The problem with parents in RPGs

In many RPGs, a parent acts as an in-game device to help the player along their journey, providing the player with key items, gifts, money and advice. But are they very inclusive?

In many RPGs, such as Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, the player never interacts with the parent one-on-one. Instead, a letter from the parent will arrive every few (in-game) months, sometimes with an item attached. Similarly, in other games like The Sims 4 or the Gold and Silver Pokémon games, the player will receive occasional phone calls from a parent.

An example of a letter from Animal Crossing

The reason why I see these sorts of in-game devices being a problem is because – simply – some people are no longer in contact with or have lost a parent. And as most people choose to mirror their player character after themselves in RPGs, it is my understanding that it can be jarring and upsetting for this type of player to be in contact with a mimic of a lost relative. In fact, two of my friends have told me that they’ve never made it past the opening of a Pokémon game because they found having to interact with the mother, who wishes you luck on your journey and waves you goodbye, too emotional.

It’s such a shame for someone to miss out on a game just because of a feature like this that isn’t even relevant to the story and could be changed. Games are meant in part to provide a place for escapism, but this isn’t always possible when the player is receiving reminders of people that are no longer in their life.

I think this is less of a problem in games where the parents are NPCs that are actually part of the story, such as those in South Park: The Fractured But Whole. In this game, for example, they are voice acted and have their own personalities and cutscenes. This transforms them from being static representations of parents to actual characters, so we can separate them much more easily from our own parents. But in most RPGs, the parent only exists to let the player know how proud they are of them, or to provide them with running shoes.

Stardew Valley’s character creation menu

I think it’s a problem that has been overlooked and should be examined. For a lot of these types of games, the fix would not even be very difficult.

I’m going to use Stardew Valley here as an example of how this type of problem could be fixed (reminder: in Stardew Valley, the player only ever receives letters from a parent and does not interact with them in any other way). Like many modern RPGs Stardew Valley has a character creation menu where the player can select their gender and alter their appearance and name. This game has a more extended character creation menu than most, as it asks the player not only to name their farm but also to state what their favourite thing is. The farm name and favourite thing do not have any effect on the story – they simply add a personal touch to the game. Looking at a character menu like this, I think it’s clear to see that it would be very easy to include another box here asking the player who they would like to receive letters from.

I would extend how easy this sort of inclusivity is to the Pokémon game franchise – these games always begin in the mother’s house. The mother usually only has a minor role in the game, helping the player through the game controls and providing them with key items such as town maps. It would not be difficult for the player to be asked at the beginning of the game which family member they would like to live with. None of the dialogue would need to be changed – just the skin of the NPC.

This is all to say that this seems like a logical next step in game customisation to me; they are small fixes that would help the comfort level of lots of people. And as video games continue to become more inclusive in future, I hope that RPGs will start providing alternate options when it comes to interacting with parental figures.

Image sources:

Featured image of the mother from the Pokémon Scarlet and Violent games – screenshot taken from [x]
Animal Crossing letter [x]
Stardew Valley’s character creation menu [x]

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