Culture Bytes: Age in Video Games

Disclaimer: Credit goes to Lavendra for the artwork of To The Moon.

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.

At this point it may seem that video games are unconcerned with ageing, only youth, yet even a medium as exploratory of age as literature has its youthful examples. Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger is seen by many as the teenage manifesto, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer paints a similar picture of youth as Persona 4 or Kingdom Hearts and even the classic fantasy series The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake is about the young Titus Groan overcoming obstacles set in place by the adults around him. Perhaps these may very well have inspired the youthful exploits of the discussed video games.
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.

Another game that confront the theme of ageing is Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Solid Snake, now called Old Snake, is one of the world's most sought after spies and mercenaries, however, due to his existence as a clone of Big Boss, Snake is ageing prematurely; his 42 year old body closer to 70. This is dealt with in an interesting way; Snake's task is every bit as epic and perilous as in previous installments (arguably more so), though his body isn't really up to the task. However, his equipment is modified to help him; his classic sneaking suit is renovated to aid his ailing muscles and take some of the strain of the physical work. Yet as the game goes on, the affects of the ageing process on Snake become clearer and clearer, everything becoming that much more of a strain for him. that said, age appears to be no obstacle for him - he still accomplishes his mission against huge odds. It would seem that for Snake age is little more than an annoyance, a difficulty for him to use his ingenuity to manoeuvre around. But his old age still brings its usual threat of mortality; death hangs above Snake for the entirety of the game - the end of his time a certain eventuality. However, death has always been present in Snake's life, he's a hired killer, a man who has dealt death and had the threat of his own near constantly. Perhaps this is why his old age is less of an issue for him; it brings him no closer to death than he ever has been. When we contrast this with Johnny and River with whom old age did equate to moving closer to death, it's a very different presentation. Decay and destruction met by annoyance and little change to the status quo. That said Metal Gear Solid 4  is not an entirely positive view of ageing. It's a meditation on it that makes clear to the audience that Snake is near the end of his life and, the fact its' the last chronological game in which he will be the main protagonist, that he is becoming obsolete.

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.

In conclusion, video games do have titles that confront the theme of ageing, however they are extremely rare. What is promising though, is that video game developers seem to be realising that the video game audience is maturing. As long as it continues to do so, this theme looks set to be explored in greater detail in the years to come. We might just all be in our seventies by the time it comes around...

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.

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