Mother’s Day, for some, is an opportunity to show their mothers how much they truly love them. For others, it’s just another holiday spent rushing to the pharmacy to buy a card the day of. But for everyone, it’s a reminder of just how important mothers are. Perhaps because of their inherent nature as loving caregivers, game developers have taken advantage of mothers as a storytelling device for decades.
Video game moms have taken bullets for their offspring, abandoned them during a zombie outbreak, and sent them off to wander an unsafe world full of deadly monsters (in fact, this last one has happened in more than a couple JRPGs). Mothers in games run the gamut from obsessively protective to criminally negligent. Regardless of their role as evil harpy or expendable plot device; generally when a mother is presented in a game, she’s bound to evoke some strong emotions.
One not particularly subtle way to evoke these emotions is to simply martyr someone’s mother. Heroes in games—much like those in comic books—seem unable to maintain a healthy relationship with their moms. Sometimes this is due to a long separation like, say, a kidnapping or murder. In these cases, mothers are used to further character development or build backstory without much explanation. Indeed, if someone murdered your character’s mother, it makes sense that he’s tearing apart the world to find her killer; what more do you need to know? In Dragon Quest V, once the hero finds out his mother is trapped in the demon world, he doesn’t fret or hesitate to battle through hell itself to find her.
Annette Birkin’s obsessive work within the Umbrella Corporation dragged her daughter Sherry into the ongoing nightmare of the Resident Evil series. We saw much of how this shaped Sherry’s personality in Resident Evil 2—the neglected daughter of two obsessed biologists—and will likely get a better idea of how this shaped her as an adult in the upcoming Resident Evil 6.
Another example we’ve seen fully develop is Lara Croft. The disappearance of Croft’s mother, Amelia (though she isn’t mentioned until the fifth game of the series) undoubtedly shapes Lara’s choices in life. The fact that Amelia Croft disappeared after touching an ancient cursed artifact means it’s probably not a coincidence that Lara has dedicated her life to hunting such things. In instances like this, characters in games are defined by their mothers’ actions; shaped by their decisions.
Sometimes these decisions can be base and purely evil. Video games have rolled out some seriously dastardly mothers. The Queen from Ico has often been cited as one of the worst mothers in games. Partway through the game the main character Ico finds out that the girl he met—who is being held captive in a castle—is actually being held by her mother, the Queen, so she may drain her duaghter's life force an extend her own life. For most people, their mother is a saint; which is why making a mother an evil character evokes such strong response. A better example than Silent Hill could not be hoped for.
Entire books could be written about the mothers in the Silent Hill series. Nearly every game features a repugnant mother figure. More than once, the series has made a return to the stomach-turning story of the first game in which a mother, Dahlia Gillespie burned her daughter alive in order to summon a deity. Though it’s a survival horror game and terrifying to its core, this revelation early on in the first game is every bit as mortifying as the sight of a Pyramid Head. In Silent Hill 2, you meet tortured Angela Orosco, who was raped and abused by her father while her mother turned a blind eye. Despite this, she is on a disorienting hunt for her mother through most of the game; admitting toward the end of the game that her life has been a living hell, something her mother always insisted was Angela’s fault.
The devilish masterminds at Konami realized they had struck a psychological horror goldmine after how mortified people were at the actions of Dahlia Gillespie. We are supposed to be able to trust our mothers and the thought of a mother betraying that trust is truly horrifying. Scarier still is a mother violating that trust to such an unspoken degree. Subsequent Silent Hill installments have exploited that fear to make the games all the more surreal and upsetting.
Luckily not all video game mothers are as horrible as those in the Silent Hill games. At the end of Metroid II: Return of Samus, bounty hunter Samas Aran displays her innate motherly instincts when she is unable to kill a recently hatched Metroid who imprints on her. Though she had just spent the entire game implementing a one-woman genocide of the entire Metroid species; the image of the helpless, motherless creature was too much for her, and she chose to let it live. At the end of the next game, the grateful Metroid—now much larger—sacrifices itself to save its perceived mother.
Developers realized early on the power of including motherhood in their games. Mothers certainly feel familiar in RPGs, but they also find a place in any variety of game ranging from fighting games to whatever the hell you would call Katamari Damacy. And as long as game developers continue being born to women, mothers will continue to appear in their myriad forms in our favorite games. And without moms driving their kids to the local game store, we wouldn’t have a new generation of gamers to appreciate them. So I don’t know about you, but I’m taking the opportunity this Mother’s Day to thank my mom (shout out to the lovely Susan Deesing!) for buying me games as a kid and not burning me alive in some cult ritual.