I took this picture of my mom when she was playing Journey. She never knew that I took it and she wouldn't have been impressed if she did. She definitely wouldn’t have been thrilled that I’m posting it online, either, but it was (and remains) an important moment to me.
We didn’t have a PS3 at the time. A friend (Giant Bomb’s own Austin Walker) had brought his when he came to visit so that we could get through Journey (and, of all things, Catherine) together. But after finishing Journey once it had enchanted us so thoroughly–including my father, the otherwise lapsed gamer–that the next day we pulled a chair up in front of the TV and handed her the controller. Just as I had done the previous night, she finished the game in one sitting, and we all watched equally as enraptured as we’d been before. She might not have made it if not for a white-robed stranger she met early on who coaxed her gently through the games more opaque areas. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Austin shared it in one of his first pieces here.
Journey’s a beautiful game and this is a beautiful memory, the kind of memory I wish everyone could have with their parents. So I tilted my phone up inconspicuously, muted it, and opened the camera app. Even back then I knew she would hate the picture. I knew if I showed it to her she would have asked me to get rid of it, and I would have refused. She would have said she looked bad and that the TV was too blown out. I wouldn’t have cared. I saved it on my phone for years knowing that one day I would be very glad to have it, although I certainly didn't expect that day to come as soon as it did.
That’s the story of the time my mother played Journey, the best and only place to start this piece.
The day my mother died a family friend told me the thing that had been the hardest for her since her own mother’s passing was seeing something that she would have liked; something that they could have once shared and enjoyed together if only the timing had worked in their favor. But I already knew that feeling. When I had visited her in the hospital she was rarely lucid enough to carry on a conversation, and when she was it was often more important to help feed her instead. Trespasser, the final DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition came out right around then, offering cheerful reunions and a reassuring sense that things could and would be okay even when they seemed most dire. At the time I had needed that like I needed air, and everyone who knew me certainly knew just how much I adored it. Everyone except her, of course, because there had just never been and never would be a good time to talk about it.
Before you write me off as a self-absorbed, Peter-Panning millennial who can’t tell the difference between someone else’s interests and their own–or who has simply singled out a trivial sliver of a tragic family moment–you need to know that my mom loved games, even when games didn’t necessarily love her back.
Games had moved so far beyond the arcade cabinets of her youth, their mechanics and controls only evolving and growing more complex over time. In many ways she never really caught up. She struggled to progress in nearly every game she tried, and on occasion I would sit nearby and try not to pull my hair out as she missed the things that I had been trained to look for and do the things I knew had to be done on what felt like (but crucially was not) instinct. It was training that she’d missed out on, but no matter how frustrated she got, no matter how lost or left behind they made her feel, she never lost the will to try something new.
She was forever sitting on the edge of my bed, watching as I slung magic at enemies, slipped between scrubby jack pines, and darted through quaint fantasy villages, asking me to tell her about whatever the flavor of the minute was. I spent many nights installing this game or that on her laptop upon request, or modding files and rooting out bugs that had halted her progress. No, she didn’t really finish games, but I never questioned her interest in them. The only thing I questioned was which games were right for her, and which she might enjoy most. Finding a game she would sink at least a couple hours into was a challenge I considered every time I picked up something new for myself. In the back of my mind I was always assessing what might work for her and what might not.
That was why it felt so natural to load some of her saves after she died, in just the same way that it felt natural to flick through her photo albums or her sketchbooks. These were pieces of her that had been left behind, so why wouldn’t I look? Why wouldn’t I want to see these worlds just as she’d left them, the characters she’d made to represent herself within them? Why wouldn’t I want to know how far she’d gotten? Why wouldn’t I try to figure out why, in some cases, she’d stopped?
I have a very clear memory of anxiously watching my mother’s Hawke wielding twin daggers at the entrance to the city of Kirkwall, elegant hands extended nervously over the keys as a fight whirled on around her. A consistent problem she faced in trying to play games was mastering the combination of WASD and the mouse. She’d move her right hand from one to the other, and when I would come into the kitchen where she was using her laptop I would have to remind her to use both at once. Using a controller was even more alien, so she plugged along, her hand jumping from keys to mouse and back again when I wasn’t looming over her shoulder like a nun with a ruler.
By the time she made it to an enemy, Aveline and Bethany had solved matters on their own. I chose my words very carefully and told mom she might be better off playing as a mage so she wouldn’t need to chase the field around so much. I’d wanted her to play a mage from the start for just that reason, but I was not in the habit of trying to push my own wants on her. She was the one who wanted to stab (virtual) folks and crash (virtual) motorcycles and wreak the kind of (virtual) havoc you would absolutely not expect from a woman who watched British soap operas every day. So of course she’d gone rogue–not even bow rogue, but twin daggers rogue.
I was understandably confused when I loaded up her most recent Dragon Age II save and saw Draconia Hawke, a fair-haired mage standing between Varric and Carver in the middle of The Black Emporium. At some point she’d silently taken my advice, though it still hadn’t been enough.
Second Life was many things to my mom, but above all else it was a platform for artistic expression. Her own mother had made her feel about her artwork when she was young. My grandmother was talented enough that her paintings were considered acceptable wagers in friendly card games, and in this way her oil painted landscapes were disseminated through the houses of family and friends. Mom liked to sketch people and animals instead, and this, she’d been told, wasn’t “real” art.
But Second Life is full of artists, and for as much as she dabbled in the fashion and clubbing sides of it she inevitably fell in with them and started learning Photoshop to spruce up her virtual world snapshots. She figured out how to find and follow tutorials to get effects she liked, and posted picture after picture of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Koinup before eventually filling a little gallery of her own in Second Life itself. After having her confidence in her artistic abilities torn down, Second Life steadily built it back up until she was sketching in real life again, exploring a part of herself she thought had atrophied. I will never have patience for people who dismiss Second Life as nothing more than an MMO for horny loners, because it was both the palette and the canvas that helped my mother understand that making art for yourself is much more important than making it for other people.
So I didn’t log in to her account and take a screenshot of her avatar as she left it for this article. Instead went into her art folder, and picked a piece of hers to share. Her experience with Second Life isn’t about her game state or where she left off, it’s about what she made.
Anyone who thinks The Sims is a purely casual game obviously didn't see how my mom played it. For a couple years I could reliably expect to wake up to the sound of The Sims 3 coming from the living room or the kitchen almost every single day of the week. She would talk about the latest love triangles and other ridiculous hijinks her sims had gotten into over dinner. She played The Sims on a desktop, two laptops and her iPad at various points, but her most recent household was Danny and Shen Dreadlocks, along with their twin daughters Danielle and Sarah. Her last save with this family was made a couple weeks before she would be suddenly admitted to the hospital, and one in-game day before Danny’s twins would age up into toddlerhood. They live in a very Malibu Dreamhouse-looking home, and while Shen seems to be a pre-made sim from one of the World Adventures destinations, Danny is an athletic fairy and a professional chef. I’m also 90% sure she’s based on Daenarys Targaryen.
I know it’s tempting to draw a lot of conclusions about why my mother gravitated towards The Sims franchise. No, it wasn’t that it was less violent than other games or any of the other bullshit excuses. She was utterly transfixed by videos and coverage of GTA V when it came out even as evening news anchors were reading their usual script against simulated mayhem and violence, and was desperate to play it for herself. She also just happened to love The Sims.
Say whatever you like, but I know exactly why the Sims became one of my mother’s favorite games. The Sims doesn’t take the player’s familiarity with its controls for granted, and more to the point the controls themselves are intuitive and logical in a way few games are. If you want to interact with an item, click it. If you want to switch characters, click them. If you want to go somewhere, do something, whatever, you just point, click, and select the option you want. It may be second nature to me to have my fingers splayed out like a horrible spider to get all the keys I need to do something as simple as sprint, but it wasn’t to her. In The Sims that never mattered. Its intuitive controls meant she had the confidence to keep playing and learn the few controls that weren't.
It was The Sims 3 that catalyzed a huge shift in my mom’s gaming habits. She switched to using Windows at home instead of OS X because the game was so unstable and broken on Mac that it eventually became unplayable for her. And when her Bootcamp-enabled MacBook eventually broke and she was looking for a new laptop, I delicately suggested buying one with Windows instead of another Mac. Ultimately she agreed, and went to the local big box store to pick out a modest gaming laptop. When she returned, she gleefully told me about the associate who had tried to help her find the right machine for her needs.
“What do you want to use it for?” He’d asked.
“I don’t think he knew what Steam even was,” she said, laughing as she repeated this encounter to me while we stood in the kitchen. I assured her that the 20-something dude trying to sell her a computer certainly knew what Steam was. He probably just didn’t expect her to.
Ellana Lavellan. It’s the default name for a Dalish female Inquisitor, but the character my mother made is far from the default. With a sensible white ponytail and a deeply weathered face, my mother’s Ellana is (as far as I know) the only senior-looking character she ever made. She’s one of a kind in what is overwhelmingly a sea of 20-something redheads.
When I loaded Ellana up, I found her a few minutes from the gates of Redcliffe with a few quests successfully under her belt, Solas, Cassandra and Varric in tow... And for a very brief moment I was upset. I begged my mother to leave The Hinterlands, common advice for nearly any player early in that game. I wanted her to see Val Royeaux and the Hissing Wastes and the Emerald Graves and all the other places she’d breathlessly admired over my shoulder. I wanted her to meet the other characters she could have in her party. I wanted her to romance someone–and I told her as much, to which she replied, “I didn’t know it was that kind of game!”
I know she put more effort into playing Inquisition than any other game I’d shown her. I was keeping a watercolour journal as I played the game myself, and she devoured every new page of it. She’d tell me every now and then about things she’d seen or done in the game, but her stories always ended with confusion about the map, where she was supposed to go and what she was supposed to do. At some point movement had stopped being the problem, and it became an issue of where to move in a world peppered with markers and objectives that all seemed to be demanding her attention at once. She asked me how to use the map a dozen times, and I answered her every time. I told her to come get me and I’d play with her, but she never did. She didn’t like bothering me. I work from home so she often went out of her way not to interrupt me when I seemed busy, but the truth was that I would never, ever have been too busy to share that game with her. I’d have played it start to finish for her like a human controller if she’d just asked. I even considered doing a Let’s Play with her, but ultimately I didn’t want people to think she was the butt of the joke. She’d gone too much of her life with people not taking her seriously or telling her that she was incapable or stupid. I didn’t want to turn her hobby into one more venue for that.
I still love Dragon Age, and I still want to know what she might have done in Inquisition. I’ve considered importing her save and playing her Inquisitor as I think she might have played her, but to be honest given how closely Blackwall resembles my father the question of who my mother would have romanced is probably just a little too real for me.
I could go on. There were dozens of games, dozens of saves, dozens of conclusions that could be drawn from all these little digital artifacts that have been left behind to be sifted through, or to eventually degrade and disappear.
There will always be regrets and what ifs, too. The last game she ever asked me about was The Witcher 3, and I will always regret dissuading her from even trying it. No, I don't think she would have gotten very far, but it’s still one more thing she could have tried, one more world she could have experienced, however briefly.
For as long as I play games, I know I will be weighing in my mind how she might have done with them. Articles about game accessibility (like this gem by Daniel Starkey) will always resonate, even while games still remain accessible to me. I’ll always wonder if she would have liked Stardew Valley, or if Uncharted’s combination of prompt, relative linearity and shooting people in the face might have been the answer sitting in plain sight the whole time. Maybe if I’d just tried a little harder to get Skyrim running well, maybe if I had put a sticky note with the controls on her desk, maybe…
I saw finding new games for her as a challenge, and it will forever feel like a challenge that I failed.
Of course there are more important things surrounding her loss that I can think about if I’m in a dark mood, more meaningful elements that can summon tears into my eyes when I’m stretched out sleeplessly at night, but games were what brought us together in her last years. They were a lens through which I began to see my mother for more than just the monolithic mantle of authority and parenthood she wore throughout most of my life. We were always mother and daughter, but it was gaming that brought us together for the first time as friends.
Janine Hawkins is a games critic based in sunny Canada who enjoys Style Savvy and third-person shooters with equal gusto. You can find her on Twitter @bleatingheart, or catch her on video at streamfriends.tv. You can hear her chat with Austin on this past episode of Giant Bomb Presents!