Since the earliest history in the history of history, mankind has aged. It's an inescapable condition of life and, as such, has been a dominant theme in fiction. Some of our greatest works of literature have dealt with the issue of ageing; No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, King Lear by William Shakespeare, and even Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It seems ageing has always burdened the human mind. However, the tragic nature of these works suggests that age is looked upon unfavourably by humanity. Perhaps it's the fact that the older we are, the closer we are to our impending mortality, the proverbial Sword of Damocles in all of our lives. This is a theme that is echoes in other mediums of art, such as painting, music, film and television; but do video games explore the subject in a similar way?
On the face of it, I suppose it could look that video games are unconcerned with age, or at least ageing. The stereotypical view of the video game audience is that of the teenager or young-adult, although statistics are now showing that the video game audience is maturing. That said, many video games do seem more concerned with youth. It's perhaps unsurprising that a Platform/Action game such as Spyro the Dragon would feature a young protagonist. The colourful surroundings and simple storyline would suggest a younger audience (add this to the 3+ PEGI rating and I think my detective work is done...), and game developers are likely to give that audience somebody it is easy to relate to. Yet even in more complex genres popular with an adult audience, such as RPG, we see young protagonists. Persona 4 centres around a group of teenage friends and Kingdom Hearts is much the same. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch features a child protagonist battling against all odds to save his mother. The themes and complexity of gameplay in this genre of video game is popular with a slightly older audience, extending to people in their 30's and 40's; not old by any stretch of the imagination, but older than the societal idea of the teenage game player. The picture video games paint of childhood and adolescence is an alluring one of endless friendship and boundless love - of things that endure and give us comfort. It could be argued that they idealise this time in our lives and make the audience nostalgic for something that was never really there. It's true enough to say that few of us will be life-long friends with our schoolmates. But video games set at this time of life still evoke the same emotions we felt back then, because, whatever our age, we are still capable of loving our friends and those we care about. It just so happens that, with the pressures of adult life, maybe we idealise those endless teenage afternoons too. It may be a theme that video games are particularly interested in, but it's a theme that the medium excels at.
To the Moon is an unusual game in many ways. Not least in the fact that it is, at heart, an exploration of love and ageing. The player takes control of two doctors who specialise in changing the memories of terminally ill patients, so they can, in their minds, live out their last wish. While doing this for the aged Johnny, the two doctors go backwards through his timeline effectively seeing him age in reverse. Yet, interestingly, the game paints a similar picture of old age as other games do youth; not one of rose-tinted perfection, but one of enduring love. Despite the trials of life and the length of time they've been together, Johnny still loves River with as much passion as ever. Arguably with the same intensity and the same emotions as the friends in Persona 4. This shows ab possibility in the idea that the emotions in old age are the same we experience in our teenage years. But the picture painted of old age is not as idyllic as the nostalgia of youth. Instead, we see Johnny and River age; we see their bodies and minds fail. River especially suffers being bed-ridden and losing some of her mental faculties. As her life goes on she seems to find less and less to live for, hanging on only for Johnny, until she is granted her final release. Johnny too suffers, again forced to bed and unconscious, hanging on just long enough for the doctors to complete their work. In other words, all these characters have in their old age is their love for one another. This is a game that explores the themes of time and ageing, portraying old age in every bit as tragic a way as the classic works of literature.
However, other than these case studies, few games that explore the theme of ageing come to mind. Even franchises that are in other ways very diverse seem not to cover the subject. The Final Fantasy series features characters of different sexes, genders and races, but there is very rarely a playable character over forty years old (regular readers of these articles may wish to recompose themselves after the shock of me admitting that Final Fantasy isn't perfect). Even survival horror games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill focus on relatively young characters. But imagine the impact of an older character in Silent Hill; an ageing protagonist struggling with their own mortality thrust into so haunting and deathly a situation would be very atmospheric. What is clear is that there are few positive representations of old age, though that seems to be true of other mediums too. But maybe this is emblematic of our society. We live in a society that doesn't value old age; the revolutionaries and the doers are the young, while the old are left behind as observers. Video games are about action and society views the old as having little to do.
Of course, if we step away from the protagonists and move onto to more minor characters, there are more to choose from. Bugenhagen in Final Fantasy VII seems to be the wisest person in the world. In Gun we have Colton White's father as we do in Red Dead Revolver both fathers talking the audience through the tutorial levels. Both Major Zero and Colonel Campbell in the Metal Gear Solid series are older ageing (though this does beg the question, where are the old women?). However, all of these characters have a role of the 'dispatcher' in literary theory. They are characters who send our protagonists off on their quest or give them wisdom and advice along the way. They play the role of an observer, not someone who is useful to the quest itself; their age is a shortcut to tell the audience they have a lot of wisdom to impart as they have lived long enough to acquire it. More to the point, they do not explore ageing as a theme - the issues and fears surrounding the process, they merely push the story along. It could be that ageing women in video games face the same struggles that they do in real life; they are rarely seen in the media. I'm struggling to think of an old woman in a video game, apart from Big Mama in Metal Gear Solid 4 and River in To the Moon, two games that should already be lauded for their exploration of ageing as a theme. Then again, this seems to be a theme in the media, that women past a certain age are not seen. It's rumoured that Arlene Philips was forced to leave Strictly Come Dancing for being 'too old'. Video games, unfortunately, seem to be little different to the mainstream in this respect.
Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.