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God of War and Yakuza 6 show how games can tell great stories about parents

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Kratos, Kiryu, and kids

Yakuza 6
Yakuza 6.

About midway through Yakuza 6, longtime series hero Kazuma Kiryu takes a trip from his bustling home city of Tokyo to Onomichi, a quiet neighborhood in Hiroshima. Kiryu has recently become the guardian of a baby boy, and he’s traveled in hopes of finding more information about the child’s father. But his inexperience as a parent shows: not long after arriving, he realizes he has no milk or formula, and, unfortunately, Onomichi isn’t packed with 24-hour convenience stores like Tokyo. What follows is a tense search for something, anything the boy can eat. Every few moments the game forces you to stop your search in order to comfort the hungry baby with surreal motion controls, adding an extra layer of stress to the experience.

This scene was especially memorable for me because it reminded me of my earliest days as a parent — the feeling that something could set the baby off at any moment, leading you to a frantic attempt to somehow sooth it. Of course, calming a virtual baby using the motion control capabilities of a Dual Shock controller isn’t the same as doing it in real life. In the game, there are explicitly right ways to do it; in real life, it’s mostly guesswork. But there’s something about the interactivity of the experience that made it feel more tangible and real. This element of games has a special kind of power, and it turns out, this can work really well for exploring the parenting experience.

There are plenty of games that have used parenting as a core part of their story. The first season of The Walking Dead game was particularly tense because of the adopted father-daughter relationship of Lee and Clementine, and there are countless action games where dads go on a rampage to avenge or save their kids. But Yakuza 6 and this week’s God of War take this idea a step further than most. They aren’t just games about parents. They’re games where the act of parenting is a core part of the experience.

God of War
God of War.

God of War is very upfront about this. It’s a reboot of the long-running, incredibly violent PlayStation series. We now find protagonist Kratos living a comparatively quiet life in the woods. He’s mellowed out, and the main reason, as you learn early on, is that he now has a son, Atreus. One of the first things you do in the game is help Atreus hunt a deer. You direct him where to go, and when he finally has the shot, you help him take aim. Kratos’ new life as a dad is so intrinsic to the game that there’s an entire button on the PS4’s controller dedicated to interacting with Atreus. You can use it to call him so he can help you in battle or translate an ancient rune. Over the course of the game, you’ll hear Kratos demand “Boy!” countless times.

The relationship between the two is a key part of the maturation of Kratos as a character. In previous games, he was entirely one-dimensional, a being consumed by rage, out to avenge the death of his family. But here, he’s actively trying — albeit often struggling — to be a more understanding person so that he can in turn help to shape Atreus into someone better than himself. What’s most fascinating is how the relationship influences the game’s action. One of the key things Kratos wants to teach Atreus is how to be self-sufficient. Living in a world of vengeful gods and murderous monsters means that he needs to be able to fight for himself. Early on in the game, Atreus isn’t much help in battle, but as the quest progresses, he becomes stronger and more confident. He’ll initiate attacks, and in some cases, he will take out enemies all by himself. It’s a process that continues throughout the game. This mechanic isn’t unique to God of War — characters with upgradable skills are a core part of action role-playing games — but because it’s tied to the story in a meaningful way, it makes the game feel more cohesive.

One of the most important and impactful aspects of the relationship is that it builds slowly and naturally over the game. It’s a stark contrast to a game like Heavy Rain, which has become infamous in part because of an early scene where your character loses his son in a mall. For parents, it’s a familiar feeling — the slow and terrifying realization that you don’t know where your child is. But in Heavy Rain, it fell flat. Part of this is down to poor execution (the command “press X to Jason” has since become a meme) but also because the game provides little time to actually get to know Ethan or his family. In God of War, meanwhile, there’s a scene toward the end of the game where Kratos and Atreus are separated, and the child’s absence is deafening, like something crucial is now missing.

God of War.

In Yakuza 6, parenting isn’t quite so tightly woven into the fabric of the experience. Kiryu is only acting as a surrogate father, after all, assuming responsibility after the boy’s mother is injured in a car accident. Throw in the fact that Kiryu is a former yakuza who can’t seem to get away from the world of organized crime, and you have a recipe for an atypical parent.

At times, the structure of a Yakuza game, which involves a lot of beating up thugs, can make for weird moments. When criminals accost Kiryu in the streets of Hiroshima, he passes off the baby to a stranger so he can swing his fists around freely. During one of the most emotional scenes in the game, when Kiryu and his best friend argue over whether it’s right to take the child at all, the two get into a fight in a hospital’s nursery. They use cribs and changing tables as weapons.

These moments can seem silly — which, to be fair, is part of the appeal of the Yakuza series — but they’re balanced by more serious ones. And just like in God of War, these scenes are much more powerful because of the interactive elements. On the surface, using a motion-sensing game controller to simulate cradling a baby is a bit absurd. But in practice, it’s actually a well-thought-out interaction.

Yakuza 6.

Essentially, there are four different motions you can make, each of which does something different: lifting the controller up in the air will make Kiryu toss the baby in the air, for instance, while stroking the touchpad will make him rub the baby’s head. Initially, it seems like there’s no correlation between what you do and whether or not it cheers up the baby. But slowly you start to notice the subtle cues — a slight turn of the head, or a swing of the arms — that tell you what the kid really wants. It’s surprisingly like soothing a newborn for the first time, where you’re never quite sure what you should be doing. Yakuza 6 has a lot of other things to say about fatherhood in particular, but it’s these interactive moments that have really stuck with me.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt familiar pangs of parenthood while playing a game: last year’s Monument Valley 2 managed to evoke similar emotions despite being a comparably simple puzzle game without any words. But God of War and Yakuza 6 might be the two best examples I’ve ever seen of integrating the idea of being a parent into a typical blockbuster game. In both instances, the inclusion doesn’t detract from the experience. There’s still lots of thrilling battles to fight and gorgeously detailed worlds to explore. Instead, it infuses the experience with meaning, making for games that are both more cohesive and more emotional — and a good reminder to keep a healthy supply of milk on hand.