Earlier this year, God of War’s widowed-dad plot drew a lot of attention for the way it changed the franchise’s tone. Wife and mother Faye’s offscreen death sets the story in motion in a mythical subversion of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” where Kratos is able to get to know his son before too much time has passed. The only living mom in the game is Freya, a goddess who has cursed her son Baldur with bland immortality in order to “protect” him. Games are full of monstrous moms like Freya and Final Fantasy 7’s Jenova, but God of War’s fridged mom is more common in TV and movies.
But where are the helpful moms in games? If it’s so dangerous to go alone, why doesn’t anyone take their mom? The SNES classic EarthBound includes one of the only helpful everyday moms in gaming, and Ness has to call her to ameliorate his homesickness. I didn’t realize how absent moms were from all the games I’ve seen since EarthBound until I played Rakuen. Laura Shigihara’s sweet, moving game isn’t really an RPG at all, but it has the same feel as EarthBound. Imaginative pixel art is overlaid with dialogue boxes, in settings that sometimes look like real life and more often look like a dream.
Ness’s mom talked to him by phone, but the boy in Rakuen—he’s never named—is confined to a hospital where his mom stays with him. They sit, talk, and explore the hospital together, doing errands for other patients and finding portals into the game’s parallel dream world. Shigihara has written their relationship in a low-key and natural way that stands out as their surroundings grow more imaginative and fantastic. Imagine if To the Moon had a heartfelt and informal friendship at its core instead of the sometimes forced humor of two colleagues.
Rakuen has no combat, but there’s one moment when the boy faces some danger. Without missing a beat, his mom steps in front of him to shield him from whatever the danger is, and her everyday-mortal form of protection is what enables him to explore and try to solve the game’s central mystery. So many properties imbue child characters with not just precocity, but the grave nihilism that trauma survivors can experience. Instead of ranging out from a safe and loving home base, these kids have no one to support them while they try to save the world. It’s a bright, beautiful comfort when the boy in Rakuen is protected from a trivial danger by his everyday mom with barrettes in her hair.
This moment is special in the game because it’s the only one. Otherwise, the boy’s mom chats amiably with him, asks him questions, and follows along with his long game of make-believe. When they’re tasked with working as waitstaff in a busy tea shop, she “yes, and”s like an improv veteran. And her good attitude makes sense. God of War deals in death but also in immortality, giants, and deicide. In Rakuen, the horror is urgent and relatable: who could say no to the whims of a young boy who lives in the hospital? His mom’s lowkey pleasantries are the performance of a lifetime, because her worst-case scenario has already happened.