The lights are on
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There are no children in Liberty City. Playgrounds exist, filled with basketball courts, swing sets, and slides. Pedestrians pop up everywhere, so obviously there’s no dip in population. Yet there are no children to be seen. I suppose it’s for the best, as the city’s filled with terrible drivers (myself being chief among them). The first time I smashed my car into a pedestrian, I watched with something akin to amused horror as the ragdoll physics flung the digital body from the pavement only to hit hard against the side of a building. I don’t imagine Rockstar would want to show the same thing happening to a digital child, and I don't think I would want to see it.
Still, there is a playground, an uninhabited space that implies the existence of children in this city of violence, drugs, and general misery. I like to think this is an elegant solution to the problem so often apparent by the inclusion of children in games. Often treated as burdens rather than characters, children in games largely exist as non-entities, objects that games task players to protect. In these instances the inclusion of a child comes off as underused or lazy. There are, however, games that explore what it means to interact either with children or as a child in order to build emotional connections to players with worthwhile results.
The easiest way to talk about children in games is to begin with what happens when children are done incorrectly. Just like in any other media (especially film and television), children are often used to automatically establish an emotional connection with the audience through superficial means. That is, children should be protected or charming because they are children, and children are funny and helpless. It’s a circular type of logic that pops up all the time. Michelle on Full House is supposed to be funny because she’s young—not because she’s actually funny. Carl on The Walking Dead should be protected because he’s a child who wanders into deadly situations (or at least that’s the case in season two), and he comes off like a stupid, infuriating burden. In these instances, a child is more annoying than effective, leaving the character underdeveloped and simple.
It’s a shame when games fall into this trap due to lazy, uninspired writing and design. For example, nearly every child in Fallout 3or Skyrim is a bratty twerp, and, considering Bethesda’s stance that they would never allow the player to kill a child in their games (which I fully support because the media fallout over a child-slaughter simulator would be insane), these snotty mini-people are invincible—at least without mods. They serve no purpose other than to exist for their own sake. It’s really a wasted opportunity to explore maybe more complex situations with children that, barring a Lord of the Flies-like society in Fallout 3, are disappointingly absent in these games.
Still more problematic is when a game uses a child character in attempt to foster an emotional connection to the player for no other reason than preying on our biological assumption that all children are precious and need constant protection. One such offender is the often praised Heavy Rain. While I have my own misgivings about what the game achieves, I found its greatest failure was the lack of a realistic relationship between Ethan Mars and his son Shaun. When Shaun is kidnapped, the player is assumed to have a connection with Ethan’s son simply by virtue of being Ethan's son, prompting a profound reason for wanting to save the child.
As it happens, at least in my case, the child felt like a dangling carrot, a MacGuffin that serves no other purpose than to be what we want to save. Maybe it was the wooden acting or the drab writing, but Shaun never felt like anything more than a fixture. We’re made to care about the kid because he’s a kid in danger, not because he’s a well-developed character. Using a child character in this way feels cheap and cloying. If I’m going to put Ethan Mars through a digital hell, I’d like to know rather than infer why he cares so deeply for the child. There’s a stark difference between just stating that Ethan is Shaun’s father rather than showing the complexities of their relationship; making Shaun dinner and pushing him on the swing seem more like chores than meaningful mechanics.
If I seem like I’m being harsh with Heavy Rain, it’s because I’ve fairly recently completed The Walking Dead, a game mechanically similar but much more evocative. The relationship between Clementine and Lee never seems false or forced because Clementine serves a mechanical and narrative purpose. She helps Lee open doors and retrieve items, she has a personality, she’s never whiny or annoying. Clem has the quiet unsure demeanor of a sad but tough little girl caught in a world that forced her to grow up too quickly. Lee’s teaching her to shoot or cutting her hair feels more real and emotionally connected than any interaction Ethan Mars has with his son.
These examples are a particular type in which the player interacts with children by proxy of a different character. When the player actually controls a child, the game adds a much different, and often more complex, layer to the relationship. Playing The Unfinished Swan captures a childlike sense of wonder, of uncovering a world of latent possibility by playfully slinging paint against covert walls and environmental fixtures. From a first-person perspective the player guides Monroe, a child following the titular animated figure from deceased mother's unfinished painting, through a minimalist fantasy land that becomes more defined throughout his very brief journey.
This definition, though, comes at a cost as safety and charm gives way to threatening darkness chapter taking place in an unlit forest. Monroe gasps as you hear things scuttle just beyond the dim halos of light that dot the landscape, and while the section isn't exactly scary for the player, the child he/she controls becomes clearly frightened. Such a gulf of difference between player and character forges an emotional bond. At this point in the game my thought process changed from "I've got to get out of these woods" to "I've got to get Monroe out of these woods." I wanted to help him, not myself, get through the difficulties of the darker parts of his childhood, caught between the evils of the world and his childlike innocence.
Limbo achieves something similar, albeit much more menacingly. Navigating the nameless child protagonist through the dangers of a black and white hellscape invests a responsibility in the player to help him complete his journey. In the world of Limbo, though, gruesome, uncomfortable failure is inevitable. A slight misstep can trigger a steel trap or leave the kid impaled in a pit of spikes--each death just as disturbing as the one that precedes it. As I've mentioned earlier, there are few things quite as taboo in mainstream media as killing a child, and the world of Limbo murders its protagonist time and time again.
Limbo's shocking gameplay instills in the player the desire to protect the child because every time he is subjected to a grisly demise, the player is subjected to viewing it. The violence in the game is frank. It's cold and alien, filled with macabre otherworldliness. Yet not every failure is completely the player's fault as each death is an uncomfortable learning experience. Guiding the child is less an exercise of "parent/player knows best" than it is its own pedagogy, a way to teach the player how to facilitate the child's progress, and buried in it are harsh lessons about learning from mistakes.
There are numerous other depictions of children in games that are successful when developers and writers invest effort to make the child a character rather than a fixture or a plot point. The Legend of Zelda explores Link's childhood in Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask by making him a very capable and admittedly limited boy in an adult world. Earthbound provides one of the most satisfying game experiences out there by turning a deep RPG into a parable about what it means to grow up, a sentiment echoed by Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
As I said in my review of The Unfinished Swan, the best stories that involve children are also aboutchildren, and I think the same principle should apply to games. Clever, practiced writing and design can afford players brilliant opportunities to interact with the confusing, frightening, and meaningful nuances of childhood. The converse, shoehorning children into games without much thought or effort, leaves the player either annoyed or cynical. Children certainly have a place in the games we play, and, when they're treated as characters instead of burdens or cute (read: irritating) little fixtures, they provide new perspectives on interacting with digital game--or, as the kids say, through play.
So what does it mean to you guys to play as/interact with children on a digital level? Are they always annoying? What makes them successful for you?
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!