Divorce is not a child's puzzle to solve
My parents separated when I was 11 and finalised their divorce when I was 13. Like most children of divorce, it hit hard when they told me my dad was moving in with my grandparents while they “figured things out.” Being the shy, anxious kid I was, I immediately assumed it was all my fault. After all, a few months before they told me, I’d made the mistake of watching the Disney Channel movie Don’t Look Under the Bed. Following that, my dad had to sleep on the floor of my room until I fell asleep because the wind blowing into my window sounded exactly like the boogeyman’s claws climbing into my second-story bedroom. Surely, them losing that time at night was the sole reason why their marriage was failing.
Of course, I’ve since learned that there were many other reasons that led to their breakup. However, my experience both living through a divorce and talking to many other people who have done the same is that most kids do blame themselves for the divorce in one way or another. It’s an incredibly difficult idea to deal with and one that’s even tougher to shake until you’re well past the event.
One of the many reasons that mindset is so hard to shake is that, until relatively recently, there isn’t much media that shows the positive sides of divorce. Instead, we’re given movies like The Parent Trap where two kids are able to trick their parents back into love. Not only does that set unrealistic expectations for the role children have in their parent’s relationship with each other, but it also leads kids to feel like they’ve failed their parents if they can’t get them back together
So, when Hazelight revealed the premise of their next game It Takes Two, I couldn’t help but feel worried. The game has you and a friend playing as a recently divorced couple. Through magic, you’ve been turned into dolls made by your daughter, and you must work together to find a way back to your normal lives. It’s that classic Parent Trap setup with sorcery instead of tricky twins.
I’m a big fan of everything Josef Fares and his team at Hazelight have done. So, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt until I actually play It Takes Two. Maybe they take the premise and use it as a way to teach the daughter that her parent’s relationship isn’t her responsibility to fix.
However, when I see the most recent gameplay trailer turning the parent’s past attraction into a gameplay mechanic, it gives me pause. It’s not that developers shouldn’t look for compelling ways to mix gameplay and story. Instead, it’s the general idea that this magical trip their daughter has set upon them is going to repair their broken marriage.
That just doesn’t happen. Obviously, no child can turn their parents into magical dolls, but they also can’t will their parents into loving each other again. They shouldn’t be expected to be. It’s never the child’s fault, which means they have no agency in fixing things. Setting up that they do is a distressing direction for any medium concerning divorce to take.
And here’s the kicker: Divorces don’t need fixing. The two people in the relationship are separating for a reason. Giving them a magnet to symbolize their attraction isn’t going to change that. Insinuating that it can is a gross misunderstanding of why people get divorced in the first place.
Instead of focusing on how to get two people to “fall back in love”, the more nuanced take is to see how a family might positively deal with divorce. I’m fortunate enough to have parents who are very obviously better off as friends. While I can remember countless loud arguments coming from our laundry room as a child, they’ve been able to put that past them and become totally cordial. Nowadays, my parents and their current spouses will all come together for a completely pleasant family gathering.
I’m more than aware that type of relationship isn’t always the norm for divorced families. Many parents aren’t able to reconcile in the way my parents have. However, showing a positive version of divorce in media is so much more helpful to both parents and kids than presenting a scenario where the whole thing can be fixed like they do in The Parent Trap. Hopefully, It Takes Two takes that next step into taking a realistic approach to depicting divorce.