Cats In The Cradle

Quite often in life, those around us can appear to be affected by something which, through no fault of our own, makes no sense to us.  It could be that they’re enthusing over having finally popped the last achievement in EDF: 2017 after years of hoping for that elusive weapon to finally spawn but, not having ever played it or caring very little about gamerscores could mean that this moment of elation is lost on anyone other than that particular individual.  Whether trivial or of monumental importance, the ability to understand and rationalise how another thinks or feels must always be founded upon reciprocity otherwise the emotion will have no bearing on the other.

Shortly after the doors closed to E3 2011, a conversation about the Mass Effect 3 preview presentation turned a corner and became one of those moments where, out of the four writers who viewed the gameplay, only one was affected on an emotional level.  As the father of two young boys, Ben spoke of how deeply he felt watching Shepard trying to coax an abandoned boy from a ventilator shaft in an effort to save his life, only to then see the rescue craft destroyed with the child on board.  In his eyes, that boy was one of his own and he was watching them perish.  I watched the same footage, witnessed the same outcome and yet, to me, the boy was nothing more than pixels on a screen.  I understood why he felt those emotions, but I couldn’t put myself in the same position to fully appreciate the depth.

In February of last year, however, something changed.  I eased myself into the murky waters of fatherhood and quickly realised that my raison d’être had almost immediately become this precious little girl, as fragile as she was beautiful, and that every decision I would make from that point on would be with her well-being in mind.  I was no longer crossing roads, looking both ways to make sure that the boy-racer in the metallic blue Corsa wasn’t about to pile-drive into my side… my level of awareness had increased from DEFCON ‘four and a bit’ to DEFCON 1, with my safety now coming secondary to that of my daughter.

The way I enjoyed movies and TV shows also changed.  No longer was I able to watch with emotional impunity whenever a child was endangered or injured; now every one of those kids was mine and I felt their pain, the anguish of their parents, and that sense of helplessness.  The words “you’ll understand when you have kids of your own one day” that were often hurled at me by my mother during an internal struggle of fear, relief and anger would now echo relentlessly to the point where all that was missing was Vincent Price’s macabre laughter, taunting me at how it had finally come to pass.  I now understood what it was to be a parent; to fear for their safety and well-being every waking moment of every day and to go from having virtually no fears to being terrified of losing my child.

My life as a gamer has also been affected by fatherhood, turning some of my most celebrated games into those that I’d much rather avoid, as I’m not sure how I’d react after having Dad Juice injected into my brain.  Even as a childless cynic, certain aspects of Fallout 3 had me wishing that I’d remained ignorant to some of the hidden stories and just stomped my way through the Capital Wasteland as others had, oblivious to the sadness.

When I first met with Kenny during my playthrough of the Point Lookout DLC, he was a young boy who lived alone in Herzog’s Mine, fending for himself with his only friend being a stuffed toy by the name of Kenny Bear.  I was genuinely moved by this, even then, and when it became clear that he’d lost his bear I dropped everything to make sure I returned it to him as I couldn’t stand the thought of him being left alone.  When the option came up to play hide and seek with him, I did so for more than an hour.  I knew that there was nothing to gain from doing so; there was no secret achievement about to pop and reward me for spending time with the boy, but I spent the rest of my evening playing his games until it was time to shut down for the night.

Thinking back to this now, I see things differently.  My daughter has just turned fifteen months old, and we’re two weeks away from having a little boy join our family… so now the lost and bewildered face staring back at me from the mine would be one of my own children.  I would, yet again, go out of my way to retrieve the beloved bear and do whatever I could to take their mind off the fact that their own parents kept them hidden in a basement out of shame, and when it came time to play hide and seek, I doubt I’d ever be able to stop.  I know that he isn’t real, that he’s a character created to add a sense of depth to a game, but I’d much rather avoid the mine on my next playthrough than risk upsetting myself at the thought of this young boy being left alone in the dark.  Forever.

The same can be said for the Gibson house in Minefield.  As much as it affected me before, seeing the charred skeletons spooning on the bed with the Rad-X on the bedside table, I have an entirely new take on this particular event.  The room next to where the bodies lay had a bunk bed, and a little bookcase with various toys scattered across it.  The floor had several multi-coloured building blocks, some darts and a few cherry bombs. This was clearly a child’s bedroom and, although I haven’t actually played Fallout 3 since 2011, the impact that the Gibson house had on me that first time still lives with me today.  As a father, however, everything changes.  The couple spooning on the bed became defined by the very fact that the next room was a kid’s bedroom, and so those people were no longer just ‘people’ – they were parents.

They were parents who had been refused sanctuary by Vault Tec – a fact that you’d only be made aware of if you’d retrieved the key to the model home in the lounge – and who knew that their children would perish as soon as the first warheads were launched.  Their last moments on earth would not have been spent in each other’s arms, praying for a peaceful death, but would instead have been spent in unspeakable turmoil at the thought of not being able to carry out that most fundamental aspect of parenthood – to protect their children at all costs.  They would die believing that they failed their children, and that their innocent faces would be looking to their parents in the hopes of hearing the words “It’ll be alright”, but those words would never come.

Parenthood is both the best and worst thing that I’ve ever experienced. Harry Chapin’s “Cats In The Cradle” was once one of my favourite songs, as it told a story that most people could relate to on some level, doing so with a degree of poignancy that few songs are able to capture.  Now, however, it is a reflection of my own life where the 100+ hours a week that I spend working are woven through the lyrics of the song and I know that, one day, I’ll be begging my children for a chance to spend time with them, only to be asked for a rain check as they have their own busy lives to worry about.  With the incredible feeling of joy that comes from seeing your child gaze into your eyes with so much love comes a simultaneous sense of dread at the thought of never seeing that smile again.

I know that the next time I venture into the Capital Wasteland, every charred skeleton, regardless of their age or gender, will remind me of the fragility of life and that those remains were once someone’s child.  I know that the incinerated corpse of a man at the rear of a car, loading a suitcase into the boot while his kid waited patiently in the back seat as they prepared to set off for safety within a vault would become me, and that the child would become my daughter. It took me until the age of forty, but I now understand completely why Ben was so affected by the boy in the vent from Mass Effect 3 and I now feel as sorry for those who can’t relate on that level as Ben did for us that day.

I also envy their ignorance.




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5 Comments

  1. Stu says:

    A really poignant piece. Not being a parent myself I admit that I’m like you where in that I rarely take interest in the ‘family’ aspects of games. In fact very few children in games don’t end up irritating me and managing a family in games gives me the freaks – I can’t even manage my own life, let alone be responsible for supporting others! For instance, my femshep in Mass Effect was a lesbian in case some bizarre plot-twist involved a split condom and a different kind of tough choice…

    Those kids running around Whiterun in Skyrim, for instance, always seem to get under my feet and interrupt my efficient selling and storing runs between Belethor’s, Breezehome and the blacksmith with their taunting. To add to that I now have my own child in Skyrim (achievement whore – not out of choice!) and now she keeps stopping me to ask to play hide and seek. I decline, always, but if there was an option for ‘removing’ her then I’d take it. I even wondered if it’d be possible to wake her up when the vampires attack to see if they’d ‘deal’ with her, but I’d imagine even as an evil AI that they’d not kill the children. Liml from Star Ocean is the single most hateful character I’ve ever encountered in a game.

    Then again there are moments when children are used as great emotional leverage against a player. Great examples are Clementine from Telltales’ The Walking Dead and the nameless kid from Mass Effect 3 you’ve mentioned above. When done well it pulls at anyone with an ounce of humanity, even me, but after reading the above I can’t imagine the heart strings the well executed games pull and twist to evoke attachment from parents.

    I’m fairly certain that the next time I’m in Skyrim I’ll still wish I could un-adopt, but I will also spare a thought for you and the other parents that feel compelled to play hide and seek. If nothing else it makes a little more sympathetic to those gamers that need to drop everything in-game because ‘the kid just woke up’ or similar in real life and their priorities are somewhat different to mine (and probably rightly so).

  2. Grant says:

    This made me cry. I have a 2 yr old and never thoght about it like that until today but when I was reading tihs I thoght back to those games and put him in there place and it was so sad. I hope next time I wont do the same or ill have to give up gaming lol

  3. MarkuzR says:

    Sorry for the tears, Grant. If it’s any consolation, it’ll probably result in a deeper immersion with the games as it’ll allow you to better empathise with the characters in-game. You may want to take out a subscription to Kleenex Monthly though, if such a thing exists.

    Stu, I’m with you on many of those things. That little brat from Oblivion that used to follow me around was a real pain in the arse, and would just get in my way. I remember the kids from Fable II being somewhat annoying too as they’d basically just want presents from me all the time and didn’t seem to give a shit about the fact that their father had managed to stay alive while protecting everyone… as usual.

    The kids in Fallout 3, however… that’s just an entirely different level of storytelling altogether. Those poor kids from Little Lamplight who live underground with no adults and have been forced, by circumstance, to take natural childhood play activities such as playing doctor, a pretend shop and even the tool boxes for tinkering around with stuff, and turned it into reality. There’s the tiny kid who is the town doctor, trying to keep everyone healthy when really he should be running to a parent to get himself checked out rather than look after all the others. It’s so well-written in that, on the surface, you just see the result of the fallout. Below the surface, however, if you put your mind to work, then you see an entirely different side of life altogether.

    I will honestly never forget coming across the tiny little collection of houses in the middle of nowhere and getting annoyed because Fawkes had got stuck behind some rocks so while I waited for him to realise he could go AROUND them, I wandered around the town. It was only three or four wooden houses, none of which actually had any roofs or complete walls, but there was a burned-out car outside one of them. The boot was open and a corpse lay on the road behind the car, next to a suitcase. The letter from Vault Tec said that they’d been accepted. The back of the car had a kid’s corpse in it. They were on their way to safety but it was too late. I have NO idea where I saw this though, and wouldn’t know where to begin to find them. Either way, it was bad enough as a non-parent but I can’t imagine how I’d feel now if I saw it again.

    I think it comes down to the writing, and how much the surroundings are able to fill in the gaps to create the FULL story. When they’re just thrown into the mix though, like with Fable II, then I can’t be arsed with them either.

  4. Toffer says:

    This is a superb article, and one that I can only begin to appreciate as a non-parent. The children of Little Lamplight never seemed so desperate and alone, until now. Fallout always showed off a world that was doomed from the start but I never really gave thought to what had happened to the characters in it, past those that I had direct influence over.

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