Lots of people are adopted - but it's not at all represented well in video game stories. With one very cool exception...
What do Dogmeat, Aloy, and Samus have in common? They’re all examples of ‘adopted video game characters’ according to Wikipedia.
I discovered this late last year, while on a newfound mission to find characters who were adopted - characters like me. Having recently found a game that represented adoption in a way I’d never seen before, and never quite realised I wanted to see, I wondered if there were other characters out there who could make me feel that pleasant feeling of being represented again. So I googled ‘video games and adoption’.
What I found was an exciting (read: not at all exciting) selection of games that would allow me to adopt a pet, or a plant, or, in what was I suppose the ‘best case scenario’, a baby, who would have no personality or narrative journey beyond whether or not I could keep it fed. Eventually, lucky me, I changed up my search terms and found a Wikipedia list of ‘adoptee characters in video games’. Here it was, the gold mine I’d been looking for. The games that would allow me to find more examples of characters like me, with whom I could relate. Characters who…
Were literal dogs? This list, which showcased a whopping twenty-two characters, was entirely populated by characters who had been a) stolen away from their parents as children/teens to be used as sentient fighting machines, or b) were Dogmeat. When it came to representations of adoption and adopted children in games, this was it.
Pseudo-parenthood is more common in games than explicit adoption. When relationships between non-biological guardians and their children (typically daughters) do occur in games, the discussion revolves around their pseudo-parenthood. This can be seen between Ellie/Joel in The Last of Us, Elizabeth/Booker in BioShock: Infinite, and Ciri/Geralt in The Witcher 3, where surrogate fathers violently defend daughters who they didn’t ask for.
While Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us have a familial relationship, their father/daughter interactions only really exist in the sense that she is a young girl with absent parents in a dangerous environment, and he is a man who lost his biological daughter and therefore feels a protective paternal instinct towards Ellie, who reminds him of his own child. Ellie is more of a replacement for Joel’s own child, rather than actually being his child. See the distinction? An adult being protective of a child, particularly in a dangerous environment like the one depicted in The Last of Us, isn’t the same as being that child’s actual parent; it’s just basic humanity and human decency.
After seeing so many games explore pseudo-fatherhood without really exploring adoption, I was excited about the possibility of Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn being adopted. I thought that her relationship with Rost - the fellow outcast who took her in and raised her - might be relatable. But alas, she still doesn’t treat him like a ‘father’ - to Aloy, Rost is more of a guardian and trainer, and acts as a placeholder in her journey to discover who her ‘actual’ mother is. She leaves Rost in her quest to belong, treating the man who for all intents and purposes is her father as though he isn’t enough for her, which completely conflicts with my experience. It felt ridiculous to see Aloy leave the man who raised her from infancy and instead treat a literal mountain like more of a parent than him, simply because they didn’t share the same genes.
With so many less-than-favourable examples of adoption or pseudo-adoption in games, I had basically resigned myself to never finding representation of this part of my identity in media.
But then I played Dream Daddy.
The first heart-stopping moment came when the game asked me to choose, in the form of a completely natural and embarrassing conversation with my (ideal) daughter, whether her other parent was her mother, or her other father. Before Dream Daddy, when that question was asked in a game, it had always been loaded. Not only was it asking ‘what is your sexual preference’, but it was also asking ‘how was this child brought into your life’. If you choose to be in a heterosexual relationship, your child is ‘born’ to you. It’s portrayed as the natural choice. If, however, you choose to be in a same-sex relationship, that indicates that your child was adopted. Most games (and people) assume that two people of the same gender can’t naturally have a child and two people of opposite genders can. I, the adopted child of two heterosexual parents, never had the option to see myself represented in a game, because I represent the ‘impossible’ situation. But then, as I pondered the fact that I’d had to make this frustrating choice yet again, Dream Daddy gave me something unexpected: another choice.
‘This was the day you were born’ or ‘This was the day we adopted you’. These were my two options, and even just being given the choice was enough to make my head spin. Was it possible that just this once, I could exist in a game? I got so excited that I almost accidentally pressed the wrong option (or, ironically, the ‘right’ or ‘default’ option for many), before a new wave of panic set in. What if this parent-child relationship that I was now so excited about let me down? Honestly, I quickly realised that it didn’t matter. It didn’t have to be done well, it just had to be there.
But boy, did Dream Daddy step up its game and say “challenge accepted”. What was there was a nuanced, relatable, perfect father-daughter relationship with Amanda, who is officially the greatest kid of all time. She says “pew pew!” while she enthusiastically finger guns away from her problems. I, someone who is not a dad (and as someone who is comfortably female probably never will be), could not imagine feeling like a prouder father. No matter how they’re brought into this world and my life, this is the type of relationship I want to cultivate with my future child.
The fact that I chose to have adopted Amanda didn’t come up again during my playthrough. The relationship played out just as naturally as it would have if I hadn’t gone down that road, and for some, there could be some disappointment that in the end their choice didn’t matter. But it did matter. I spent my whole playthrough revelling in the knowledge that this situation was just like mine, and that nobody could take away the fact that I had made that choice. It’s like having stationery in your favourite colour: a blue stapler doesn’t function any differently to any other colour, but it feels nicer to use because it’s a reflection of me.
It’s been nearly six months since I first played Dream Daddy and I’m still thinking about Amanda. I’ve been thinking about writing this article for almost as long. It’s hard to write about a representation that you’re still trying to convince yourself that you deserve to see. I saw one example of a character like me, and a part of my subconscious told me that, because my story was rare and not shared by many people, it was therefore not worthy of being told. I am a minority and therefore I shouldn’t get to be represented.
But that’s bullshit. I spent a whole lot of time in my life and career telling people just how ridiculous that is. Just because something isn’t represented well, or often, doesn’t mean it isn’t a story that’s worth telling - it means that we need to be writing more interesting stories. There are many people in the world who are adopted and who probably want to see themselves in games, and there’s room for that. Instead of making more stories about pseudo-parents or sticking to the default ‘straight parents = bio parents = “natural” parents’ tropes, we should be able to explore adoption in more interesting ways.
It’s been nearly six months since I first played Dream Daddy and I’m still thinking about Amanda.
Amanda made me realise that maybe if we normalised the existence of alternative family structures, alternative stories, and different points of view, then people like me wouldn’t struggle to tell their stories, or think that because they haven’t been represented yet they don’t get to be represented at all. We’ve said it once, we’ve said it a million times: representation is important. There is a certain amount of stigma and shame associated with taboo topics that nobody wants to talk about, and there’s no reason for that shame - particularly in relation to adoption. People are always thrilled when they find out that I’m adopted because it’s intriguing and interesting for them. I’m a little bit different and… isn’t that exciting? Isn’t that feeling something we should draw on when telling stories?
My family is the same as any other family, except my parents chose me (Well, I mean, not really. They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into and perhaps it was all downhill from there). Representation of stories like mine might help everybody chill out about adoption and understand that different, evolving family structures exist, while also helping those who are adopted see that their stories are interesting and worth telling. If the world is made up of so many people, so many families, and so many interesting complexities, then why are games overflowing with the same pseudo-dads and sort-of-daughters?