The Role of Children in Video Games
With the recent God of War game exploding upon release it's had me thinking more and more about the role of kids in games. And I'm not talking about kids playing games, I want to discuss how children have been portrayed in video games themselves.Children have been represented in video games since characters themselves became prominent, with protagonists like EarthBound’s Ness and Link from the Legend of Zelda series headlining their very own games on the NES while being mere children themselves. Making the protagonist a child made perfect sense at the time for the creators of these games given the fact that most people getting into video games were young. The allure of having someone players could directly and immediately relate to was not lost on developers, which is why the trend prevailed in ludicrously successful series like Pokemon, Megaman, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
As the market expanded into different demographics and games continued to evolve, however, this trend shifted. With the release of systems capable of three-dimensional rendering came a rise in more mature ratings. As the graphical capabilities ascended so did the representations of violence, causing the industry as a whole to shift away from depicting and containing children.
While this may not have been the case all across the board, it certainly was for the mainstream market, and this continued to be the case in the early days of the Xbox and PlayStation. The dawn of both of these systems allowed for video game creators to move into much grittier worlds. The emergence of Halo, Call of Duty, and the rise in the Elder Scrolls franchises are prime examples of how the industry grew and changed along with the audience they saw were playing video games. At this point, Nintendo was primarily the only company of the big three still making games targeted toward and featuring children.
This all took a dramatic turn several years down the line with the release of a game many at the time were champing at the bit for Telltale’s The Walking Dead. At the height of the zombie craze that consumed the early twenty-tens Telltale games, a studio primarily known for the beloved Sam and Max games announced they would be releasing a game based on everyone's favorite zombie drama and graphic novels.
The self-contained story was to feature a man named Lee, and his peculiar traveling partner in a young girl named Clementine. Many were incredibly excited to see how the two would fair in a story set in such a bleak and unforgiving world, especially because one of the two main characters was indeed a nine-year-old girl. Until this point children in games were typically either one of two things: The hero such as Chrono, or an annoying ball and chain like Resident Evil 4’s Ashley. But Telltale Games, and by extension Clementine, shattered that concept.
A spoiler warning for those who somehow haven't experienced the game by now.
The story was made gripping because of the bond that Lee and Clementine from throughout the game's entirety. Seeing Lee try to protect Clem's innocence while also trying to explain and prepare her for the horrors the world holds for them is both inspiring and heartbreaking. We as players know how futile of an attempt it is, but can't help but find ourselves rooting for Lee, who would clearly do anything to protect this daughter figure he's found. And yet through all the heartbreak, we find no solace. The game’s conclusion involves a heartbreaking choice: Have Lee ask Clementine to shoot him after he's been bitten, or have him make her leave knowing the fate that will befall her friend. The game's ending is gut-wrenching, and Telltale knew it.
They also knew that if it were simply another adult or even a teenager it simply wouldn't have the same impact. Watching the protagonist struggle to help this little girl any way he can, and then seeing that it's been essentially all for naught forces us to come to the same conclusion Lee had to: That Clem will grow up, it will be hard, and it will be in this cruel new world. The sequels do an excellent job of portraying this, but it's Telltale's first installment that really set the baseline. That is before another game comes along just a year later and amidst the very same undead craze grips the attention and emotion of players around the world. The Last of Us is released in two-thousand thirteen and shook players down to the core.
The long-awaited Naughty Dog release features another man in Joel and another young daughter figure in Ellie amidst the wake of a zombie-like apocalypse. This, however, is where most of the similarities between the two games end.
Throughout The Last of Us’ run, we are able to see the developing relationship of a man who lost his daughter years ago when the plague began and a fourteen-year-old girl who’s known nothing but a post-outbreak world her entire life. A headstrong girl and a world-weary man set out to travel across the country to reach a research station so that someone can potentially unlock the key to a cure that may be within Ellie's DNA. As the story unfolds we see Ellie step into her own as a survivalist. From a narrative standpoint, her and Joel’s relationship grows quickly, and she comes to his aid as much as he does her’s, if not more. She's even shown to be plenty capable using various weapons, not limited to, but including her incredibly deadly and enviously unbreakable switchblade.
This was revolutionary from the gameplay aspect as well. During tense firefights or standoffs with bandits, Ellie might sneak around and flank the enemy, bashing their skull in with a brick. She can also locate enemies for the player and is even known to find health packs or ammo on occasion. When sneaking around as Joel the player need not worry about Ellie, because she will stick as close to his side as she can, but even if she walks directly into the enemy’s line of sight the game won't punish the player for it. Naughty Dog managed to execute the perfect young companion in Ellie, who is arguably the best incarnation of a child sidekick in any video game. Her AI is smart enough to actually help the player without hindering them in any way, but also without cheapening the experience of both the gameplay and narrative aspects. Ellie struck a major chord in the hearts of fans, whether it was because of the narrative focus on her maturity and experience of the infected world, or due to her expertly balanced performance in-game. The combination of the two is what really solidified her as a phenomenal character, and helped Naughty Dog prove that children still have a prominent place in video games.
Tales of heroic or simply protagonistic kids is not a new concept. Since ancient times people have understood what children can represent in a story; Innocence, ignorance, overconfidence, empathy, loyalty, heartbreak. These stories are clearly not a new concept in video games either, and yet it's still fairly recently that they are making a prominent resurgence in the medium, with far more games than the two I've mentioned aiding in that comeback.
With luck, we'll see a continuation of the grand storytelling abilities developers and writers are able to bring to life through our screens when children are included as a staple in those stories.