gender binary, whether that’s warm portrayals of paternity and fatherhood (challenging the status quo by offering social permissiveness towards male emotion) or the acknowledgment of distant and emotionally inadequate mothers (reducing the often one-sided expectations of parental bonding). It can be hard, without further information, to gauge where the writers of either game are coming from.
But as a person who had a difficult relationship with their mother, the honesty is refreshing. Within a socially supportive environment, motherhood can be wonderful and fulfilling. But for many women, for a variety of reasons, it’s not. And often we’re not allowed the buffer that men are given to express resentment or regret at the restraints posed by having children. The success of a nuclear family often hinges on our willingness to be silently unhappy. It’s the complicated sacrifice we make for those we love.
In Through the Woods, Karen is a single mother overwhelmed by the struggle to balance work and parenthood following the loss of her husband. One day as she is napping, her preteen son Espen is kidnapped, beginning a dogged pursuit across the forest of Western Norway to find him. As she dodges beasts of Norse mythology and explores ancient abandoned settlements, she learns that Espen has been taken by Old Erik, a servant of the wolf god Fenrir, who demands a child sacrifice every five years. With the deadline looming, Espen is the latest victim, and Karen is determined to rescue him, even if it means dooming the world.
I identify with Karen’s frustrations of being a mother with very little support. I met Jimmy when I was 18, fresh out of high school, while we both worked at an all natural grocer’s in my hometown. My parents were Bible literalists and Evangelicals, and by that point I’d already been on my own for two years. They’d kicked me out at 16 when I returned home from a mission trip to Mexico after finding my birth control in the bathroom. Jimmy and I married the following year, and our daughter arrived the year after that. I gave birth to her after 21 very painful and medication-free hours of labor, 7 lbs 8 ounces. I ate an entire Domino’s pizza afterwards. I was still a teenager. I was scared and I had no idea what I was doing but then, what parent does? After my own terrible experiences with my own mom, I was determined to do better by my own daughter. I remember looking down on that tiny, wiggling bundle thinking, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, but I know that I will be your mother.”
Through the course of our relationship, Jimmy had made a lot of stupid decisions, but somehow, getting married made me think he’d buckle down and take things more seriously. He’d promised we could move away to the city, where he could get a better job. I still desperately wanted to go back to school. But no sooner had the ink dried on the marriage certificate than Jimmy was telling me that I could never go to college. I wouldn’t be allowed to have a job, either. He made me quit the grocery store, citing “germs”. I was already pregnant and at his mercy. My entire life was in his hands.
Things went downhill quickly. Jimmy had always had control issues, but with the added pressure of providing for a family, he lost it. Employment was limited in the area, and what few jobs he got, he’d promptly lose, usually after an angry outburst. As a result, the starter house we put a bid on, we could no longer afford. We got kicked out of our rental. His wages were garnished. He refused to hold, change, or feed the baby. Our entire lives dismantled from there. When the end of our marriage finally came, the stress and tension had gotten so bad, I was going into fugue states. I’d told him, months earlier, that our relationship was over and his response was to break an entire glass bottle of Sobe over his head, dripping blood across the house as I screamed in the driveway. I finally stopped loving him when one day the altercations became physical; he pinned me to the ground for 15 minutes after I’d asked him to stop groping me. I fled not long after that. The memory of struggling and sobbing against the dead weight of his body still haunts me.
At times my heart bleeds for Karen. While our reasons for feeling alone and overwhelmed differ, the end result is the same. It’s hard to say exactly how many women feel burdened by the responsibilities of motherhood, but from anecdotal experience I’d say it’s not uncommon. And yet we don’t feel comfortable expressing it, as if somehow, by admitting our infallibility, we’re no longer capable at all. Life is messy, yet nothing short of perfection is enough. To be a mother is to agonize over every decision, to accuse yourself of selfishness for having basic needs. Every second spent on anything other than your child comes with an extra side of shame. “If only I’d been more attentive” becomes the answer to every perceived failure. It always seems as though the second you look away, that’s when everything will go wrong. For Karen, it did.
It’s overwhelming to feel misjudged by third party observers who know nothing about your situation. Even harder to feel haunted by seemingly minor mistakes with long term consequences. I know what it’s like to not know where your child is every second of the day, the hope that they’re safe and feel loved, that no harm will come to them in the absence of your ability to prevent it. Karen feels guilt not just because her inattentiveness caused a disaster, but also because it is reflective of her inadequacies as a parent. In many ways her pursuit of her son’s kidnapper and her willingness to face the terrors of the forest head-on are an attempt to overcompensate for years of failure.
As it turns out, my story is much different from Karen’s. Her tale takes a hard left in the third chapter. Near the end of the game, she has to walk through a bog haunted by a “witch of the mire” known as The Veiled Lady, who “brings visions of terrible deeds from the dark past, forces ye to watch them relived” and through this curse we see the actual events leading up to the beginning of the game, moments that Karen cannot bear to remember. As it turns out, she almost lost custody of Espen after (accidentally?) breaking his arm, accusing his father of abuse in divorce court to regain the upper hand, leading to his suicide. With that knowledge, it (ironically) becomes hard to identify with or feel sympathetic towards her. She and I aren’t alike after all.
Still I wonder what kind of young mother I might have been if I’d had more support. I didn’t get to enjoy being a mom. My friends had all gone off to college, my family had moved away. When I finally left Jimmy, I was pushed to the brink of suicide and I had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. I couldn’t take her with me. But I left with the assumption that once the divorce proceedings began, equal custody would be pursued. Instead he moved away, changed his number, and withheld access to her until I was desperate enough to put up with anything just to see her. That unfair leverage has been held over me ever since. Would it have gone better if I had had just one person to help me? Would it have gone differently if I’d been aware of my parental rights?
It’s been over ten years now. Despite my best efforts, I’m the weekend parent. My daughter recently asked to come live with me full time, and I’m in the process of making it legal. I’m not sure which way it will go yet. Fiction, like Through the Woods, gives a false impression of what the process is like; in reality, claims of abuse, no matter how valid, don’t carry much weight without documentation. It’s not as easy as my daughter stating a preference for where she wants to live. It’s a complicated system that doesn’t always reward the right parent. That much the game and I can agree on.
Until recently, I still had friends who didn’t know. “Why is there a Mother’s Day card on your refrigerator?” “Because I’m a mother.” “Oh.” Silence. There’s a lot of unspoken judgment when you’re a woman and not the primary caregiver for your child. Only men are supposed to be the weekend parents, you know. Unfortunately there’s never enough time to explain my situation to every single person, and even if there was, I wouldn’t want to. Nor should I have to. It’s exhausting and nobody’s business.
As a result, I voluntarily withdrew from publicly identifying as a parent. I told myself it was for the sake of her privacy, which it is, but deep down, I knew it was because I can’t handle the questions. I can’t handle the pain of being judged and sentenced by a jury of my peers with every social interaction. I shouldn’t have to remember the weight of my ex-husband’s body just to satisfy a stranger’s curiosity. And so, whatever complicated feelings I’ve had about motherhood, I’ve had to bear alone. The fears, the uncertainties, guilt, failure, the longing. The pain of having to settle for less than being there every second of every day.
It’s almost enough to make a person throw themselves into a career that demands living in a fantasy world 14 hours a day.
I’ve finally come to terms with patriarchal family structures; I support women who dedicate their full lives to their children. I support men whose masculinity is fair, kind, and motivated by love, who take their role as a provider and protector seriously. But I still ache with bitterness over men who abuse their authority over other people. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who is willing to jeopardize the future and well being of those they love. There’s nothing more evil than exploiting the vulnerable.
These are my demons. These are the monsters and memories that lurk in the mire. In the game I have so many ways to outmaneuver each—sneak around, avoid eye contact, or hide in the shadows, doing whatever it takes to survive, be it evasion or head-on confrontation. I’ve tried both ways. The former only delays the latter. The latter is terrifying whether you’re ready or not.
Maybe I’m used to the emotional confrontation now. Maybe I embrace it just to get it over with. In the woods of western Norway, I chase down the trolls and stare at them from a distance. I run up on a fierce boar just to look deep into its eyes. It’s scary, and sometimes I get eaten or trampled. But afterwards, at least I know what I’m up against.
Through the Woods, for all its exploration of motherhood, is still a survival horror game. I expected it to act as a metaphor for Karen’s grief over her son’s drowning, but it took a face value approach instead. As Through the Woods draws to a close, Espen attempts to go willingly to his own death, allowing Old Erik to sacrifice him to Fenrir in order to save the world, but at the last second, all three go toppling over a cliff edge. Both Old Erik and Espen die, leaving Karen to don the kidnapper’s brightly woven clothes and take up the mantle of child murder to keep Ragnarok at bay. She honors his sacrifice, but it is hardly redemptive.
As for my own journey through the woods, I’m coming out the other side. Videogames may not always offer me a protagonist to identify with as a mother, but they still offer reprieve and distraction from my maternal frustrations. My daughter is a teenager now. I feel honored to be her mom. She is kind, and witty, and her self confidence and positivity draw other people to her. She’s as goofy and free-spirited as I was never allowed to be. I’ve succeeded as a parent. In taking the risk of leaving her father, I secured the one thing I wanted to ensure she always had: an escape from a life of limitation.
And so, I can let go. Unlike Karen, I don’t have to go rescue my child. I already did.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.