I could cite spring, Bambi or the birds and the bees as the inspiration for this list, but the real reason I’ve been thinking about child-rearing in games has much more to do with the recently released PS Vita game Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines. Childhood is a cruelly short, almost non-existant period of a character’s life in Oreshika (which I reviewed here on Paste a while back) and clan members do precious little parenting outside of combat training. But still, the clan’s family tree is a big part of what makes the game memorable, and it got me thinking about how other games have handled the mechanics of having and raising kids.
I’m not necessarily talking about virtual pet games, or games where one character happens to be a parent, or even games where the next generation functions like an extra handful of quarters at the arcade. I’m also not talking about the pseudo-instructional babysitting sims in conspicuous pink boxes that have been around since well before Babysitting Mama made it’s very delible mark. Instead, let’s take a look at some games where caring for your character’s kids is more than just a matter of keeping everyone’s meters full.
Crusader Kings II contains all of the features you’d expect from a land-grabbing, title-usurping medieval strategy game, but for many of its fans it’s the game’s social mechanics that make it such a fascinating thing to play. Children are necessary if you want to keep your dynasty going, and some of the simplest strategic moves that you can make involve selecting their tutors almost as carefully selecting their suitors. Random events will help shape every child’s personality as they grow, and depending on what expansions you have you may even end up with a literal antichrist on your hands. That certainly makes your fiefdom a little more exciting when that child inherits their parent’s holdings and starts scheming for themselves.
I waffled about whether or not to include this one on the list. In a sense the offspring you’re safeguarding in Shelter and its recently released successor Shelter 2 qualify as just a handful of quarters—individual buffers between you and a “game over” screen. So long as you can keep at least one of your babies alive, you have a chance to win. But the difference between how this mechanism plays out in Shelter compared to The Deer God, Tokyo Jungle or even Massive Chalice is that Shelter makes you care, and it makes you care deeply. It makes you care to the point that you can feel the game’s cold, cruel talons gripping your heart every time another creature’s cold, cruel talons grip one of your babies. Even a gentle breeze through the grass will be enough to startle you and send you sprinting, counting the fragile bodies bounding after you to make sure that everyone is accounted for. Shelter 2 twists the knife by allowing you to name your offspring, ensuring an extra sting when instead of losing Cub #2, you lose ‘Little Sammy’. It’s actually something of a blessing that you don’t have to spend time educating your babies in either of these games, because you’ll have enough on your plate worrying about how (or even if) they’ll survive.
There are a lot of different ways to play The Sims. In quite a few of them child-rearing may never enter into the picture, but for many players it’s a significant part of the equation. Plenty of Sims-fans prefer “legacy” play, building a family tree that grows wealthier and more successful over time as each generation builds upon the foundations left by those that came before. It’s not unlike Crusader Kings II or Oreshika when you think about it, but The Sims provides a much more detailed social simulation than either of these other games do. Procreation and parenting are much more hands-on, starting from a fateful WooHoo between partners and passing through every single stage of life. This is why there was such an uproar over the removal of toddlers in The Sims 4. In The Sims 3, tending to toddlers is one of the best ways to ensure that your young sims start out on the right foot. Virtual parents who take the time to diligently teach toddlers how to walk, talk and use the potty are rewarded when their children age up and receive more beneficial personality traits. Toddlers without these advantages will still know how to walk, talk and relieve themselves like any other sim, but they have a higher risk of developing negative personality traits that could pose a problem down the line. This carries on throughout a sim’s childhood with their performance in school tied to similar perks, while children who are consistently neglected may end up being taken away by protective services. All said it’s not the most subtle or elegant system, but it does the trick.
Many games that attempt to mechanically model parent-child relationships present players with an unconscious (and often inconsequential) choice between their character’s personal priorities and their responsibilities as a parent. Few games make those choices as explicit at The Novelist does. When you make the choice to work on your novel rather than taking your kid to the park in The Sims it’s incredibly easy to overlook the potential ramifications of that choice. Not so in The Novelist where the balance of work and life is an ever-present weight on the main character’s shoulders.
I’m not a parent, but I imagine that when you have a young child you are in a constant state of fear, and that fear is probably divided equally between the idea of your child eating something they shouldn’t, going somewhere they shouldn’t, or getting Measles from an unvaccinated Grendel. I suspect that particular blend of parental anxiety was effectively instilled in most young folks who got their hands on a copy of Creatures or its sequels. Creatures allows you to raise, train and breed Mogwai-esque bipedal animals called Norns. Norns are highly susceptible to illness and accident, and for every second one of your Norns is off screen the chances they will meet some tragic end amplify. I’d say more, but I wouldn’t want to step on Jenn Frank’s toes; Her 2012 essay on Creatures and maternal anxiety is a classic for good reason.
You’ve been able to have kids with the town’s eligible bachelorettes since the very beginning of this series, but even though they’ve almost always been a part of the Harvest Moon experience the role your in-game kids play has varied from game to game. Sometimes they’ve been set decoration, another face to come home to alongside your spouse and your dog. On other occasions, you’ve been able to use them as an extra set of hands around the farm. No guarantee that they would do a good job, of course, but even when their performance was spotty their help was a valuable way to save time and stamina. The most interesting parenting mechanics by far belong to Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, where your child has their own interests and you need to do your best as a parent to nurture them on top of managing your crops and livestock. Spoilers ahead: A Wonderful Life ends with the farmer’s death, going on to show what path in life their child chose and how well suited (or not) they are to it. It’s a somewhat heavy note to end on, which is why it stands out dramatically in this otherwise lighthearted series.
It wouldn’t be a good list without at least one obscure Japanese pull. Kosodate Quiz My Angel is the only game on this list that lets two players parent in tandem (depending on the version) with one player as a mother and the other as a father. The act of parenting takes on a pretty unusual form too. Players answer trivia questions to help advance their young daughter through each stage of her life, and as the game progresses her appearance and personality will change in response to how well you do. It’s a bit like Trivial Pursuit, but with a human being instead of a little plastic pie wheel.
Part of me wants to admit that there is a creepy undertone to some of the Princess Maker games that should disqualify them from being a part of this list. Even so, another (much louder) part of me can’t discount my own favorable experiences with the series. When I first played Princess Maker 2 I had a very enjoyable time rearing a rebellious and sharp-witted princess who tore through monster-riddled forests with abandon and had no time for the bureaucratic nonsense I tried to impose as her guardian. I let her get a little out of hand and there were consequences for that, but those ‘consequences’ only made her a vastly more interesting character to me in the end. Princess Maker has its problems, but there’s still something appealing there. More importantly, without Princess Maker we likely wouldn’t have Long Live the Queen around to add a dose of glittery pink attempted regicide to our Steam libraries.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.