Why do video games have such a problem representing positive mothers and motherhood?


If Freud was around to play video games, I think he’d have quite a lot to say about they way they portray the relationships we have with our parents. While fatherhood or father figures are regularly a pivotal storytelling device and a plot driver - look at The Last of Us, Telltale's The Walking Dead and BioShock Infinite for example - mothers, and even motherhood as a concept, are a much more complicated topic. Despite the fact that mothers are literally the only way we arrive on this Earth, video games tend to stay away from making them part of a narrative or including them among the roster of main characters. The majority of mother figures in games are distorted, monstrous things, killed off in the first few minutes, only available in letter form, or simply not mentioned. 

They’re pretty important figures, mothers, so why are they so grossly under-represented in games? It’s something that I became acutely aware of with Mother’s Day just around the corner. If you were to pull together a list of all the best mother-child relationships in games, where would you start? Obviously the game that sprang immediately to mind was The Binding of Isaac

Now technically, The Binding of Isaac is based on the biblical story of the same name from Genesis, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the mountain, but after a message from God, he eventually sacrifices a lamb instead. In the game though, it’s Isaac’s mother that gets a message from God, demanding that she kill her son as proof of her faith. Isaac’s forced to flee into the monster-filled basement of their home (we’ve all got one of those right?) fighting for survival until he finally has to face his mom in combat. Oh, and Mom looks like this:

She doesn’t even get a body, despite the fact she’s the ultimate boss in Binding of Isaac. She’s just a stiletto and a really weird, twisted leg. Nice. 

Monstrous Moms

And then there’s Resident Evil 7. You can probably guess from the title that there are going to be some issues with the matriarchal figure in the household thanks to the fact it’s a horror game. But boy, oh boy, is there some twisted imagery surrounding Marguerite Baker. Obviously the whole game is a bit messed up, with the whole Baker family very much into cannibalism, murder, forced infection and a whole lot of mould, but it’s your eventual fight against her where the real problems lie. Mutated Marguerite’s final form actually sees her womb hanging outside of her body, and her weak point is… wait for it… her crotch. Talk about an Oedipus complex. 

There's Frau Engel from Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus as well, with her daughter Sigrun. She's a Nazi first and mother second, being incredibly physically and mentally abusive to Sigrun because she sees her daughter as too kind and too benevolent. Since when were they bad qualities?

And even when games try to do good mother figures it all tends to go a bit wrong. Like Mortal Kombat’s Sonya Blade for example. Technically, she’s mother to Cassie Cage, but it’s undeniable that their relationship is toxic. Why else would you systematically pull off brutal fatalities against your own daughter? 

Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat

What about your mother in every single Pokémon game ever, I hear you cry? Well, that’s what I thought too. She’s caring, supportive, been there since the beginning. The sort of lady who’d tuck you in at night. But also the women that shoves your 10-year-old self out into a world teeming with feral animals and a group of gangsters with little else than a bit of money and a map. Are those the kind of parenting skills you’d find advertised on Mumsnet? Probably not. And of course, it’s down to men, from Professor Oak to Professor Kukei to give you actual survival skills and a Pokémon to help you out. Maybe that'll change with Pokémon on Switch?

There is an argument for The Boss in the Metal Gear Solid series being a good mother figure, but it’s one that’s so complicated and multi-faceted that it would take another entire feature of unpicking and analysing to work that out, so we’ll put her on the motherhood bench for now. Sorry, Boss.

A small tiny torch for good mothers

There are a few examples in indie games where mothers can be more like the one you have sitting at home. Mae’s mother, Candy Borowski, reveals slowly over the course of Night in the Woods that she absolutely adores her daughter, despite the fact that they’ve been through some seriously turbulent times when Mae was a teen. She comes across as a normal mother, full of the worries and woes of parenthood, but still wants the best for Mae. The same goes for Joyce Price in Life is Strange and the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm: mother to another troubled teen, Chloe. She’s over-protective, hard-working and struggles to control her child, but to see a mother who feels so relatable and who’s actually there - not dead, monstrous or represented only in letter form - feels incredibly refreshing. But the fact we all had to search our brains for two examples of good, maternal, realistic mothers in the entirety of video games is an issue. 

Coming at things from the other angle, the only time I’ve actually played a mother in a game besides The Sims is in Bayonetta, where you’re mother to a younger version of yourself so that doesn’t really count (does it?), and Fallout 4 but the story happens regardless of whether you’re playing as a man or a woman. There's also (spoiler alert) What Remains of Edith Finch, where you play as the mother, but it's a bit of an issue because then you technically are only communicating with your offspring through your diary.  

I’m not a mother yet, but one day I might be, and I thank my lucky stars that there are other mediums that present motherhood in a much more favourable light. I don’t want my eventual motherhood to see me only interact with my children through letters; or killed off in the first years for something that my partner would be unphased by; become some kind of hideous monster; or simply just not acknowledged. It’s gone on too long that parenthood is personified by fathers who are apparently the only ones strong enough for all the adventuring, monster-hunting and survival skills that are required for such a role.

Why is it then that games fail across the board at representing maternal love? It might well be a sign of the fact that there are very few women in senior development roles, or that sexism is still very much alive and well - as much as we try and fight it. There’s a pervading psychological hangover from Freud that often sees women portrayed as corruptive, castrating figures that hamper male ideals and it seems like this idea has long been an influence in game storylines - even if unwillingly. 

Or is it that maternal love is so hard to encapsulate? I’m not exactly sure why paternal love and relationships are quite so different, but I am more than ready to be a mother (in games) or see one accurately represented. We’ve got some seriously fantastic female heroes in games over the past few years - why can’t that extend to mothers too?

And if you ask my mum why there aren’t more mothers in games? Well, she thinks that they don’t have time to play games or don’t know how (but there was that one time she played Rayman, so that’s okay), but for a generation of women like me who want to see all facets of womanhood portrayed in games, something has to change.

Can you think of any great mothers in games or are they all as problematic as I fear? Let us know in the comments below or reach out to us on Twitter @GamesRadar.