Playing through my sorrow
Death is an integral part of video games. It always has been. Death is even present in the oldest games when Pac-Man eats ghosts or Mario stomps on Goombas. Death, in its inevitable or melancholy state, is something that has crept in as the game has matured, offering us glimpses of grief in all its forms.
Grief is universal, it is something that touches all of us at some point. Grief often has to be learned anew. It will sit with you, snuggling up to you and rising to the surface when you least expect it, when you have to learn to live with it again. Grief cannot be changed, it cannot be transformed into something less painful. You have to live with that. When you think you have him under some form of control, he raises his head again.
CS Lewis, in A Grief Observed, observed: “For in grief nothing ‘stays in place.’ You always come out of a phase, but it keeps repeating itself. Round and round. Everything repeats itself.” Lewis’s memoir on the death of his wife was the first book I reached for when my daughter died. I had no idea how to deal with my emotions; Sixteen years later, I’m still not entirely sure, but I’m learning.
This quote stuck in my mind because every year brings with it anniversaries, missed birthdays and Christmas celebrations. My daughter Amelia would be nineteen if she hadn’t died in a car accident when she was three. She had suffered a horrific head injury, her brain was 80 percent dead. I had life support removed knowing that even if she survived her injuries, which seemed very unlikely, she would never lead a “normal” life. My signature ended one form of suffering and ushered in another.
I felt completely abandoned. Immediately after her death, I found solace in video games more than any other medium. At first I used them to keep in touch with friends and play Rainbow Six: Vegas on Xbox Live so I wasn’t alone in my grief. Then I looked for a sense of control by collecting orbs in Crackdown; Roaming the vast vistas and claustrophobic dungeons of The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, I escaped to a world not my own.
I used games as an escape route, and through my quest for control, I learned that it’s okay to relinquish control. I became an active participant in stories of loss, which taught me that I was not alone in my grief. As I recovered and coped, the video game industry grew; Creators began exploring more difficult themes in their titles. Some, like That Dragon, Cancer, used the indie space to focus specifically on the death of a child and the emotions that come with it. In triple-A games, Naughty Dog did an excellent job of summing up a father’s grief in The Last of Us. I didn’t feel as alone as I used to.
Over the years I’ve started to lean into roguelikes, a genre that constantly forces you to face death. I saw them as allegories for mourning and mourning; a lonely character who is forced to repeat the act of dying only to be “born again” and do it all all over again. Inadvertently, these games have coached me in my grief. If Isaac or Zagreus died during a run, I was forced to accept that death and start over.
It may sound trite, this comparison. But as a tool, a roguelike can show you that death is just something that happens. Just as death is a natural part of life, it’s an inevitable part of The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, or Enter the Gungeon. For almost all of us, death repeats itself throughout our lives.
This repetition felt by CS Lewis and all survivors is seen heavily not only in roguelikes but in almost all games. flushing and repeating the fight against a boss in Elden Ring or learning the acrobatic ropes of a Mario title. We’re forced to die and realize it’s okay. This is only part of the experience.
I used to get angry at death, both virtual and real. After discovering my love for roguelikes, I kept pushing myself into increasingly harder and harder video game experiences. Hardcore mods for Minecraft that brought real finality to death; Escape From Tarkov, which punishes my mistakes; Dark Souls, where death is a constant. With every game I felt I could face death in a way I couldn’t in life.
Every year on February 8th, I relive that final day with Amelia. I see myself saying goodbye to her, hoping that she can hear me through the medically induced coma she was in. I keep feeling the heartbreak. Games have eased that pain because I know that feeling has happened before and will happen again.
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