A step in the right direction, but with a long way to go
If someone asked me what the most pervasive trope in modern gaming culture was, I’d be hard-pressed to find anything that comes close to the appropriately-dubbed “Gruff Dad” trope. Drawing from the definition by ladyknightthebrave in her video essay on The Last of Us franchise, “Gruff Dads” can be described as hyper-masculine, violent characters who commit morally abject deeds in the name of protecting a small, helpless child; more often than not, a young, adolescent girl.
Everywhere we look in gaming culture, we inevitably run into a dad with scars and emotional barriers in desperate need of breaking down. Stephen Totilo referred to this phenomenon as the “Daddening of Video Games”, which reflects how gaming’s predominantly male audience has grown up, gotten married and possibly even had children of their own. Gruff Dads are a reflection of a changing social climate – fathers want to see themselves, or a version of themselves, represented in their video games.
Sage Hyden comments on the “Daddening” of games in his comparative video essay on “The Witcher 3, The Last of Us and the ‘Daddening’ of Video Games”. He argues that we cannot talk about this trope without talking about gender roles within games, as well as how the Gruff Dad trope both appeases and dresses down traditional ideas of masculinity. Hyden argues that the Gruff Dad trope opens the door for “new definitions of masculinity” and creates opportunities to represent equal power dynamics within father/daughter relationships.
Daughters, in the context of this trope, are often vehicles for emotional vulnerability in their older, male counterparts. This isn’t to say these young girls are without complexity: Hyden notes that, beyond just being some small thing to protect and care for, daughters in video games often get the chance to protect their father/father-figure, which grants them greater agency and trust in the eyes of both the player and the Gruff Dad.
Trust is a big theme in these stories. Often, these young female characters are among the few trusted characters under the Gruff Dad’s wing. As an adolescent girl playing these games, it was hard for me not to find some kind of validation in watching a brooding father figure grow to appreciate their daughter’s maturity in-game.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship in The Last of Us is the epitome of this trope. Joel’s primary internal conflict revolves around his inability to trust and open up after the death of his daughter Sarah at the beginning of the Cordyceps outbreak. He’s brutal, empty and looking only to survive when we find him in the first game. It is only through Ellie, this stubborn, pig-headed teenager who barrels into his life, that Joel begins to consider opening himself up again. Ellie is the feminine touch to his hyper-masculine, emotionless existence – all while still being a pretty complex character herself.
Alongside the Gruff Dads, Bertrand Lucat points out that many games with protagonists of this variety also feature “anti-fathers”, characters who represent “warped, flawed or otherwise extreme models of patriarchal behaviour” that the Gruff Dad opposes with their “acceptable (…) models of paternity.”
For example, David is the “anti-father” of The Last of Us. His violent actions are mirrored in Joel’s but the player is positioned to view Joel’s violence as borne out of love rather than survival, thus making it a morally acceptable display of hyper-masculinity. Joel is the “acceptable” father in this scenario, even when he arguably robs Ellie of her agency in the game’s ending. We’ve had bad fatherhood modelled to us already and, though decimating the Fireflies was extreme, it sure isn’t as bad as cannibalism.
This presents an inherent problem with the Gruff Dad trope. Many male gamers will vehemently defend Joel’s actions at the end of The Last of Us without really acknowledging the toxic behaviour and total power imbalance it showcases. In my younger years, this always baffled me a little bit but now that I’m older, I’ve come to understand that this dissonance is completely determined by which character players relate to most. I was a teenage girl around Ellie’s age when the first game came out and so, from my own perspective, I’ve always been able to view Joel’s actions at the end of The Last of Us as morally reprehensible. The same cannot be said for the countless young men and fathers who felt closer in spirit to Joel.
Look, I’m not immune from loving this trope but I think I love it for very different reasons than many journalists and game theorists have speculated. As a young woman who grew up playing games of the 2010s, I practically grew up with the Gruff Dads trope. I’ve already opened up about my vicarious attachment to Joel and Ellie’s relationship in my article on The Last of Us: Part II but I’ve never really explored how, instead of living through a father figure, I often found myself on the other side of the trope.
One of the first games I ever properly finished was Bioshock 2 on my rickety home PC, one of the earliest progenitors of this trope. Though the game received lukewarm reviews upon release, I loved the damn thing. Something about the way that Eleanor risked everything to save a man in a diver’s suit who she happened to see as a father hit me square in the chest. I felt that same pain again throughout The Last of Us, as I watched Ellie struggle to keep Joel alive against infection, frostbite and starving cannibals. I’ve felt this feeling over and over, in Dishonored, Telltale’s The Walking Dead and so many others. I may not be the target audience for these games but they’ve resonated with me nonetheless. This branch of media has its perks, particularly in its ability to create strong, complex female characters for young women like myself to relate to.
More recently, though, I started God of War (2018) and… I didn’t get that chest-burning feeling I expected. Why did this game, out of all games, keep me away?
The modern Gruff Dad trope has been successful in dressing down traditional masculinity but in terms of exploring a robust understanding of fatherhood, I’d say it’s firmly lacking. Father/daughter relationships are interesting to explore within media, especially in an era where men are now being openly depicted as vulnerable, caring and gentle, but what of the father/son relationships? Where are the opportunities for young men to see themselves in both the hyper-masculine, badass protagonist and the young boy at his side?
God of War looks to fill this gap. This is, perhaps, why it didn’t hit me nearly as hard as many of the other Gruff Dad style games that I’ve encountered over the years.
Compared to Joel, Kratos is painfully laconic. For those of you who don’t know much about Spartan history, the ideal Spartan father was an absent one. Even worse than that, Kratos wears the ashes of the family that he murdered on him everywhere he goes. He has fair reason to want to remain distant with his son, Atreus, until his wife’s death forces them into close quarters. From there, their relationship unfolds in a very different way to the typical Gruff Dad fare.
Kratos is, arguably, the peak male power fantasy. He’s a giant, buff dude with cool scars and a constant scowl that murders everything he sees in a blind whirlwind of rage. He’s far from what could be expected to represent “acceptable paternity” as Lucat suggests he should and creative director Cory Barlog knew this when approaching development for the game.
In the documentary film Raising Kratos, Barlog recalled how a lot of player data suggested that the fanbase was mostly done with Kratos’ current image as a rage-fuelled man. He needed a fresh start, a second chance at being a decent person. In a meeting with his team on narrative development, Barlog described the dynamic between Kratos and his son perfectly: “The kid is going to teach Kratos how to be a human and Kratos is gonna teach the kid how to be a god.”
In many Gruff Dad stories, the male protagonist often has an “emptiness” that needs to be filled. Their daughters or surrogate daughters are often pretty perfect on their own. They serve a similar purpose to the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope in modern cinema, whereby a woman with “alternative” ways encourages a man to see the world through their not-so-conventional eyes.
The relationship between Kratos and Atreus is inherently different here because we’re approaching a relationship where these two people have problems that they both need to fix. Atreus isn’t just some vehicle for getting Kratos to open up – he’s a very vulnerable, lonely and grief-stricken kid who suddenly has to learn how to “be a god.” Furthermore, Kratos has to struggle to impart what he believes is “correct” masculinity onto his son, while also having an internal conflict with what that very violent breed of masculinity cost him in the past. Kratos wants Atreus to be “better” than him but Kratos still doesn’t quite know what “better” is. It’s a complex relationship to watch unfold.
God of War is also divergent in its typical “anti-father” foil: instead of another man who presents a hostile version of masculinity, we have Freya. Freya is emblematic of the follies that come with overprotective parenting. Without spoiling too much, Freya is a mother who tried her best to protect her child but fractured their relationship in the process. She knows this all too well and when Kratos tries to employ the same over-protective traits on Atreus, she is there to tell him what harm it could do.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge and congratulate God of War here, not only for modelling a realistic relationship between a father and son but also for featuring a mother within the story. In a video essay by Cannot Be Tamed, it’s observed that the concept of motherhood in games is often reduced down to either being tragically dead or a monstrous perversion of what motherhood is supposed to look like; video games have a tendency to toss mothers aside. Cannot Be Tamed argues that this could be due to the fact that the male stories and male experiences are more often seen as “universal”, while stories about women are considered special interest.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been change to this idea in recent years. For instance, last year’s Amnesia: Rebirth featured a pregnant woman as its protagonist and centred her motherhood at the forefront of the game’s story and mechanics. While God of War is no exception to the rule when it comes to dead mothers, as Atreus’ mother dies before the beginning of the game, its depiction of Freya is revolutionary in its content. It presents motherhood as a tough balancing act between loving your child and letting them be free to be their own person, even if that might hurt them in the end.
I could go on for days about the Gruff Dad trope but I’ll conclude by saying that we still have a long way to go. Much like the male gamers who grew up and got to play more fathers in their video games as a result, I and other women like me are growing up, too. We’re starting to see the characters we loved and related to as teenagers growing into their own – after all, I don’t think I would’ve related as much to Ellie in The Last of Us: Part II if I didn’t feel as if I too had grown up beside her. While we certainly need depictions of fatherhood and emotional vulnerability, developers should take the time to consider who else might be consuming their games other than the bracket of men now reaching middle age. After all, recent data from Sony revealed that almost half of all PlayStation owners are women. Surely this will encourage developers to expand their horizons a little and get some feminine voices onto their writing teams.
I can’t say that I won’t stop loving the Gruff Dad trope, despite its flaws in representation and unequal power dynamics. What I can say, however, is that developers are heading in the right direction. The nuance and vulnerability with which they’ve approached these difficult concepts should be applauded — though not to the point of complacency. After all, we’ve still got a hell of a way to go and I, for one, look forward to what’ll come of it.