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.


4 thoughts on “19

  1. I’m, uhh, I’m pretty sure I used “feel” in about the same manner a week ago. That…that’s a coincidence, right? Well, whatever; I’ve got at least 40 IQ points to spare.

    The goal these days? Ever since Hofmeier (or, other-Richard, as I like to call him) gave that “everyone’s life experience can be turned into a game” interview, I’ve been thinking just that. When video games can become something that regularly teaches/improves/makes-think people, that’s the win scenario. I’m…I’m not going to fix that sentence.

    • Aw, complete coincidence I swear (I think); anyway you’ve got enough credit with me that I didn’t even notice :)

      I do agree with the “everyone’s life can be a game” sentiment. I find that extremely at odds with the “if you don’t see a game that’s about yourself, make one!” sentiment–or, at least, I don’t think they’re necessarily the same one. I think what I appreciate most about Cart Life is it’s an intensely journalistic work. It’s extremely close to a game version of Studs Terkel’s Working. The work comes very much out of curiosity about the world–Richard Hofmeier buys a hot dog and wonders what the story of the guy who sold it to him is. But I also find a lot of power in the fact that the game makes it very clear that this is not an insular world of a hot dog vendor; all of the customers and the other people in the town have their own little stories and characterizations. It does pain me how inaccessible the work is. I’ve spent enough time both playing the game, reading about it, and writing stuff on it that I think I “get it”, but it’s a game that’s very…resistant to be internalized. I’ve found Cart Life to be the most fascinating of insects and its discovery was the entomological find of the century. It’s just not something I want to cuddle up to at night.

      We can debate the “fun” in Cart Life till the cows come home–I have troubles with Cart Life not because it’s Sad, or because it’s a Hard Game, but because it’s overwhelming to a degree that I think the message might get lost. There’s a little too much going on in the game, and while certainly the intent is to show that these characters have Difficult, Complex, and Overwhelming lives–but there’s that at 10, and there’s that at 50. It’s one thing for me to find Vagrant Story to be a little too punishing, because at the end of the day it’s a JRPG dungeon crawl. It isn’t making the same necessary points about empathy that Cart Life is. Jury is still out whether the game’s emotional complexity is drawn from the ludic complexity; now that the dust is settling a little bit, I’m beginning to think the latter could have been dialed down a little bit without sacrificing the former. Another reason I’m really excited for Ortolan–talking to him, it’s very clear that he’s actively attempting to learn from his missteps.

      Like I said, most fascinating of insects; I get why Goodwin and Brasure love this damn game so much.

  2. I didn’t really see is as a total invalidation, more a light mocking of the repeated elevation of one perspective. You can believe everyone deserves a go on the swing and still mock someone for hogging it. You’re not trying to say they never get a chance on the swing, their swinging doesn’t matter, but you are trying to say, hey, maybe you think your swinging is more important than it is. Also it doesn’t matter if you have a dozen reasons for why you really like swinging and why now is the ideal time for you to be swinging and when you swing your swinging is so deep and meaningful and everyone stands around admiringly – as a result of your swinging so much I’ve seen a lot of your swinging and it’s got this kinda sameyness to it I’m gonna find a silly name for now.

    Also, y’know, I don’t think all the values reinforced by the idea of the dad saviour are that great – it taps into an outdated notion of what fatherhood is: something proven by quests/tasks, rather than something lived day-in-day-out. That’s ripe for mocking too – fatherhood isn’t necessarily bad, but maybe the way games tap into an old archetypal “dad” has some issues.

    “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. ”

    That’s true, and there are quests that aren’t about saving too (Journey for instance, questing after a place), but I always felt the major objection wasn’t to Questing per se, but “damselling”, the process by which a character is stripped of agency, a determining role in the plot, and personality as evidenced through their thoughts and opinions and actions. You can quest after characters that have agency – shakespearean characters get up to all sorts of unrelated stuff while other characters are trying to get to them. I think that videogames are smart enough to build stories that indulge our desire for quests, and to save, and be saved (what games do you play someone being saved?) that aren’t as problematic as the current ones, but it requires us to be irreverent towards even great and serious stories, to be willing to see, acknowledge and play with their flaws.

    • I like the swinging metaphor, and I agree that there are some nuances that aren’t really covered in the original post. This is a case where the post was prompted by nothing specifically citeable but by some general themes I’d been picking up on from Twitter and blogs in general–stuff burbling since Heavy Rain (which, correct me if I’m wrong, itself has a swinging scene in it?) but really crystallizing this year with Bioshock Infinite and The Last Of Us (I’ve played the former but not the latter.) I know the evening I wrote the piece, I very specifically saw a series of tweets which made me think, okay, I’m gonna write about this, but I can’t say that I saved them or that I remember what they even said. Whether or not that makes my argument weaker is left as an exercise for the reader (hint: it probably does), but I didn’t want to write a “so-and-so said something stupid on Twitter and let’s pick at it” piece like I normally do.

      I’m with you in that I don’t necessarily appreciate a ton of games with the theme–I’m not a father myself, and I’m happily childless; you can’t put a child in front of me in a game and have them attempt to act cute and convince me that’s enough to risk going through hell. Shortly after or around the time I wrote this piece I got very heavily involved in Wizardry 6. The major goal of the game shifts slightly along the way, but initially you’re exploring a castle and its environments Because It’s There and because you’re curious to figure out why it’s been abandoned; it ends up being a Quest for a Macguffin. Depending on your choices you save a soul or two along the way, but that’s always a secondary task and it’s almost treated like a fetchquest. I am the type of person who apparently can be swayed to fight monsters for a magic pen, but a kid? Ew.

      You might want to check out Maddy Myers’s Tower Jam (http://towerjam.tumblr.com/); I haven’t poked around there since it was announced so I’m not sure what’s there yet and—

      –well, damn, it appears that three games were released and that it came and went and, uh, wasn’t that rousing. There was some kind of iOS game that someone made about playing the princess stuck in the tower, but I’ve heard it wasn’t very good, mostly because there wasn’t that much they could think of for her to do.

      (And now I might perhaps have an idea for a Twine..)

      I believe one of the Paper Mario games had a section where you played the Princess in captivity and what she was up to during that time; that’s making me think of the Arabian Nights and Penelope in the Odyssey, women who are very much held hostage and who have an extreme lack of agency and yet manage to find tiny loopholes to exploit.

      But again, this goes to whether or not games can tell deep stories and how games are at portraying sophisticated characters–I usually take whatever position is most interesting for the discussion, but lately I do find myself playing more and more games that honestly aren’t about characters in quite that way. I’ll probably swing back to narrative at some point, but I’m finding something very refreshingly pure about “here’s a maze, here’s a vorpal sword, here’s a bunch of kobolds, now bop them until you find the treasure”. Hell, let’s get back to Wizardry, in the very first game, the manual made it very clear that male and female adventurers were both equally common in the game’s world (there’s a famous quip from the manual defending the arbitrary use of male pronouns in those pre-singular-“they” days by noting that “Wizardry is not a sexist game but English is a sexist language.”)

      I think we are so far from the point of the original dadfeels thing. A lot of it had to do with Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine; people, serious academic games people, were arguing that the game’s concept was so reprehensible that they weren’t even going to play it, nuh-uh, no sir, there’s no way that could be a good thing. Rohrer’s perspective, people were arguing, was invalid. Look, I think the man’s games are awful, boring, pretentious, creepily Aryan Artworks, and if I could go back in time and delete Passage before it could be unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, I sure would, but to argue with one breath that Anyone Can And Should Make A Videogame To Tell About Their Experience with one breath and to say that Rohrer’s Worldview Is The Exception To That Rule Because I Don’t Agree With Him is…troubling.

      It’s time for bed even though I may or may not be in the middle of a thought; thank you so much for your comment and that nice thing you said about my game on Twitter.

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