Where are the Moms of War?
God of War was an incredible feat of storytelling. Kratos’s relationship with Atreus was one of the most truthful and heartfelt expressions of fatherhood, while still making room for drama with the Norse pantheon. There is a reason that Kratos has become known as the Dad of War in internet memes.
That got me thinking, where are all the Moms of War? Granted, parenthood isn’t explored in games very often but when it is, we always seem to focus on father figures.
The key to this mystery is narrative function. Kratos’s narrative function as a father was to be the driving force of the plot. Everything he did was in relation to his status as a father. This includes the things he does with Atreus, such as protecting him, teaching him how to survive, and telling stories to him, but also the way Kratos interacts with the world and his enemies.
The entire story of God of War is framed in reference to Kratos’s fatherhood. His primary antagonists are a warped version of the same protective instincts as a parent that he feels. Atreus gets put into danger because of decisions he makes as a father and his world outlook changes as he learns things from Kratos. The places Kratos and Atreus visit are all a function of Kratos’s role as a parent. The eventual conclusion to Kratos and Atreus’s story has them both growing as father and son.
It’s already clear that we haven’t seen mothers in a similar narrative role in any recent AAA video game. So to begin our search for the Moms of War, we need to examine the narrative role mothers do play in video games.
The Non-Existent Mom
The easiest way to deal with a mother figure in video games is to simply not have her be present. Many video game heroes have parents but they are never mentioned or addressed. We just assume that they aren’t relevant in whatever adventure we are currently on.
And that’s the only narrative function mothers serve in this context… none.
The Dead Mom
An offshoot of the invisible mom is the dead mom, which is perhaps the most dramatic way to make a mother invisible. In these situations the mother is not an active participant in the main character’s life, but can still be addressed somehow.
The narrative function of the dead mother runs a spectrum. In some cases, it’s just a convenient way to write them out of the plot. We have seen no shortage of orphans who never even knew their mother and who never bring their mother up again after they explain their past.
Sometimes the death of the mother is a driving force. This is more often the case when a mother figure dies on screen or in recent memory. Oliver from Ni No Kuni and Evan from Ni No Kuni 2, for example, both have mother figures die early in the game, and the memory of that mother acts as a cornerstone of their morality, which ends up pushing them onward in their adventure.
For the record, dead moms usually are coupled with dead dads as well. The dead parents trope is pretty strong. However, even when both parents die more focus tends to be put on the father. When Clementine’s parents died in The Walking Dead her personality was molded by a surrogate father figure, Lee. Ryu, Street Fighter’s iconic protagonist, is an orphan but he finds a surrogate father in Gouken. Dante from Devil May Cry is the son of a Demon father and a human mother, but it’s the actions of his dead father, Sparda that have the greatest impact on his life. In this way, dead mothers are used as a narrative function to allow the existence of dead fathers.
The steppingstone Mom
Sometimes mothers exist in videogames for the sake of their non-existence having an impact. We saw this very often in the ‘90s when young JRPG protagonists would have to leave their mother in order to embark on their world changing journey. Crono’s mother from Chrono Trigger and Ness’s mother from Earthbound are examples of these steppingstone moms. In fact, both of these protagonists basically die over the course of their journey, yet we never get to see their mother’s grieve or join in on the journey. They just stay at home, none the wiser.
Earthbound is actually a very important example here. Many of you may know that Earthbound is actually the American name for Mother 2. The Mother series is largely framed around the concept of motherly love. Yet, as stunning as these games are, we never actually get to see a mother involved in the core plot.
Rather, these games are actually centered around the absence of motherly love. In Mother 1, Giegue’s evil acts and eventual vulnerability was a result of his upbringing by a human mother. In Mother 3, the action of the game kicks off by the inciting incident of Lucas’s mother’s death at the hands of a cyborg dinosaur. While mothers are undoubtedly important in both of these situations, they aren’t really characters in their own right. They are narrative tools for the main character which push their journey forward.
So many of our stories are based on the simple structure of the hero’s journey, in which a character who currently exists in a normative realm of safety gets a call to adventure, leaves that safe realm, enters a realm of wonder, learns a lesson, resolves a conflict, and then comes back to his safety. Since mothers are often framed as safe spaces in stories in general, leaving a mother is often used as the kick-off point of the hero’s journey, and this is why steppingstone mothers are used so often in video games.
That’s why your mother always stays behind when you embark on your Pokemon journey.
The Monster Mom
Since mothers are such a universally understood symbol of safety, corrupting that symbol is a fantastic tool for causing unease and horror. So when mothers become video game antagonists, they are frequently turned into monsters, demons or other aberrations. This gives the protagonist someone or something tragic to fight against.
Queen Zeal from Chrono Trigger was a mother who becomes corrupted by Lavos’s power and serves as a tragic antagonist for Magus. Queen Brahne from Final Fantasy 9, Garnet’s mother, is literally portrayed as a cartoonishly fat and ugly tyrant as she tries to take over the world.
And these monstrous caricatures only get more extreme. There are mothers that exist solely to use their children in some sort of evil plot, like Silent Hill’s Dahlia Gillespie or The Queen in Ico. There are mothers that literally become demons like Kazumi Mishima in Tekken 7. There are mothers who come back as literal personifications of a terrible past, like Lady Comstock’s ghost in Bioshock Infinite. However, the most pure example of this trope is Isaac’s mom from The Binding of Isaac whose monstrous qualities are not only the framing device for the entire plot, but also inform the grotesque art style that the game is known for.
The Quest Mom
Sometimes moms actually get to stick around for an entire game, but they are never the focus of the game. Rather, they are someone you have to interact with to further your own adventure. This comes so close to portraying mothers in an active and positive light, yet still misses the mark.
Consider Bioshock. Dr. Tenenbaum is characterized as the “mother” of the Little Sisters and is a major player in the plot. However, you never actually get to see her do anything. She is, for all intents and purposes, a quest marker, a voice in the background. It’s you, the player, who enacts her wishes. She could have climbed into a big daddy suit and wreaked some havoc on Rapture, but she was content to wait for you.
This is the sort of mother that you see most often in open world games. They have desires, goals and wants, but you never see them acting on those wants. Instead they simply act as a proxy for the player character, and that causes something to be lost narratively.
Imagine if Kratos and Atreus just sat at home while they asked some totally separate person to figure out the way to the highest peak in all the realms. Sure you would still see all the many locales and puzzles of God of War but it wouldn’t be nearly as narratively compelling.
The Invisible Mom
Finally we have the invisible mom. These are characters that are mothers and that you might even get to play as, yet their motherhood is rarely mentioned or addressed in a major way.
Fighting game moms usually end up characterized this way. Sophitia from Soul Calibur and Michelle Change from Tekken are both mothers, but that is only ever addressed in their endings. You could play the entire game and never know this.
Bayonetta is perhaps one of the closest things to an actual mother figure in gaming. She cares about Cereza and despite how many times the plot veers off from motherhood into sexy battle shenanigans, her role as a mother is a major part of the plot. But then it’s revealed that Cereza is just her from the past, almost as if the developers were afraid to let her actually act as a real mother.
Then there is Jade from Beyond Good & Evil who acts as a mother figure to orphans. Once again while this is a major portion of the plot, it’s only a side story to a much greater conflict. Jade’s role as a mother rarely plays into her role in the narrative as anything other than a motivator for things she was doing anyway.
This is the telltale sign of the invisible mom. If you can forget that a character is a mother, then she is an invisible mom. That’s because the game that she was in downplayed her motherly role.
Kratos became the Dad of War because everything he is was wrapped up in the identity of father. Even the very first trailers for the game showcased him in a fatherly role. We haven’t seen any moms of war because apparently the mother role is just far easier to not talk about.
Where are the Moms of War?
So now we have seen what roles video game moms have been taking. Our next question is why?
Well, the answer is simple and somewhat depressing. It’s the same reason we see these same roles portrayed in other media. Media has been saturated with male dominant stories. The studios that produce these games, often headed by men, tend to view men as the “normal” or at the very least the default. So they create stories about men, and the men who inspire them. This means we are going to see far more emphasis on father figures.
And what about moms? Well if we continue this train of thought, these same developers are looking at their moms from the outside in. They are thinking about how their moms inspired them and how they left their moms as they became adults.
This creates a tendency to portray moms in service to a greater narrative. Moms are positioned as props, as background story, as justification for main character action. What they aren’t portrayed as is their own character, capable of taking action on their own.
However, game development culture and media culture in general, is becoming more and more diverse. That’s part of the reason why Dad of War was made. It’s why Kratos was changed from a reckless and violent force of nature to a caring and damaged father figure. It’s because we want to see more stories with more diverse characters taking on roles we haven’t seen in gaming before.
So maybe, one day, we will see the Mom of War. Maybe we will get to play as a mother protecting her daughter in the zombie apocalypse. Maybe Samus Aran will someday train a young bounty hunter to kill metroids.
You can steal that one Nintendo. Consider it a Mother’s Day present.