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Growing up gamer: why I gravitate to child protagonists in games

Why I gravitate to games that have us play as children. Discussion of Child of Light, Papo and Yo, Attack of the Friday Monsters, and others.

papo and yo quico

It's no exaggeration to say that I am a lifelong gamer. I just turned 31 this month, and have found joy in games since the day I was able to hold a controller. My mother grew up in a time when games like Pacman, Space Invaders, and Galaga were still a huge draw at local arcades and pizza places in Brooklyn, NY. Luckily for me, she was a fan, and was somehow able to get us an Atari 2600 when I was still very young. I say "somehow" because I grew up pretty poor. We weren't living in abject poverty, but we did struggle. I can't begin to describe the wonder I felt as a child when I first discovered video games. Even back then, with their primitive, pixelated visuals and bleep bloop sound effects, video games entranced, entertained, and delighted me more than anything. 

As I grew up, I continued to turn to video games to keep me happy. My mother raised my sister and I all by herself, so you can imagine she was often working to keep us fed. My older sister had lots of friends and was often out with them. I was alone in the tiny apartment I grew up in pretty regularly. The Atari, and later on, the NES were my best friends. I would borrow games from schoolmates and neighbors all the time, and lose myself in them completely. The original Legend of Zelda allowed me to undertake an adventure and experience the wonder and excitement I couldn't get in the real world. 

I kept playing games throughout my life, and as they became a bigger medium, and technology continued to advance, my enthusiasm for them only deepened. Even as an adult, games continue to help me to cope with loneliness and feelings of insecurity I never shook as a kid. But these days, I find myself being drawn to titles in which I play the role of a child. Lately, some of my favorite game experiences have been in games like Child of LightPapo & YoAttack of the Friday Monsters, and other titles which have the player taking control of a young'n. 

I found myself wondering, just what is it about playing as a child protagonist that I enjoy? When I was a kid, I wanted to be Ryu and Ken. I wanted to be Spider Man and Wolverine, Raphael and Donatello. I wanted to be the hero with all the super powers that could tackle any obstacle and feel empowered. I imagined what kinds of things I would be able to do when I was an adult. 

As a grown man, I find it more and more difficult to relate to the big burly hero. The Nathan Drakes and Dantes. The Kratos' and Call of Duty soldiers. I find that I don't really enjoy being a super, high powered bruiser that can't can take down anyone or anything in his or her path. Because I just can't relate. Now, that's not to say these games are without merit. They are entertaining as hell and lord knows they've found an audience. But they just don't do it for me anymore. 

Warning! There may be some game spoilers below! 

aurora child of light

The most recent game I completed was Ubisoft's Child of Light. After seeing trailers and reading previews, I knew I'd love it. Ubisoft did a great job of creating a tittle that married children's storybooks with JRPG elements. But what really stuck with me after completing it was how sad it felt. While the protagonist, Aurora, is not a completely powerless little girl (she learns to fly and can summon forth some pretty destructive magic), she still feels a very real childlike sense of helplessness, as she is unable to get to her father, the king, when he is ill. 

ni no kuni oliverEven in battle, where Aurora can more than hold her own against enemies and bosses, theplayer is reminded that she is just a little girl often, as her she struggles to swing a sword that is nearly the same size she is, and her crown goes tumbling from her head when she is being attacked. This feeling of being both empowered and helpless made Child of Light a more memorable experience for me. Ni No Kuni's main character, Oliver, was placed in similar circumstances, as he both gained great power as a wizard, but had to deal with the loss of his mother at the same time. 

Another title that profoundly impacted me was Minority Media's Papo and Yo, a game I have written about quite a bit since its release. Playing as Quico, a young boy who escapes his reality of having an abusive, alcoholic father by entering a world where his robot toy, Lula, comes to life, and he can move entire buildings just by picking up cardboard boxes. Quico's journey to find a cure for his friend, Monster, is filled with moments of powerlessness, as when Monster eats the poisonous frogs he is so fond of, he flies into a fiery rage, and violently attacks Quico, picking him up and throwing him into the air. 

Papo and Yo, based on creator Vander Caballeros own tragic childhood, puts the player into the small shoes of a boy who must ultimately find that there is no cure for Monster. That no matter what he does, he is still only a child who must accept things as they are. As someone who grew up with a father who fell victim to drug use, Papo and Yo struck a chord with me. I still play through it every so often, and its conclusion brings me to tears every time.

ellie the last of usAnother PS3 exclusive title, The Last of Us, had a similar and unexpected effect on me. For the majority of the game, the player is in control of Joel, and adult man who is more than capable of holding his own in a fight and well versed in using weapons. Sure, enough clickers and Joel will go down just as quickly as a child would, but overall, he's a pretty strong dude. But it was at a certain point in the game when Joel becomes injured, and the player must take control of Ellie, that things changed. 

Ellie is a 14 year old orphan who grows up in a post-apocalyptic world. While she is savvy and pretty good at taking care of herself for the most part, there are moments in the game where, playing as her, I felt like I was weak and vulnerable. Most notably, when Ellie is captured while trying to help Joel. Not only is Ellie a child, but she's a girl in a world full of sociopaths where laws have gone out the window and anarchy ensues. Playing as Ellie evoked not only those feelings of fear and powerlessness I had as a child, but a feeling of what it would be like to be a young female in this world. The scene below encapsulates this. 


attack of the friday monsters sohtaThe 3DS exclusive title, Attack of the Friday Monsters, developed by Level 5, also has the player controlling a child, Sohta, in 1970's Japan. But rather than inducing the feelings of helplessness the above titles evoked, it brought on a childlike sense of wonder. Following Sohta and his schoolmates around their quiet little town, on a quest to find out the mysteries of the Friday Monsters made me remember how much fun it was to wander as a kid. I remembered playing in my grandmothers apartment backyard, looking under rocks for insects, chasing cats, jumping over puddles, pretending it was all a vast wilderness for me to explore and have adventures in. In this case, it wasn't powerlessness or sadness or loneliness that stood out to me while controlling a child character, but that perfect feeling of wonder. 

There are certainly lots more titles that put us in the shoes of children protagonists. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, The Persona series, etc. But these recent titles have stayed with me. They reminded me what it's like to be a kid. That being a child was filled with moments both sad and wonderful. That I felt both weak and powerful, afraid and strong. And that oscillating between these feelings is something one never really grows out of. That it's okay to feel these things, even as a 31 year old man. Don't get me wrong, I love games that offer me the chance to be a powerful wizard, or nimble thief, and even a super powered brawler. But there will always be something about these particular titles, games that offer me a chance to be a kid again, that will continue to stay with me long after I have completed them. I was lucky enough to grow up as a gamer. I was able to step into worlds that allowed me to go on adventures. And now, I'm lucky to be a gamer in a time where developers are able to use games to tell stories. Stories that can touch us. Stories that can empower us, fill us with wonder, and teach us that it's normal for the child in us to feel powerless from time to time, and that we can overcome these feelings if we allow ourselves to let go of them, and test the limits of what we are capable of. 

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