Surrogate Father Simulator 2

I arrived late to Red Dead Redemption 2. I didn’t start playing it until all the serious gamers had long since had their way with it and moved on.

I wanted to play it sooner, but my computer couldn’t run it. It’s not made for playing games, it’s for generating pristine documents and sending emails.

But then my brother Jim bought a PlayStation 5. He mailed me his PlayStation 4, with several games he’d played. One of them was RDR2.

I played it for a month before it dawned on me that at certain moments the game is essentially Father Simulator. Or Father Simulator 2?

I thought this must be part of its enormous appeal. It’s the only game I know of that simulates, more or less, the experience of hanging out with a dad.

There are dads all over the game. The hero has a father figure he’s disillusioned with; he himself is a kind of father figure to younger characters; I’m sure there’s other father stuff I haven’t gotten to yet. And I find that it’s the father stuff that has kept me from getting bored so far.

I get bored with video games easily. Not long into Control, which Jim also sent me, I had to fight a floating man who threw shit at me with his mind. After five tries, I couldn’t beat him. Every time I died, I respawned far away and had to run through a gray office building, back to the room where I once again got killed. So I quit.

I wasn’t having fun. My heart rate kept increasing. And for what?

Skyrim stopped being fun because people in the game kept asking me to go into caves and castles to get things or kill people. No matter where they sent me, what I was supposed to get, or what idiot they wanted me to get rid of, it was the same.

And I tried playing the first Red Dead Redemption, years ago. I didn’t even play long enough to find out in what way it was repetitive. I just thought it was dull.

But its sequel has something to it that the first one didn’t.

It has a lot more things, actually, and most of them are straightforward enough. There’s a much more complex and engrossing system of challenges and rewards. You don’t take Arthur Morgan hunting just to do it; you do it to check a series of boxes. Get a perfect rabbit pelt. Get a perfect deer pelt. It’s a scavenger hunt.

When you gamble, in the game, there are goals to mark off your list. You’re not just throwing money away, you’re winning three hands of poker and earning a special trophy.

There’s a system of rewards for everything. That helps delay the inevitable discovery that you, the player, are spending hours in the same spot, looking at the same place on the wall, pressing buttons.

I played for a while. I killed deer. I shot guys.

And then I took Arthur fishing.

It was midmorning, in the game; in life, it was late. My kids were asleep upstairs. I got some bait and steered Arthur to a river with a young Irish member of his gang. I cast my line, he cast his, and we talked.

As we talked, or they talked, I thought to myself that this is exactly the kind of thing you’re supposed to do with dads.

I wondered, as I twirled the wheel on my controller, because that’s how you reel in a fish, if that’s the intrinsic appeal of RDR2. I wondered if the thing that makes the game more than a series of challenges and rewards is that it provides the player access to some imagined rendition of their father.

This is important: I swear I am not using this essay about a video game as an opportunity to sort through my problems with my father.

I do have some problems with my father, who is in a nursing home and weaker than he ever was. He has been on my mind, lately, more than usual.

But I’m not someone—and you’ll have to take my word for this—who is animated by problems with his father.

He wasn’t a bad enough father for that. I wouldn’t even say he was a bad father.

He wasn’t a great father. But he didn’t do anything extraordinarily wrong.

He was absent a lot. He worked constantly, in part because he had six kids and had to sustain us all; but then he also did it—let’s face it—to avoid us. He himself grew up without having a father around, and I always suspected he just didn’t know how to handle so much fatherhood.

Maybe I’m wrong. I could be wrong. We never talked about it.

We hardly ever talked. He never took me fishing.

He tried, once.

When I must have been ten, or something, he and I went on a special trip to a cabin and brought fishing poles. I don’t know why, or what brought the trip on. I don’t recall asking to go; I never spent time with just him; I didn’t want to touch worms; sharp hooks freak me out and always have. When I see a hook, I picture it sinking right into my eye.

But Dad and I, you know, we got to the cabin by the lake that night, and as soon as we were ready for bed, to wake on up early and get the jump on them fish, the phone rang. My older brother had been in a car accident, in Pittsburgh. He was fine, but we had to leave that night. My father took me home so he could go and sort that situation out.

We never fished.

But that’s not the reason why RDR2 has struck me the way it has. I haven’t spent my life yearning for a more active father. I had older brothers who filled in for him, as best they could. My mother was great. Still is.

This essay isn’t about me; it’s about an odd dynamic that’s at work in a game where the man who is under the player’s control acts as a surrogate father to the game’s other characters.

Arthur Morgan is an aging outlaw. The younger ones either scorn him or look up to him. They rob people together, and all that stuff, but they do other things, too. Fishing is one of them; so is playing dominoes; Arthur can also take them hunting.

It’s classic dad stuff.

I’ve never bought into the idea that video games are as exhilarating as they are because they afford the player the opportunity to live other lives, to inhabit other selves in fantastical settings. I don’t know how prevalent that notion is, but I’ve heard it, and I don’t buy it. When I play RDR2, I don’t feel as if I’m transported to the nineteenth century. I’m too aware of how, as Arthur slides his way down a steep hill, firing his pistol at bounty hunters, I’m a guy sitting in a chair who’s scared of guns.

I am intrigued, on the other hand, by the notion I’ve had since playing RDR2, that maybe video games enthrall us like they do because they offer us visions of the parents we never quite had. They restore us to a frame of mind in which we can imagine the people who raised us as heroes with elaborate lives that would reveal their wonder if we could only see them in full.

Parents are nothing like that, we eventually learn. They’re anxious freaks, and so are the people they hang around with.

But for a while, anyway, we are permitted to believe otherwise. We don’t know any better.

Arthur Morgan strikes me as the perfect mystery father, with his curt way of speaking, his air of detachment, his flares of anger, and his occasional, blessed willingness to laugh things off that might otherwise send him into a rage.

Arthur takes another man’s son fishing, at one point. He does all the fishing while the kid gets distracted with other things.

Arthur humors him. He’s patient. When he’s not with the kid, he’s out hunting bears, hunting people, blasting weapons from the hands of his would-be assassins, and things more dire than that. He has a life outside the home that exceeds any fantasy a kid can have about what their father does, what he might really be like. He may be rough, but to some he is a hero, and he is always up to something grand, like imaginary fathers ought to be.

I never had any of these fantasies, mind you. I knew who my parents were early in life. There wasn’t much room for such illusions; maybe it’s because I had older brothers to disillusion me.

And I can go farther with this.

Like, once this whole Arthur-Morgan-is-a-gaming-dad thing occurred to me, I thought it was interesting that when I watch Arthur do all the things he does I’m looking over his shoulder—which is more or less the perspective I would have if I were sitting on his shoulders, like if I was a kid and he hoisted me up there.

And I wondered, too, if that’s what the first-person perspective—which you can switch to in RDR2—is really all about. Are we watching the action from the perspective of the one engaged in it, or are we watching it as if we were mounted on that person’s back, like a kid on piggyback?

Could it be that the reason some games have the deep appeal they have is that they make us feel like we’re enthralled by the mystery of our parents again—or for the first time, as the case may be?

Is that, I have to wonder, what’s buried in our PlayStation 4s and 5s, our Xboxes and Nintendos? When we play certain games on them, are we digging for the beating heart of a mother or father that we feel, in the unthinking parts of ourselves, must be in their somewhere?

Another game I played on Jim’s PS4 was Horizon Zero Dawn. I didn’t play it long, but I got far enough to learn that the goal is to find the redheaded hero’s mother.

Are we playing these games, for all these hours, when we could be sleeping or reading, or whatever, because we hope to find some piece of those who bore us into this world, and thereby find a lost part of ourselves?

I don’t know. Maybe that’s not it.

I’m sure the kid who chewed me out last year, for playing Titanfall 2 online at a higher difficulty than he thought I was ready for, wouldn’t see it this way.

We played a match together and our team lost. It was my fault. He made sure I knew it was my fault.

He was so mad at me for ruining his game. He complained and complained.

I thought it was hysterical. Losing the match was fun as hell, and that kid’s anger was one of my highlights of 2021.

If that kid and I met again, somewhere on the high plains of Red Dead Online, and I told him how I think some games maybe show us visions of the moms and dads we never had, and thus enthrall us, he would say I was a little bitch for thinking that stuff. He would blast me through the face with an Old West shotgun and laugh until I respawned and again I was alone.