How a father's gift brought sense to an uncertain life, from 'Zelda' to 'Elden Ring'
From Outset Island to the Lands Between, contributor Alexander Tuerk revisits departed family and vital memories of virtual worlds.
It's been a while since the last time we talked. Do you remember handing me my Gamecube, when I was six or seven? I can still see it there in its shrink-wrap. Two controllers and a game to boot. Your hands smelled like cigarettes there in the parking lot of a theater, my mom stood a couple feet behind us, and you were handing me magic from the trunk of a Ford, brushing lint off of the box. That moment, hot Maryland sun and all, glows like a lighthouse in my memory.
I mean, I was a kid. I didn't know how to interpret or even put words to the anxiety I felt, knowing it would be a month before I would see you again, bringing my Gamecube over to a friend's house and seeing both of their parents, laughing together. But when I had that controller in my hands, I felt capable. I didn't feel powerful or heroic — I felt capable.
You remember that Zelda game I told you about, probably a billion times over the phone? You're this kid, living on an island with your grandma, rounding up loose pigs and digging around for treasure. Then one day you get called to a higher cause. You find out there's a war between good and evil, the devil has returned, and you have to leave grandma behind, leave your island behind, and sail the open ocean in search of the key to victory against the shadow.
Pretty cool, right? And your boat talks, which is badass. Anyway, my mom and I were living with my actual grandma in our apartment at the time. It was at the top of a tall hill, where I used to muster the confidence to sled with the cool kids because the hill was just too steep to pass up on a snow day out of school. Grandma taught me how to ride a bike on that hill too, like how a bird pushes her chicks out of the nest, do-or-die.
Well, Mom worked the night shift at the time, treating shock trauma patients in Baltimore, so most evenings it was just me and Grandma eating borscht and dumplings together before I'd head over to my room and fire up my Gamecube. We had just moved here. I was lonely, and I didn't understand the world around me, but there I was in the game, a kid... with his grandma... and a call to adventure.
That's what I mean by feeling capable. The high seas in the game were scary, sure. But I had my strategy guide, I had my intuition, and I had the forgiveness of knowing that failure was just the first step on the road to victory.
Funny enough, Grandma says I learned more English from that strategy guide than the public education system. Anything can be your Rosetta Stone if you try hard enough, I suppose. But my point is, I felt capable in my games where I didn't in the upheaval of my young life. Then the rest of life comes along. I tried to turn to those virtual worlds again in college, when you died.
When I heard the news, I felt like that kid again, wondering why my mom was picking me up from kindergarten with her car packed full of our things. I remember sitting between two houseplants on the long ride to the apartment on the hill, knowing something had just changed forever.
When you died, I sank back into an old habit — World of Warcraft — thinking I could feel capable again. But where Zelda's open seas felt exciting, the world outside just felt like a reflection of my own uncertainty. What are the most optimized routes to get to level whatever? The most optimized gear and setups and skills? But where was I going? What was the point of this character, this bunch of data, achieving anything? What was the point of my college education, my internships that I fought so hard for and then never wanted to attend?
I stepped away from video games for a while. Something always felt missing, because I grew up through those years in the apartment on the hill with that cherished memory of the shrink-wrapped Gamecube.
But hey, the reason I'm writing to you is that... I feel capable in a game again. You'd like it. It's real hard. Instead of this kid and his grandma, you're a knight fighting to become lord in this dangerous land of horrors and monsters.
But it wasn't like I ran away into this game to escape what was happening in my life. I left my big radio job, and now I'm working at a farmer's market and doing some writing on the side. I don't feel like that kid between the houseplants, or that junior in college finding out his father was gone. I feel capable every morning. It's enough just being a twenty-something.
I don't have a strategy guide for this game, either. I had to fight a bear to even get a scrap of a map, so I could figure out where I was. I have been slashed and poisoned and sat on and eaten. I have had to keep my yells of frustration down to a minimum somewhere shy of 3 AM. But I know that failure isn't a lack of capability. I can see that now. Capability isn't succeeding or failing, it's failing until you succeed.
So in this game, when I hit a dragon that absolutely hands my ass to me, I don't feel sidetracked or purposeless. The challenge is the purpose. The journey is growth. I see that now. I just didn't know how much of a challenge it would be not to have you here.
Anyway, I hope you're doing well. I still play my Gamecube sometimes. Talk again soon.
Alexander Tuerk is a freelance writer living in Boston, MA. He grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, and went to the University of Maryland. Can be seen chasing his hamster around the apartment and doing pitch-perfect impressions of all the Seinfeld characters.
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