Bad Parents, Video Games, And My Search For Catharsis

Spoiler warning: the following post contains major plot spoilers for God of War: Ragnarok and Pokémon: Violet/Scarlet. They’re in the next paragraph and form the majority of it, and they don’t show up any less the further down you go. You cannot escape them unless you leave this post now and only return once you’ve had am opportunity to beat those games to your satisfaction. I don’t really go into specifics in terms of how things happen, but there are secrets and conclusions to things that get revealed, so maybe bail out before you read those if reading them will negatively impact your gaming experience. Since I’m out of other stuff to put here, to push the spoilers further down the page, I’ll let you go with a final admonition of “you’ve been warned” and hope that you are making good choices for yourself.

I destroyed two Bad Dads over the last few days. One the day before my previously mentioned family therapy and the other in the harsh decompression that followed it. In Pokémon Violet, you wind up discovering that the Pokémon Professor (and father to someone you meet early in the game named Arven) you’ve been talking to since early-on is actually an AI-operated Robot Professor made to look like the Organic Professor who was originally intended to aid the Organic Professor with his research and who, ultimately, kept the Organic Professor’s work going after the Organic Professor died in a lab accident (which was a real shocker for a Pokémon game). All while dealing with the family drama of watching Arven learn all of this about his Bad Dad at the same time you do. Eventually, to save the region and possibly the world, you wind up mostly destroying the Robot Professor Dad who was possessed by the ill-intent of the Organic Professor Bad Dad and thereby remove the lingering traces of Organic Professor Bad Dad’s influence on the world, which results in Organic Professor Bad Dad’s complete destruction.

In God of War: Ragnarok, you wind up literally killing Odin (which shouldn’t be a surprise), but it wasn’t until right at the end there that you learn the absolutely horrendous depths of his horrible dad-ness. The game hinted at these depths pretty frequently by showing us his casual Bad Dad-ness, but the worst parts of it all involved a layer of abstraction or indirect action that allowed him to play the part of a Disappointed Dad rather than a Bad Dad. Given that these two events sandwiched the first time I spoke to my parents in almost three years, it’s difficult not to hold them up as mirrors with which to reflect on my experience.

Now, neither of my parents have done anything quite so heinous that someone might opt to kill them over it, but they are somewhat focused on what they see as the best thing for them and those around them, to the point that their blind pursuit of it has harmed their children and will echo out into the rest of the world through one particular aspect of it. Which fits Professor Bad Dad much better than I thought it would when I started writing this post. Still, Professor Bad Dad has a pretty limited scope that is mostly circumvented thanks to the player’s efforts, aside from the neglect and related trauma that his kid has to deal with, which you have also somewhat addressed by doing Arven’s quests and becoming his friend. Not all of it, mind you, but enough that Arven has become a more open and friendly person by the end as he realizes he’s not as alone as his Bad Dad made him feel.

On the other hand, Odin never has to face consequences for his actions until you deliver them to his face and, despite giving him ample opportunity to repent or change, he refuses because he thinks he’s right to do what he’s doing. Which maps incredibly closely to the way my parents have acted over the years, though there are some significant gaps. I mean, none of their kids have died as a result of their machinations and the selfish pursuit of their goals, so at least they’re better than a video game villain in that respect.

In retrospect, I don’t think I’d have chosen to play either of those games when I did, if I’d known what was coming. If I’d know both games would get me caught up in spiraling thoughts and related avoidance-based coping mechanisms beyond how much actually talking to my parents did, I’d have played something else instead. But it turns out that a lot of people in my generation who are currently making games have some family issues they’re also working through via the stories in their games. Absent, workaholic dads who still provided for their kids but were just never around? Parents running families like they’re the mafia while thinking nothing of losing someone in the pursuit of their goals/personal comfort? Lying, cheating, and stealing to make sure the unpleasant work they believe is necessary for their goals gets carried out by someone else so they can pretend their hands are clean? If none of that is relatable to people born in the last forty years, I don’t know what is.

Honestly, neither one really emotionally impacted me that much. Maybe it’s because I’ve been so caught up in dealing with my own family problems that encountering similar issues in the games I’m playing means that most of their impact is lost in my “more of the same?” initial reaction. It’s not like the stories are poorly done (I have another post coming that is entirely dedicated to ranting about the emotional growth and relationship dynamics between the characters in God of War: Ragnarok through the lense of familial healing), I just feel kind of inured to these stories because so much of my emotional bandwidth is preoccupied by my own somewhat related problems right now.

I expected some catharsis, from either story, once I figured out what was going on, but I never got any. After all, it’s not like I’d killed a parent or even lost one. I still have both my parents. I just made a decision that most characters in stories and video games never make. I left. I walked away. I chose to remove their influence from my life and start to rebuild my self and life elsewhere. I told myself that I’d try to stay open to the idea that they might someday change and that I might eventually decide it’s worth the effort to build new relationships with them, but now that this is in progress (with little hope of them having actually changed, I’ll admit), I find myself wondering if that was maybe the wrong decision for me. Maybe I’d be better off maintaining my distance and not opening myself up to whatever it is they think they’re doing right now.

Which is why I played God of War: Ragnarok instead of sleeping for most of the weekend. And why I spent so much time beating Pokémon: Violet instead of going to bed at a more reasonable hour in the week leading up to meeting with my parents. I was avoiding thinking about it by being too tired to think. And then both my methods of escapism betrayed me and I wound up thinking about it after all. So now, as I think about these two Bad Dads and every other Bad Dad I’ve ever had to fight in a video game, I wonder if there’s ever going to be a game and media depiction of someone like me, who turned away and will probably never go back. There’s plenty about people like me reconciling, but I don’t think that’s how my story ends. It would be nice to get some catharsis.

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