Stories have never been especially kind to genetic fathers (surrogate father figures tend to fair better). Overcoming and even killing dad has been a staple of fantasy for all time – 2500 years after Oedipus Rex, Luke Skywalker discovers the dad he’s destined to destroy. King Arthur overcomes the memory of his biological father. So does Simba.
But video games have been decidedly more kind to the old man. Video games have an instinct to portray fathers as guided, well-meaning hero figures. While there are some exceptions, the protector figure is the norm, with the player often assuming the role of father to children stolen by the game’s story.
Instead of a normal list, I’m going to award some gaming dads in categories that describe how I view the portrayal of fatherhood in video games.
1 The Lost Kid Award
Harry Mason from Silent Hill might have taken this award, but everyone who’s played David Cage’s masterpiece disaster piece, the dialogue-driven storybook, Press “X” to spasm the word “Jason!” adventure, Heavy Rain, knows that Ethan Mars takes it. Actually this is the most common way that you’ll be playing as dad, since every good adventure needs a McGuffin, and loin-fruit serves just as well as a power-up.
Haggar from Final Fight is another contender, and a shining success in the realm of actually saving your kid from doom. Also the Best Dad Bod Award would probably only have one entrant, but Haggar works it so much it’s almost worth its own slot.
2 Most Reluctant Dad Award
One thing you never expect to be in Grand Theft Auto, a game in which you can be anything, is a dad. The inclusion of Michael De Santa in Grand Theft Auto 5 added a certain Coppola-esque charm to the killing, like there was a relatable therapeutic core to the off-hand madness. While not the most present dad, Michael definitely has a part of him that wishes he could have connected with the humans he brought into the world. He’s just always been too busy. And still is.
3 The Lost Dad Award
James from Fallout 3 gets this one. Enabled by milky-toned Liam Neeson, the guy says everything like it’s a comforting sermon – you truly feel like you’ve lost your guide in life when he mysteriously disappears. Some more time on the walking subroutines might have helped immersion, but for giving the son the chance to be the one worrying and wondering if dad will ever call, James is a nice change of pace.
4 Most Related Dad Award
This is cheating, but Big Boss has to get some kind of award for being the genetic template of an entire game series’ worth of protagonists. Technically a biological clone, not a dad as such, Boss has a back story so convoluted that just by omitting the word “Big” I could be talking about a half dozen other super powerful legends in the Hideo Kojima story diary. Called the greatest soldier of his day, friend, genius, tyrant, madman, he’s one of those villains that has the weight of lore behind him. I don’t think anyone ever called him “dad,” but he is in spirit the father to so much stuff that he had to get something.
5 My Heart Belongs to Daddy Award
Again, I’m cheating. But Big Daddy takes the role in name that would make him infamous in video games as the dad you just don’t want to get caught by. Clever programming made hallway confrontations seem dangerous without being so – just the presence of the Little Sister was enough to make you wary enough of Big Daddy to let them walk by without making eye contact. If he were human he would have done the two finger, “I’m watching you,” thing. Bioshock was spooky enough without the inclusion of a sadistic protector dad automaton. Made for some great music too.
6 Best Implied Dad Award
This is for dads who don’t adventure for their kids, exactly, and don’t really talk much about them. They’re just implicitly dads – it’s part of who they are. John Marston from Red Dead Redemption could be in this category, for caring so much about a family we see so little of. But the boss Koopa himself has to take it, for the most obscurely defiling dad regime in all of gaming. Bowser has at least one kid, who calls his habitually pilfered princess “Mommy,” and in at least name alone has all the marks of a dad, without ever explaining himself, or doing much fathering.
7 I Wish My Dad was as Cool as Yours Award
Everyone thinks he lets you drive his awesome car and live in his fancy houses, but he’s just dad to you. Who wouldn’t want the King of All Cosmos for a dad? But as the Prince in Katamari Damacy, we know there’s more to it than that. Being son to the all-powerful head honcho of the universe just barely makes up for the fact that we spend the whole time cleaning up his messes. Though his punishments are severe, his splendiferous manner and alluring belt buckles make him the envy of less cosmic children everywhere.
8 Most Huggable Dad Award
Eli Vance from Half-Life almost took this, but in my mind his caregiving nature needed to be more fleshed out (if Half-Life 3 ever figured itself out, we might have something). This goes to one of the lesser known, underrated dads: the man simply called Father, from cavia’s Nier. A being of unknown age living in the rural after-future of a destroyed world, Father lives with his daughter in a situation that – gasp – doesn’t involve looking for her. There is something about a curse and a cure, but the plight is more intrinsic. He wants to give his daughter a world worth growing up in. You just want to hug the guy and tell him he can do it, even as you’re playing as him.
9 Most Shakespearean in Awfulness Award
Okay, Heihachi. Despite your Darth Vader-levels of parenting ineptitude that amount essentially to attempted murder, Tekken takes place in a whole world that revolves around punching people in the face. The award should go to someone who goes out of their way to be a terrible dad. Whose world doesn’t call for it. In time for God of War 5, you might want to revisit gaming’s worst father, who pulled a Hercules on his family in the first God of War and hasn’t lived it down yet. Kratos is all that is distempered and vengeful in fathers, all that is the demon of storybook patriarchy, the myth of the iconic Father. He is part of gaming’s modern myths, and the very worst of all its dads.
10 Most TV-Worthy Dad Award
Sam Fisher could have taken this if Splinter Cell was more character-focused. But Joel from The Last of Us is the clear winner. His emotional journey is cinematic in the sense that he has a clear emotional arc. But it’s also interactive: your plight in-gameplay protecting and adventuring with Ellie puts Joel so far above other gaming dads in goodness that I have to stop, for fear of spoiling anything.