Love, Dad

This essay was written for the video game online magazine, Five out of Ten.


One of my earliest memories of video games is watching my father play Myst, a surrealist adventure puzzle from 1993 by Cyan games. In it you explore a dreamlike landscape and solve often obtuse and arbitrary puzzles in order to progress through the ages and solve the mystery of why you are there in the first place. I remember him sitting behind a large oak desk, a notepad and pen in his hand, exploring a library on a small island in an endless ocean. I remember feeling a mixture of mystery and pride as I watched him work, using his intellect to master this digital world.

I would come in and watch him, and eventually he’d ask me to leave. “I’m busy right now” was a common refrain. I persisted, however, and eventually he let me sit on his lap as he played. He was still on the starting island, and I helped him figure out the library puzzle and reach the second age. I felt such a rush of pride when I figured it out. I had helped my father, the scientist.

My father was born in Massachusetts in 1949 to a family of French Canadian expats. One of five children, he spent his teenage years in a boarding school in Quebec on a merit scholarship for children of expat Canadians. As my father tells it, he was a quiet, somewhat shy student who did well in school through hard work, often locking himself away to study when his brothers went out to play. He started dating my mother in High School. He went on to college and studied biochemistry and statistics, eventually receiving a Doctorate in the former. His hard work landed him a teaching position at a prestigious institution in New England, but he had to turn it down; my mother, recently pregnant with one of my older brothers, had developed severe OCD and was unwilling to fly. Eventually he found another position at Arizona State University: Tucson and moved there via a road trip that has become the stuff of family legend.

Not long after I helped my dad solve the library puzzle, I noticed him playing less and less. The scraps of hand-written notes and puzzle guides started to disappear from his desk. For a while I’d ask him during dinner if he wanted to play and he’d without fail reply “not tonight Matt, I’m busy.” Eventually I stopped asking. It was after Myst that my father and I parted ways on videogames. I grew ever more curious, playing the collection of adventure and strategy games my father had bought on a whim. Eventually I began requesting new games from the shops, my thirst for digital worlds growing with each new title. My father, however, grew increasingly disdainful of the exercise. When I’d spend hours at a time after school solving difficult mental puzzles my father would suggest my time could be better spent studying or going for walks.

“Daddy, daddy, Monkey Island is really cool! Do you have time to play it with me?”

“Not now Matt, I’m working. Maybe later. Why don’t you go finish your homework?”

When I would ask for my allowance to buy a new videogame, he would insist he had purchased me one too recently. I am ashamed to admit I threw tantrums. In my tiny mind, I could not understand how this man who had introduced me to the endless possibilities of videogames could come to deny me their pleasures.

~~~

“Dad, you’ve gotta come try this one. It’s about sailing ships and pirates, just like the books in your study!”

“OK, OK, let’s see.”

We’re in the sun-room of our house in California. It’s late afternoon and I’ve recently discovered Sid Meier’s Pirates. My father has always been a fan of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, a series of twenty one novels about a British Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars, and I joined him in his appreciation when I began sneaking the books out of his study to read. Pirates is a game that revolves entirely around building your own legend as a buccaneer in the Golden Age of Piracy. The intersection of our passions met perfectly in this game. I plop down beside him, too big for his lap by now, and watch as he attempts to manipulate the tiny ship.

“No Dad, see, you have to point away from the wind. The clouds show you which way it’s blowing.”

“Oh, like this?”

“No, not there Dad, that’s a reef!”

A crackle emerges from the TV and we watch our ship sink beneath the waves.

“Dad, you have to avoid the white lines in the water.”

“OK. I think I get it now. Well, I have to get back to work.”

He hands me the controller.

~~~

Shortly after I was born, my father left teaching for good and joined a medical device company. He started off as a researcher but, after running afoul of the patent ownership stipulation in his contract, he moved over to being a manager. I remember sitting on the couch listening to him complain to my mother endlessly about the drudgery of his work and the incessant corporate politics. When he was passed over for a promotion for a younger man, he quit and joined another company, then another. He spent his days being paid very well to organize the research reports of other scientists for submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This continued until he retired.

~~~

My father would stand in the doorway to my room, shaking his head, as he repeated the same phrase he said the last time he checked in on me

“Why do you waste so much time playing video games?”

It is a ritual we would repeat every hour, on the hour, from when he arrived home to shortly before my bedtime. It continued on throughout my teen years. I still remember the litany.

“You know Dad, I think you’d really like this one. It’s called Ultima Online and it’s set in a fantasy Medieval Europe. You don’t even have to spend all your time fighting. You can learn how to be a miner or even a tailor.”

“Well, you know I’m not very good at video games.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Have you spent any time on your writing recently?”

“Well, part of roleplaying is writing.”

“I think you should spend more time writing. You’re good at it.”

“OK.”

~~~

There is a cliche that says some people choose to be writers because their parents want them to be doctors; I chose to make games because my parents wanted me to be a writer. A writer of fiction, novels, short stories, maybe even screenplays. They pushed my elementary school library to ‘publish’ a series of picture books I wrote when I was in 4th grade. They bought me books on writing and took me to libraries. When I spent my time playing videogames, they would gently but regularly remind me that I could be a great writer if I just put my mind to it. When that much expectation is heaped on your shoulders it is natural to sway a bit, but I buckled altogether. I tried to rationalise it: a writing degree is a quick way to unemployment; videogames are a growing industry, but the truth is that I was afraid of not living up to the picture they had in their head of their son, the writer. Besides, would they even accept me as a writer if my writing was on a computer screen instead of on a page?

I was never great at maths so I chose animation as a way into games. After I graduated from college, I struggled to find work. Depression has a way of distorting your view of things and mine had gone from manageable to debilitating in the latter part of my degree. It’s hard to find work when you’re too depressed to finish your portfolio. My father insisted on weekly phone calls after I graduated, and I came to dread these conversations.

Have you found any work yet?”

“No.”

“Are you sure that you are considering all possible opportunities?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Well I just want you to know that I support you and care about you.”

“I know.”

“Have you done any more writing?”

Eventually I found work, but it was not in my field of study. Whenever we talked about it my dad was happy enough that I was making a living, but there was always a certain unease sitting at the edge of our conversations. It wasn’t until I was a few years out of college that I was about to rationalize what might be causing it.

My dad had studied to be a scientist. His goal was to become a researcher in the field of Biochemistry. Early children and a wife with mental health problems forced him to give up on that dream and seek stable employment. I don’t think he could ever quite accept this was simply the result of circumstances beyond his control. To him, the missed opportunity was a personal failing, a loss caused by some personal deficiency. He may have come to the conclusion that he wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist, and I think he was worried the same would happen to me with animation. The thing about depression is: it lies to you, and it runs in families.

~~~

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: Games

Dad, we need to talk. Something has been weighing on my mind for awhile now. My love of videogames started because I watched you play them when I was growing up. Since then, games have grown into a medium with as much depth as books or film. It is the field I care about, and I want you to care about it too. I know you’ve always been busy but, now you’re retired and I know you have time to spare, I want to share my passion with you.

I’ve compiled a list of games that show the capacity of the medium to evoke and emote. Can we play them together? Please?

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: Games

Matt, I’m sorry that I’ve let you down. I know you care about video games and I haven’t shared that with you. I cried reading this thinking about how I should have been a better father to you. Yes, we can play these video games.

I love you.

~~~

In truth, I had not finished the list of games because making a list comprehensive enough to reveal the strengths of the medium is incredibly hard. The biggest issue is something I realized long after my father sat down and played a game about pirates: videogames have a grammar. There is a structural language to games that, like any language, takes effort to learn and time to master. As a child everything is difficult, so it does not seem abnormal to spend a large amount of time trying to understand something new. But when you grow up, you have a decreased tolerance for unnecessary difficulty.

There are very few games that are good at imparting these lessons to the player without context. There is just so much cultural craft inside of genres that we, as veteran players of videogames, never even realize. Movement controls being “WASD”, for example, is only a recent addition to the gaming lexicon, and yet there is no logical reason as to why those would be the controls. As even more layers of complexity are added, as they are in most modern games, an indecipherable quagmire of digital content is quickly formed.

I decided the best way to break down the process would be to find games that focus on individual constituent parts as simply as possible and guide my father up through the language of games. None of these games are perfect at explaining their concepts to the uninitiated, but their simplicity and singular focus makes the process of learning easier.

Gone Home — For first person control and environmental storytelling.

Minecraft — For the logic of videogame ecosystems and the possibility space of play.

The Walking Dead — For an example of quality storytelling in the medium.

The Stanley Parable — For a deconstruction of the relationship between player and designer.

My own game, which at the time had not been created.

My thought was that it would take us about a year to get through these games, during which I’d have the time to finish a game with enough polish that I could prove to my dad the hours I’d spent playing as a child hadn’t been for naught.

~~~

April.

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: Playing games

Dad,

I will be sending you things soon that will hopefully get you playing games. You said you wanted to see inside my world. Well, I hope you still mean that.

Besides, it will be a good workout for your brain.

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: playing games

Hi Matt,

We are very stressed right now with the home remodel issues. I will spare you the details, but don’t expect too much from me. I am very sorry to be in this state. I am sure this is upsetting for you, but I need your understanding right now.

With all my love,

Dad

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: RE: RE: playing games

That’s fine. I will just sit on it until you are ready, but please let me know when you’re free again.

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: RE: RE: playing games.

I will let you know when. I hope your new job is going well. We should chat about that.

~~~

These days our bi-weekly conversations are about the declining health of our relatives. Mortality is on my father’s mind. Sometimes he will call with a computer question and apologize profusely for bothering me.

“My mind is going Matt, it’s so frustrating.”

For someone who spent his adult life with the identity of a scientist there is something understandably terrifying about the idea that he is losing the ability to learn.

“You know Dad, studies have shown that videogames are good for learning. Playing something on a regular basis could help keep your memory sharp.”

“I hear ya, but those studies are not very high quality. Besides, I still can’t even type that well. Not like you.”

“I could teach you. It’s not that hard.”

“I know.”

~~~

June.

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: Learning and games.

Dad,

Here is a link to a site you can use to practice typing. I’ve also included detailed instructions on how to install Gone Home. The remodel is done now, so I figured you’d have time. This includes step-by-step instructions on how to install Steam, run it, and install the program. I’ve gifted you a copy of the game to the account we set up. Feel free to call me if you have any questions.

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: Learning and games.

Matt,

Thanks, but I am still wrestling with recovering my information for use on my old iPhone 3. Extremely confusing.

This probably sounds like an excuse, but I am very afraid about losing any of my contact information, etc… This is where I keep all of my passwords, in my own cryptic way.

Do you use a password vault of some kind?

Love,

Dad

PS I had responded to this email right away, but it got stuck in my Outbox. This is a second attempt. Yet another problem!!!

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: RE: RE: Learning and games.

Dad,

Yeah I do. [link] is what I use. You don’t need to worry about losing your contacts. They’re probably backed up with Apple and on your computer.

Let me know when you have the game installed. I can’t wait to play.

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: RE: RE: Learning and games.

Matt,

You know I have trouble with this stuff. I found using the Steam website very confusing, and it wouldn’t accept my password correctly. I’m sorry, but I need to deal with my phone first. I will try again soon.

Love,

Dad.

~~~

Summer comes and goes. My dad still calls regularly to ask about the weather and my job prospects. I tell him I got something published on Unwinnable, a gaming culture website, and for a moment there is pride in his voice. When I go on to say I’ve also been selected to develop a game for Antholojam, a collection of short games about the Golden Era of Sci-Fi, he says “Well that sounds like something you could work hard on.”

I keep asking him about Gone Home and he keeps explaining why he’s too busy to try it. When I ask him what he has been up to, he tells me about how he spends a lot of time around the house unsure what to do. It feels as though part of him is waiting for the inevitable, unsure of whether there is any point in trying. Most of the time, when I get off the phone with him I feel really bad. When my therapist asks me what I worry about, I tell her death and failure. I don’t quite have the courage yet to tell her I worry that I may end up like my father.

I decide that the only choice of action is to finish my own game and show that to him. When I finally have a real tangible piece of work that I can sell to other humans, then I am sure he will make time for it. I spent November through December in a nearly two-month crunch with my partner Mint developing Orison of Mercury. It is a game about finding a new planet for people to live on. Unlike a lot of action-space adventures, most of the game is spent puzzling around atmospheric composition tables, figuring out if the planet you’re orbiting is capable of supporting life. It is a game about the science of human survival. It is space and science, two things my dad really likes, with very minimal interaction. I work hard to make the controls intuitive. I agonize over the wording of the introduction and the UI so it is clear what each component does and when it should be used. By the end of it, I’m exhausted but legitimately proud of what I’ve made. I’ve finally done something worth celebrating.

~~~

January.

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: My game

Hey Dad,

Here is my game. It won’t be on sale for a few more weeks, but I wanted you to play it and see what you think. All you have to do is download it, unzip it to a folder, and run the .exe file. If, at any point, you stop seeing your cursor, you should just alt-tab and tab back in. I hope you like it.

Love,

Matt

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: My Game

Hi Matt,

Thanks, I will try to get to it today.

Love,

Dad

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: RE RE: My Game

Hi Dad,

It’s been about a week now. Just wanted to hear how it’s going. Did you figure my game out? It’s a little bit like Myst in that you need to poke at it to figure out how it works, but there is supposed to be joy in that discovery. Don’t be afraid of the learning process. That is part of the fun.

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: RE: RE: My Game

Hi Matt,

I know you remember us playing Myst, but the fact is, I could never figure that game out, even with the strategy guides. I’ve never been very good at figuring things out.

I tried to play your game and I got to the text at the beginning. The atmosphere tables, but I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Love,

Dad

To: Dad

From: Matt

Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: My Game

Hi Dad,

It says [Press SPACE to continue] at the bottom. Press the Spacebar and you will be able to continue to the next scene.

To: Matt

From: Dad

Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: My Game

Hi Matt,

OK I will try it again sometime this week. Thank you for being patient with me. I love you and I’m proud of you.

Love,

Dad.