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My father and I share the same twisted sense of humor. It's great when we want to talk to each other exclusively in quotes from Airplane! and Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, but it's less ideal when he's trying to convey serious news. When he called me last February to tell me my mother had suffered a terrible accident, I had to ask him "are you shitting me" three times.
He was not shitting me. My mother had slipped on some icy stairs at work and descended the hard way. She'd bashed her head no less than ten times on the journey down, and she was unconscious in a trauma ward.
Maybe it's a little juvenile, but I keep time in my life according to the games I play. Not exclusively, of course, but occasionally a game I play wraps around personal events and the two become inseparable. I played Final Fantasy 6 during my first year of high school. I played Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters while healing from a personal breakdown. And I happened to tuck into Red Dead Redemption 2 shortly before my family was turned upside-down by The Event. That's how I learned games can be a comfort during stressful times, but they can easily compound your worries when you notice parallels between the narrative and the less-than-awesome things going on in your life.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was our pick for 2018's Game of the Year, but I was a little late to the party. I was on the Pokemon Let's Go review around the time Red Dead Redemption 2 hit the market, and I had no immediate plans to play through Arthur Morgan's Bogus Journey. I hadn't played the original Red Dead Redemption, and I'm generally not a huge fan of Rockstar's games.
I can't remember when or why I relented and spent an entire day downloading Red Dead Redemption 2. It might've had something to do with the fact all my women friends gushed about the game's heartfelt story and characters—something I still don't think Red Dead Redemption 2 gets enough credit for. All my deepest discussions about the game have been with other women. I guess there's just something about Arthur's slow, agonizing heartbreak that makes us sigh. That said, I think I'm the only person who can say they felt their stomach turn at a specific scene involving head trauma. Someone fetch me a trophy.
Mild spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2's plot follow!
Here's what my mother's accident taught me about the human brain: we know nothing about the human brain. The neurologists assigned to my mother, some of the best in North America, admitted it was impossible to predict how she would be affected in the long-term. Ironically, it's much easier to rehabilitate someone suffering from a stroke than someone suffering from multiple concussions (my mother's diagnosis) because strokes affect very specific parts of the brain. But when your brain starts bleeding, the Wheel of Fortune starts turning. You don't need a PhD to understand the brain is a treacherous, bitchy blob of electrical fat.
Hospitals are terrible and boring. There are only so many hours you can spend staring at your unconscious mother while declaring "Oh, man, this sucks." Whenever I retreated home for the day, I turned on my PlayStation 4 and watched Arthur Morgan's life fall apart. Misery loves company—and horse theft.
But then Red Dead Redemption 2 suddenly took its arm off my shoulders and said, "Hey Nadia, let me show you something really fucked-up!" I was deep into chapter 4's "Urban Pleasures" storyline, wherein Arthur and the gang attempt a bank heist that goes to hell. The crew tries to make its escape via one of Saint Denis' trolleys, which tips over—and causes Dutch to bang his head very badly.
"Well," I said. "This is certainly relevant to current events in my life."
That's when my mother and Dutch Van der Linde started a great journey together, though neither knew it. While Dutch gradually became more unpredictable and unhinged, my mother answered, "Uh, 2022?" when she regained consciousness and the trauma ward nurses asked her what year it was. She was assigned to a rehabilitation hospital for six weeks, and we were warned anything could happen. She might never regain all her faculties. Her mood, her very personality, might change significantly.
"That's understandable," I said, recalling countless cutscenes where post-accident Dutch's increasing hostility and suspicions gradually tore Arthur and his adopted family apart. Admittedly, Dutch isn't the most rational human being before his accident, and his big dreams and bad decisions land the Van der Linde gang in hot water even before the game starts in earnest. But after he rattles his brain, Dutch turns mean and flighty—a very bad combination. Dutch's single-minded obsession with seizing one big opportunity is what strands the gang in the snowbound Grizzlies in the first hours of the game, but there's never any doubt he loves his ragtag family of society's cast-offs. After the accident, Dutch turns on the people he loves, watches them die one by one, and refuses to mourn them because doing so will get in the way of "The Plan" that always dissolves, always ends in ruin.
My mother didn't rustle cattle or rob trains or draw out elaborate plans for scoring quick wealth, but I admit I thought about Dutch's mood change for a long time. For better or worse, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers an excellent portrayal of how a leader's trauma can rip a family—any family—apart.
I'm happy to say my mother's path gradually diverged from Dutch's. She did well with rehabilitation—though she's still an outpatient and will be for a long time. She still can't walk without assistance because her balance is wrecked, and her short-term memory is still far from perfect. She also suffered a setback this summer when a massive seizure sent her back to the hospital, but she's taking more steps forward than back. In any case, I can confidently say she's not subjecting us to sudden episodes of violence while making crazy promises about growing mangoes in Tahiti. That's what matters.
Grief and panic usually work slowly on me. It might be because I was a pet groomer for ten years, and you learn to calmly say, "OK, first, can someone please get me a towel?" when a wet cat latches onto your arm with its teeth and refuses to let go. Panic accomplishes nothing in emergencies. But the impact always hits eventually, and in the case of my mother's accident, I'm glad I had Red Dead Redemption 2's trauma subplot to walk me through it. It was frightening to have the game stare directly in my face and say "Hi," but that elevated it from a mere game to one of my "personal experiences" alongside Final Fantasy 6 and The Ur-Quan Masters. I'd rather not suffer the traumas that lead us to bond with games and other media in special ways, but life is full of tragedies and icy staircases that some dingdong neglected to salt properly. I'll take what I can get.
By the way, if you want another example of how weird the human brain is: I visited my mother in the hospital after her seizure, and she suddenly asked me if I remembered the secret stash you can access before fighting Dracula in Super Castlevania 4. She hasn't seen me play the game in literal decades and she's never talked about it, but she dredged up an obscure fact out of nowhere while lying in a hospital bed.
Brain, what is your deal? You're scary, man.