Where are all the video game moms?

While dads are everywhere in games, mothers are almost invisible

We've heard a lot about the dadification of videogames. The recent E3 games convention showed the likes of Kratos, Marcus Fenix and Corvo joining Booker DeWitt, Joel and Ethan Mars as tender-but-tough paragons of fatherhood.

So where are the heroic moms?

Game development teams — very often led by middle aged men — are happy to churn out fictional models of brooding, paternal excellence. But they take a very different approach to depicting motherhood.

Polygon looked at a selection of more than 40 recent or recent-ish games featuring moms and mom stories, representing a cross-section of story-based games covering the last decade or so.

We found that gaming generally treats moms as background narrative props for protagonists, very often dead or absent. Sometimes, older women with children are presented as anti-moms, whose quest for power concludes with sentiments of regret generally absent from games in which male villains are vanquished. Those women who are portrayed as positive mother figures are often not actual mothers at all.

Long Dead Moms

The most common state for a mother in games, is to be dead. Deaths often occur in childbirth or the early childhoods of protagonists.

Ellie's mother Anna, in The Last of Us, dies soon after childbirth. She serves in the game as an inspiration to Ellie, through letters. This is a common device in games, with dead moms showing up via ancient correspondence or as ghosts and spirits

In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Link's mother is a fighter in the Hyrulean Civil War, who delivers her child to an ancient tree for safekeeping before expiring from wounds. When Link is told the story of his mother, it serves as an inspiration to complete his quest

In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the heroes' unnamed mother drowned when the boys were small. She returns as a spirit to inspire one of the sons.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate's twin protagonists Evie and Jacob's mother dies in childbirth. They were raised by a grandmother and then by their father.

Fallout 3 actually begins with the birth of the player character, who casually chooses an in-game gender and name, while momma Catherine, a scientist, passes away.

This device is evened out in Fallout 4, which also begins with the death of a parent. If you choose to play the Sole Survivor character as a man, your wife Nora dies trying to save the child Shaun from kidnappers. The father Nate dies if you choose to play as a woman.

Mothers in games are often powerless, absent or are punished for behaving outside norms.

Lara Croft's mother Amelia, also an archaeologist, disappeared when Lara was a child. In Tomb Raider: Underworld, Lara follows her to the afterlife. But her dead self has been corrupted by an evil force. The corruption of mothers is another common gaming trope. Since the reboot, Lara's mother has not featured, though her dead father's girlfriend Ana, a quasi-mother figure, turns out to be a fanatic, wracked with illness.

Faith Connors' mother dies when the Mirror's Edge protagonist was a girl. The mother was an activist against state oppression who was killed in a riot, thus setting up Faith's anti-establishment credentials.

Marcus Fenix's mother Elain was a scientist, killed while investigating aliens. He is the central combatant in Gears of War, a series about killing aliens.

Overwatch character Pharah's backstory features a missing mother, Ana Amari, a founder of the Overwatch and an inspiration to many.

Narrative Usefulness

The Uncharted series' treasure hunter Nathan Drake's mother was a historian who committed suicide while he was still a child. It is said that she suffered from depression. Once again, mother serves to create a narrative link between the protagonist and the danger of his work.

Margie Jensen is the adoptive mother of Deus Ex's Adam Jensen, who exists in a dysfunctional urban society beset by challenges created by technology. She is absent from his life. We know that she was unable to have her own baby, is addicted to antidepressants and lives in Detroit. The links are manifold.

Leandra Arnell is the mother of protagonist Hawke in Dragon Age 2. She is murdered by a serial killer, briefly returns as a reanimated monster, and, once safely dead, appears as a ghost to tell her son she's proud of him. Apart from being dead, expressing pride is a mom's main function in games. With Leandra, we got both.

The most common state for a mother in a game, is to be dead

Aletta, a significant child character in The Banner Saga, lost her mother when she was young. This absence creates a strong bond between daughter and father, which often occurs in games featuring dads or father figures and girls, but less commonly with boys.

Early in The Walking Dead, Clementine's mother Diane features in a frantic voicemail message to her daughter. Mom is out of town when the zombie event occurs. The message reveals to us — playing as a man — that Clementine is vulnerable and needs to be protected. We find out later that both Clementine's parents are killed and reanimated as zombies.

BioShock's Infinite's Elizabeth spends the game adventuring and bonding with her father. Her mother Annabelle died in childbirth. Her wicked foster-mother Lady Comstock was murdered, but shows up as a ghost, wailing about her womb.

Sex Workers and Wild Women

Video gaming's weird obsession with childbirth, death and corruption is given full flight in Bloodborne when a character called Arianna, Woman of Pleasure, who describes herself as "a whore," gives birth to a monster, which the player is obliged to kill. Arianna also appears to expire.

Prostitution crops up here and there in mother stories. In Heavy Rain, Lauren Winter is a sex worker whose child is murdered by a serial killer.

Red Dead Redemption's Abigail Marsden is a former criminal and prostitute turned settler. There's not much evidence in gaming for male characters who work in the sex business, not even as strippers.

Grand Theft Auto 5's Amanda de Santa is a former stripper. Various characters in the game imply that she may have been a prostitute. She is portrayed as a shrew and a serial adulterer, though playable husband Michael is also an obnoxious man.

Marital Problems

GTA publisher Rockstar gave us another grotesque mother in Bully. The unnamed mother drops Jimmy off at boarding school before departing on a year-long honeymoon with her fifth husband. She is a selfish and mean woman, a classic fictional Bad Mother.

The marital difficulties of parents are sometimes used as a backdrop for game tales, usually in more sophisticated storytelling settings. In Gone Home, both parents are away at a retreat when Kate returns home. As the player investigate the house, it emerges that Kate's ecologist mom Jan has been considering an affair with a co-worker, but has drawn back.

Life is Strange's Joyce Price is the mother and Chloe. She is wise and kind, even though she's had it rough. She works as a waitress in a small town diner and is married to a difficult man. Despite having little freedom of her own — her life in the game is mostly shaped around her daughter's concerns — she's a convincingly portrayed person who does her best in difficult circumstances. Price is a rare example of a real world video game mom who is alive and seemingly admired by all.

Life is Strange's developer Paris-based Dontnod also played with mother / daughter dynamics in its earlier game Remember Me in which the heroine finds out her mother is a super-villain while also curing her wicked ways through magical mind control.

Fellow French creator David Cage, developer of the earlier mentioned Heavy Rain, has shown a lot more interest than most in family dynamics. Beyond: Two Souls is the story of a girl struggling to balance her powers against adult authority, though a man is the focal point of much of that authority. In his forthcoming Detroit: Become Human, we see a girl endangered by an enraged android. Her frantic mother is concerned that an android, not a human, has been brought in to resolve the situation.

Mommy's death says go

At least these women are extant in the stories in which they focus. The death of a mother serves as the principal catalyst in games like Far Cry 4, in which Ajay travels to the Himalayan country of Kyrat to honor his mother's last wishes, and spread her ashes in her homeland.

Dishonored begins with the assassination of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, mother of Princess Emily who is kidnapped. Father figure (secretly, her natural father) Corvo spends the game tracking down Emily. She and Corvo are both playable in the forthcoming sequel.

At the beginning of Ni No Kuni, Oliver's mother dies after saving his life. He travels to a fantasy realm to find her soul-partner.

In Final Fantasy 13, playable character Hope watches as his mother is killed during a rebellion.

Fallen, powerful women

An adult child also watches a mother die in Final Fantasy 9 when Princess Garnet watches the corrupted Queen Brahne die, after a sea battle. Mother begs daughter for forgiveness.

In Tales from the Borderlands, August watches his unpleasant mob-boss ma Valory utterly stamped on, when she tries to take on a monster.

In Ico, the evil queen keeps her daughter Yorda captive in order to feed off her energy and sustain her own life. The queen is killed by hero Ico.

Valory, Brahne and the queen are part of tradition of powerful women who their children come to understand have overstretched, and caused their own downfall.

Matriarch Benezia, mother of Liara in Mass Effect is a kindly and spiritual leader who tries to control a powerful man and is corrupted by his mind control. She is eventually killed. Naturally, before her death, she tells her daughter that she's proud of her.

Positive moms … not really

There are other examples of positive and powerful role models who are also mothers. Sheperd's mom in the Mass Effect series is an admiral, though we only encounter her through letters to her child, in which she states the usual maternal pride.

Interestingly, positive mothers are often not actually mothers at all. In The Witcher 3, Geralt love-interest Yennefer of Vengerberg is ward to special child Ciri, and a highly capable sorcerer.

So where are the heroic moms?

Mother Giselle in Dragon Age: Inquisition is a beloved, brave and generous older woman who displays all the qualities of idealised motherhood, but she is a cleric, not a biological mother, so far as we know.

Bayonetta is that very rare character, a mother who is also a player-character. She is a reluctant ward to Cereza. But it turns out that, via some time paradox shenanigans, Cereza is Bayonetta at a younger age.

Jade in Beyond Good and Evil is a photojournalist who also takes care of children orphaned by a war waged by a character she must later face down. Obviously, the children are not hers, but she is a capable guardian.

Catherine Halsey is the chief scientist in the Halo series. Tough and uncompromising, she is a mother figure to the Spartan warriors who have been in her charge since childhood. She is also a quasi-mother to her AI offspring Cortana, though they have a difficult relationship. Arguably, she is a war criminal.

In Dragon Age: Inquisition, NPC Morrigan gives birth to Kieran, but only as part of a "dark ritual" in order to preserve the spirit of an old god. Morrigan is the daughter of an absolute monster called Flemeth, who's also, literally, a dragon.

NBA2K16's career mode carries a cut-scene of a mother in a television interview, talking proudly about the achievements of her son. It's a touching moment, spoiled slightly by the fact that her son's name is "Frequency Vibrations."

Pokemon games show mothers as steadfast defenders and carers of their offspring, waiting at home, ready to help. An unnamed mother lives in the hero's childhood home. Every time the player returns to her hometown, her mother is there waiting, insisting that she and her Pokemon rest up. In some games, you can send her some of your winnings, and she'll buy you nice toys and room decorations in return. She'll also give you a call to check in on you once in awhile. You travel across the land in Pokemon, but your mother is never too far away, not really.

Child Killers

We'll finish off here with a couple of seriously dysfunctional moms who go out of their way to kill their children.

Samara in the Mass Effect series is the mother of a killer who must track down her daughter, with the help of Sheperd. The mission ends on the death of either mother or daughter.

In The Binding of Isaac, the mother figure is a woman obsessed with TV evangelists. She goes nuts and tries to kill her son. The interesting thing about this neat little story is that it's based on the story of Abraham, one of the Bible's most revered father-figures.

Absent Moms

These stories of mothers demonstrate that gaming generally treats moms as cardboard cut-outs whose only function is to create narrative space for protagonists.

Of course, orphans are a staple of fiction, allowing characters the space to define themselves separately from parental expectation. It's something of a cliche, most especially in children's fiction in which the protagonist becomes powerful. Think Harry Potter, Tarzan and Superman. In games, control, power and individuality are especially important. But their overwhelming presence in games smacks, not merely of bias, but of a lack of imagination and an inability to confront tired ideas.

In games, mothers are almost never playable characters. One of the few exceptions to this is the as-yet unreleased game Thralled, about a slave trying to escape to freedom, while keeping her baby alive.

Gaming is not alone in portraying mothers negatively. From fairy tales to Game of Thrones and TV's Mom, we've seen wicked or crappy mothers. We've also seen a lot of treacly idealized mothers over the years. Other mediums manage to create great stories out of bad moms and good moms. But gaming has so far failed to offer a range of perspectives on motherhood, that sit far outside issues of absence or neglectfulness.

Meanwhile, game developers often celebrate fathers as strong, powerful and morally upstanding, while also offering a broader range of adult male characters that take in the entire spectrum of hero, anti-hero, incompetent and villain.

Game companies are overwhelmingly staffed by men. Despite the recent splurge of hero parents at E3, there's little sign of mothers getting a fair portrayal.

But as gaming becomes increasingly diverse, perhaps we'll see improvement in the years ahead. Babykayak