Generally old people aren’t terribly exciting. Sorry, oldies, but it’s just true. Even when generic TV sitcoms aimed at ten year olds try and portray old people as knowledgeable and exciting, i.e. a group of kids go to an old folks’ home and learn so much from these fascinating elderly people, it only shows them to be more out of date and immobile than we originally assumed. Sorry Recess and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, you did try.
But old people don’t have to be boring, do they? In those kids’ shows I used to watch, they never left the care home and knitted all the time. Hardly revolutionizing the image of old people, is it? Games don’t do a much better job either, where old people are either innocuous, utterly delusional nutters or occasionally get the coveted role of injured but wise sensei who can teach our young, plucky hero how to wield a sword.
And that’s really your lot if you’re an aspiring elderly video game character. Just like in Hollywood, there’s little room for geriatrics in the spotlight and the aged character should turn to independent games, the theatre or even books in which they could play a haunting, ghostly figure that warns the lead of his impending doom. Such is life.
This also stems from the wider issue in gaming that no one actually ages. Despite being “part of the family” for 25 years, Mario still looks as young as he did back in his original adventures on the N64, SNES and even the arcade. Likewise, Samus, Donkey Kong and Wario have yet to show any signs of aging despite their lengthy careers. In a sense you can see the point of game developers keeping their characters young; if Hollywood is managing to do it with real people, why shouldn’t they?
The issue is muddied further by Nintendo’s penchant for leaping through the timelines of series willy-nilly and passing on mantles to new generations of characters. Unlike in most forms of media, where sequels to a story continue on in a linear fashion, gaming seems more than content creating a new story and fitting it in anywhere it might fit chronologically. Because of this, we see series evolve and grow for decades without the story ever really being pushed along.
Two prime examples of this are the Zelda and Metroid franchises. In the former we see Link being born again in nearly every game in the series, faced with a new but all-too-familiar evil as he must yet again save the kingdom of Hyrule. This allows Nintendo to drastically change the style and tone of the franchise regularly but we never really get the opportunity to grow or bond with any particular interpretation of the character because we’ll have the next incarnation thrust upon us sooner or later.
With Metroid we do follow a single character throughout several adventures but the order of her journeys greatly differs from the release order of the games. Despite being released shortly after the original Metroid, its immediate sequel, Metroid II: Return of Samus, chronologically occurs many years after the events of the first game. Many other games in the series follow a similar pattern of being out of sync and overall we have seen very little of Samus physically aging or evolving as a character.
So why can’t this only encourage designers to make the bold decision to portray their characters older than we traditionally associate them with? A Metroid game featuring Samus with failing equipment in a dystopian future or a Zelda featuring Link as a battle scarred warrior who is tortured by the horror of his past lives would both be exciting and a real change of pace for their relevant series. With the freedom to ignore chronology and create one single installment that truly pushed the boundaries of not only the franchise but gaming as a whole, you’d think that someone would have taken the leap properly.
Unfortunately, very few games dare to place a veteran character in the lead role, and instead we get another white, muscular soldier with an axe to grind, or a carbon copy of the characters we already know far too well. Perhaps that will change over time, or else our game heroes will reside, permanently, in a fountain of youth.