Towards the middle of Yakuza 6 the hero of the long-time series, Kazuma Kiryu, makes a trip from his bustling hometown of Tokyo to Onomichi, a quiet neighborhood in Hiroshima. Kiryu has recently become the guardian of a baby and traveled in the hope of finding more information about the child's father. But his inexperience as a father proves it: not long after arriving, he realizes he has no milk or formula, and, unfortunately, Onomichi is not full of 24-hour stores like Tokyo. What follows is a tense search for something, anything the child can eat. Every few minutes, the game forces you to stop your search to comfort the hungry baby with surrealistic movement controls, adding an extra layer of stress to the experience.
This scene was especially memorable for me because it reminded me of my first days as a parent – the feeling that something could leave the baby at any moment, which leads to a frantic attempt to calm him down somehow. Of course, calming a virtual baby using the motion control capabilities of a Dual Shock controller is not the same as doing it in real life. In the game, there are explicitly correct ways of doing it; in real life, it is mainly conjecture. But there is something about the interactivity of the experience that made it feel more tangible and real. This element of the games has a special power, and it turns out that this can work very well to explore the experience of being a parent.
There are many games that have used parenting as a central part of their story. The first season of the game The Walking Dead was particularly tense due to the adopted father-daughter relationship of Lee and Clementine, and there are countless action games where dads have fun to avenge or save their children. But Yakuza 6 and this week God of War take this idea a step further than most. They are not just games about parents. They are games where the act of being a parent is a central part of the experience.
God of War is very honest about it. It's a reboot of the incredibly violent and long-running PlayStation series. Now we find the protagonist Kratos living a comparatively quiet life in the forest. He softened, and the main reason, as you learn at first, is that he now has a son, Atreus. One of the first things you do in the game is help Atreus to hunt a deer. You direct him where to go, and when he finally has the shot, he helps him to aim. The new life of Kratos as a parent is so intrinsic to the game that there is a full button on the controller of the PS4 dedicated to interact with Atreus. You can use it to call him so he can help you in the battle or translate an ancient rune. In the course of the game, you will hear Kratos demand "Chico!" In innumerable occasions.
The relationship between the two is a key part of Kratos' maturation as a character. In previous games, he was completely one-dimensional, a being consumed by anger, to avenge the death of his family. But here, he is actively trying, though often struggling, to be a more understanding person so that he in turn can help shape Atreus into someone better than him. The most fascinating is how the relationship influences the action of the game. 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 you need to be able to fight for yourself. At the beginning of the game, Atreus is not very helpful in battle, but as the search progresses, it becomes stronger and safer. He will initiate attacks and, in some cases, eliminate enemies on his own. It is a process that continues throughout the game. This mechanics is not exclusive to God of War : characters with improvable abilities are a central part of action RPGs, but as it is related to history in a meaningful way, it makes the game feel more cohesive.
One of the most important and striking aspects of the relationship is that it develops slowly and naturally over the game. It is a stark contrast to a game like Heavy Rain that has become infamous in part due to an early scene where your character loses his son in a mall. For parents, it is a familiar feeling: the slow and terrifying understanding that you do not know where your child is. But in Heavy Rain fell flat. Part of this is due to poor execution (the "press X to Jason" command has become a meme) but also because the game provides little time to really get to know Ethan or his family. In God of War meanwhile, there is a scene towards the end of the game where Kratos and Atreus are separated, and the child's absence is deafening, as something crucial that is now missing.
In Yakuza 6 the upbringing of children is not so closely woven into the fabric of experience. After all, Kiryu is only acting as a surrogate father, taking responsibility after the child's mother is injured in a car accident. Add the fact that Kiryu is a former yakuza who apparently can not get away from the world of organized crime, and who has a recipe for an atypical father.
Sometimes, the structure of a Yakuza that involves many blows to the thugs, can generate strange moments. When criminals attack Kiryu in the streets of Hiroshima, the baby passes to a stranger so he can move his fists freely. During one of the most emotional scenes in the game, when Kiryu and his best friend argue over whether it is right to take the child, the two fight in a hospital nursery. They use cribs and tables to change diapers as weapons.
These moments may seem silly, which, to be fair, is part of the appeal of the series Yakuza but they are 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 game controller with motion sensor to simulate cuddling a baby is a bit absurd. But in practice, it's really a well-thought-out interaction.
Basically, there are four different movements you can do, each of which does something different: lifting the controller in the air will cause Kiryu to throw the baby into the air, for example, while caressing the touchpad and makes him rub the baby's head. Initially, there seems to be no correlation between what you do and whether or not the baby cheers. But slowly you begin to notice the subtle signs (a slight twist of the head or a movement of the arms) that tell you what the child really wants. Surprisingly, it's like comforting a newborn for the first time, where you're never sure what you should be doing. Yakuza 6 has many other things to say about paternity in particular, but it is these interactive moments that have really impressed me.
It is not the first time that I feel familiar with fatherhood while playing a game: last year Monument Valley 2 managed to evoke similar emotions despite being a comparatively simple puzzle game without words. But God of War and Yakuza 6 could be the two best examples I've seen of integrating the idea of being a father in a typical overproduction game. In both cases, inclusion does not detract from the experience. There are still many exciting battles to fight and superbly detailed worlds to explore. Instead, it infuses meaning into the experience, which makes the games more cohesive and more emotional, and a good reminder to maintain a healthy supply of milk by hand.