It’s the sticky month between my dad’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, and it feels like I’m slipping slowly into a pit of tar. Somehow, the inevitable flow of freelance work has hit an ebb, and it’s with some relief that I take this time to look at the world through glazed eyes.
I’ve watched a lot of Daredevil. I’ve sunk to new lows with my reality TV habits. (Have you guys seen this show called The Bachelorette? It’s pretty crazy!) And, of course, I’ve been gaming more than usual.
For some reason this coping mechanism is more embarrassing than the others I cop to, from benzos to binge-watching Gilmore Girls to choosing a career that allows me to work without pants (OK, that last one sort of chose me). I will never regret taking enough Klonopin before my father’s funeral that I tried to drown out some senile distant relative during the Kaddish, but gaming? I cringe to admit that sometimes I’d rather pick up my Xbox controller than free write about my feelings.
Aren’t I supposed to be more emotionally evolved than that? Shouldn’t I be, like, meditating or something instead of firing up a video game? My vision board fell down in the middle of the night a few weeks ago, and I haven’t bothered to put it back up. Trying to emotionally evolve is goddamn exhausting.
Trawling Diablo III’s dungeons makes me feel like I’m in control of something, even if all I’m controlling is a culturally insensitive “Witch Doctor” character who can summon zombie dogs to maul enemies.
There are endless Wiki pages devoted to Diablo III’s maps and secrets, and I work industriously to find the pieces of the elusive Staff of Herding, which will allow me access to Whimseyshire, a land of deadly teddy bears and flowers. The Gibbering Gemstone spawns rarely, so I load and reload the Fields of Slaughter and listen to podcasts like Night Vale, where everything is just a little bit off-kilter and melancholy.
Even if an item’s spawn rate is exceedingly rare, I know it will eventually pop up, just like I know grief eventually passes, if you think less and sleep enough. But although it’s been over a decade, grief surprises me still. It doesn’t make sense; it can lay me out flat on a Wednesday afternoon. “I’m so sad,” I text my friend. “I’m having #dadfeels.”
WATCH OUT FOR DEAD DAD MOVIES
Movies are near and dear to my heart (and my career, in one way or another), but I found out the hard way that they weren’t safe or reliable sources of succor when I was trying to forget about my grief for just a little while. I was blindsided by American Beauty and infuriated by the tricksy Royal Tenenbaums, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I simply had to avoid the genre I’d come to call “Dead Dad Movies” in my head. Sitting in the dark in front of a looming screen, beaming those images directly into my head, I felt like a butterfly pinned to my seat; it was all too overwhelming.
Worse, going through these feelings in public, in a professional setting (as professional as a screening room where some other reporter is hacking up a lung or taking off their shoes or checking their phone can be), feels like throwing up in the middle of a party. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one in this predicament; a friend and I came up with a sort of shorthand to tip each other off about such movies. Even with her support and extra tissues, I barely made it through a screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild with my dignity intact.
On the other hand, it feels reassuring, even comfortable, to venture out into the carefully controlled chaos of games; in retrospect, it’s no coincidence that I was particularly obsessed with survival horror games after 9/11. The subway pausing between stops was enough to send me reeling, but I’d play Resident Evil in the dark, stoned out of my gourd, until I saw Nemesis when I closed my eyes.
The gaming shame remains, and not the good, Cronenbergian kind of shame — more like the murky defensiveness that rears up when people insult my home state of Texas. And let’s not forget the tired, tiring arguments with fellow cinephiles over whether video games are art. Thanks a lot, Roger Ebert.
Nevertheless, I give in. Recently, I decided to buy the Xbox 360 port of Symphony of the Night, after reading Leigh Alexander’s essay about the timeless joys of the side-scroller. The apocalyptic novel Station Eleven made me jones for some Fallout, but I just couldn’t bear to return to the wasteland yet again, and I needed something both new and old.
It was an excellent purchase, almost as good of a decision as setting my DVR to record My Cat From Hell to watch on glum Sunday nights. I’m pretty sure I have a copy of the blocky Castlevania game somewhere at my mom’s house in Dallas, but I don’t think it ever captured me as completely as, say, Super Mario Bros. or Bubble Bobble, or even the deeply fucked Milon’s Secret Castle, with its maddening lack of save points.
Maybe I just wasn’t ready for the adventures of Alucard before now. The retro graphics are familiar enough to offer a twinge of melancholic nostalgia; they remind me of the hours I spent playing Nintendo with my mom, both of us smoking cigarettes in my girly pink bedroom as a poster of Brandon Lee in full Crow regalia glowered above us; or of my high school boyfriend, a long-haired chimera of a teenage boy who’d let me hang around and mash buttons at LAN parties in living rooms and basements.
Exploring every inch of the map is almost as satisfying as an editor finally returning my emails. It’s like when I first heard the Cocteau Twins and dismissed them as gibberish, only for their songs to snap into place years later, after they’d disbanded and Elizabeth Fraser gave up most public appearances. Symphony revealed itself to me like the shimmery waves of “Heaven or Las Vegas” just when I needed it.
OUT INTO THE WASTELAND
Over the years, I’ve toyed with more intense exposures to the Dead Dad genre. I’ve watched and rewatched his favorite movie, Blazing Saddles, which was one of two VHS tapes my parents owned in the ‘80s, the other being Yentl. I’ve even tried to watch a few John Wayne movies; for some reason, my father, the Depression-era Jew, really loved ol’ Marion.
But all I can do is wonder what he loved about them, why they made him laugh, how they resonated with him; all I can do is regret all the times I passed him in the living room on my way up to my room and my books and my NES instead of stopping to watch a black-and-white movie with him.
There might be another reason why video games are safe, and it’s not just because movie trailers can sneak cancer subplots in when you’re least expecting them. My dad, who was studying at the University of Chicago while the Atomic Age kicked off underneath his feet, had no interest in computers. Maybe, at best, my mom would make him read my emails from college—it was 1995, and I monopolized my dorm room’s landline with my incessantly rattling modem—or occasionally glance at the things I wrote, once I started writing things online for money.
But otherwise, he wouldn’t have anything to do with games. His office, as I remember it, never progressed past electric typewriters, which I loved to click and clack. Plus, John Wayne would never have deigned to play a video game. They’re so totally separate from that world that I can escape into them without fear of being reminded—not of the bad things at least.
Now that June is almost here, I can expect that the icky black pools of anxiety will recede a bit, or at least back to their normal levels of fuckery (until Father’s Day arrives, at least). Like any boss battle or endlessly infuriating platform jumper, the only way out of grief is through it. There are no shortcuts or cheat codes for that.
In any case, Bethesda is probably announcing Fallout 4 at E3 this month, so I’ll be strapping on my boots and heading out into the wasteland again soon enough.
Jenni Miller has interviewed everyone from One Direction to The Lizardman, traversed the tundra of Park City, visited movie sets, and reviewed too many movies, books, and video games to count. She has written about film, feminism, music, and various pop culture concerns for BUST, AV Club, Salon, Moviefone, Refinery29, The Cut, GQ.com, Vulture, and an assortment of other outlets online and in print. She tweets at @msjennimiller.