Memorializing Life Through Video Games

Video games are a lot of things, including a glimpse of immortality.

Article by Cassandra Khaw, .

My grandfather is dying.

On Friday, my mother wrote to say that the cancer in his liver has spread to his neck, to every space in his body that will allow the malignant cells room. The doctors are no longer administering medication. It's just painkillers now and hospice care and the long, drawn-out wait for the inevitable.

Like so many people who work in online media, my first response was to tell Twitter (and to preemptively apologize for missing yet another Screenshot Saturday). The outpouring of condolences was immediate, a thick cotton blanket of good energies. It was gratifying but, maybe, not in the way you'd think. What was reassuring was not the sympathy, though it always helps to know people do care, but the simple fact that the well-wishers exist. Somewhere, a neighborhood or an ocean away, life is still happening. Love, laughter and long nights of camaraderie are taking place. This is not the end. This is just an end.

Small distinction, big difference.

The thing I dread most isn't my grandfather's passing (I hope it comes quickly on kitten paws) or the funeral dirge that will follow but the earnest, compassionate souls who will tell me, "I know how you feel." Though this isn't the first death in the family, I have yet to become accustomed to the awkwardness of such sentiments. No, you don't know how I feel. You can't know. Losing someone to the same conditions doesn't automatically grant access to the same intricate melange of emotions, memories and circumstances. For that reason, perhaps, grief is so alienating. In spite of all our societal bonds and our constant interactions with one another, events like these are always harsh reminders that, at the end of the day, we're always alone in our own heads. Words and images, for all of their grandeur, are only poor facsimiles and frequently inadequate to convey the magnitude of these situations.

But video games?

Video games are another beast entirely.

"It is a videogame composed of pain and hope. It is a story of my son."

I suppose it's testament to, well, something that my first thought, after the initial stampede of emotions ended, was of Ryan Green's That Dragon, Cancer. If you don't know what I'm talking about, That Dragon, Cancer is an autobiographical vignette telling of his 4-year old son's fight against cancer. On its own, the narrative is already devastatingly easy to sympathize with. Anyone with a heart can imagine what it's like to even consider losing your child. But, framing it as a video game took the experience a step further. It made it more than just relatable, it made it personal in the same way our internal monologues and jumbled thought processes are personal.

That Dragon, Cancer (at least, the demo I tried out at the Electronic Entertainment Expo) has none of the usual gameplay tropes. Green calls it an adventure game but the problems here can't actually be solved. Most of the game consists of clicking on hotspots to make a clay-like representation of Green, as helpless as the player, shuffle restlessly through a claustrophobic ICU. At all times, there's the narrator's grief-worn voice, retelling the memory, recounting it in the form of poetry. Green's son is present, of course, though he's more a source of anxiety than anything else. In the demo, I struggled to make him feel better. I fed him juice. I tried to sooth his frantic tears. When the wailing reached a crescendo, I was all but aching in time with the digitized Green. If this is the bone-deep hurt that parents suffer when their kids are in jeopardy, small wonder my mother didn't want me to leave home. By the time That Dragon, Cancer gave me the option to pray, I was already crying.

The thing about games like That Dragon, Cancer is that they break down walls. I'm not religious, but Green is. Prayer does far less for me than rage. When I'm feeling ineffectual or desperately upset, I work. I work until I'm too tired to even breathe. Still, in that climatic moment, when I could not - What do you do after you've given your child the best medical care you can, anyway? - do anything else, prayer seemed natural. For a little while, I wasn't a short Asian girl, I was a father at the end of his ropes, a person reaching for his God. And so, I did what he would have. I prayed.

Nothing lonelier than an empty seat at a table.

That Dragon, Cancer reminds me strangely of Dinner Date, a game that I encountered several years ago. It examined the uncomfortable moments leading up to the realization that you've been stood up. Similar to That Dragon, Cancer, Dinner Date hemmed you in, giving you no freedom outside of the ability to fidget impotently. I hadn't liked the protagonist in Dinner Date. He grated on my nerves. Nonetheless, I ended up responding as he would have, entrenched in his shoes, disassembling bread and stirring soup like any jilted lover biding his time.

Neither That Dragon, Cancer and Dinner Date, I think, would have been as evocative had the developers chosen to present them in a different medium. With books or films or paintings, there's always a divide of some variety. Unless you're exceptionally in tune with the author's vision, you're always someone on the outside looking in. Video games present an intriguing alternative. Here, being a spectator can be largely optional. Even when they're not grounded in reality, they can pull you in. Papo & Yo, though it featured floating houses and a pink monster, made a lot of people choke. In the last few years, I've yet to run into Vander Caballero without seeing at least one tear-stricken, grateful-looking person speaking quietly to him.

We all have moments we wish we could hold onto forever

Immortality is something humanity has, as a species, constantly fought to achieve. We've waged wars in the name of artifacts that might save us from the cold night and burned down nations to keep our names alive. We all have that moment that we wish we could hold onto forever: the curve of a spouse's face on your wedding day, the perfect Christmas, the bittersweet smell of a tobacco (funnily, in spite of a lifelong nicotine habit, my grandfather's lungs were purportedly in perfect condition before the cancer spread) in an orchid garden after a tropical storm. Time tends to erode these memories. Eventually, only a few linger - muted, all definition washed away. And after we go? The best most of us can usually hope for is a mention that some good people once existed here.

Games might change that. The burgeoning accessibility of game development is making it easier and easier to chronicle life experiences. Even if not all of us will be able to make something polished enough to mass market, almost anyone can now choose to flash freeze a memory this way. And given the advent of hardware like the Oculus Rift and the Google Glass, I can only imagine what's next. It might be surreal for the great, grand-kids to be able to explore a pre-apocalyptic San Francisco but, at least, they would know it isn't just the fevered imaginings of an old person.

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Comments 4

  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #1 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    Very poignant article, Cassandra. Thank you.
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  • Avatar for zidanix #2 zidanix 4 years ago
    I can't even read this without tearing up. It speaks to my mental health when I can deal with a lot of people's problems on a daily basis but when I come in contact with my own self I start to crumble.Edited August 2013 by zidanix
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #3 cassandrakhaw 4 years ago
    @zidanix For what it's worth, I don't think it means you're weak or mentally unsound. I think it's simply an indication that you've gone through the same things as so many of us. We're often taught/shown that the world is cruel and quick to capitalize on any vulnerabilities we're careless enough to show. So, we pull back and hide away.
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  • Avatar for melnificent #4 melnificent 4 years ago
    After losing various family members I still do not know what to say to someone facing such adversity and bleakness as a an impending death of a loved one.

    Remember the good times, support each other through the upcoming bad and remember we are all here for you.

    Oh and sneak him food in, nothing perks up the spirits like "smuggled" food.
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