Post Apocalypse Boogaloo: Trespassing in the Dad Zone

(This is a rehost of this article from my now-dead tumblr. Original publication was 17 March 2014)


I’ve always been a huge fan of post-apocalypse as a genre. When I was in high school, I remember scouring the library, trying to find all the literature I could about nuclear explosions, zombies, scorched earth- anything that had the emotional punch of a giant apocalypse scenario.

Post-apocalyptic stories often have one very interesting connective thread: that of erasure. Not erasure in the sense of cultural erasure or awareness erasure, but that of erasure of, well, everything.

There is no more class structure, there is no more governmental structure, there is often loss of family structure. PA worlds put human characters (with very human motivations, feelings, and squishy human bodies) into a facade of the human world. There are still buildings, cars, technologies- but they are untouchable. The characters of the post-apocalyptic world are as removed from the viewer as they are from the pre-apocalyptic world.

Why is this important? Because of dads.

In the PA world, gender is often de-emphasized in favor of power balance. This, while good in theory, is often overshadowed by the gendered perceptions of game developers on the narrative. Even in a game as relatively forward-thinking as Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1, (one of my favorite games maybe ever) the influence of gendered norms can be seen not in character actions, but in the implicit norms put into place by the developers. The player character is Lee (a male), the primary relationship in the game is pseudo-dad (between him and Clementine, a young girl), and the character of Lee is only progressive insofar as representation, being a black man and therefore a nonwhite representation.

While I will (always) applaud TellTale for doing many great things in TWD, the fact remains that the relationships taken by Lee undermine the world that we are taught to believe Lee exists in. This isn’t a problem with TellTale per se- they were working with the world of The Walking Dead as designed by Robert Kirkman, the original author of the comic- but the tropes that ‘survived’ into the zombie apocalypse are, curiously, primarily gendered norms: primarily male power figures, implicit understanding of female characters as more vulnerable, motherhood/fatherhood as different and apart terms, etc.

This isn’t confined to TWD. Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us had a very similar narrative, with an older man escorting a younger, teenage girl to an enclave of rebels in virus-plagued middle America. Bethesda’s 2008 release Fallout 3 had the player acting not as the dad, but as the child of a lost dad finding their dad in nuclear-ravaged Washington DC. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the 2006 novel that heavily influenced nearly all of the games I mentioned, is concerned primarily with the relationship between an older man and a young boy. While the relationship is never specifically clarified as dad/son, the dynamic is very similar.

One of the things that first drew me to the post-apocalyptic setting and what I still find most interesting about it now is the concept of ‘wiping the slate clean’ that post-apocalyptic narratives offer. In a PA world, the lines of the prewar world are null and void- everyone is ‘on their own’ again, and the civilizations built anew do not necessarily have to be built on the skeletons of the old.

I understand that a lot of the impetus to write male characters is not so much from a conscious understanding of gender roles and a belief in them, but from a standpoint of ‘male as default’ (a widespread issue, not at all confined to games). Regardless, it is frustrating to me that in a genre that is built on a conception of renewal and ‘growth anew’, we so often are seeing the same character archetypes (gruff men with guns, dads, women as vulnerable) show up.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the dad-narrative (as someone who would totally like to be a dad someday), and I do think that it’s a good narrative in comparison to the more ‘lone wolf’ male character archetypes that have embodied male characters for nearly all of video game history. Showing that male characters can have a range of emotions that includes, well, caring for someone in a nonromantic way is a good (tiny) step forward. And dad-narratives are good at that.

But it’s the start. Video games can offer a lot more than just “typical male character but”. Post-apocalyptic narratives, like fantasy narratives, are sufficiently removed from ‘the real world’ that they can offer opportunities for things that are sufficiently removed from ‘mainstream video games’. If we can have male characters that are protective, loving and caring, (which as I mentioned is already pretty cool to see in games) we should also see nonmale characters that are protective, loving, and caring.

This isn’t something can be done overnight, yeah, and I’m not even sure if the ‘mainstream gaming world’ (whatever that is) will ever adapt to the idea, but I do stand with those who say that they have an agenda. Video games can be more than dudes with guns. Video games can even be more than dads with guns.