These are the words every father must say at some point in his life. “Don’t worry about your schoolwork. This is more important.”
My 12-year-old puts aside his math and follows me into the living room. I sit on the couch and hand him the second player game controller. He smiles. Game on, bitches.
“OK, Dad. Where are you at?” he asks, a touch of superiority in his voice. I don’t like him to see me in a moment of weakness, and I have to remind myself that there is no shame in showing emotion.
“It’s the cave, son. I can’t get past the cave.”
“On it.” And like that, we jump into one of his video games.
During the quarantine, I have found myself with some extra free time. As a result, I have taken up one of the video games I gave him years ago. Some of you may have heard of it, ARK: Survival Evolved. A ferocious game with dinosaurs, and I think laser weapons. Although I’m not too sure about that last part. I’m pretty low level.
If I could only get past the cave, then maybe I could get some freaking lasers up in here. This is what my goal is while on lockdown. Lasers. I want freaking lasers. We begin to play together. He chaperones me into his world.
“You got to move faster, dad,” he says. Like that’s an easy thing for an old man such as me.
“I’m going fast!”
“Not fast enough.”
My character dies.
‘I am a child of Zelda!’
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“I know what I’m doing!” Kind of.
“It’s nothing more than dungeon crawling. Do you know what that is?” he asks.
“I am a child of Zelda! I was born into the 8-bit world of dungeons before you were even a thought!”
“Then you should be good at it.”
I die again. My character respawns. We’ve barely gone 10 feet inside the cave. That’s OK, I’m just finding my groove.
“You go first this time,” I tell him. I’m a strategist. Tactics are left for the foot soldiers. I command better from the rear. He races in on his finely tuned dinosaur beast and destroys everything. He motions me forward. A quick head nod. I follow.
For the next 30 minutes, we go into places that even Homer wouldn’t write about. The dark recesses of the video game world where monstrous creatures loom. I manage not to get my digital head ripped off.
“Where are you going?” he asks me when we get lost.
“I’m going to wander around a bit and find the way to the treasure,” I tell him.
“It’s an artifact, not a treasure. Shouldn’t we make a plan?”
“Whatever, Indiana Jones,” I say. “Wandering has worked well in my youth and it is going to work now. Have you ever played a game called E.T.?”
“That was a game?”
“We don’t talk about it, but yes. Trust me, I’m great at wandering around for hours.”
Arcade or living room — video games bind
We push on with him doing most of the work. Slowly, I start to help, and he yells encouraging things at me. Helpful statements such as, “Good job not getting eaten!” It sounds condescending until I look at him and can tell he really means it.
He knows he’s better than me at this game. I know it. But I also know something he doesn’t, which is bigger than the giant spider thing that almost eats my face.
I played video games with my dad growing up. Not a whole lot, but it’s a memory that sticks in my head. Galaga, the old faithful from my youth in the early ’80s. My dad took me to the arcade and would give me five dollars, which was a fortune to us back then. We would go round and round on that game. My father isn’t with me anymore, but that is the memory that I cling to the most when I think of him. His laugh and his smile. His high five when I had a good game or the feel of his hand on my shoulder. Sometimes games are more than just games. That is what us old school dungeon crawlers know.
We make it to the final room and the onslaught is epic. Battle music plays in the background. A giant snake comes at us. We flank and eat it with our beasts of war. Spiders, bats and then something hidden in water jumps at us. We scream and fight on. My son is out of his seat, jumping up and down. His face fierce with concentration. I watch him as much as I watch the game.
And then we have it. The treasure, the artifact, the thing we were after. Heroes, we exit the cave. Every digital step of the way, we relive the battle. My daughter walks through the room and my son tells her our epic story like a bard singing the hero’s tale.
We finish and collapse on the couch. Exhausted but triumphant.
“I gotta go do my math now, dad,” he says.
Then we stand, and he hugs me. A full-on hug. Not that half-hearted bro thing he’s been doing lately.
And there it is. That’s the treasure that I really wanted all along. That memory. Not just for me, but for him as well. He turns to walk away.
“Next cave is tomorrow,” I tell him.
“You bet!” he says, actually excited.
In my own head, I feel a hand on my shoulder and smile.