The Ghosts in Our Games

author byline riley

I sat on the couch, staring at Fraser for a long time after she told me. He looked like a healthy dog. I didn’t really know how to respond, as I just kept replaying one word in my head over and over again.

“Cancer.”

I finally pulled my eyes away from him and looked at my mom, with tears starting to stream down her face. Green and orange colors from the television danced across the room like a cheap, rented version of the Northern Lights.

She finally broke the silence with three, choked up words. “It’s not good.”

Moments earlier I had been playing Beautiful Katamari, a game I’d picked up from the Canadian version of Blockbuster, Rogers Video, in the hopes of boosting my Gamerscore. It all seemed so trivial in that moment, though; my 16-year-old self tried to take it all in. My dog was dying.

I got up and turned off my Xbox 360, and to this day I have never played another Katamari Damacy game.

The franchise was ruined for me by an exterior event that even the escapism of gaming couldn’t shelter me from. It’s through no fault of the developers. None at all, in fact. Still, I can’t help but associate the series with a moment when I learned that one of the few constants in my life back then would be leaving. Throughout the big move to a new country that acted as a social reset, he’d been there for me every day for 10 years. There was little doubt that he was one of my best friends.

Two weeks later, Fraser was gone.

This moment in my life has brought with it some clarity into how I view a lot of the games I still play today. Whatever form they may take (discs, cartridges, etc.), many of gaming’s longstanding franchises hold ghosts inside them whenever I boot them up. Contrary to the opener of this story, however, they aren’t all sad. In fact, the good memories outweigh the bad.

I remember trading the controller back and forth with my father as we played through Donkey Kong Country. The laughs we had, the frustration we shared – sometimes with each other. I remember evolving my partner Pokémon into Charizard for the first time during my sister’s gymnastics tournament, all while being scolded to turn down the volume of my translucent purple Game Boy Color. But I needed to hear that iconic event music as badly as my mother needed to hear my sister’s name echo throughout the gymnasium prior to her performance.

I also recall my grandfather smiling – with a lit cigarette in his mouth, sat in his favorite chair – as he watched my siblings and I play Mario Party 2 on a Nintendo 64 we’d rented from a corner store down the street. Back before I knew he was sick. Back before he even knew he was sick. Back before I broke down in a room full of strangers at his funeral. Back when I could still hug him.

The most alluring aspect of gaming now is how much of my life I see in the games I play. I know those titles can never give me back the ones I’ve lost or the ones that have left, but they can help me revisit moments I shared with people, places, and things. The same moments I may have taken for granted or sub-consciously buried over the years come bubbling to the surface when a familiar theme song hits me or a once-beloved mascot returns after a decade-long hiatus.

Gaming has provided me with a lot more than well-written storylines or complete immersion in an impossible world. It’s the moments lived and the memories made that I appreciate the most, the ones that surrounded late night Mario Kart sessions with the neighborhood kids I’ve since lost touch with or the funny voices my brothers and I would use as we read dialogue from Paper Mario 64 aloud to one another.

There’s something incredibly human about the fallout from a medium that focuses on simultaneous physical and mental interaction. I may feel only pain with some and opt out of revisiting those particular instances, but I also like going back and piecing together intangible pictures of smiles from people that have meant something to me over the course of my life.

At 26 years of age, I think I’ve still got some time left to attach myself to new experiences, people, and pieces of software. Who knows, maybe the memories of each moment will shift in meaning as the world inevitably gives and takes in the ebb and flow of life.

But I can only live in the now as I recall the then, and that’s something truly special that gaming does for me. I feel it does the same for many others as well.

You can follow Riley on Twitter (@TheRileyLittle) for more news on film, gaming, and more.

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