At Age 29, a Game Developer Must Battle Back from a Stroke

When he got the vision floater in his right eye that morning at work, Mikey Neumann figured in the next 30 minutes he'd be asking someone to drive him home so he could fight off a migraine. But the walloping headache never came.

By 6 p.m., he was still in the Gearbox Software office, playing Left 4 Dead 2 with a colleague, and doing terribly at it. His vision had gotten worse. He had no feeling in his left hand. He was lightheaded. At the end of the match Neumann mumbled something unintelligible about his performance and left the room. In the stairwell, the entire left side of his body went numb and he fell.

He wasn't having a migraine that day. Neumann, at age 29, was having a stroke.

It was the beginning of a journey that, now in its 28th day, remains without resolution on many questions. Neumann, known for playing Borderlands with fans for nearly three straight days to honor a personal pre-order incentive he'd offered, still has no feeling on his left side. He uses a cane and wears an eyepatch. He did finally get the migraine; it hasn't gone away in 26 days. And while his doctors know what caused the stroke, they do not know how to stop another one.

Still it has not diminished Neumann's desire to make video games, his capacity to create them, or his lifelong enjoyment of them, or of all the things that have driven his work in 10 years at Gearbox.

"There were a couple of days where Randy Pitchford, [Gearbox's CEO] came by the hospital, and we would just talk for, God, two or three hours at a time," Neumann told Kotaku. And it always came back to games. We'd start on health, and life, but because of who we are, it just always came back to games.

"I think we both love making games too much that, even though I had a stop-and-smell-the-roses moment, I still just want to jump back in and make games for the rest of my life," Neumann said. "Because games really are that important to me."

***

Neumann has been working in video games since he was 19. He went to college for a year before leaving to do contracted quality assurance work for Gearbox on its port of Half-Life to the PlayStation 2. A year later, he was hired to full-time staff.

Today, he is best known for award-winning work on Gearbox's Brothers in Arms series and for 2009's Borderlands, of which he was the associate creative director. He's also working on the upcoming Borderlands 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Neumann has spent a good decade getting accustomed to creating worlds and determining the fates of those in them. But laying in a hospital bed, he was leading a life and living in a world where anything could happen to him, and he felt like he was in charge of none of it.

"You just stop trusting anything," Neumann wrote on a blog he set up to write, therapeutically, about his condition. "You end up breaking down every time a doctor asks, 'Do you have any questions?' when they haven't successfully answered one yet ... You end up wasting the 29-year stint you had a perfect record of never dropping an f-bomb in front of your mother, only to spew off in a tirade laden with them from the frustration seeping from your every pore. You end up losing hope, and it makes you very sad."

That was probably Neuman's worst hour in a nine-day stretch in the hospital. At one point his diagnosis was multiple sclerosis, a degenerative condition with no known cure. The real cause turned out to be a hole in his heart, but the solution is just as elusive.

At Age 29, a Game Developer Must Battle Back from a Stroke
Mikey Neumann, second from left, with (from left) Gearbox co-founders Brian Martel and Randy Pitchford, and game design director Keith Schuler.

"It's funny when you're relieved to find out you have a hole in your heart," Neumann said. "Like that's the good case. I had a doctor come in late when I was alone and drugged up. He introduced himself and he said, 'You have multiple sclerosis.' That was the first thing he said to me."

Neumann doesn't have MS. Doctors are "96 percent sure," he said. Asked why not 90 or 95, Neumann figures they just wanted to give an extra percentage point to give a perfect score without literally committing to it. It sounds almost like a game review.

Doctors instead found what is called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO, in his heart. It's basically a tunnel between the heart's chambers, left over from birth. Usually it closes. Even if it doesn't, it's often not this big of a deal, as the blood flow in most goes from the left side of the heart to the right. Neumann's flows from right to left. PFOs are clinically linked to migraines. Right-to-left PFOs are linked to stroke. A stroke can kill without warning.

***

Neumann went through the battery of hospital indignities: tubes down the throat, interminable waits for tests, a lack of palatable food. The headache was "suppressed" by painkillers but showed, and still shows, no signs of going away. Still Neumann could come back to his room and enjoy that which has driven and sustained his professional life: a video game.

The first time he stopped by to visit, Randy Pitchford, Gearbox's co-founder and its charismatic CEO, loaned Neumann his 4G LTE card. It was the kind of high-powered Internet signal necessary to defeat whatever crappy wireless that Neumann could find in the hospital, and get online for multiplayer in Left 4 Dead 2. Gearbox's director of information technology, Mike Athey, brought Neumann "an insanely powerful laptop." From his bed, Neumann could jump on Steam and download games. "They bought me a copy of Rage, I was playing Rage in the hospital," Neumann said. "I played the Portal 2 DLC there. It was actually kind of fun."

As he played Left 4 Dead 2, Neumann had to wear an eyepatch to control the nausea that sometimes manifested from having all of his right eye vision obscured. He didn't bring up his condition with anyone in multiplayer. "That's kind of weird, 'So let's go grab the medkit, by the way, I had a stroke,'" Neumann laughed. "That's kind of shitty. No, I want people to treat me normally."

Neumann won an early release from the hospital. He convinced his physician to discharge him after nine days, if the only reason he was there was to wait on a battery of neurological tests. Neumann ached to get back to work. Naturally, his first day back at the joint was on a Saturday.

Then the DeLorean wheeled up in the parking lot.

Eric Doescher, a designer at Gearbox, had called up Ernie Cline, a geek god for his work on the screenplay of Fanboys as well as the acclaimed novel Ready Player One, out now (and also optioned to Hollywood.) Doescher asked Cline to pay a visit to cheer up a friend. Cline owns a DeLorean DMC-12, the kind driven to 1955 and back in Back to the Future, and while it's not a perfect replica of the time machine, its interior and options will take anyone back to the 1980s.

At Age 29, a Game Developer Must Battle Back from a Stroke
Mikey Neumann with a "save the clock tower" flyer that Ernie Cline, author of "Ready Player One" gives out to passersby when he drives his DeLorean DMC-12.

Sure, it has a flux capacitor. Its front also features the sweeping "anamorphic equalizer" that distinguished KITT in Knight Rider. A Ghostbusters trap, PKE meter and proton pack—with the charging-up sound—is in the trunk. The license plate reads "ECTO 88," an homage to both Ecto 1, the Ghosbusters emergency vehicle, and "Rocket 88" the hit song by Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers. Cline also keeps a stack of "Save the clock tower" flyers, like the ones handed out in 1985 in Back to the Future, and gives them to passersby at gas stations who inevitably ask if he's driven the machine at 88 miles per hour.

It's the Nerdmobile, Cline said.

"I asked him if he wanted to drive it," Ernie said, "I felt that he wanted to," but at the time, it was probably best that Neumann didn't.

Cline, it turns out, is as much a fan of Gearbox's work as Neumann is of his. He'd never visited Gearbox's studio, before, and was in fact on a tour—in the DeLorean—promoting his book. He happened to be in Dallas around that time, at a convention. But the detour was as much a favor to Cline as it was to Neumann.

"I'm a huge James Cameron Aliens fan," Cline told Kotaku. "I've played all of the games obsessively and I remember seeing previews of [Aliens: Colonial Marines] and being excited."

For much of the discussion, Cline was picking Neumann and his colleagues for details on the game, rather than Cline providing some kind of prop-filled make-a-wish visit broken up by awkward silences. "Ecto 88" didn't get shown off until a couple hours into the visit, Cline said.

"I was going to cheer him up, but I had an absolute blast," Cline said. "I feel like I made friends, because they're all awesome guys who are all into the same thing. It was like driving over to hang out with cool friends and just geek out."

***

Mikey Neumann went back to the hospital on Tuesday and got the news that the procedure his doctors thought would prevent a stroke in fact can't guarantee that. He's candid about these developments, updating them in his blog and also through his Twitter feed.

Anyone who has either spent time in a hospital with a serious illness, or who has had a loved one confronting it, knows the chess match of sympathy. On one hand, the patient wishes for normalcy, even the illusion of it.

"Some people don't know quite what to say but they'll reach out anyway," Neumann said, "maybe they don't have quite the right words. You're gonna have people who are a little too ... hugtacular."

On the other hand, they deserve an honest ear, listening to and understanding the fear and pent up frustration that comes from living with a condition for which the only given is that it's going to change the rest of your life, and may kill you without warning. Neumann, on his blog, wrote exasperatedly of "being cut off constantly by a repeated chorus of, 'you're strong, man. You'll come out okay,' and having a feeling the entire time that their world view is myopic and ignorant. Help me deal with the problems at hand."

Maybe what's best is to just take everyone's mind off it all. Like Randy Pitchford did in the hospital. Like Ernie Cline did in the parking lot. Even for a loved one, friend, colleague or stranger, even with the most carefully chosen words, the overpursuit of normalcy can only miss the pieces of it that will always be there.


You can contact Owen Good, the author of this post, at owen@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.