How videogames helped me recover from death
The argument over whether or not video games are a true form of art is an outmoded one, these days. Still, developers, critics, and players alike seem to agree that our favorite pastime has some growing up to do. We talk about diversifying our protagonists, but I think that it’s also high time for games to diversify their subject matter. In order for the medium to fulfill its potential, video games need to stop relying on tired, old tropes to convey “mature themes” like family, death, and personal loss. Fortunately, developers have started using games to address such topics with genuine emotional insight. And not a moment too soon, either.
Almost a year ago, my grandmother (“Gram”, a title bestowed upon her by yours truly) died of pancreatic cancer. She had only been diagnosed a few months prior and was still fairly young and healthy for her age. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that right now, a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is essentially a death sentence. Her rapid decline and imminent death left those of us who cared deeply for her reeling. For me, the experience was largely unprecedented. No one that important to me had ever died before. I didn’t have much other than a few sad movies, like Titanic and Moulin Rouge!, to reference when it came to what I was feeling or how I was supposed to respond. When it came to games that dealt with death, the selection was even worse, given what I had played up until that point. If they had taught me anything, it was that when someone close to you dies, you take your shotgun off the wall and make a few hundred people pay. So yeah, not very helpful. To add insult to injury, the game studio that I was working for was engaged in crunch for the entire duration of my grandma’s illness and then some.
The effects on my psyche of voluntarily working well over forty hours a week while also dealing with a months-long “family emergency” weren’t really apparent to me until after the fact, but by the end, it was not pretty. I didn’t just feel sad, I felt so cynical and hopeless that I’m sure I had developed some serious brow muscles (“corrugator supercilii”) from all the scowling. Because I was spending the majority of my days working on them, video games quickly fell into the crosshairs of my resentment. These things that I had grown up with and pursued a career in suddenly seemed so superficial and asinine. Despite this, I was relying on my usual distractions--StarCraft II, Fallout 3, and a few others--more than ever. Once things started to settle down, however, I found myself craving the self-esteem boost that only came from playing games proper, not just as an ineffective sort of self-medication. So one weekend, about a week after my grandma died, I sprawled out on my couch in workout shorts and a t-shirt and downloaded Life Is Strange on my PS4.
I didn’t know much about Life Is Strange prior to playing it, other than it starred a pair of teenage girls as its protagonists and was developed by Dontnod and published Square Enix. What I especially didn’t know about the quasi-indie, episodic, point-and-click game was that it would speak to me in ways that were uncanny, given the events that had transpired in my life and the headspace that I was in. I won’t spoil anything that the game doesn’t offer up on the back of the box or in the first episode or so to set the stage for more significant plot points, so if you plan on playing it (which I recommend), you should be good to keep reading.
I instantly related to Life Is Strange’s themes of nostalgia, loss, and tragedy, though this wasn’t hard, given that the presentation bordered on heavy-handed from the get-go. As the game’s main character, Max, attempted to reconnect with the hometown she had been absent from for years, I found myself even more keenly aware of the longing I had for the childhood I spent with my grandma. It reminded me of the many ways in which I felt severed from my upbringing ever since I moved out and officially entered the adult world several years ago. When a family member who helped raised you dies, it’s a surefire way to feel the weight of certain things, like being on the opposite end of the country as your family (including the two parrots you grew up with) or going years without seeing some of your closest childhood friends.
In the second episode (“Out of Time”), we learn that Max left her hometown, Arcadia Bay, shortly after her close friend, Chloe, lost her father in a car crash. This perceived abandonment by Max and the ways in which other people in Chloe’s life responded to her father’s death are a source of deep resentment for her. Life Is Strange is focused on the concept of time--the passage of time, and how small occurrences in the past affect the present and the future. Chloe’s greatest flaw is her inability to come to terms with the past and “move on.” Combine that with the fact that she represents the game’s takes on grief, death, and regret, and that she happens to share my name, and I think it becomes apparent what I mean by “uncanny”.
Making my way through Life Is Strange, I felt as though my pain was acknowledged without me having to open up about it. This isn’t something I could have realistically expected from a real-life person. Unlike movies or books, we can interact with games in a variety of ways and still have an entirely one-sided relationship with them. I was incredibly grateful for this. It felt as though each episode was punctuating the various stages of my grief (the benefits of an episodic release is an interesting subject in its own right). When I confronted Max’s final decision in the last episode, months after first starting my journey with her, I felt a sense of closure for both of us.
Those first few episodes of Life Is Strange helped me get myself together again. During the wait for the final episodes, I was feeling inspired enough to play Mass Effect, a series that I had been meaning to play for years. Boy, did those games turn out to be a big deal to me. They didn’t explore death or personal loss as directly as Life Is Strange did, but it’s pretty hard not to feel genuinely badass when playing as Commander Shepard. She was like me, but cooler, braver, stronger--more like the me that I had been missing for the better part of a year.
The Mass Effect trilogy spares no narrative device in convincing you that the Reapers, a race of highly intelligent and immensely powerful sentient machines, are a major existential threat. In spite of and because of this fact, Shepard (and you) has no choice but to continue to lead and fight her hardest or risk literally everything. During the months between my grandma’s diagnosis and her death, I was overwhelmed with fear and dread, so this was a story that really resonated with me. Video games give us powerful protagonists all the time, but Commander Shepard, with the top-notch vocal performance of Jennifer Hale and the entire Mass Effect universe relying on her determination, was everything that I needed.
Games are great at providing us with a sense of agency. By presenting me with a variety of challenges both personal and interpersonal, Life Is Strange and Mass Effect let me work through my own problems at a safe distance and regain some of the inner strength that I had lost. In Life Is Strange, I was given agency over how I handled loss and death as I interacted with characters who struggled with those issues. In Mass Effect, it was in how I handled frightening and impossible odds while sorting out where my morality lay. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that it was games that placed a huge emphasis on player choice that helped me recover from personal tragedy (or that they allowed me to play as a female character, but that’s beside the point). A lot of players are most interested in the impact that their choices have on the game world, and I think that that’s a perfectly valid thing to want from player choices, but what I’ve learned is that the mere act of expressing yourself through play is also invaluable. Having to deliberate between saying something that’s either sympathetic and emotionally insightful or steadfast and uncompromising has proven to be a very beneficial exercise. After all, in the real world, choice itself is often all that we get a say in.
I hope that going forward, the game industry makes it easier for people to have experiences like mine. I haven’t gotten around to playing That Dragon, Cancer yet, but I’m sure I will, and when I do, I’m sure that it will speak to me and make me feel a little less sad and a little more understood. I hope that when hard times fall on you, you find a game that speaks to you and makes those hard times a little easier.