Love, Loss, and Video Games

In the days since Susan, my games writing/review partner and partner in life, passed away unexpectedly, I’ve turned to games to try and fill the hole her death has left in me. I don’t yet have words to give to what I feel, but I’ve had games, and in games I can lose myself and find her.  

I’ve turned to Gris which has been applauded for its cathartic approach to exploring grief. It’s fitting that this game, this story, is told entirely without language, that it transcended language with the universality of its story, because while my relationship with Susan was founded in language, it revolved around language, we never needed words to express how we felt about each other.

Susan and I were two halves of a whole. She built up parts of me that I never believed could exist and nurtured the things in me that so many others had always thrown away. She and I were a team, an inseparable pair. Together we became part of a kind and vibrant community and we were so proud of our contribution to the games accessibility community. We took the games industry to task about its lack of accessibility and our work affected change. Susan was the enigmatic yet magnetic personality of our team. Every day she engaged so many of the members of the community and shared her love of games and passion for improving them with everyone she was in contact with. She reveled in reading the messages we would get from people, sharing with us how one of our reviews helped them, or how our passion for accessibility inspired them to become active in the community too. Where Susan was the personality everyone wanted to know, I was more of a silent partner, staying out of the social spotlight and rarely interacting with our community and choosing instead to write our content and maintain our site. I was happy to let her do with the community what she did best, what she’d done to me years ago. Entertain and educate them with an ease only she could.

Susan was a rare gem for me. We met eight years ago, when I was twenty-eight, and she was the first person I’d ever come across where my often crippling social anxiety just fell away. It’s rare that I can hold a conversation with someone, even more rare that I can start or carry one. The day we met, we spent four hours sitting in her kitchen talking about everything. I can count on one hand the number of people that have come into my life which I’ve found a similar ease with since meeting her, but she was the first and remained the easiest.

Susan lived with schizophrenia, a topic which we often wrote about, and while I can’t compare the depression and anxiety I’ve lived with throughout most of my life to the struggles being schizophrenic brought her, there is no question that video games gave us both much more of a life than we would have had otherwise. Where else can you interact with an entire world of people, talk with them, do things with them, even invite them over to your (virtual) house to hang out, all without having to physically do those things, but in a game? Games gave both of us relationships with people that anxiety would have kept us from outside of the virtual world. After Susan suffered her first stroke, games became an even more important facet of our daily life. What had once been a very fulfilling hobby became a necessity that allowed Susan to heal and regain much of what she’d lost to the stroke.

Over the years I’d served as Susan’s spoken voice. I interpreted for her without ever going through that initial awkward phase where a Deaf person tries to impart their style, their voice, onto their interpreter. Her tone, her sarcasm, came easily to me and so often, I found myself voicing for her the very same things I was thinking myself. There’s not much more intimate than trusting someone and allowing them to speak your thoughts and beliefs, and that necessary intimacy between Susan and I was effortless and served to make our relationship rock solid, so forming a professional partnership felt natural. We both loved games and we knew we had a unique ability to solve a problem that desperately needed to be addressed in the gaming community. Thus, Deaf Game Reviews was born.

We shared a handle when playing games for review purposes, using Susan’s gamertag, but I maintained my own as well, so we could still play co-op and multiplayer games together. I haven’t been able to bring myself to login under our shared handle to continue working on in-game achievements and trophies we were trying to complete, so in most games, I’ve started fresh, which feels appropriate. Racing games were a favorite of both of us, myself drawn to the amazing photo modes, Susan attracted to actually being a good driver for once (riding with Susan in the real world was always a terrifying experience, as signing while driving was her favorite past time). The first game we ever played together was Forza Horizon 2, and being two incredibly competitive people, the idea of the Drivatar, the AI representation of you built from your past racing performance while playing solo, was gold for us. We didn’t have to be anywhere near each other or available to play the game in order to compete and then gloat (or sulk) about it.

I fired up Forza Horizon 4 a couple days ago under my own gamertag for the first time and because of the once-brilliant Drivatars, I knew heartache would be waiting for me. Susan had been dead for three days and I knew I’d see her racing beside me, complete with all of her habits, like trying to run me off the road. At the time I needed something to feel like it could bring her back and that was as close as I could get. I stared at the screen until the controller turned off, looking at her gamertag listed just above mine on the leaderboard for the race I’d just done. She’d beaten me by fractions of a second, as always.

I’ve read so many messages in the days following her death from community members that were feeling her loss deeply, right along with me and I’m struck by the power of video games. Look at what they have given to the two of us, and in turn, what they have allowed us to contribute to the world. She gave people what they needed, always, and if she didn’t have what they needed, she found it or made it. It’s hard for me to believe the people that keep telling me that eventually this, not having her and getting to see her every day, will hurt less because I’ve never felt anything this awful, I’ve never lost anyone I’ve loved unconditionally, and I still can’t think of her without making myself cry. But I’m wading back into the games she loved so much, slowly, to continue the work she lived for, knowing that I’m doing something, giving something to people, that she would have been so proud to have her name attached to, it gives back to me a bit of what I lost when she died. I don’t know what my future with games involves short of continuing our project, right now it still hurts too much to play most games, but I know that whatever I do, I’ve got her blessing and she and I have our games.