I’m At That Age where the slang that the kids use is beginning to cause me to see red, even when I tend to agree with the slang in question. “Thirsty” is the most recent target of my irrational hate; used in a dating context, “He’s pretty thirsty” means sexual desperation to the point of patheticness. It’s a good descriptor of the state, and a state that I see all the time, but for whatever reason I find it impossible to take anyone seriously if they use it.
And so seeing the term “Dadfeels” bandied about gave me a huge rage which I initially ascribed to the fact that anyone who uses the word “feels” as a plural noun immediately drops about 40 IQ points in my estimation. The term is also used dismissively; since I’m a soulless human, I think the concept of parenting in general is a terrifying one. Babies are not people; they are animate lumps of flesh which produce shit, tears, and mucus and not much else. “I had a baby” generally gets translated, in my mind, to “I expelled a wet animal from my genitalia.” Having a baby is something that will never, ever happen to me–I’m of the John Waters school of thought, where lack of access to marriage, children, and the military is part of the gay consolation prize–and “this person is your child” is not as good motivation as the frankly more simple “the dude at the end is really ugly, and then the treasure you get for fighting him is super shiny.” That I appreciate the ambivalence at the heart of Nier–a man who’s so devoted to his sick daughter that he spends all his time on exciting adventures instead of actually spending time with her–says a lot about how lucky it is that I don’t have the opportunity to breed.
But the term isn’t “parentfeels”, it’s “dadfeels”, and it really wasn’t until last night that I started to think there’s something a little more demeaning to the term. It’s one of those impressive Catch-22s that the identity politics arm of the videogame community is so fond of doing. “Dadfeels”, and it’s hard to write the term without judging my fingers for typing a 22-year-old’s word, is simply a way that the very same people who call for greater varieties of human experience and emotion can judge certain types of those experiences and emotions as invalid because they’re coming from a–say it with me, folks–cisgendered, heterosexual, white man.
That most videogames, particularly traditional mainstream console games, are quest narratives has a lot to do with the fact that the quest narrative is possibly the literary structure that has the clearest and most explicit goals. A Hero at Point A seeks a Goal at Point Z, and in the meantime can go through as many levels and dungeons as the designer wishes. The goal can be a treasure or knowledge, or it could be Anita Sarkeesian’s favorite trope: The Damsel in Distress.
That the Damsel which is usually in Distress is often a Princess is pretty significant. Your average Hero who saves the Princess doesn’t usually go to bed alone after his quest; most likely his rescue has earned him the Princess’s hand in marriage. Most likely they live Happily Ever After in a castle on land that the King has granted them. Look, the Princess is just as incidental in this case, but she’s a goal more explicitly symbolic of social position than anything else. Saving a Princess quite literally allows someone to move up in the world. In your average medieval fantasy story, you get precious few opportunities to do that.
Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s 2013. You can’t make a simple Save the Princess story anymore–unless your name is Nintendo, of course–because, let’s face it, you’re too aware of the resonances. You kidnap a woman–you kidnap ANYONE–you’re going to have to explain to me a) why people were able to kidnap her in the first place, b) why she doesn’t immediately work on an escape plan, and c) why that escape plan doesn’t work, and I need an answer to all of those questions which isn’t “because she’s a woman”. And if, at the moment I rescue said woman, she doesn’t immediately arm herself with a similar level of weaponry as the hero in order to help us get out, there’d better be a good reason for that. This can very easily be done, and if you’ve ever seen Star Wars you’ve seen a movie which answers those questions satisfactorily, and good on it. You’re Mario, she’s the Princess, get to Saving is kind of a really boring premise, and frankly, Peach is a really boring character. I don’t want to make those games over and over again.
We can argue for a while about whether or not games should have more story or not–I’m beginning to roll my eyes at videogame plot in general these days–but we can all agree that we’re tired of the simple, old stories. That we want to tell more. I’ve read plenty of pieces arguing for greater types of human experience in videogames, and you know what, I’m there. I agree with that. There need to be more personal and more interesting motivations in gaming.
Now, the Quest Narrative structure is never going to go away; there will always be videogames about saving people because the desire to both save and be saved is within all of us. You don’t (always) want to make the object of the quest a Princess–or a girlfriend because of the inherent imbalance; it’s difficult to do that plot without casting the guy as a traditional protector.
Giving the player control of a father looking for a child is a way of killing two birds with one stone.
Immediately there is motivation–we can buy that Harry Mason is going to keep searching through Silent Hill to find his daughter because–talking to a father or two will make this clear–any father worth a damn *would* stay in hell to find his kid. Immediately there is a reason for the power imbalance–it literally *is* a parent’s role in life to protect their child. Immediately there is a reason for the protagonist’s greater competence–age and inexperience justify the child’s relative weakness.
Quite simply, “Dadfeels” is an evolution of the Damsel in Distress concept, but one which takes the undertones of the original–put it crudely, a Knight rescuing a Princess from a Dragon eerily resembles a competition to the right to claim the Princess’s vagina–and shifts the consequences for failure to a much more relatable horror. Heavy Rain is often seen as one of the most notable examples to feature themes of failed fatherhood prominently. While you may certainly take issue with the way that game handled the themes–the infamous “Press X to Jason” meme says a lot about the flexibility of interfaces and with David Cage’s skills as a designer–one cannot dismiss it. This is not a trivial, imaginary subject such as war; to dismiss themes of a father losing a child because they do not, say, reflect the violence that you live under and therefore aren’t “real” to you is to utterly deny the validity of the emotions of all fathers.
It smacks of hypocrisy: One understands that the strongest urge when designing a videogame is to design a character who is an avatar of oneself; for a man to make an honest declaration of his intense feelings of love for his child, only to have it slapped down with the demeaning term “Dadfeels”–well.
I would like to clarify that I am not necessarily arguing in favor of the subgenre–I’m more arguing against the condescension inherent in the term. I don’t think that making a lot of games about parents saving their kids is the solution for Getting Gaming Taken Seriously or whatever the goal is these days. I will accept an argument to the effect of this being merely a quasi-acceptable face of an inherently problematic trope that doesn’t actually correct his flaws. I get that there’s a lot of men saving daughters–few sons, fewer mothers. I get that those are intimately intertwined with about sixty other problems about how gender is regarded in videogames.
I just…can’t see the term “Dadfeels” used to mean anything other than, this game is stupid because it deals with fatherhood which is a ridiculous emotion.
An invalid emotion.
It’s very difficult for me to see the term without thinking it’s suggesting that “Dad” is a character archetype not worth paying attention to. Take it as the usual cue to call for people to talk about different experiences–get some moms to design games about saving their kids, maybe. Or, I mean, don’t. The more plot, the more cutscenes, and the less I’m gonna give a shit. Seriously, I just need the treasure to be *really* shiny and I’ll be fine.