The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming

It was a promise. British-born game designer Andrzej Zamoyski and his brother Adam made it as soon as they heard the news. Both were up late, camped out on Adam's comfy sofa with their mom and Adam's wife, sipping tea and eating biscuits as this year's Nintendo E3 press conference streamed from the computer to a big plasma TV.

That night, as they sat there watching legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto on stage at E3, they weren't dwelling on any other worries, such as Adam's relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia in his bone marrow, overrunning the healthy cells. No, they were thinking the same thing: Zelda.

"When we heard about the Zelda concert," Andrzej told Kotaku from his living room in Guildford, "I said to Adam that we were definitely going." The concert was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda.

It was decided that night. They were going to go, Andrzej, Adam, and Adam's new bride, Natsumi, and they even talked late into the night of making costumes.

Some brothers share their love of cars. Other share their love of sports. For the Zamoyski brothers, it was always video games. It was a love that took them from their bedroom to England's biggest game studio.

The Zamoyskis lived, ate, and breathed pixelated worlds. "When we were kids, we didn't go anywhere special," recalled Andrzej. "We spent all our money on games." Seemingly every last quid was sunk into games and consoles. They weren't gaming snobs, either. They'd play whatever—good or bad. As long as it was a video game, they were hip, believing that there was as much to learn from bad video games as there was from good ones. And when they weren't gaming, they were modding their consoles or chewing each other's ear off on the latest great, or not-so-great, game. The Zamoyskis aimed to be the next set of brothers to conquer the gaming world. They didn't just played games, they wanted to make them.

The brothers started breaking down how they were made and what made them work and programming them. After they got games like Doom or Quake, they'd play them for a few days and spend the following days, weeks, and months in their bedroom creating new experiences on the level editor. Their desks were next to each other, and they had the nascent stages of a game studio. It was decided, both of them wanted to make games, with them even penning a letter to the likes of renowned game creator Peter Molyneux, declaring things like, "One day Mr. Molyneux, we are going to make games with you."

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
The photo included in the resume the brothers sent out. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

Their singular goal was the same. But they could not have been more different. When talking games, Andrzej is chatty and opinionated—dogmatic, even—while Adam was the quieter of the two, was humble and pensive, choosing his comments wisely, before laying out fresh insights. "In that sense we were a perfectly matched pair," said Andrzej, "often coming at a problem from two completely different directions but generally arriving at the same opinion or solution." The two of them made a set, dovetailing and complementing each other's strengths.

When it was time to go to university, Andrzej went to Leeds Metropolitan University and studied gaming. Two years later, his little brother followed suit. University offered the university experience, and the Zamoyski brothers were itching for that real world grind. They contacted every last studio in the greater United Kingdom—sending their resume as one.

The brothers were a two-for-one deal. Lionhead Studios, maker of the Fable games, offered a work experience program, and they jumped at the chance. At Lionhead, they cut their teeth as testers, checking out The Movies and filling up notebook after notebook about things they hated about the first Fable game. The week flew by, and that first taste was their gateway drug to the game industry. They had to make games.

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
This hand-painted Snake art by Yoji Shinkawa was sent by Hideo Kojima, after he learned of Adam's condition at a London signing sessions. It was proudly displayed in Adam's hospital room. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

In the evening of the last day, Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux strolled through the testing department, where Andrzej and Adam had been testing a Fable beta build. There he was, the man himself, decked out in one of his trademark polo-necks, the same man that years earlier the brothers had written a letter to.

Peter Molyneux is personable. He's also one of those figures that seem to have been around longer than video games, causing many-a Lionhead Studios employee to get flustered upon meeting him for the first time. Neither Andrzej nor Adam were gobsmacked. Realizing a possible chance, they pushed forward and introduced themselves and started quizzing the famed British game designer about his favorite titles, learning that, yes, even Peter Molyneux had played Final Fantasy VII—though, he could not remember the characters' names. An hour later, they were still talking with Molyneux, the conversation going from a Q&A to a heated discussion about the future of the game industry.

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
Adam in the Akihabara Super Potato. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

"When we finally left at 7pm, it was like we were walking on air," said Andrzej. "We couldn't believe what happened." Right then, they knew what they had to do: They quit university and applied to work at Lionhead. By the end of that summer of 2004, they were game developers. Just like when they were kids, their desks, covered with toys and consoles, were next to each other. The days were long, and the work was grueling.

There's worklife, there's homelife, and then, they're family. "I was senior to Adam at work," said Andrzej. "I sometimes had to remember how to talk to him professionally." Sharing a small flat in Guildford meant that every waking moment was spent together. They laughed, created a desk with embedded buttons and joysticks, and like all brothers do, they fought and carried that singular bond that brothers have: Even when you hate that guy, think he's a bastard and a million miles away from you, he's the closest thing you've got.

After Lionhead Studios finished Black and White 2, Adam's short-term tester contract ran out. While he wanted to stay on with his brother, he moved on to Kuju London (now Headstrong Games), jumping at a chance to not only work on the Wii, but as a testing lead on the Nintendo-published Battalion Wars 2.

For a generation of gamers, now in their late twenties and early-to-mid thirties, Japan still is equated with video games. Growing up, so many of the games were Japanese—so many of the best ones were Japanese. Nintendo became synonymous with video games the same way that Coke means soda. So Adam was over the moon when Nintendo sent over developers like Kensuke Tanabe and Keisuke Terasaki to oversee the project, providing an opportunity for him to not only learn from them, but practice the rudimentary Japanese he was teaching himself. Terasaki directed the original Fire Emblem, and Tanabe worked on a slew of Zelda titles, including A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. Getting split up from his brother stunk, but Adam was hog happy in Nintendo heaven.

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
A Zamo Bros. tribute painted by friend and artist Jeff Read. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

Everything changed in fall 2007. It was October. The weather was crisp and cool. Adam and Andrzej were moving up through the ranks in the industry. But that fall, Adam was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. There was the physical pain, the stress, the chemotherapy. His family and friends worried. "Adam changed as a person," said Andrzej. "In a matter of months, he reached the maturity people take decades to reach."

Even when the chemo was relentless and even others would have long retreated into themselves, Adam was still talking games, still playing them, still wanted to get back to work and do what he was put on this Earth to do: Make video games. According to Andrzej, "He never forgot video games." By April 2009, Adam returned to work part-time at Kuju London, working while still in treatment. The treatment seemed to be doing the trick, and that summer, he and Andrzej finally took the trip to Japan that they always wanted to. Andrzej, after seeing his brother tackle Japanese and fearing that Adam was going to Japan without him, Andrzej began studying it himself and is planning to move to Japan next spring to study the language with the goal of making games.

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
Adam with his copy of the Super Marrow Bros. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

The trip was a game pilgrimage, with the brothers doing the Akihabara crawl, rifling through old Nintendo games at Super Potato and hitting every arcade in sight, making a beeline for Daigo's stomping grounds at Big Box Taito Station in Takadanobaba, Tokyo. Diago didn't show that night, but the Zamoyski brothers held their own against an arcade packed with seasoned players, marking up a handful of wins.

It wasn't merely that things were getting better for Adam, that he was defeating his disease. Things were happening, so many good things one rapid succession. That December, Adam became engaged to Natsumi, a Japanese woman he met in London and who stuck with him through the treatment. And by the following summer, June 2010, Adam returned to Lionhead. It was a homecoming. Both he and Andrzej had the titles of "game designer", working on Milo and Kate, an experimental Kinect title Lionhead has since shelved. The leukemia that Adam had been courageously fighting for years seemed to be losing, and by December 2010, his treatment was finished.

December turned January. Adam's leukemia relapsed. His treatment resumed. "Before he got ill," said Andrzej, "I was the older brother. That changed. He started teaching me, and I started learning from him." Gaming wasn't a diversion, it wasn't something to numb the pain. Gaming was his passion. This February, his then-fiancee Natsumi had a 3DS shipped to the UK, so Adam could check it out and play the crap out of it at launch. Grinning wide, Adam sat on his hospital bed, wearing p.j.s and a kimono, and flipped on that 3DS for the first time. Growing up in Japan, Natsumi had played her fair share of Famicom and Super Famicom games, but never really considered herself a huge gamer. That is, until she met the man she would marry this past April.

It was that gamer culture that served as a bond between the two brothers, even after all those years. When Adam turned 27 a few weeks after E3, Andrzej created an NES game to encourage and amuse his brother. Adam suggested that they take photos and send it to Kotaku. They spent hours pulling out old games to put under the "Super Marrow Bros" box and ended up passing most of the time talking about playing those games together. After the post appeared on Kotaku, Adam read each and every comment, staying up late, poring over them. According to Andrzej, they gave him hope, and they made him feel connected to others—not simply because of the well-wishes about his disease, but knowing that there were so many other brothers out there who grew up playing games together. Who loved playing games together. The comments, your comments, gave Adam strength.

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
Adam turning on his 3DS for the first time. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

"It's easy to get bored in the hospital," said Andrzej. "It's easy to lose your love for games. Adam never did." That June, Adam was closely following E3 news and making promises, despite his illness, to go to the Zelda concert later that year.

The odds for a successful bone marrow transplant were slim. But Andrzej's marrow was a perfect match. Since the chemo wasn't working, the plan was to undergo a difficult and dangerous bone marrow transplant. Even with the risks and no guarantee the procedure would work, both Andrzej and Adam wanted to give it a shot. But as the days passed and Adam's condition worsened, the odds for a successful transplant decreased.

"Adam entered this very Zen state," said Andrzej. "I never got the feeling he was scared during all of this. He was the one radiating strength." Adam once told his brother that he would be happy with the life he had and that he had a full life. "If Adam has a list of things he wanted to do," said Andrzej, "he would have checked off all the boxes." Adam spent the last two weeks in the hospital. At his bedside every night was his wife Natsumi, his mom, and Andrzej.

On Sept. 7, 2011, Adam Zamoyski passed away. He was 27. A service was held in Kent, England, complete with The Legend of Zelda theme as well as this—a tune that felt strangely appropriate if you knew Adam and one that had his brother throwing "air punches" as he walked into the church. Developers from Microsoft, Lionhead, Media Molecule, Zynga UK, Headstrong (formerly Kuju London), Super Massive, Testology, Ninja Theory, and the indie community gathered to pay their respects and say good-bye. It would not be Adam's final good-bye.

In the days and weeks following his brother's death, Andrzej hit a few rough patches. Memories lingered, and he felt like he couldn't play certain games. "I still hear him, here," Andrzej said, pointing to his ear with a mechanical pencil. "Here," he added, pointing to his head. "I can hear what he'd say about a game I played."

The Painful, Beautiful Parting of Two Brothers Bound by Gaming
Andrzej and Natsumi with their Zelda tickets. (Andrzej Zamoyski)

A few days after Adam passed away, Andrzej was up. He couldn't sleep and killed time on the internet. For weeks, tickets for the Zelda concert had been sold out. Those were the weeks that Andrzej was at the hospital. The final weeks. "I was gutted," said Andrzej. "Out of desperation I searched eBay not expecting anything. To my surprise there were two tickets available, in the front row and costing a few times the normal price." They were the only tickets he could find anywhere. Not even knowing if this was a scam or not, Andrzej forked over his cash. Scam this wasn't, and the two front row tickets arrived.

The concert was this past Tuesday. Andrzej attended with Natsumi, who's become quite the gamer, dedicating herself to playing through all of Adam's new games in his memory. Both sat in the very first row in the exact center, right under the conductor. "We brought a Link plushie along and placed it on the edge of the stage in front of us and loads of Zelda fans came to take photos," said Andrzej. "It was a truly magical evening, emotional but in a positive, celebratory way."

In Japanese Buddhism, Adam's wife's religion, the final good-bye is 49-days after the death. On the 49th day, the deceased karma takes a new form. This Tuesday's Zelda concert was the eve of that 49th day following Adam's passing.

There's one thing that every reader on this site shares: Games. We write comments and argue about stupid stuff that at times seems utterly meaningless and trivial. It's not meaningless—if anything, that excitement and passion gives elevates video games far beyond simple diversions. Games aren't art. They're our lives. They're our memories.

Adam Zamoyski worked for the following game developers: Lionhead Studios, Headstrong Games (formerly Kuju London), and Zynga Mobile UK (formerly Wonderland Software). Those interested in donating to the University College Hospital London's leukemia center, please visit the JustGiving page the Zamoyski brothers set up.

(Top photo: Andrzej Zamoyski)