Anyone who has lost somebody they love knows how crushing it can be. That feeling of them being gone for good can hit harder than you expect, even if you’re prepared for it. And it comes as no surprise that people find ways of honoring those they’ve lost.
Increasingly online spaces like Facebook have become digital tributes to the deceased, with friends and family posting photos and comments, remembering birthdays and anniversaries. It allows people to collectively honor the memory of someone they won’t soon forget.
As the medium continues to grow, video games can also play a part in remembering someone and sometimes in a wholly unique way. Those who know where to look can see a loved one’s digital life, recorded up to the point where they last logged in, incomplete quests and yet to be unlocked weapons.
For some, this may sound trivial. After all, most of us don’t play video games hoping what we do in them will be a huge part of our legacy. But just as we find meaning in other seemingly mundane parts of life, like a family recipe or an old photo from a family vacation, so too do people’s video game lives to act as a small a piece of a bigger picture of who somebody was.
THE LEGEND LIVES ON
If anyone knows the power of remembering a loved one through video games, it’s Corey Austen. It was mid-2016 when Corey lost his brother, Matt, to sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). At the time, Matt was only 23 years and it was Corey who found him that night in his room. “There isn’t a word for how I felt after that,” said Corey in a letter shared on Zelda Informer.
Before his passing, Corey and his brother were playing through The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD remake together, including using the Wolf-Link Amiibo to unlock the challenging Cave of Shadows dungeon. “He loved the darker spirit and the wolf transformation mechanic [in the game]. He once told me that it spoke to him as he always identified with the heart of the wolf, the fierce loner.”
Less than a month after Matt’s death, a trailer for the new Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, was unveiled at E3 2016. For Corey it was a bittersweet moment – the Zelda games meant so much to him and his brother and this one looked amazing, but the thought of playing the games without him was devastating.
“The game was literally everything we had both hoped it would be. The technology, the open world, the weapons, all of it. He would have loved it.”
But then he saw it – the Wolf-Link Amiibo that came with Twilight Princess would work with Breath of the Wild and let Corey play with his brother once more. Unlike other Amiibos that unlocked items and clothing, the Wolf-Link Amiibo gave you a wolf partner in the game reminiscent of the one from Twilight Princess. Best of all, it’s maximum health would be equal to what players had earned by completing challenges in the Cave of Shadows. Once again, Corey and Matt could take a journey through Hyrule together.
Corey wrote to Nintendo to thank them for making so many games he and his brother loved, and for allowing him to continue playing alongside his brother after his death. In response, Nintendo sent Corey a gift package bursting with Zelda themed memorabilia, as well as a handwritten card with the words “May your brother’s legend live on forever” inside.
THE FINISH LINE
While Corey knew exactly where to look to find his brother, another gamer managed to uncover a memory of his father in a similar, yet unexpected way. On a YouTube video about whether video games could give players a ‘spiritual experience’, user 00WARTHERAPY00 (who would simply sign off as WAR) left a comment about finding his father’s ghost in an old Xbox game.
As WAR described it, he and his father were both gamers and would often play RalliSport Challenge on the original Xbox together. WAR was only six years old when his father suddenly passed away, and it wouldn’t be for another decade until he discovered what he left behind.
Taking the old Xbox out of storage, WAR booted it up and discovered his father had recorded one of his fastest lap times on a track within the game. A ghosted version of his car raced around the track, imitating every turn and drift he pulled off to record the time. And so, once again, WAR picked up a controller and challenged his father to a race.
“…I played and played and played until I was almost able to beat the ghost. Until one day I got ahead of it, I surpassed it, and… I stopped right in front of the finish line, just to ensure I wouldn’t delete it. Bliss.”
After WAR’s story went viral, his channel was flooded with comments of support and other gamers telling of their own similar experiences. He spent time responding to others and relating to their stories, adding that “memories are the thing that makes us value this kind of stuff. The true value of my save is not the save itself, but what I use it for.”
LOST IN THE GAME
While video games have the power to remind us of those lost, they can also allow us to escape reality – which is exactly what a gamer named Paul needed in 2012. After watching his sister succumb to cancer after fighting it for nine years Paul confessed he “didn’t handle it particularly well”.
Already dealing with depression, he threw himself into the fantasy world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In that world, he could escape the reality of what he had lost, and hope to share his coping mechanism with others, Paul posted about his experiences on Reddit.
Soon after that, a package was sent to him by Bethesda that contained a hardcover Skyrim art book, which had been signed by the development team. Also inside was a letter addressed to Paul from Matt Grandstaff, the Global Community Lead at Bethesda, saying “Our thoughts and prays are with your family”.
“The most important thing I’ve learned through this experience is that there is no wrong way to reasonably handle your grief,” explained Paul in a post on Reddit, “and escapism and distraction really do help.”
Exploring the world of Skyrim became a coping mechanism for Paul. Spending countless hours in the game, he eventually made a home for himself at Lakeside Manor near the Falkreath river, filled it with treasures from his adventures, and lived there with his faithful dog in peace. He created a happy ending for himself at a time when he really needed one. It’s hard to imagine Paul ever playing Skyrim, or perhaps any game in The Elder Scrolls series, and not think of his sister. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
ZEROES AND ONES
There was a time when the only remnants of someone’s existence we could hold onto were physical belongings. Photos, letters, books on a shelf, pictures on the wall – artifacts that gave insight into who a person really was. What they enjoyed doing with their time, what hobbies they thought were worth investing in. As we move towards photos stored in the cloud and tablets filled with ebooks, we are all going to leave behind digital ghosts – and they too will be added to our own story.
For gamers, this runs deeper still. We’ll leave behind records of our achievements, game libraries filled with titles we have completed, worlds created inside of a computer. Like everything else left behind our video game lives won’t tell the entire story, but they’ll become a piece of the whole.
Of course, these too will fade like photographs. Memory cards will begin to fail, MMO servers will be shut down, old video game cartridges will lose their saved data when the onboard battery dies. Even the anonymous gamer WAR wrote a new comment about the state of his father’s Xbox, saying that he had raced his father for the last time. “The console, after over a decade, finally succumbed to old age. The processor burned after the ventilation fan [started to fail].”
Still, even though nothing lasts forever, it’s incredible seeing people in the midst of grieving take comfort in the fact they could reconnect with a lost loved one. To find a piece of them hidden away, and play a game with them once more, if only for a short while.