Death, Grief, and Shadowgate

Box art for the 1989 Kemco port of Shadowgate for the NES. Isn’t this some amazing Goosebumps looking shit or what? I’ll never forget this.

Box art for the 1989 Kemco port of Shadowgate for the NES. Isn’t this some amazing Goosebumps looking shit or what? I’ll never forget this.

I couldn’t tell you what I felt when I first unwrapped my Nintendo Entertainment System on Christmas. What I felt holding the gold foil Legend of Zelda in my hands like real treasure.

But I can tell you how I died for the first time in Shadowgate.

At summer camp I fell from the monkey bars while being an obnoxious, fatalistic child and broke my arm. I spent most of the afternoon being told my arm was fine, until my parents took me to the ER after picking me up and noticing my arm was mostly purple. I got a day-glo yellow cast made from waffle-textured fiberglass, and despite the pain, I was pretty jazzed about that.

My stepfather, understanding my frustration at not having the use of my right arm, and ever doting on my interests involving computers and video games took me to Kay Bee Toys and let me pick out a game that hopefully, I would be able to play without full use of my hands. In a time of 2D platformers — options were slim, so we got Shadowgate. The box art spoke to me in a way Ultima III: Exodus didn’t. And while it is a special kind of ridiculous, I don’t know why it spoke to me then.

But I can tell you that I fell down a pit only a few hours later and broke both of my legs. It was on the bordeaux, high pile carpet of our finished basement. My stepfather’s golden retriever laying over my feet, breathing rhythmically. He was twisting the remaining bits of his hair into little coiled wisps while I sat there utterly confounded that my adventures had come so abruptly to an end. The Grim Reaper stared out from a small window on our colossal, wood-paneled Sony CRT TV — mocking me. All because I broke my legs.

“How can you die from broken legs?” I demanded of my stepfather. “That’s stupid.”

He laughed as I clutched the day-glo yellow fiberglass that immobilized my right forearm. “You can die from broken bones lots of ways…” And then he told me all the ways a traumatic fracture could kill you.

There were other memorable deaths. Being sucked into space after smashing the wrong mirror. My torch constantly went out, plunging me into darkness only to smash my head on a stone. Monsters, traps, climate control gone magically wrong — Shadowgate is a game that will kill you at every turn.

In many ways, it’s a sadistic version of Concentration. Problem solving was largely random. Make a decision — commit to the action — live or die. You keep going, until you die, and hopefully you remembered how you died so you don’t make the mistake again.

This doesn’t sound too bad. The game has a save system after all, right? As my stepfather and I found out — our pragmatism and anxiety about keeping the torch lit would frequently be our undoing.

Instead of a timer like some games — Shadowgate uses torches to limit you, to build tension in a way that is thematically consistent. When your torch goes out, you die. There are only so many torches in the entire game. It’s effective, after a fashion. The game’s grim reaper is constantly present just out of reach saying, “Did you get careless five rooms ago and use too many torches? Did you save? Oh, that’s a shame. Your adventures are probably going to end soon.” And he’ll be there when the floor bottoms out, laughing.

Plenty of games teach you how to play them. I’m sure my hands still remember when and how to make each jump in Ninja Gaiden for the NES. But this was an age before load screens or drawn-out gristly death animations forced us to pause and take stock of what happened. In most games, you pressed forward, died, jumped right back in and did it again. But Shadowgate was a different beast for me. Each death brought slow fades, foreboding music, the slow piercing crawl of characters as the game elaborated exactly why and how I died. And with it, time for reflection and understanding of why I was wrong.

My stepfather died before we ever killed the Warlock Lord. My arm healed, other games came out, consoles and PCs vied for our attentions. And as we plowed through game after game together, Shadowgate got put to the side.

And then one afternoon when I was in college, he just…died.

There was no spectral figure that showed up explaining what happened, what went wrong. And there really was no meaning to be gleamed. There were no extra lives, no continues, there wasn’t even an option to start from the beginning. A phone call, a click, and it was done.

Death is never like it is in video games. There was time for reflection, sure. I withdrew from every one of my classes. I even withdrew from most of my relationships. I spent a lot of time thinking about the different choices I could and should have made. Ones that would have kept those torches lit just a bit longer. I poured over the small mistakes, charting the course that wouldn’t result in failure the next time, like a speed runner. I kept a bulleted diary, a GameFAQs for how to out-puzzle death. But there was no next time, that’s how death works. It’s not something a million deaths in a hundred games can possibly communicate. Not even “Permadeath.”

Ultimately, as grief gave way and major depression took hold, I dragged myself to therapy. There was psychoanalytic, relational, cognitive-behavioral, Gestalt — you name it, I went through the approaches. Each time getting a bit farther, making my way further into the tower of my own depression. And sometimes, yes, feeling like I had to start over.

There’s no monolithic model for depression or any mental illness really.

We experience it differently, we respond to treatment differently. And sometimes it takes a while to find the approach that works for you. I don’t know if I went through more therapeutic models than lives in Shadowgate.

But sometimes it sure feels that way.

After years of therapy, a random conversation with one of my closest friends turned towards Shadowgate. And let me tell you, that brought up a whole lot of shit for me. The mind is a messy chaotic place under the best of circumstances, and I ended up in a two-hour long crying jag because my stepfather and I never got to the end of the game. From King’s Quest 1 through Mario 64 we’d experienced and completed hundreds of games. But never Shadowgate, we never would, and this felt more unfair than any design decision in any game.

It still felt like something that needed to happen though. I’m not remotely a spiritual person, my experiences have been that when people are dead that’s it, they’re dead. At the same time, it felt wrong leaving Shadowgate incomplete. It was something we should have done. A loose thread that in a relationship that had ended full of loose threads, but one that could be fixed. So I grabbed an emulator and a ROM of Shadowgate (sorry, Kemco) and played through it.

The correct sequence of movements came back to me. A lot of memories came flooding back like the itching skin under my cast in the heat of a Virginia summer. The golden retriever fur clinging to my Robin pajamas. The rise in pitch as my stepfather would wordlessly question a decision I was about to make. The times he’d turn the lights off in the basement, plunging us into darkness, because he believed in immersing yourself in the experience. There was anxiety as I got to the limits of my memory. More failures, more deaths. More time for reflection. But this time, the quest was real. This wasn’t about entertainment in a summer where thrashing about in the Atlantic was out of the question. Shadowgate is not a game with any profound meaning, or any real meaning at all. But I brought decades worth of my own this time. I was no longer a six-year-old, so every instance of the Grim Reaper mocking me dredged up a deep-seated well of profanity that I “bellowed like a Norse god.” For an entire day, I did nothing but push on towards the Warlock Lord. And then I folded that fucker up like a quilt.

There can be an emotional rush to beating a difficult game. I’ve watched friends jump to their feet and cheer. I’ve done it. There’s often a wave of relief as the ending credits roll. Catharsis, Greek for shitting your brains out, can be triumphant and explosive. With Shadowgate it was an exhausted and quiet tying off. I did the things in the right order for the last time. I had solved the inscrutable design. No mistakes, finally.

And I felt completely alone. I got up and stat on my futon and tried to feel something, anything. Emotion had leaked out of me and left me drained. All I could think of was that he should have been here for this.

He would have hated the ending. It’s the standard generic fantasy ending. The King hears about what you did, he gives you your own kingdom and his daughter. But there are still more quests out there. For a game that takes you through some bizarre locales and asks you to solve impossible puzzles — it’s incredibly mundane in the end.

My therapist would say, “and that’s how life works.” There are seemingly insurmountable hardships, but then you have to go back to school. There’s rent to pay, relationships to cultivate. Sometimes people join you through those hardships, and sometimes you have to deal with them alone. Even if what you really want is someone to be with you.

I stopped playing video games for a long time after college. Partially because the mundane life kept on happening. And also because I missed my stepfather. I’d see new games, and instead of how much I’d like or hate them — I’d think of him, and what he’d say about them. But as time and therapy rolled on, I dipped back in despite the twinge of sadness still skulking about. I’m not sure you really ever get over a major death. Like mental illness, it just becomes a part of who you are. Something you learn to live with.

They’re not systems that can be beaten or gamed.

It really took a long time to feel okay playing video games again.

When I play games now, I’m constantly stopping myself and thinking, “he really would have loved this.” When I first played Dark Souls, I reflexively picked up my phone to call him.

“There’s a lot of Shadowgate in it. Remember that?”

“Yeah, I finally figured it out. We were actually fairly close to beating it.”

“You really need to see this though. I’m walking under a fully-realized aqueduct…and I just fell off the edge. Games can do that now. It’s wild. Come over, you need to play this with me.”

Of course, if he were still alive. He’d have been beating on my apartment door, he’d have bought the game before I even knew about it. “This is what games always should have been!” he’d gleefully shout. And we’d fall right back into that comfortable pattern and play for hours. He’d forward me Kotaku reviews, subject line: “Don’t play this without me.”

I’m not so naive as to say this is why I play games now. I always enjoyed them for what they are. And I still enjoy them. But I’d be lying if part of me didn’t keep playing because of those unanticipated reminders. The phantom conversations, the memories and connections — they do keep my stepfather close. I can’t entirely remember the plaid of his favorite Pendleton shirt, but I know the wide-eyed look as he immediately put together the Lost Sinner and the Witch of Izalith.

“What, what is it?” I’d ask as I got my ass handed to me. And he’d smile, leaning back to twirl his wispy hair, and say “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.”

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