The Virtual Life – Fathers, Video Games, And The Long Road To Legacy

by Javy Gwaltney on Dec 28, 2016 at 09:00 AM

What is there to say about my father and I? Lots, I suppose. Son of a war veteran, he spent a lot of his time being shuffled around the country as military brat, never staying in one place for too long. In the '80s, he was in Florida, trying to break the high scores on all the arcade machines. My parents met when my mother disconnected the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet so he would stop playing and give the kids behind him a turn.

I exist because of Ms. Pac-Man. What a thing.


We’re both men with ridiculous names. He’s Javy Rudolph Gwaltney the Third. I’m The Fourth. I often find myself telling strangers and new acquaintances that there won’t be a Fifth. I come from a line of men who have fought in wars, who developed chess software, who provided for the people they loved. My father wanted to settle down in a small town and build a stationary life for his family.

I want the world and I’ll have it, one word at a time.

Noctis Lucis Caelum. It’s easy to make fun of you, sad rich boy with a ludicrous name. Always riding in the backseat. Always pouting. Always whining. Always. Privileged. Surrounded by people he loves. About to marry a lovely woman. Can’t you just be happy?

But there’s something more there, isn’t there? A throne taken away from you. Father slain. All you have left is a car, some friends, and a shadow looming over you. You feel the weight of destiny on you. You can do great things. That’s what you’ve been told all your life and now you have to prove it. Earn your legacy.

Dad and I, we hardly ever see eye to eye on things. He believes there’s a man in the sky who ushered the world into being and that this man’s son will save those who believe in him from fire and agony. I see the void stretched over the entirety of existence with people trying to make something out of nothing and find love and meaning in one another. He pans for gold in rivers and shoots pistols at the range for fun. Me? I’m good with a book and a recliner. We haven’t talked politics in over a decade, which is for the best.

Differences aside, the man’s always been good to me. I remember being very young and telling him that I wanted to be a writer, and there was this look in his eyes like "oh son, no, anything but that." And then he told me it was a very hard business, writing, and that most people don’t do well with it but that he had my back if that’s what I really wanted.

And he did. I never paid a dime for college. He helped with bills when times were rough. He yelled in joy over the phone when I told him I was writing for Playboy. I’ve known a lot of men who spent their time trying to shape their sons to become modern version of themselves. Men who wanted their boys to grow up to be religious people who raised a family in the same town, who went to work at financial offices or ran businesses out of their homes, who never dared risk traveling beyond the borders of their own state. These are men who wanted a legacy in its most selfish, horrifying form: they wanted to see themselves continue in another vessel.

Dad could have easily been that sort of person, could have told me there was only one way to be in life and enforced that. Instead, he encouraged me to become the person I wanted to be. He told me to take glimpses at the world that existed beyond the city limits, bought for me controversial books that I wanted to read, let me embrace my own interests instead of trying to make me love his.

It took me years to realize that was a gift.

Marcus Fenix just wanted what was best for his son. Boy never listened, went and got himself in heap of familiar, bloody trouble. Should have known that was gonna happen—insubordination, it’s in the blood, after all. Now he has to pull JD’s ass out of the fire.

But hey, that’s what fathers are for, right?

In a way, my father doomed me to all of this: this whole video game business. He was really into it when I was a child. We spent hours playing Warcraft 2, X-Wing, DOOM, the works. Eventually his interest in games waned as they became more complicated. Mine didn’t. I dove headlong into video games. I bought subscriptions to PC Gamer, Gamepro, and Game Informer (oh hi there).

My dad bought us a gaming PC in 1998. I remember spending an entire summer helping him build a bathroom just so I could earn enough money for both Half-Life and Half-life Opposing Force. Over dinner I would talk his head off about planning starship battles in Homeworld or going back in time in The Journeyman Project. I talked sci-fi specifically because it was the one constant he and I have and will always have: a love for imagining what’s out there, what monsters and hopes sit on the far reaches of our comprehension.

During the late '90s my mother was working on getting her nursing degree. This meant that the weekends were basically me, my brother, and my father sitting in our living room and feasting on pizza as we watched Laserdiscs of Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Mortal Kombat, Twister (look, he really liked watching that CGI cow fly by, ok?).

The things that would eventually become the corner stone of my professional life were born here in these moments, with men slamming triangles of cheese and meat into their mouth and guzzling soda while the post-apocalypse played out in a startling number of ways on a dusty television set well into the night.

This is where I come from.

Emily Kaldwin sits atop a wall in Karnacka. An empress in exile. Now she’s plotting to take her kingdom back, just as her father did all those years ago. But she’s going to do things different. He killed a lot of people to try and make something right. She’s grateful but she’s also not her father.

She looks across the way at the mansion where the grand inventor lives, where he tinkers with monsters and gives life to demons.

She hops down. She will take back her throne and she won’t spill a single drop of blood while doing it. That is what people will say of Emily the Just.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand myself. Part of the way I do that is to look at art—across every medium—and to see how it relates to facets of my life. This is what most people do, in one way or another, and part of the reason why it’s important for us to look at the sorts of stories we have in our culture—because they can tell us about who we are and who we want to be.

There are only a couple types of children/father relationships in fiction, I’ve noticed. Those that are caring. Those that are estranged. Those that are abusive. And those that simply do not exist at all. But inherent in all those relationships is this idea of legacy and how we carry much more than ourselves wherever we go. We carry our names, and our names have histories, and those histories shape both our perception of ourselves and others’ perceptions of us. Who we choose to be shapes that perception as well.

I think what interests me about games that focus thematically on parents and children is that they often let us play out legacy in an interactive manner. For Noctis, it's a straightforward, but long, linear journey where nearly every major story beat is placed for us--his destiny is set. Instead, our moments of freedom emerge with what Noctis and his friends do when they're not pursuing that goal. It's not a bad thing that we can't change Noctis' fate in the grand scheme of things but the small journeys we take (whether it's a certain order of sidequests or simply which snapshots Prompto saves during the trip) make it feel like it's our legacy in some way as well.

Games like Dishonored 2 take a different tact. Emily Kaldwin is the daughter of the previous game's protagonist. Both Dishonoreds are immersive sims and thus allow us to play as lethally or non-lethally as we like, making the world a better or worse place by the amount of restraint we show when it comes to violence.  What I believe (emphasis here on I) is the canon playthrough for Dishonored has Corvo killing the main targets but sparing everyone else. With Dishonored 2, I felt like it made sense for Emily to carve her own path and thus chose to play her as someone who took her father's lessons to heart but was also merciful, sparing everyone--even her worst foes.

It's fascinating to me that this year has had a number of games that focused on fatherhood and legacy, just as I've really started to examine the roles those things and how they fit into who and what I want to be. I don’t want a stationary life with a family (not yet anyway). I don’t want to fight in wars. I don’t want to go to church. I don’t want to be a good man who does his part as one of the pillars of a small community. I won’t carry those things that define my father with me. Instead, I choose the small, bright things.

How his eyes light up at the beginning of A New Hope whenever the Star Destroyer flies overhead. How he can listen hours on end, barreling down interstates from one side of the country to the next, to the works of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Herbert. My old man has a relentless, unabashed love for tales born in the stars and one day I’m going to be one of those storytellers.

That will be my legacy.

Noct stands by the side of the road. Iginis is cooking up toast. Somewhere that idiot Prompto is riding a chocobo while Galdiolus sets up camp. It’ll be dark soon. They didn’t travel far today but that’s okay. They made progress. Tomorrow they’ll go farther and eventually, one day, they’ll take it all back.

Noctis Lucis Caelum will earn his birthright, come hell or high water.

It’s Christmas Eve in South Carolina. After being away for a year, the summer-esque warmth feels strange.  My father and I sit in the living room. He’s strumming the guitar again. Practices every day. Part of his routine by now, I suppose. Tonight it’s Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Doesn’t sound half bad, truth be told.

I lie back into the couch. Briefly, I feel the urge to tell him about my life. In honest terms. I want to tell him about how I genuinely love my 40 minute walk to work in the snow, about how weird it is to fly places I’ve only ever dreamed of going. I want to tell him about how I’m afraid that the person I love will shatter me. I want to tell him about how deeply afraid I am of losing whatever talent I have.

I want to tell this man, whose blood is my blood, who gave so much just so I could be the thing that I wanted to be, about the things that come in the dark and leave me crippled at night. I want to ask for advice.

I don’t. Why? Who knows? The answer lies in the intangible. Messy and complicated. Perhaps I don’t want to admit that I’m constantly anything but happy to the man who supported me every step of the way in pursuing my ambitions. Maybe I’m afraid that whatever conversation I have with him will confirm that I am in free-fall and have no idea what I want from life.

But maybe, in the end, it’s just a thing we don’t do. We’ve never played catch. We’ve never cheered for the same football team or worshiped the same gods. Perhaps heart-to-hearts are off the table as well.

This is not a matter of what we chose; this is how we are. It is simply not our way.

It is not necessary, I think, to confront hard truths with your loved ones in order to have meaningful relationships. We elect for different things. Tonight it's Quiplash with the family. Tomorrow we'll sit at the table, after presents, and perhaps chat about Rogue One or bygone days when sci-fi wasn't rapidly becoming reality. Maybe before I go back to Minnesota we'll pull a joysticks from the attic, install X-Wing on one one the machines around the house and spend a few hours chasing down tyrannous scum across the galaxy.

We will be as we were. Perhaps for now, that's the most either of us can ask for.