Love, Loss, and Failing to Find an Escape in Games

How one player tried—and failed—to recapture a happier time with ‘King’s Quest.’

by Jenn Wright
Nov 23 2016, 3:00pm

Recently, I showed a group of (mostly) non-game players the memorials that people (both developers and modders) put into their games, to pay homage to those who were gone. Players who were gone.

These digital platforms, I told those gathered, allow us to grieve without constantly having to explain. Without having to pretend that a card passed around the office, signed twenty times with an off-the-cuff "sorry for your loss," fixes anything.

Afterward, people kept coming up to me. Saying that they, too, knew the stab of a social media platform cheerily asking you if you wanted to get back in touch with someone—someone who has passed.

They told me they knew the flash of anger when people complain about their loved ones meddling in their lives, while you sit, silently furious that they even have loved ones left who can meddle. Saying they knew how that felt, and were startled that others did, too.

I deliberately mixed and matched pronouns and references as I spoke, so I wouldn't be telling my story. This was a presentation about digital communities as places to process loss, after all—not about me. But afterward, people still asked.

In the safe-seeming murmur of an emptying room, they still asked. I had banked on everyone feeling it inappropriate to pry, after such a presentation. I was mistaken. It felt wrong to admit to these people that my mother is still alive. She is no longer herself, but she is still alive.

Header and all King's Quest screens courtesy of Sierra

There was no much-storied context for my mother becoming an avid fan of games in the early 80s. She wasn't seeking escape from anything; she wasn't rendered suddenly unable to participate in more typical pursuits.

While it's true she felt, as she once told me, "dumbed down" by the car accident and brain damage that would eventually render her even more susceptible to the early-onset of Alzheimer's that already runs in our family, she was not unhappy. As a teenager worried about my own future, she would routinely tell me that, at my age, she had had no inkling that her life would look as it did, but that she was happier with it than she would have imagined she ever could be. She didn't need to escape it.

But she did. And she brought me along for the ride. I sat in her lap as she piloted her way through Monkey Island. I burrowed into her side in terror as a power outage during a playthrough of The 7th Guest left the skeletal hand cursor on the screen—pointing out at us, because my mother had been about to move her character backward—before everything went black.

I crowed with prideful glee when my suggestion that she investigate a half-hidden clue led to her at last moving on from where she'd been stumped in Myst. She wasn't running from anything, holed up with me in front of the computer, explaining (sometimes sounding out) words on the screen for me, or the reasons behind character's actions. She wasn't escaping.

But I was trying to escape, earlier this year, when I downloaded the new version of King's Quest on Steam. I was trying to escape when I saw that familiar red feather in a blue cap. That swirling red cape. As I steered young Graham out from the clutches of dragons' talons, and through absurd dialogue exchanges—with voices I squealed at in delight and recognition—I was trying to escape.

King's Quest

I was trying so hard. I was about to move my mother to a dementia care facility, and let me be honest: the maudlin pictures of pleasantly bemused older people forgetting names that we are shown in media are never the real pictures of the disease. If you forget who you are you forget how to care for yourself. You forget that the people trying to help you love you, too. And you lash out at them. You become more than they can take care of, though they have tried for years.

I wanted to escape this woman, no longer recognizable as my mother, who accused and belittled and ignored pleas for her to eat, to bathe, to live. I wanted to remember—we are always told to remember—the person who raised us; the person we loved.

I bought King's Quest to return to the lap of a woman who was in control of her life, who had chosen to be where and who she was, and who had chosen to share that with me.

Would there be a tailor shop? Would they have preserved the glitch where you got stuck dancing the moonwalk around the screen, necessitating a complete reboot of the system? Would there be custard pies? I could still hum the song. Over twenty years later, I could still hum the song.

Yes there was a bakery, and pies. No, there was no tailor, and sadly (if understandably) no moonwalk glitch. The intended audience for the new game probably wouldn't know a moonwalk if it danced right up to them.

I myself only recognized it because it was explained to me as a five and then six-year-old. It wasn't random, my mother told me. It was a known dance, in the real world. It was a song. It was probably a joke that had gone too far, morphing into a bug that made trips to the tailor shop in King's Quest V a coin toss. Could you make it back out without crashing? Would you risk it?

King's Quest

Moonwalk or no, I came here to forget the present. I needed something to bring me back to a time long before washing my mother down in the shower again and again, explaining to her that no, my dad didn't hate her. That he loved her and that this was why we had to do this.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't work. King's Quest is a gorgeous, laughing, lively resurrection of a kind of game that many of us haven't been able to return to for years. It's silly and lighthearted in a way I very much needed at the time.

But when I heard the flippant guard refuse me access to a bridge, I heard Fenris. When I listened to the baker praise my purchase, I heard Shalidor. The Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls games are both series my mother would have loved.

Before her precipitous mental decline following a bout of cancer, she would watch me play them on holidays, in a stark reversal of the way I'd come to love games growing up. She couldn't follow any plots, but she liked seeing faces and scenery. I tried explaining things to her, to help her along, before realizing that, in doing so, I made her think she was a bother. She kept apologizing. So I stopped, and she drifted in and out of focus, in silence. Sometimes she even seemed content.

I was hoping for something magical and impossible with King's Quest. This series, after all, was what molded me into the player I am today. It's what started me out as the outraged child in K-12 classrooms defending video games against teachers' disdain; as the girl in college who could always be found in front of her computer on Friday nights; as the long-distance girlfriend who would always be down for a dungeon run in World of Warcraft. But he reboot of this series did not—and could not—bring my mother back.

I knew that, going in. What I didn't know was that it couldn't bring me back either. Not even for a moment. I wanted the game to take me all the way—to being safe and secure in the arms of indomitable parents unbowed by illness or loss or time. Sharing in their humor, even as I learned what all the words meant for the first time.

But as I laughed at the jokes and delighted at the facial expressions (we had precious few facial expressions in the blocky VGA version in 1990!), I would catch myself thinking, as a 30-year-old woman, this would be the perfect game to play with my kid. I could give a child memories in the same way I had received mine.

But that child might have to go through the same thing I did. The same doomed attempts to resurrect the past and a person who would never come back. What King's Quest makes me question is whether it's worth it. Should I even try to impart those memories, knowing they will disappear, and render my child the only half of the duo that made them who can remember?

King's Quest

In the modern King's Quest, King Graham is telling the "story" of the game to his granddaughter. That's the framing device that allows the narrative to have elements of danger, without losing the warm storybook quality.

He has all of his memories intact, he can tell these stories and share his experiences with his young relative. I am unlikely to be able to do that. What do you have when the frame of the story then becomes a child's doomed quest to remember a parent? To help them to remember themselves?

I don't know that that's a story worth telling. It is too sad.