How Games Have Changed My Perspective on Parenthood

Or, the master class in character development that is The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

HEADS-UP: Heavy story spoilers for The Last of Us and the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, plus minor spoilers for the opening of God of War (2018) follow.

One of the reasons people love games is because they allow an escape from our surroundings, to experience the empowerment that comes from taking action with pixel protagonists. Two of my favourite gaming experiences of the last few years, however, did more than that – they helped me reflect on my own life.

Nearing my mid-20s in the early 2010s, I was drawn to two protagonists who exhibited heroic qualities to which I had never given a second thought. When I think back to Lee Everett in Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Joel in The Last of Us, I realise the sacrifices they were willing to make for their unofficially adopted children had illuminated my perspective on parenthood.

Each of these men were broken vessels, tarnished by personal devastation and forced to fight through a world that was intent on breaking them down into bite-sized zombie snacks. Despite the chaos around them, they each took responsibility for a young girl, caring for them without any defined obligation.

The heart and soul of season one of Telltale's The Walking Dead.

The heart and soul of season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

These relationships built over time. At first, it was about survival and a sense of decency – doing the right thing. However, by the end of each riveting story, Lee and Joel had become father figures to Clementine and Ellie respectively, and as the player, I found myself surprised by my own sense of connection to these young characters.

Lee gave his life to protect and save Clem, first teaching her how to survive in a hostile world and ultimately showing her that to love someone is to sacrifice everything for them.

“You’re strong, Clem. You can do anything. You’re gonna see bad stuff… but it’s OK.”

Lee gave his life to protect and save Clem, first teaching her how to survive in a hostile world and ultimately showing her that to love someone is to sacrifice everything for them.

In later games, we see an older Clem reflecting on Lee’s parting words and living out his lessons. I’ve now watched her grow up through three seasons of The Walking Dead, and despite the horrors she’s faced, I’ve revelled in seeing her mature into a strong and capable survivor, wise beyond her years.

I love how Telltale has allowed Clem to evolve as a character, but I can’t help but think back on that scared eight-year-old kid hiding in her treehouse. I wonder, who and where would she be without Lee’s compassion and guidance? As the gamer, we protected Clem from the horrors of The Walking Dead for more than a dozen hours.

When I picked up my DualShock for the second and third seasons, that defensive, fatherly instinct remained steadfast, despite the fact that along the way I’ve spent more time playing as Clem than I ever did as Lee. Every tough decision I made in The Walking Dead started by considering what was best for Clem. The feeling is hard to explain, but the closest way I can describe it is “paternal”.

Exit Theatre Mode

I have no children and when I first played The Walking Dead, I didn’t even have a girlfriend. I certainly didn’t feel drawn to the idea of fatherhood. I always assumed I’d have kids, but it was a distant concept. Even when I married a couple of years later at 25, I felt utterly unprepared to raise a young child and to be the kind of father my hypothetical offspring would deserve. It was always part of the plan, but I remember telling my wife I just wasn’t ready.

In 2013, The Last of Us became my favourite story ever created – not just in games, but in all of television, film and literature.

As the years passed, this connection to Clem strengthened over more games, but it was the brick-throwing, giraffe-loving Ellie who gave me a taste of experiencing the sacrifices a parent would make to protect their loved ones. In 2013, The Last of Us became my favourite story ever created – not just in the script-diluted medium of games, but in all of television, film and literature. It’s filled with amazing environments, a spine-chilling soundtrack and tense gameplay moments, but Neil Druckmann’s incredible writing is the main reason The Last of Us will go down as the standout storytelling experience of the PlayStation 3 generation.

The relationship between its central characters is the glue that holds it all together. Reluctant at first, Joel endures months of hardships alongside Ellie, and just as Lee did with Clem, he shows her what it takes to survive, while she teaches him to find glimmers of hope and joy in the simple things of life. Through their ups and downs, Joel reaches a position where he would do anything to protect her. He doesn’t just risk his own life – he takes the lives of those standing in his way and disregards what could potentially happen if he just allowed Ellie to sacrifice herself in the story’s climactic ending.

World weary.

World weary Joel eventually lowers his defences and lets Ellie in.

Unlike Telltale’s The Walking Dead, developer Naughty Dog delivers linear stories without the freedom to determine your own outcome. Attempting to save humanity, the Fireflies are just minutes away from performing a surgical procedure that will cost Ellie everything, when Joel brutally guns his way through dozens of soldiers and whisks her away to safety.

Many gamers expected, or at least wanted, to face a choice at this point: escape with Ellie or sacrifice her for the supposed greater good. But that wasn’t the story Naughty Dog wanted to tell, as Joel chose to protect his surrogate daughter and throw away any chance at restoring order to a society in disarray. As much as this frustrated some players, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ellie was awesome. Smart and funny, thoughtful and brave, fierce and adorable.

At this point in the game, I was so invested in Ellie’s safety and future that I would’ve done anything to save her. Ellie was awesome. Smart and funny, thoughtful and brave, fierce and adorable. I felt that same paternal impulse that drew me to protect Clem. I wanted nothing but to see Ellie safe and sound – happy, even, if such a thing was possible in her strange, relentless world. Again, my wife and I are yet to be blessed with children of our own, but I imagine any loving father would make the same selfish decision as Joel in that tense operating theatre. The same way many people would struggle not to choose a beloved pet over the life of a complete stranger, I felt that self-centred desire to protect the one who mattered most to me. I needed Ellie to survive.

Ellie.

Ellie – one of gaming’s most memorable characters.

The Last of Us taught me that impulse. It brought out that new emotion. As I reflected on the game’s stunning conclusion five years ago (and many times since), I realised the connection I felt to Ellie was likely a drop in the ocean compared to what I might feel for a child of my own. But would I be the kind of parent who wouldn’t hesitate to make tough decisions or sacrifices? I feared I wasn’t there yet. Maybe you’re never truly ready until it happens, but I still felt unprepared to give up who I was to become someone who puts their own desires and needs on the shelf.

Fast-forward five years and a lot has changed in my life, but I still love playing video games. I was beyond excited to start God of War in April, with a special interest in the father-son dynamic between Kratos and Atreus. However, I quickly realised it was far harder to relate to a Spartan god (shocking, I know) than the other father figures who had resonated so strongly with me in the past.

For Kratos, every battle, every success and failure, every side quest presents a meaningful teaching moment. Like Lee and Joel, he will protect and provide for his young dependent at any cost, but in the untamed Norse realm of Midgard, he sees no room to nurture Atreus with encouragement or to empower his son through mutual respect. It’s a tough love, no doubt, but it’s also harsh and cold in an already frosty world.

Not really the hugging type.

Not exactly a warm fuzzy kinda guy.

Maybe that’s the point, but my experience throughout the incredible God of War narrative flagged an obvious progression from the way I felt playing The Walking Dead and The Last of Us. Instead of wishing I had the courage to act like Lee and Joel, I was disappointed in the way Kratos failed to emotionally care for Atreus. He frustrated me early in the game, appearing as an unprepared and unenthused parent who seemed forced to spend time with his mourning son.

In Kratos, I saw a brief reflection of the way I felt five years ago, far from the father I would want to be. Until a major turning point in the story, he made no effort to relate to Atreus. He lied about his past, he was disinterested, and he failed to console or comfort a boy overcoming the loss of his mother (just hug your son, man!).

This bothered me enough to make me realise how my mindset has shifted since first meeting Ellie and Clem those years ago. As much as they appealed to my nurturing side, and showed a glimpse of who I wanted to be, my unforgettable God of War experience (to be clear – I loved the game) confirmed that I’m now in a completely different place.

Over time, feelings of Kratos-like reluctance have been replaced with excitement and a sense that I would go to any length to start a family, to nurture it like Lee or Joel, and to protect it with their same determination. I know I’m ready to be a father – as much as I’ll ever be.

Exit Theatre Mode

I have no idea what’s next for these characters in The Last of Us II and Clem’s final chapter later this year, but we know enough about them to be confident they’ll take on their respective worlds in their own way – by surviving, facing problems head-on, making sacrifices for those they care about, and carrying on the legacies passed on by those they’ve lost.

In my own life, I’ll endeavour to inspire a future generation to do the same. As I reflect on my lasting memories of Lee and Joel’s interactions with Clem and Ellie, and even Kratos with Atreus, I look forward to the opportunity to experience these precious teaching moments with my own children… hopefully minus the zombies.

Jono Pech is a former news journalist, a defender of Skittles, the author of The Spy and the Maven, and host of the Puttin’ In Work podcast. Follow him on Twitter – @JonoHimself.

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