I’m finding it hard to know what to say here, I just know that I want to say it. As I write this, I have just lost my uncle to cancer after two years of fighting the inevitable. My family also lost our Nan not six months ago, again to cancer. We lost our cousin and my best friend Tom 3 years ago, who suffered for 6 years, again, cancer. To say nothing of our family history and the horrible effect this disease has, not only on the person afflicted, but the pain the victim’s family must endure. Watching a loved one wither away to nothing. Slowly losing what they were is heartbreaking and I would not wish it on anyone.
Now, to bring all this up on a site dedicated to gaming and entertainment might seem unfair. It may come across self-indulgent at best and patronizing at worst. Especially to those reading that come here not to be reminded of what has been lost to them or how sh*t life can be. It is not and will never be my intent to claim “I have it worse” than anyone ever. The purpose of this piece, for me, is to express how video games have managed to help see me through the absolute worst moments of my life again and again. Sometimes as a crutch and other times as a cathartic release. This will not be easy, I will address some uneasy topics that while universal, often get swept under the rug of indifference or worse, denial. We are human. We lose, we grieve, we die. These are facts that should not be ignored but accepted willingly as a part of the human condition. We cannot control our darkest moments sometimes, but we can manage them.
Videogames, in my opinion (and you can take that for granted with anything else I say here), are the greatest forms of escapism quite possibly ever created. They are art forms that transcend the boundaries of artist and consumer and allow the two to join together in a strange, almost symbiotic nature. The developers create the world for the player to inhabit, to consume you might say, and whether intentional or not allows the player to create and attach their own personal identity to them. These worlds are designed to allow the player to engage and control a small microcosm of their own destiny in a way other mediums, while impactful in their own way, simply can't replicate. As the player you control what happens, you dictate (in a sense) the pace at which anything happens to you or how you affect that world. The sense of power and control is equal parts gratifying and intoxicating. This is where our journey begins.
Deference for Darkness
This is likely a story you have heard before, bullied consistently and severely from a young age, developing deep seeded trust issues with friends and family alike to the point where the only action you can take is non action. Not talking about it, not mentioning it, not even acknowledging (as best you can) that it is still happening to you. It becomes second nature to be shunned, to feel unwanted. You crave any sort of kindness but can’t trust any shown long enough to bite the hand that feeds you and lash out.
Suffice it to say, after years of bullying and abuse and during the height of the emotional teenage years I had decided I had had just about enough of it. I wanted to just be gone, not exist and again, not deal. I, selfishly, didn’t think I was worth thinking about to begin with so who would miss me right? At this point I no longer cared about what happened to my body, it was a husk that was useless. But then I started replacing that emptiness within and cold reception of the outside world with new worlds. Lots of worlds. Fighting to take back the planet Reach from the covenant as Noble 6 in Halo: Reach. Traveling the stars with Tali, Garrus, and Wrex aboard the SSV Normandy to stop the Geth in Mass Effect. Or taking back my home planet of Sera from the brink of extinction at the hands of the Locust. The irony of all these world ending scenarios is not lost on me in hindsight.
The only moments I truly felt something is when I turned on my PS2, Xbox 360, Wii or PC. When I picked up a controller letting the start up noises from my PS2 whir to life as the disc spun in the drive, or listened to the Xbox 360 fan start to take off like a jet engine, threatening another red ring, wash over. It gave me control where I had none. To someone who had never felt like anything they did mattered, being able to engage in these stories and (usually) positively affect change was incredible. I mattered here and actions spoke louder than words. It was the perfect avenue to express myself.
And life continued like that for a while. Though I sub-consciously sank deeper into depression through passive submission. Instead of dealing head on with the fact that I was unhappy, that I could possibly do something about it, I just assumed “this is it”. Knowing that when it came time to be gone, I had all the built-in excuses in the world to justify it to myself. But what I hadn’t noticed was that my darker instincts started rearing its ugly head in the selection of games I started to play. The Gears of War series continued its downtrodden hero approach in the wake of its stellar Mad World trailer, so that of course stayed. Metal Gear Solid 4 had shown us a broken and bitter Solid (Old) Snake that is past his prime and facing his own mortality. The Last of Us (I’m not above shilling our content in an article like this, click it) hit like a freight train, a post-apocalyptic tale inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that shows us just how depraved humanity can become when cornered at the edge of extinction.
Oh and sepia...sepia tone everywhere
Through my own admission, I hurt people. Not intentionally, not at all. My carelessness for my own livelihood started to affect my relationships with friends and family. The need to escape was constant, if it wasn’t for videogames, I know that my already bad habit of drinking and smoking heavily would have truly spiraled if it wasn’t for my other need to escape this world entirely.
During this time, my cousin had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Between work and hangovers, I would visit him, and we would play games. We would laugh, mock each other incessantly and play games. We tried beating Splinter Cell: Blacklists Co-op mode, broke out the classics like Return of the King for PS2 and I begrudgingly played Fifa here and there because he loved them. Sometimes he would be too weak from chemo to play anything, so we’d just talk, and these would become the moments I cherish most since his passing.
He spent nearly 8 years (all of his 20s) battling and fighting the good fight, never once did his optimism waiver, he worried as we all do but he was only ever concerned about his family and wanted to, even if sometimes stubbornly, show that cancer would not take his spirit. And it didn’t. It may have taken his life, but it did not take him.
Initially, I wanted to write about how horrible his last few days were, those days that despite all the good times we had are still burned into my retinas. But in my mind, that defeats the purpose of his life, he is not defined by his last days on this earth but by his actions and words he left me with, not a month before his passing, that I will never forget.
“When I’m gone, I want you to look after our family…and yourself”.
From the Wreckage
What began as a low hum at 16 was now a screaming formless roar. No one could hear it but me and I wanted to embrace it. Yet there was this small part of me that refused to go through with anything. I was starting to realize the horrible affect my depression was putting on other people, the damage was real in a way that seemed dreamlike before. How could I possibly help anyone when I couldn’t help myself? Things started to change very slowly. I opened myself up to my GP (doctor) to get the help I needed. I knew that to keep the promise I had made to Tom I had to be better within first, you can’t do that at the end of a bottle (not for lack of trying).
The irony here, throughout all this self-realization is that I still wanted to die. For a brief moment in time, even with all the help and warmth I was getting I attempted to end it. One night in February, after a particularly heavy bout of drinking I stood on Parnell Bridge in Cork City at 3 AM and stared into the water. There was nothing that I can recall about that particular day or even week that was so awful that pushed me to want to let go, I just..in that state, thought I'd...I dunno, bait myself? As if hoping fate would push me over the edge or something. I'm still not sure.
What I do know, is that I saw people walking my way and it snapped me back into cold reality. What the f**k was I doing? This isn't what I wanted at all. That realization instantly made me burst into tears. I wanted to live and now I knew that I could.
I'll Keep Coming
And so, another slow process started. It's funny how the simplest answer is often the most applicable. All the actions I had taken up until that point, all the trauma and abuse I had experienced. By not talking about it, it couldn't have possibly gotten better and I wasn't able to fool me or anyone close to me that I was OK anymore. Life has a funny habit of doing whatever the f**k it wants when you make plans and part of learning to cope is accepting that fact.
Allowing people in, the ones that are truly closest to you is such an intensely emotional thing. You feel unguarded, vulnerable, at your weakest. Yet the strength that comes off the back of that is something I have never felt until now, right when I'm about 5 seconds away from 30 no less. Through all of this growth I still had games right when I needed them. Tastes have not so much changed but broadened. I finally understand why Nintendo is so revered, the Switch and it's first parties are second to none but I also have plenty of time for the darker and more somber tales in the likes of Death Stranding and The Last of Us Part 2.
Life doesn't have to be short but it is precious. If you are sad, depressed, suicidal and just can't cope, speak. Be heard, forget fear or pride and prejudice (teehee) your voice is unique it is important and we will listen. That we is whoever you need it to be, we are out there and we are legion (OK I'll stop now).
Oh and in case you didn't need anymore proof, doctors are now prescribing games as medicine, how f***king cool is that?
Editors Note: For those of you who need it, who want to take that first step, there are plenty of options and I wanted to list a few of them below for good measure. Some of these are local others are worldwide and always on the other end.
Gears of War gif found here
Gears of War images taken from press kit here
Halo Reach images taken from official site here
Metal Gear Solid 4 images taken from press kit here
The Last of Us images taken from press kit here
Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze image taken from press kit here
Death Stranding image taken from press kit here
All other gifs used are gameplay footage recorded by me and uploaded here
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