Healing with THAC0, Icewind Dale, and Silence
written by Dominique Thomas (@Afroductions)
Save. Pause. AltTab. Look up the next room’s loot drop options. Decide how much save scumming is reasonable for the one chance to get item X. Alt-Tab. Unpause. Enter. Rain unholy hell against the THAC0 system’s current mob. An overly complicated system of pausing selecting spells, targets unpausing waiting for animations to finish then, rinse and repeat all the while watching health bars and status effects.
Save scumming has come up a lot in the current meta discussion of gaming, but this is not a an article about that. This is a piece to continue the conversation about mental health, healing, meditation, and gaming; and how we can build safe spaces in our past, lose them, only to trip into them again when our footing fails us or path leaves us and the die falls on 1.
Save. In 2018, I started what I thought was my next life. It called for me to fundamentally alter my routine and travel habits and trust that someone was going to be in lock step with me now and into the future. At this juncture, I am a 33-year-old single father that has never been married or lived with a partner (already in therapy and yes it works). I don’t necessarily believe in a forever with one human… but I do hope that I find something that feels like the one and to be honest I had. Have? Still not sure what the correct tense is.
Pause. You know when you fall for each other simultaneously and neither of you can comprehend why or what is happening? That Hotel Transylvania Zing that Adam Sandler brought into my life, as it was my child’s first movie in a Theatre. That was us in a stranger’s yard talking about the world and our lives and loves till 3am until the morning dew chilled us back indoors. But that was years before my phone rang. Before entering another theatre to see Deadpool 2 and hearing the sentence “Can I stay with you for the weekend in a few weeks?”
Alt-Tab. Looking back on all this it was too much. We were dancing on coals, separated by distance and school; anchored by things that didn’t pull us apart but kept us apart for too long. Looking over the stats, like in any relationship and/or game. We were not hopeless. We had flipped from “Wrong Time Right Place” to “Right Time Wrong Place.” It happens. But there is no save state IRL. All you can do is right the ship and find out how you can serve each other better… Or if you can…
Alt-Tab. Canceled flights. Canceled plans. Empty space. I have never done well without data. Silence leaves too many options too many variables. One week passed… then another. Die hit 1; no save throw.
Unpause. “But what does this have to do with gaming?” Oh, dear gentle reader… You are right, so let’s get to it: When I was younger my family lived out on unincorporated land. Most still do, but that means we were years behind on most tech and didn’t even have internet until I was in high school. I used to save my duckets so that I could find some new game that would float under the DnD and magic the gathering censors that were my pseudo-satanic-panic family. Those would corrupt my soul, but if my dice were in a bag, or the brand was in the margins, the ban hammers narcoleptic eye would seem to miss it. I knew I could not bring Heroes of might and Magic III into the house. Holy hell would break loose if my family ever saw an Angel and Demon fighting on screen. What were these games teaching us? But maybe… I bought Icewind Dale. It lived under my bed for a week. Never knew who the game store clerk reported too. Then installed without a desktop icon. No one in the history of computing has scanned the Start Menu (and if you say you have you are a Cylon). CONFIRMED. The first 2 game sessions were trying to build my party. Everything custom, rerolling stat menus to get the most amount of points balancing, the voices so that the party sounded like they would adventure together, who would be my cleric and what race and aliment/what support class would I use (never a bard).
If you have played this game before and ditched the suggested team, you know this struggle and how brutal it can be if you just... wing it. ADnD was one of the most unforgiving rule sets known to gamekind. I never beat the game back then. I remember my first run in with trolls and not knowing how to keep them down till I just hit it with a fireball after wiping so many times. The idea of save scumming hadn’t come to me. The idea that inside chests, some chests was random loot. Without some the games difficulty ramps up quickly. The maps can be hard to read and waiting to see if your rouge can find the trap can fall off your radar until half of your team is asleep and getting murdered to death forever…. Maybe even five-ever. This was the game I played on the lowest volume after the rest of the house was asleep until I could just barley avoid falling face to keyboard and having my secret exposed. It was the most DnD I had ever played and by the time I had gotten so frustrated I uninstalled it I had integrated a large part of the one-liners barked by my 6 avatars into my everyday speech.
Enter. The phone goes dead in my hands. There is no sadness there is no rage. There is nothing. It is a sickening silence that envelopes me. I am a father. I have a full-time job. I have some things that never stop that don’t offer sick time or PTO. Bills that cannot go unpaid and a face that can’t see the depth of hurt I can endure. They will know this pain in their own time. Duty takes the wheel and I walk outside. There is no date, no time, just my next step. I wake up the next day. I make it to work. I perform my tasks; I cancel a flight. I tell my coworker and looking back only the echoes of that silence remain. It will take me weeks to find these words. “This is not the most hurt I have ever been. But I am just so tired of coming back to this place.” Like an autosave just after the moment of impact. The flash has hit but the bang is lagging behind. It has become too familiar, this silent void. But I am not there yet. I haven’t opened the chest to see what loot has fallen. I still have to…
Making it rain. I am an African American male born in 1985. Emotions were beaten out of me early and crying was for the weak. I never believed that wholly, but childhood training is hard to buck. I have found a hack. I cry at movies and shows. The Ditto episode of Pokémon and the Death of Big Bro in Gurren Lagann are 2 all-time classics. I try and cry once a week to better regulate myself as a human. As Kamina finally was able to take his long nap the distance between myself and my heart was only made clearer. There was nothing there. No one to work the little pump that made the tears fall. No one to make my chest heave. The little voice in my head. The one who makes sure I brush my teeth and wash myself was three blankets deep in a bed lost in a Silent space. During this ordeal I would drop nearly 30 pounds. My cuddler’s body looked like my mid-season high school wrestlers frame and the alarms that I have built in myself to keep those eating disorders at bay were silent.
Auto pilot had me open Steam one day while some talking heads were on stage. On sale was an old friend. Icewind Dale reached out to me from my past and something like a 7-minute install later that and its expansion were added to the long library of games. Unlike a large percentage of those poor souls this one was getting screen time. My first 2 sessions were spent building my squad using classes I had never in my past. STILL NEVER BARD. And even though they get so many unique items in the game I would rather dump points into katana then have a bard, sorry that is must my life. But these were the first actual choices I had made in some time. The depth I walked through had not lifted but there in the corner was one of my email inboxes. I emptied it, baby and bathwater. It was not an achievement it was just proof that there was still an outside world. In the first week I put in almost 60 hours into the game. Now half of that time is spent Alt-tabbing and save scumming my way into a playable position and getting totally wrecked by traps, but scum gotta scum and sleep traps gotta DIE IN AN ETERNAL PIT OF FIRE F*** YOU AND THE GOBLIN S***STAIN THAT SET YOU. Dark rooms. Sound off in most cases. Locked away from the world. I let my mind drift. Not the active part that was deciding if this +3 sword was enough to continue or if I needed to redo this room so that the chest would magically have +3 mace of HOLY DEATH AND MAGIC was worth the load screen and die rolls knowing that at any time a misspause, fat finger or fumble could make that run for naught. But that part of my mind that had lost hope no. Didn’t remember hope. I let it sit.
I never did not mean to heal. To meditate, to remember. It was a clever trick I played on myself remembering that gaming has never been an all escapist power fantasy for myself. Look at my X-Com saves. All Ironman. All losses. Preoccupied; I let that second processor, the one that hurts and feels, and processes search itself. It would often come to hours into a session having no solid memories of the game I had just played or the battles I just had. The Traps… Forever. But fire balling rooms and killing the spiders that limp out into your entangle and stop spells…. How many can you remember? I had given myself space to meditate and breath and rage and worry within the confines of my depression and at the end of chapter 4 In Dorn’s Deep I closed my laptop and wept. My body racked with self-loathing and doubt. I had finally caught up with my reality and it was crushing. I wanted to put it back under, but the dam of Silence had broken, and I was trapped under the weight of the life I had ignored and the feelings that were too much to accept. But It was no longer silent.
Depression is a very personal thing. I feel it takes forms personal to the individual. My depression has always been a hooded cloak, with no edges or clasp. Colorless and suffocating. It takes me and wears me before it evaporates. It has many different thicknesses. Somedays, it is so heavy and so sudden that I all but shut down. Unable to hear past the duty that anchors me. I hate it. It is a shoreless sea of my own creation and it is all too much.
That’s my story. This is where I am. Dates come and go. Events pass in a timeline I have no access too and I wake up ever day knowing that there is no save-state to scum off IRL. The drops in this room were all I got and while they look like common trash, they are undroppable, untradeable and I hope one day they will be precious to me. I am depressed, but it is not what keeps me from my life right. And I know that this is not the most hurt I have ever been. This is not the most depressed I have ever been. My friends and tools help me to center and focus, so that when I fall back into my silence, I won’t be lost for long. I finished the game. Beat the baddy and started the expansion… but I think I will save that for the next time I need space to overcome the silence.