Ayden's Story - Pursuing My True Self

A Story by Ayden Thow, DaBR Journalist

I don't quite recall the music, but the visual of that dimly lit entrance in Castlevania 2 always stayed in my mind. Although I was too young at the time to be any good, I would replay that first level over and over, attempting to dodge bats as I ascended the first tower. I lost count of how many times I tried before the game would crash or my father would step in and take over.

I didn't play video games in earnest until years after my parents divorced and my brother and I received a used Sega Genesis. While we only had the one game, the nearby video-rental store had a bevy of choices for us. We would run there every weekend to rent Sonic 1 and 2 over and over again. My brother never had the patience for Chemical Plant Zone 2’s final stretch so if I was nearby it always became my responsibility. It was one of the few times we weren't bickering at that age.

It was in middle and high school that I developed the gaming trends I still hold today. While I was consistently late to the console party, my friend's parents always kept him well-equipped. It was on his PlayStation 2 that I played the game that hooked me to the medium: Final Fantasy X. As a child, I was an avid consumer of stories and had an overactive imagination so the notion that I could interact with fictional characters, swing swords, and throw spells blew my prepubescent mind.

Although I had only played a random part midway through the story, I would daydream about that moment every day until I finally got my own PlayStation 2. Final Fantasy X was the first game I purchased and I played it fervently. My sessions would last for hours, sitting a foot away from a small box television perched next to the dining table in our kitchen. My mother would regularly shoo me away to prepare dinner and I would cross my fingers the whole time we ate, hoping no one accidentally bumped the console and turned it off.

By the time I had beaten the game, my friends were long over it and had moved onto more contemporary titles. My heart was still in Spira though, held by fictional characters in a way I didn't think possible. Their loyalty and compassion for one another moved me. I wanted that in my life; I wanted my loyalty to be appreciated and to be valued for my skills.

This was easier said than done, unfortunately, as high school was a challenge. The bullying and insecurity I experienced made it hard to stand up for myself. As such, I would often come across as meek despite physically towering over everyone on account of my height and weight. But – after a stressful day – I could escape to Spira, Ivalice, or Auldrant and be among people who appeared to respect “me”. It felt like I had the agency to take charge of my life. I knew it wasn't real, but the feeling surely was.

In Grade 11, after countless digital adventures and as many instances of cruelty from some of my real-life peers, I played a game that would change my life. I had never resonated with a story as I did then, nor do I think I have felt so strongly about anything since. At a time when I felt alone and frustrated with life, I found companionship and hope in a fictitious Japanese countryside.

“We're all trapped in a maze of relationships; life goes on with or without you; I swim in a sea of the unconscious; I'll search for your heart, pursuing my true self.” My heart stirs every time I hear that song. It’s that feeling when you're about to see an old friend; that loving anticipation, that bubbling excitement. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 spoke to me so deeply when I thought no one was listening. With its message of accepting yourself and not allowing falsehoods to cloud your mind, it said if you could accomplish that you would gain the power to face life's hardships.

I easily mapped myself onto the nameless protagonist and delighted in the characters I grew to intimately know. They seemed to know me in a way too, or at least knew my pain. Like Yukiko, I was torn between what I wanted and what my family wanted of me; Like Kanji, I struggled with my masculinity; like Naoto, I knew the strain of oppressive gender norms. Although I did not come out until years later, my experience with these narratives broadened my mind in a way my relatively cis-gendered and heteronormative environment did not. I still remember reminding myself: “this is my true self and I'm stronger for accepting it” before telling my parents.

Looking back, Persona taught me compassion; Persona taught me the true power of meaningful relationships. It is what showed me everyone has parts of themselves they don't like, and it is what made me realize there is untold strength in accepting yourself. I am not sure how long it would have taken me to learn these lessons without visiting Inaba.

My experience with video games such as Final Fantasy X and Persona 4 is why I value games. The various realities I've been in, the myriad characters I've come across, the underlying morals they've shared with me; they've taught me empathy and helped me cope with challenges I would no doubt still be struggling with. Through games those who feel marginalized can find strength in making choices and experiencing pure agency.

This is why video games are important. They give players the chance to put another's shoes on and experience pain and joy, loss and power. This gives players the chance to develop empathy and confidence in a world that seems increasingly devoid of such traits. I don't know of any medium which does this more effectively.