A few days before my dad died in August, I got the call I'd been dreading from my mother. She told me it was time to come home for my dad's last days. I live in California, and they live in Alabama. I packed up my PS4, super slim PS3 and PS Vita—alas, my desktop PC was too big—and made the journey.
I'd never experienced a death this close to me before, and I had no idea how to handle it. But it was a safe bet that "handling it" was going to involve playing some games, and so I was going to make sure I had as many as possible at my disposal.
There's no right or wrong way to grieve, people say. "Everyone has to grieve in their own way!" they yell into our abyss of sadness. Most of the people who tried to impart that bit of popular wisdom didn't know how I was planning to grieve.
Contrary to what I was told, there absolutely is a wrong way to grieve. I could have disappeared down some bottles of liquor. My dad's mother took her grief out on my mom; I'm pretty sure that counts as a "wrong way to grieve," considering it made everybody else somehow feel even shittier than we already did.
My official grieving process began before my dad died. I spent three-and-a-half days in the hospice before he passed, but after he stopped being coherent. We sat with him, held his hand, talked to him, but he seemed more like a broken automaton than a human being most of the time.
There isn't much to do in a hospice, of course, and we happened to be at a hospice in a small town in rural Alabama. There weren't many places nearby, like a movie theater, that might have given me a reason to leave that death hospital for a brief respite. Instead, I sipped on whiskey —enough to untangle my nerves a bit but not enough to get smashed—wrapped myself in a blanket in a pretty OK recliner, and played Danganronpa 2 on my Vita.
Danganronpa 2 is a visual novel. It doesn't require a ton of overt energy to play, which was ideal. Its story and themes were strangely appropriate for what was happening in my life. It's a game about death and despair, as a bunch of high school kids are trapped on a tropical island, and if any of them wants to leave they must kill one of their friends and then pin it on another student.
Danganronpa 2's subtitle is "Goodbye Despair." It's story is about holding onto hope through dark times. Our hero character is struggling to have faith that he and his friends will be able to persevere and survive through it all, as they fall one by one around him—this was obviously something I could relate to and draw strength from as I, severely depressed as I am on a good day, sat in that chair waiting for my dad to die.
I'm fortunate enough to have had a dad that I liked. I don't think he ever fully understood me, but he tried—and he inadvertently led me to this career I have writing about games. More recently we bonded over other types of entertainment, like action movies and football, and he's been fully supportive during some of my drier months working as a freelancer. It's safe to say I wouldn't still be around had he not stepped in at some key moments in my life.
A lot of other people liked my dad, too. An "advantage" of dying at 49 years old is that most of the people he knew and whose lives he'd affected were still around, and many of them visited him in the hospice.
For whatever reason, small talk with these folks in the hospice seemed to be largely the same as it would have been had I come into town for some other reason. The biggest difference is in the amount of it—it felt as if there was small talk aimed at me during every waking hour. That small talk usually consisted of explaining my peculiar career as a freelance journalist who covers video games, a job that many of the parents in the crowd would say their children would enjoy. Thanks for telling me about that over and over and over, middle-aged Alabama moms and dads. I should go.
Unfortunately, you don't get much alone time during situations like these. Spending a weekend in a hospice room that you know your father will never leave is distressing enough, and while I can't speak for anyone else, the parade of well-wishers trying to hold casual conversations in that room certainly didn't make me feel any better.
So playing Danganronpa 2 on my Vita was more than just therapeutic; it provided an escape when entertaining visitors became too much. I could sit back in the recliner with my headphones on and get some distance from what was right in front of me.
My dad passed on August 26, in the early afternoon. I was in the room when it happened, even though I didn't want to be. Watching somebody you care about die fucking sucks. Seeing their dead body lying there afterward sucks even more.
We all cried for a while, and then I went outside to smoke and cry some more by myself and listen to some comfort music. Eventually my siblings and I went back to my parents' house, where to my chagrin some friends of the family were waiting. They'd brought pizza, which was nice I guess, but we didn't leave the tangle of mourners at the hospice because we wanted to hang out. So to head off the small talk, I plugged in my PS3 and started playing Uncharted.
The first two Uncharted games are among a handful of comfort games I have, games I always know I can enjoy when I'm down. It had been a while since I played them, so they weren't fresh in my memory. I started them up just hours after my dad's death.
They were an extra comfort, because they're breezy for me. I've played them many times. Also, Uncharted is a game about family, about protagonists who care more about each other than they do about whatever else is at stake. When conflicts arise between them it's nearly always because somebody is about to do something boneheaded and the others are trying to talk him or her out of it. You only ever play as Drake, but his friends pull your ass out of the fire more than you do theirs.
I spent the next several days playing all three console Uncharteds back to back. I don't particularly like the third one, but I hadn't even tried to play it since it had launched in 2011. It felt like time.
I've discovered that grief isn't really that different than the angst I normally suffer. The grief I've experienced in the past few months has most often taken the form of a nebulous sense of paranoia, that something just feels wrong and I don't know what it is. Even when my dad isn't at the front of my mind, it's as if the fabric of existence has changed just enough that everything around me seems off, like when you come home and aren't sure if everything is where you left it.
There's no "getting past" the death of a loved one, I've been told over and over, but the hope is that you can return to a semblance of normalcy, or at least find a new normal.
That's why I played Uncharted 3 as well. I don't game purely as a diversion. It is an intellectual pursuit for me. I was going to need to revisit Uncharted 3 someday, and I hoped playing it back to back with the previous two would give me some perspective on why I don't like it.
I ended up being right—playing Uncharted 3 in close proximity to the others made it much easier for me to articulate why I find it frustrating. That little critical exercise also served another purpose: it made me feel normal, at least for a little bit. I wasn't playing the Uncharteds for work, and I didn't have any deadlines to try to meet, but it felt like I was doing what I should be doing, and what I like doing. Playing games and discussing them critically is my normal, and it felt right.
I play games for two main reasons: to clear my head, and to engage fully in something. One aspect of depression that people don't talk about much is a short attention span. Plus, I'm a millennial with many devices, so it's even worse. Because games require my direct and constant involvement, they're more likely to be able to dominate my attention than other forms of entertainment I have at home; it's the same reason I prefer to see movies in a theater over watching them on my TV.
When I achieve that engagement, it removes me from myself as well. That doesn't mean games become a method of escapism in the traditional sense, but rather they put me in a safe place to experience my feelings. Danganronpa 2 is an ideal example of this—it's symbolically similar to what I've been experiencing in my life, but when I think about recent events through the prism of a game or movie or other media it lessens the blow and provides some perspective just by virtue of having that divider between me and the immediacy of real life.
Not every game is going to be like that, obviously, and I don't need or want every bit of entertainment I consume to primarily be a mechanism by which I reflect on my own life. At the minimum, I want the games I play to give me some substance to chew on. I want to feel something when I play.
I stayed in Alabama for about four weeks, and I treated it like a vacation in that I gave myself the freedom to do what I wanted. And I wanted to play games. So after my Uncharted marathon, I took some shots at my PlayStation Plus back catalog. I downloaded some games to my mom's MacBook from Steam and tried to teach her to play them. And I got Destiny and played that far too much.
Destiny was strange. It certainly cleared my head, but it didn't really give me anything new to put in there. I didn't think. I just reacted as I wandered through it. I played 20-something hours in four days, and I felt groggy and cranky when I stopped, as if I'd just woken up. After I returned home to Los Angeles the next week, I started a round of Civilization V. In normal Civ fashion, I ended up playing for a dozen hours with few breaks, and when I snapped out of it I had that same groggy feeling that Destiny had given me. And I was in a solidly terrible mood.
This is the flip side of what I felt playing Uncharted and Danganronpa. Those games made me feel something, and for me, Destiny and Civ were merely activities, devoid of real meaning or purpose. Those activities can have a place in my gaming rotation, but only in shorter bursts. When I play too long I come out the other side worse off than I came in.
My particular brand of crazy grants me some rather outlandish emotional responses—when I feel something, I feel it very strongly—and my dad dying sent my brain chemistry into more of a tumble than usual. After years and years of dealing with suicidal urges, my mind has become somewhat predictable in how it tries to fuck with me. But my grief changed that. Mood swings became harder to see coming.
So when I spent a day playing Civ and then got upset about the lost time, I wasn't Regular Upset. I was distraught. I probably had enjoyed myself, but it wasn't constructive fun, or so I was telling myself. It was merely a Thing To Do, and not very stimulating. This is something that gets to me a lot, because I work from home and my life is unstructured most of the time. I only get paid for actually completing work. Wasted time is wasted money, and I don't have a lot of money to waste.
But that's just the spark. On a normal day, any small irritation has the potential to tank the rest of my waking hours, and knowing when and how I'm vulnerable is key to managing my mental health. After my dad died, everything ramped up to 11, and it became impossible to predict shifts in my moods.
These are the sorts of times when compulsive gaming becomes an issue for me. I chatted with some psychological researchers about that sort of pathology in 2013. I've also written about my deep involvement with a particular Star Wars MMO after I lost my job, and so losing myself inside endlessly repetitive gaming activities in times of emotional torment isn't exactly a new topic for me.
There was something different this time: I played a bunch of different games instead of just one for several weeks. Some of them had a negative effect, and others had a positive one. Those that actually aided in my grieving process gave my brain something intellectually-stimulating to chew on. They made me feel something, instead of keeping my head empty for long stretches.
Months later, I still don't feel quite right. We're in the middle of college football season, and on a normal Saturday this time of year I'd be texting and talking with my dad on the phone about every game we watched, 2000 miles apart. He died two days before the first game of the season, and every time I watch a football game I'm overtly reminded that he's gone. It might have been slightly easier to handle had he died some other time of year. Maybe.
What's been keeping my feet on the ground the last two months is the games I've played, both the good and the bad. So while it's a little worse for me that he died in the fall, the glut of new games I've had to play has kept me occupied. I've even mixed in some oldies, thanks to the GOG.com re-release of X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Those are games my dad bought for me when I was a child. They're wonderful.
Phil Owen is a freelance games critic and journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @philrowen, and send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Sam Woolley