My mom used to read picture books to me, like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. The whimsical stories transported me to places where fun and magic were as abundant as air. Through her retellings, snuggled in my Minnie Mouse comforter, these worlds influenced my dreams. I looked forward to our nightly adventures to Where the Sidewalk Ends or to see The Lorax. It was the last time I felt safe in my mother’s arms. I longed to find that space of comfort and safety again—eventually, I was able to find that same sense of enchantment and refuge in video games.

Content Warning: This piece discusses addiction and familial abuse.

As I got older and our lives busier, she refused to read with me until it stopped happening altogether. I found myself chasing that place, those moments of love and safety. Trying desperately to fit into the puzzle of my family, because I was a rounded corner, and they were sharp edges. I no longer had picture books with my mom, my two older brothers bullied me, and my dad was devoid of any emotion other than contempt.

I often hid alone in one of the back rooms, quietly playing Nintendo in an attempt to be forgotten. It was there that I was able to find refuge by playing video games. I continued to search for a connection with my family, and at the time I couldn’t see it, but I found moments to play and bond with my brothers while playing video games.

Characters like Link fighting against evil gave me solace. His heroic defeat of Skull Kid in Majora’s Mask gave me a tangible way to defeat my own horrors. It gave me hope. I can see my brothers as Tatl and Tael: outcasts struggling to find their place. My parents, the evil sealed within Majora’s Mask, corrupting Skull Kid. They took their power and used it to cause pain. They are hurt people wanting to hurt people to make themselves feel better. It’s a vicious cycle.

I yearned for that connection that I wasn’t getting from my parents. I was so hungry for it. My parents didn’t like me, and my brothers were nasty jerks. The times when we played video games together were the only times that I felt a connection between my brothers and myself.

Middle school is rough for everyone, but that time was volatile for me. It was the starting point of my life changing. Not only because I evolved from a child to an adult, but because my foundation of safety at home began to crumble. My parents were fighting continuously and starting to drink more and more. One night, I asked my mom if she would read to me. Irritated, she told me no and to Get. To. Bed. She went to her room, slamming the door shut while she and my father screamed at each other so intensely the walls rattled. I equate that moment with when my childhood ended.

I went to my brother, Shane, with my blanket and asked if I could sleep in his room. I expected him to yell, “Get out!” with his typical casual nastiness, but he didn’t.

Instead, he said, “Of course,” in an unusually soft and kind voice.

I can see my brothers as Tatl and Tael: outcasts struggling to find their place. My parents, the evil sealed within Majora’s Mask, corrupting Skull Kid.

I positioned his mushroom chair so that it was tilted up like a bowl and I hopped in. I liked sitting in it this way. Wrapped up in my blanket, I felt like I was in a cozy nest. We chatted together for a long while. I’ll never forget it, because it was also the night we first played Majora’s Mask. I had sat and watched them play through the entirety of Ocarina of Time—aside from when I came home from a friend’s house to find out that they had beaten the final boss without me. My heart was broken, and I bawled my eyes out. My grandma forced them to play through it again with me there, but it wasn’t the same.

Shane and I kept talking, trying to ignore the screaming a few doors down. My mother stormed out of her room and we became silent. When she discovered I was in Shane’s room, she grabbed me by the arm, yelling, “What the hell are you doing in here?”

“I was scared,” I said, with a sob already building in my throat.

“Get in your bed, now!” She dragged me roughly into my room.

I cried myself to sleep that night. Wondering what I did to make Mom so upset with me. Why couldn’t we just go back to reading together, just her and I? And just like that, she was gone from me. She and my father were lost to their agony, unwilling to break apart, instead losing themselves to alcohol. The security that I was trying to hold on to was ripped out from underneath me, and with each passing year, it got worse and worse.

I was the only girl among brothers. I was talked over and put down continuously. If my brothers were talking to my father, they would literally just ignore or talk over me. My father always referred to me in the third person. He would ask my mom questions about me when I was standing right there instead of directing them to me. I felt invisible. I was ridiculed for things I found joy in. My opinions were invalidated, my emotions dismissed or exploited. I learned over time that it was best to be quiet and distant. Then I was called an arrogant bitch.

It’s hard to not be seen by your family. They don’t know me at all. They have a construct that is me and I can’t change it. I’m fixed. So, I have to put it aside and let them think whatever they want. Who I am is misspelled in permanent ink, and no amount of scrubbing on my end will change that. It just makes me frustrated and exhausted. As a child, I was up against a force as oppressive as Majora’s Mask. I could conform to it; be bent to its will, or rise above it like Link.

My brother Kris is six years older than me. He was in college when I was in middle school. He would come home on the weekends when he wasn’t busy with college life and needed to get some laundry done. Every so often over a span of six months or so, he would come home for the weekend and play Majora’s Mask with me. We didn’t get along very well. My memories consist mostly of him being diabolical. He’d tell me that there was a monster who would come out of the mirror if I took too long on the toilet, until I was terrified of going to the bathroom. Or he’d tell me that he was finally going to let me shoot his paintball gun, only then to actually tell me to run right when I got outside, making me his target practice. I ran as fast as I could while crying hysterically. These things I can look back on and find some humor in; other things not so much.

I see now that Kris must have wanted to have something for us to do together. Some way for the two of us to bond. I loved Zelda and so did he. I can see that, with our emotionally deprived upbringing, he wasn’t able to show emotion in a healthy way. I can’t think of a time that we ever did this again. Sure, we’ve played some two-player games together over the last 20 years, but never again was there this dedicated space or time for the two of us to play through a game. I was the guide. I had the Prima Official Strategy Guide in my hands and told him where to go next. You might think that this is a noob thing to do, to which I invite you to play through Majora’s Mask without help. I remember Kris getting mad at me for not upholding my guide duties as well as I could, yelling, and throwing the controller. I even messed up our save data at one point. Yet most of what I remember is having fun with my big brother. I was so excited when he came home for the weekend. I can still see it so vividly—the two of us sitting on the floor in our living room with a graveyard of Coke cans and Cheetos bags around us.

A screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask showing the Skull Kid huddling with Tael and Tatl for warmth. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Nintendo, 2000. Image from: https://zelda.fandom.com/wiki/Gallery:Skull_Kid?file=Skull_Kid_Huddle.png

Like Tatl and Tael, my brothers were influenced by being mistreated, and perhaps their bullying came from not knowing how to show love or to receive it. Despite their hearts being in the right place, they were tormented by the oppression of our household. They were too caught up in it to see a way out. Just like Tatl and Tael, things had progressed too far, and they felt now like they too were just bad guys in a bad world.

My brothers bullied and tormented me. They influenced my self-worth and how I saw myself in society. I never willingly shared my opinions or my interests without making sure it was what other people liked first. I was submissive and defaulted to fawning. It was a pretty effective way to survive, but it wasn’t pleasant and I’ve had to spend years trying to suss out who I am and to be confident enough to share what I love with other people without the constant fear of rejection. I have plenty of reasons to be spiteful and angry with my brothers, but I’m not. They were victims too. I think that playing games like Majora’s Mask gave me the opportunity to not see the world in black and white. There is no duality when it comes to right and wrong, good and evil. Skull Kid, Tatl, and Tael were all victims. They made bad choices because of their bad circumstances, but if Link didn’t give Tatl a chance at redemption, he would never have been able to defeat Skull Kid. Majora’s Mask gave me a lens of compassion to see my brothers through. It gave me a comparison of my situation and the opportunity to be like Link and to see the good in people when it’s there, even if it’s hidden behind a mask.

My father constantly reminded me that video games weren’t for girls and that someday I would need to grow up. From a young age, I was scolded and ridiculed for partaking in anything childlike. My brothers had been conditioned to be “men,” and being a girl didn’t save me from that fate. My parents are rodeo people, and that style of living is not the romanticized fictitious portrayal. I was often told to “cowboy up” when dealing with pain or emotions, forced to wear clothes that didn’t align with my personality, and exposed to people and a lifestyle that I had a fervent aversion toward. It’s hard to figure out who you are when you are constantly at odds with yourself. I felt like my parents were trying to shove me into a box that I just didn’t fit in.

We would often travel across Montana to visit family. I would stay at my cousin’s house—three girls all around my age. We would stay up late playing Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and 50-rounders of Mario Party. These games were viewed as too childish by my brothers, and they were the ones who got to pick which games came into the house. I didn’t get my own GameCube until well after it had come out, because my brothers didn’t want one.

My dad spoke viciously about my cousins, mocking them for liking to color and play with paper dolls. It made it hard for me to participate in those activities. I enjoyed coloring, and paper dolls are rad, but I had this underlying nagging feeling that I was doing something wrong, almost perverse. My mother would talk badly about their parents being overprotective and crazy. They were a bit overboard—the girls weren’t allowed to play Ocarina of Time because Ganondorf looked too scary. They weren’t allowed to have caffeine, which also upset my mom. It is bad for developing brains, and what does it matter to her? Despite their disapproval, I relished the opportunity to play GameCube at their house and to discover game series that I love without any judgment.

I have plenty of reasons to be spiteful and angry with my brothers, but I’m not. They were victims too. I think that playing games like Majora’s Mask gave me the opportunity to not see the world in black and white.

My parents were judgmental to the extreme about everyone, and their hatred for me playing video games might have been another reason I found myself playing alone in my room. My father would make fun of me in front of other adults, always ending by saying he hoped I’d grow out of it. He’d become angry if he came home and I was playing a game on the living room TV, screaming that this was his house and he didn’t work all day to come home and not be able to watch his TV.

I still struggle being around people because I think that every person is scrutinizing every tiny detail about me, thinking that everything I say is moronic or childish. I loved going to my cousins’. It was a safe space. I could be myself in a lot of ways, but I also always felt this sense of not being good enough to be around them, which wasn’t their fault—it was those voices from my family in the background, telling me that I shouldn’t enjoy childlike things or that the way in which these people perceive me would be too deviant. I often felt that I was the “bad kid.”

My cousins weren’t the perfect family by any means, but they were loving. And at times I hated it. I wanted to be a part of it while also being upset by it. I think the hardest part was thinking I wasn’t deserving of that love. Video games were a crutch for me, a way to interact with them when I didn’t know how to be. I honestly still struggle. I’m really close with them—they are my family—but sometimes those old voices pop into my head and tell me that I am unlovable and that I am taking up too much space.

But we still get together for Mario Party nights.

I still use video games to help me through the difficulties of life. I don’t know that I would have survived my last breakup without Resident Evil 2: Remake and Final Fantasy VII: Remake. I’m a big fan of both series and loved getting a chance to play through them in reimagined ways. It has a level of cozy, nostalgic comfort. After a hard day of work, I fall back on old favorites like Paper Mario and Wind Waker—games I know by heart and that feel like an old friend. They are like the stories from my childhood, when I was cozied in my bed reading Dr. Seuss. Even though I’m fighting zombies, I feel like I’m wrapped up in safe, comforting arms.

After a hard day of work, I fall back on old favorites like Paper Mario and Wind Waker—games I know by heart and that feel like an old friend. They are like the stories from my childhood, when I was cozied in my bed reading Dr. Seuss.

Sometimes I feel stuck in that house of my childhood, trying to learn how to love myself, trying to figure out how to let others love me. Figuring out how to develop a mind that isn’t critical of myself and letting go of the fear I’ve held on to for decades. I used stories and games as a way of escaping the turmoil I was in. That is a reason that The Legend of Zelda resonated so strongly with me. I not only enjoyed the gameplay, but was absorbed in the world and the lore of Hyrule. I am now a writer and accredit my love of creating new worlds and fantastical situations to the sanctuary I found in video games. When I am creating a world, I think of it like a video game and explore it in my mind before moving it onto the page.

While I work through how to piece myself together in the aftermath of trauma, I lean heavily on video games. I struggle with CPTSD and anxiety, and when I’m having a particularly bad day, The Legend of Zelda is always there for me. I don’t only use video games for comfort. I find them to be a great way to connect with new people and to upkeep long-distance friendships. Playing together was the only time I felt a connection with my brothers, and it was a place of sanctuary with my cousins. Now, when I play those games from my childhood I experience feelings of calm and happiness. I experience love.