On Death and Gaming

Illustration for article titled On Death and Gaming

One of my earliest memories of videogames is also one of the last clear memories I have of my aunt, my father's sister, Donna. It was cold out, but not quite the holidays. We were sitting on the shag carpet in my grandparents' house, where she lived, playing Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle. The ColecoVision was plugged into one of those horrible console televisions that looked like it belonged in a cathedral rather than a living room.

She was pretty good – I'd never seen anyone else rescue Smurfette. I, on the other hand, wound up frequently impaled on a purple stalagmite. It was 1984. I was five. The next year, Donna died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She was 21.

——

For most of his life, my father suffered from something called hidradenitis suppurativa, a disorder of the sweat glands. For an equally long time, it was misdiagnosed as Crohn's disease. Of course, the mistake wasn't caught until cellulitis set in, which, in turn, would become something terrible called Marjolin's ulcer, a kind of skin cancer that can develop in chronic wounds. It is aggressive, fast-spreading and known for its very poor prognosis.

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Illustration for article titled On Death and Gaming

Ever a stubborn man, he put off doctors and hospitalization as much as he could. For months, he stayed in bed, bleeding and sleeping and wasting away. He was normally a robust and energetic guy, despite years of pain. Even when he did deign to go to the hospital, he was desperate to get out again so he could get back to work (he worked almost every day at his machine shop). He was so weak upon his final return that he could only crawl through the house on his elbows in an attempt to get back to his bed. He eventually gave up and took the bed on the ground floor but the bleeding soon became too dangerous. Two days later he went back into the hospital for the last time.

More from Stu Horvath at Unwinnable

The Game Critic's Lament "The current running joke at Unwinnable is that we will just put a sign up on the front page on November 11th, explaining that we are all playing Skyrim, would you mind coming back in 100 hours or so?"
Trolls "For Tomy, and other commenters like him, to insist that a subjective opinion is somehow demonstrably wrong is nothing new for the Internet."
Stranger in a Strange Land "It is eerily quiet and nothing stirs but for the breeze, which carries the slightest scent of smoke, like burning leaves on a country farm. There is an air of menace about this place. I do not want to be here – so I retreat."

At that point, the pain was so great (and his tolerance for medication so high) that he spent most of the day in a delirious, drug-fueled dream state. Sometimes these were harmless episodes of rambling monologues. Other times, they were full of panic and anger – one particular night, it took five beefy interns to restrain him, even in his diminished state. In the rare moments of lucidity, he became introspective. He found a little bit of religion, talking to his nurses and doctors and visiting preachers about every kind of faith (bizarrely, despite being a lifelong lapsed Catholic, his hospital armband labeled him Pentecostal, of all things). Never one to travel in the past, he now talked about visiting Italy, Israel and his ancestral homeland, Hungary, should he ever recover.

As time passed, the nurses and doctors struck upon the right formula for pain medication that kept him comfortable and coherent, but the Marjolin's ulcer was advancing. Radical surgery was proposed – amputate the leg, amputate both legs. My father, ever stubborn, was all for it so long as it meant he could get back to work. He immediately began to think about the kind of wheelchair he'd have to build for himself. In the end, though, the hospital decided it wasn't worth the risk. Sometime around Thanksgiving, a doctor without a face told me that my father was going to die.

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Stubbornness can be infectious. It was time to find another hospital, one with a surgeon willing to perform surgery, any kind of surgery. Impossibly, it was a success – the ulcer, a kind of fibrous tumor, was removed, without the need to amputate. By Christmas, my father was in good spirits, reading omnivorously and planning for the future. In the New Year, 2009, he moved to a rehab and began to put weight back on.

Progress was slow at the rehab and, in time, the pain returned. During a follow-up to the surgery, a small, dark mass was seen – the doctor characterized it as sinister. That's when things really begin to blur for me. I think he went back to the hospital for a spell, and then to a hospice in Jersey City. In a few short weeks, he withered away to nothing. The pain became agonizing. He could barely communicate and then, only without words. I think, when he found out the cancer had come back, most of the personality that was my father went away.

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I had never taken a portrait of my father. I asked him one afternoon in the hospice if he was all right with me taking one. He nodded yes, which was more than I had hoped for. I took the best photograph I could with the available light, then I stood there and held his hand for as long as I could bear. Two days later, I was at work, on the night shift. Around 10:30 pm, I had the feeling something was wrong. I called home, but no one answered. When I finally got home early in the morning, there was a note on my desk. My father had died at 10:17.

Illustration for article titled On Death and Gaming
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I don't remember much about the wake other than being surrounded by friends. All of them. The entire time. Several people commented on how well I was handling everything. There was an ocean of faces and waves of handshakes. I very much wanted to drink.

If I was going to do it, why do it alone? I invited all of those friends at the wake to join me at my house afterwards. I picked up cold cuts and snacks and beer. We shuffled around, chatting. I don't think anyone felt entirely comfortable having a party right after a wake and before a funeral, but everyone made the best of it. These were people who supported me through my father's entire illness; they weren't going to bail out now, no matter how awkward it might be.

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But then, someone discovered my review copy of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand.

——

A few words about Blood on the Sand, for those poor souls who have never played it: it is easily the most ridiculous game ever made, on the same level as the very best victims of the Mystery Science Theater crew. It begins at the end of 50 Cent's world tour, in an unnamed, war-torn Middle Eastern country. After the show, the promoter fails to pay the promised $10 million fee and instead offers 50 a jewel-encrusted skull as payment. The skull is promptly stolen by a local woman, which draws 50 – and the G-Unit member of your choosing – into the local conflict, bellowing the battle cry, "Bitch took my skull!"

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A few words about Blood on the Sand, for those poor souls who have never played it: it is easily the most ridiculous game ever made.

What follows is a competent, if uninspired, cover to cover shooter in which 50 slaughters countless people in the name of getting paid. He blows up a tank and several helicopters as well. While bringing the nation to its knees, 50 collects (read: steals) gold bullion, which he can then use to purchase G-Unit songs for the soundtrack, weapon upgrades and taunts. The latter is where the game truly shines.

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There is a dedicated taunt button, which means you can make 50 drop f-bombs at will. No ammo required. In addition to this, your G-unit toady offers a never-ending stream of positive reinforcement ("You sure showed him, 50!") and 50 himself occasionally improvises with profanity without the taunt button (My absolute favorite is when he throws a grenade – something that is usually done with a certain amount of stealth – and he helpfully shouts, "Grenade, motherfucker!" Who knew 50 Cent was such a proponent of fair play?).

And what does 50 do with the priceless and ancient skull when he finally gets it back? He uses it to hold his cigar.

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——

The game went in the Xbox and the group watched in awe. None of us could quite believe what we were seeing, but it didn't take long before the laughter started, great, roaring peals of it. We ate and drank and joked. For the first time in a long time, things felt like they were going to be all right.

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As the game and the night progressed, people began to leave. The weather was turning and the funeral was early the next morning. People continued to drift away, but three or four of us remained. We ordered some awful pizza from a late-night delivery place that specializes in stoners and drunks and did our best to finish the game. We came close, but somehow it had become the small hours of the morning. There'd be other nights. The last of them left and I went to bed.

——

I awoke to find it had snowed in those last few hours of the night. It was cold when I left for the funeral, but not so cold as it could have been.

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Illustration for article titled On Death and Gaming

Stu Horvath is a writer, editor and photographer. He introduced serious videogame coverage to the New York Daily News and has since worked with numerous outlets, including Wired, Complex and Kill Screen Magazine, but mostly he is the proud father of Unwinnable.com. Find him on Twitter @StuHorvath.

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Republished with permission.

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DISCUSSION

EDIT: I want to say, this was NOT meant to usurp Stu's amazing article. His was my inspiration for this.

This is going to ramble, so I apologize. I can stick this in TAY if you think it's better played there-

This was a really powerful piece. Allow me a moment to reflect on my own history with death and video games. It's not always pretty.

My father was a gamer. Not a Words With Friends or Angry Birds gamer, a 999:99 on the time clock of Front Mission 3 gamer. Anything that didn't require quick reflexes, he was a pro at. (Except River Raid. He could murder in that game.)

He slowly fell out of gaming when my brother and I were born (1981 and 1984, respectively), but as the late 80's and early 90's came around and we wanted consoles, he found that old habits die hard.

Our first console with him (my parents divorced in 1989) was a Super Nintendo. We had an NES at my mother's house, but the "cool games" were on the SNES, and we got one the Christmas it came out. He thought Super Mario was lame (probably because he was no good at it) and stuck to RPGs, like Final Fantasy 2 and Act Raiser in the beginning. That man could build an Act Raiser city like no one else.

Shortly after he went to rehab. He battled alcohol addiction through much of his 20s, and in his early 30s decided to get help. I believe much of his alcohol consumption was due to depression and low self esteem. He emerged, brighter, healthier and happier than I had ever seen him. He started dating again, loving life and allowing people to love him back.

Shortly after, for my brother's birthday (my brother and father shared a birthday- kinda neat), we picked up a Sega Genesis at a pawn shop. It didn't come with Sonic. Shit. Or Sonic 2. Shittier. It game with this weird title called "Shining in the Darkness". Who buys a Genesis with one game, Shining in the Darkness, and then pawns it? I don't care, because that game changed our family. Video gaming was no longer a single player activity. Or a two player activity. It was a family activity. One person to control, one person to use a pink high liter on graph paper, measuring each step taken, and one person to look over past maps to make sure you were headed in the right direction. It was also the beginning of the Japanese RPG craze in our family. One that has yet to die.

As awesome as it was to have the dad that was into gaming, there was a dark side to it that I didn't realize until later in life. With all these awesome games, what reason is there to go do things with friends? That gets compounded when you've been depressed in the past. And have had an alcohol addiction problem.

Looking back, my dad's life became a small series of events.

He woke up

Went to work

Came home from work at lunch to play games

Went back to work

Went to store after work

Cooked amazing meals

and then did one of three things- Read historical or sci-fi novels, watched a movie, or played video games. Often time doing all three in a night until midnight, 1 or 2 in the morning.

He didn't have friends outside of work. He was a pretty high up in his office. He was the head of the investigations department at a law firm. He was handsome. He made a low to moderate salary. Nothing too bad, but not enough to buy new cars and a house. He had quite a bit going for him, but he chose to spend all his time playing video games instead.

Now, I play games about 15-20 hours a week, even in my late 20's. There is NOTHING WRONG WITH GAMES. I will ALWAYS play video games. But there is a problem when you put personal relationships behind this kind of pleasure. He NEVER put entertainment in front of his kids, but he put it in front of friends.

Looking back, and I know his life is not mine, but that's no way for a person to live. We need interaction. We need compassion. We need people to make us laugh. To call us. To write to us.

After owning just about every single piece of hardware (sans the shitty ones like the Jaguar and CD-i), you'd think he'd be as happy as can be. And maybe he was. In 2000, he got a pay raise. I mean a PAY. RAISE. He went from earning about $50,000/year- not bad in 2000- to almost $250,000/year. Damn. That's when I think he realized he was so lucky. And that life WASN'T so shitty after all. He went and bought a brand new car IN CASH. He bought a 65" TV before there were such things (he named it the Death Star). He bought a recliner that vibrated and had a cooler built into the arm. (Did I mention he was still single?) I got a Dreamcast with, like, 8 games that Christmas AND a new Minidisc player. He was living it up. To the point that, I feel, he was so happy, that he felt like he deserved to drink again after being sober for almost 8 or 9 years.

To that point, he started drinking again. Secretly. A LOT. I was around 16 at that time, so I was off with my friends not at the house much, and while I felt like I knew he was drinking, I never saw it myself. He wouldn't even touch alcohol anywhere near his family.

He'd stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning playing video games and drinking. Front Mission had 999:99 as the time elapsed. The last game he played was Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast, which I think he was only about 80 hours into.

On September 4th, 2001 his liver failed. He died. Losing your father at the age of 17 is probably one of the worst things and worst ages ever. It's not because at 17 you don't get to know your parent, that's not it at all. It's because at 17, your parent never gets to know you. Never gets to see you graduate high school. College. See your career. Be at your wedding. Meet your wife. Meet your children (don't have those yet, but my brother does.) I feel as if a part of me stopped growing at 17.

Going through all his belongings was heart wrenching. But one thing I always enjoyed was popping in old games. Or PS1 memory cards (which, I kid you not, he had about 40 of) to see the status of his games.

Reviewing old save files really tells a lot about a person's personality, habits and what kind of person they are.

What kind of games do they play? In those games, how far have they gotten? Do they follow things through to the end? Or just like to play around? Character builds also tell a lot about a person. In Final Fantasy 5, do you favor mages? Hand to hand combat? Stealth? Going through all of these old save files has been so much fun, seeing what kind of person he was; or at least he was if he was a general in a virtual war. He definitely favored ranged attacks to brute force. His mantra in Shining Force was always "Let them come to you".

About every other year or so, I pull out the old Sega CD and review his Dark Wizard file. I would have been in the fourth or fifth grade when we got that game- a time I feel many children find to be the pinnacle of childhood life. School isn't stressful yet, but you're old enough to explore on your own. I look through the names he game each character. Each with a meaning to my family. The Dragon Rider was Ryan (me) the Griffon Rider was my brother, nicknamed Chito. He was the Ninja, Pops, as well as a Warlord, Daddyo. Each Dragon was named after a pet, except for one named Puff. Video games have really helped me remember HIM. And HIS personality. And his quirks. It's terribly nerdy, I know, but it helps with the grieving.

To me, now at the age of 27- married- two cats, video games have become a zen activity. I love just spacing out. Relying strictly on muscle memory to get things done. A way that I can shut out the rest of the world and stresses and just … forget. Is that unhealthy? Probably. But it's a great escape.

To me, and I know of all the things in the rant this will get me shit, Final Fantasy 13 was absolutely amazing. Once you reach the wide open planet, there is nothing to do but fight. And fight turtles. After a while, there is nothing to even think about. Your mind wanders, and your fingers just magically drift towards the right combination of knocking a turtle over, and getting it killed within a certain time frame. I often wonder if that's what games like Lunar and Chrono Trigger were to him. Just escapes. Just devices to forget the rest of the world.

I could go on and on and on, but I think this has been long enough. Video games seem to have half way lead to the death of a close family member for me, while they are also one of my only bit of solace in forgetting the pain. And I know it's not good to forget and hide pain. But sometimes you just have to. You can't hurt all the time. We need distractions. Like this whole post was a distraction, but was also really good to (mostly) anonymously get some stuff off my back.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? Have games helped or hurt people that you care about in different ways?

ps- that photo is of him circa 1979/1980. Old school punks might appreciate the P.I.L. shirt.