As a kid born in a Dutch-Egyptian household, I’ve grown up with language all around me. Kids growing up in the Netherlands -a small European country that speaks Dutch, a language spoken by under 25 million people on Earth- are often taught Dutch and English as part of their basic education. In higher education they are taught French, and German, and in even higher education levels, students can opt for Classical Latin and Greek. On top of all those, I was taught Egyptian by my father, who immigrated to the Netherlands a decade before I was born.
When you’ve been using a language for all of your life, parts of it become natural enough that they are all but invisible to you. I was reminded of this early on in my relationship with my now-wife, who was born in the United States and is practicing her Dutch as her first, second language. She sometimes constructs sentences in way that are logically correct, but not correct Dutch. She will ask me questions about how to say something, and then ask me why that is correct. To my frustration, more often than not, I do not have a satisfying answer: That’s just how it is. At the same time, I’ve learned a lot about the oddities and history of my native language listening to her figuring out how to speak, read, and listen.
If you speak English as your first language, chances are that you speak more Dutch than you think. Pretty much every naval term - ship, sea, anchor, haven, river - are words the English language imported from the Germanic and Nordic tribes that lived in the linguistic crossroads that is now the Netherlands. As language evolved over thousands of years, sometimes from common roots, sometimes separately, ideas of sounds, phonemes, words, structures, grammars fragmented into smaller languages and mixed as people imported and exported words - first on a tribal level, but then as humanity started traveling the globe, on a global level.
My parents instilled in me a love of language and history throughout my life. As I was growing up, my father often shared his exhaustive knowledge of non-Western history - stories and perspectives of how the world came to be as it is that I was never taught at school. My mother could translate the strange words on the ancient churches of the Netherlands because she read Latin, and kept stacks of books on history and historical languages hidden under a cabinet in a room of our's when I was still too short a kid to see what was on top of the cabinet.
There has always been one language I control that I knew my parents do not, and it’s the language of computers. From childhood, I used the hand-me-down computers that our household could afford, and through MS-DOS terminals, games, and programming, I became fluent in computer long before I became fluent in English. By the time I was programming small interactive story games at age six, I could not translate the phrase ‘if-else’ if I tried, but I could write programs using those phrases without a second thought. MS-DOS commands like “REN” for rename, “DEL” for delete, and “CD” for change directory would not make sense to me as abbreviations for years, but they made total sense to me as command I could use to manipulate the computer. Over the years, my increasing fluency in English, math, electronics, and computers taught me the structure of a computer, and the words, concepts, structures, and grammars of using, manipulating, building, and programming these increasingly complex devices.
So where my parents taught me Dutch and Arabic, I tried to teach them just enough computer to use the devices properly. The truth is that in modern days, you don’t really have to be fluent in computers to use them - the devices are smart enough to do most of the heavy lifting for you when you try to communicate. While their computers, networks, TVs, mobile phones, tablets, and other such devices functioned properly, if something stopped working, I am usually the person that can fix them. My parents did a lot for me in raising me and ensuring I had opportunities in life. I really don’t mind fixing the Wi-Fi.
Everything but the heart of it
I’ve been a game developer for as long as I can remember, and professionally I’ve been the co-founder, manager, and programmer of independent games studio Vlambeer for almost a decade. We’re a small team, but our games have reached international success and acclaim, and I spend a majority of each year traveling to other game development communities around the world to learn, share knowledge, and assist in establishing creative industries in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Throughout those travels, I’ve met most of my current-day friends, colleagues, business partners, and my wife.
I visit my parents every weekend that I am in the Netherlands, and after a long trip, I return with the stories of my travels and the people I spent time with. One visit during the holiday season last year, I told my mother a story about visiting “Phil,” to which my mom inquired “Phil? Tibitoski? Or Fish? How’s Octodad doing?”, and it dawned on me -and it really shouldn’t have been a surprise- that my mother had been reading up on games news and industry news to stay in touch with what was happening in my life, and in the lives of the friends she heard me talk about so frequently.
I grinned, and halfway through my amusement I suddenly realised that while my mother could read up on the games news, there was another language that my mother did not speak: the language of games. For all her enthusiasm and knowledge of the medium, she had never once held a controller, or booted up a video game. We had been talking about games, the business, the people, and the stories and moments that impacted me for almost a decade, and my mother had nodded along understanding everything but the heart of it: the games themselves.
Thus, I decided to find my mother her first-ever videogame, to introduce her to one of my favorite languages. I was not interested in teaching her the language of games on her mobile phone, or board-game equivalents - I wanted to teach her the language of the games I grew up loving, the big games full of stories and worlds and characters, the games with twists and intrigue and interesting gameplay ideas. I wanted to start her on a Metal Gear Solid rather than a Spelltower, even though I adore both.
My mother is a huge fan of narratives like Lord of the Rings, the stories about a struggle against a primordial evil by a small group of reluctant heroes that meet through fate. Games, even though they’re coming up on a century of history, have retained most of their love and respect for the Dungeon & Dragons fantasy table-top games. If there’s one thing you can depend on, it is that the medium is overflowing with exactly that type of narrative, in that type of world. I presumed that a ‘realistic’ visual style would help, and that gratuitous violence against humans would be a no-go. That left far fewer games for consideration, and to my distress, most of them were complex and deep RPGs with infinite possibilities and menus.
One challenge I expected to face in selecting a game was nausea. My mother often complained about nausea while watching video game footage or trailers, and I had long ago established that first-person cameras seemed to cause her nausea much faster than third-person cameras did. I theorized that having a character to anchor the movement to might help, so the game had to be third-person.
While gamers often could control a character without ever even glancing at a controller, my mother had never controlled anything. Back in 2013, I had tried to teach a good friend to play Assassin's Creed II, a game that I considered deeply accessible, only to learn that navigating a character in 3D space with twin sticks is a skill that people aren’t inherently born with. She quit the game in frustration after dying for the hundredth time because she couldn’t turn towards an enemy fast enough. For my mom’s first game, I wouldn’t make that same mistake. I needed a game that would tolerate failure gracefully, a game that would mitigate inaccurate input in some way, and a game that didn’t have timed sequences or similar challenge-based failure states.
It just happened that I had finished a game that I absolutely adored that fit all these qualities: Final Fantasy XV - a story of a crown prince banished from his throne, his three friends, and road tripping through a world in peril. More importantly, I recalled that Final Fantasy XV does not actually require complex inputs, nor does it require players to maneuver the main character during combat. If you hold the attack button, main character Noctis automatically closes the distance between himself and the selected target before attacking continuously. If you hold the block button, Noctis will dodge, and automatically increase the distance between himself and the selected target. That evening, I booted the game back up and played around a bit with the settings and gameplay to see if I wasn’t misremembering anything, a difficulty that would get my mom to bounce off and reject games forever. To my relief, I indeed found two accessibility options convincing me that this game was perfect. In the Easy mode, getting a Game Over fully heals your character once a battle, and enabling the Wait Mode means that letting go of all controls pauses the game.
I went to a store and bought an Xbox One and a copy of Final Fantasy XV. The next time I visited her, I surprised her with the console, installed it, and explained to her how to turn it on. My mother expressed some disbelief that she would be playing a video game, and I reassured her that if she didn’t like it, I would simply take the Xbox One with me again, no hard feelings whatsoever.
The language of video games
In what would become a frequent scene over the next year, my mother sat on her living room couch, slightly tensed up and awkwardly holding the controller. I sat down on the other couch, just far away enough to stop her from passing on the controller to me to do the thing, just close enough to her to guide her when necessary. I explained about the left and right analog stick, the differences between bumpers and triggers, and the names of the buttons - and then I directed her to boot up Final Fantasy XV.
The first thing my mother ever thought about a video game was that Final Fantasy XV’s logo was gorgeous, and that it had a Jugendstil quality about it that she could absolutely appreciate. The second thing she ever thought about a video game was that the music of the main menu - the Somnus theme - was gorgeous too. We clicked “New Game”, and on January 21st of 2017, my mother started on her first video game.
Final Fantasy XV starts in media res, at one of the climatic battles at the end of the game. The game introduces Noctis Lucis Caelum, at which my mother giggled “is this man named ‘Night Light Sky?’”. I knew that that was what Noctis’ name translated to, but since overly literal Latin names are a Final Fantasy trope, I had not giggled at it. Noctis is in peril as he faces down some sort of fire giant, and while the scene is meant to be imposing, we spent the first few moments trying to establish how the left stick moves the character. The game then introduces Prompto Argentum (“Quick Silver”), Gladiolus Amicitia (“Blade of Friendship”), and Ignis Stupeo Scientia (“That makes no sense”) as Noctis’ friends fighting alongside him. The game then skips back an undetermined amount of time to the start of Noctis’ journey, when the group needs to get their car fixed.
To help with this, we find Cindy at a nearby garage. Cindy knows who Noctis is, and offers to fix the car in exchange for killing some critters that have been a pest to the garage. It then occurred to me that she had no sense of geometry, distance, or user interface, and that her every attempt to walk towards the objective was in a straight line, whether there were rocks in the way or not. She did not know how to read the terrain, and thus I coached her through by saying “left,” “right”, and “forward.” We then ran through the camera controls, and decided after a good fifteen minutes of messing around that we would only adjust the camera if absolutely necessary. Mom dispatched the enemies by holding the Attack button, and was quite impressed with her performance.
After completing the quest, Cindy returns the car to the team all fixed up, and offers a second opening quest of the game: to bring a box of goods over to the next village. It’s meant as a driving tutorial, explaining the systems of the car and the world map, and my mother promptly turned it down - “Absolutely not, I’m a prince, do it yourself”. I sat staring at the screen in surprised shock, and my mother looked at me and asked me “now what do I do?”
This was when I realized that I was witnessing something special: just like my wife creating Dutch sentences that are logically correct but not correct in the context of the language, my mother was playing games logically correctly, but not correct in the context of video games. She has no idea what a tutorial quest is, or why a crown prince would bother with the anonymous and unexplained box of some garage employee that just traded a car fix for dangerous pest control. This whole experiment was going to be both incredibly amusing, and incredibly informative. I decided to do what I always do when I realize something is either funny or interesting: I tweeted about it.
#momvsffxv became my place to share the insights and lessons from my mothers’ first encounter with games, and there were lessons aplenty. Over the months, it grew into an enormous thread full of incredible stories, and before long my mother was receiving fan-mail via my inbox.
Every visit, we’d stumble across an interesting misconception or problem. When I realized every time my mother tried to adjust the camera upwards, she’d accidentally move it downwards first, I set the game to inverted for her. My theory had always been that inversion preferences stemmed from genre preferences, but clearly my mother played inverted without any prior game experience. When a “Talk” prompt would show up, my mother would press the button, and when the conversation was over, the prompt would pop up again. My mother was not aware the prompt denoted an optional action, so she would follow the instructions on the screen and press the button again, and again, and again, and the exact same conversation would play over and over until the prompt didn’t show up again because she rotated the camera away from the conversation partner.
At first, she would only play when I was there during the weekend, but before long she would message me in the evenings after work when she was stuck or had questions.
One time, she asked “whether all games have this much walking,” and I realized she had walked enormous distances because she couldn’t find her car. When I reminded her that the map shows the car, she walked back without using the “fast travel” options in the menu that directly moves your character next to the car, because she had no idea that fast travel existed. When the game had originally explained how to use fast travel, it had not bothered to explain why you would want to use it. I had entirely avoided using fast-travel in Final Fantasy XV during my playthrough, and as such had failed to explain the concept to her as well.
One of the most astonishing moments came soon after the first encounter with the game's antagonist. This was a moment that I had grown excited for, as the character is portrayed with a tension between ‘chaotic antagonist’ and ‘surprise ally in the final act of the game’ in a way that clearly reads as such to experienced Final Fantasy players. The character has black clothes and an arm decoration that looks like a pointed wing, long purple hair, a fedora, a taunting voice, and that tilt of the head that Japanese character designers employ to denote madness, and his subtitles literally name him as ‘suspicious stranger.’ My curiosity was whether my mother would read that encounter similarly. The encounter happens in a remote location called ‘Galdin Quay,’ so when I received a text message that she had reach ‘Galdin Quay,’ I was sad that I wasn’t there to see her response in person, but excited to hear her thoughts.
“So, anything interesting happen?”
“Not really! Oh, I ran into a suspicious man.”
“Really? Do tell?”
“Well, he was wearing all black, and I didn’t trust him.”
“I think he tried to sell me guns. I ran away.”
She had not even made it to the actual encounter, because a little while before you run into the games’ suspicious stranger, you encounter a weapon and armor store. Like in most games, those stores are commonly denoted by a person that you interact with, and to most players, these characters have stopped reading as real characters and instead read as the abstract concept of a store. My mother’s experience, on the other hand, was that of running into a stranger on a street corner that tried to sell her a gun.
My mother ran into all the frustrations I would have in a game without too many complaints: a map marker not displaying that an objective is underground was no further hassle to her, because she had a hard time navigating anywhere with her limited ability to read the landscape, let alone without rotating the camera. It was clear that basic navigation was taking a lot of my mothers’ ability to process the action on the screen, as she could only handle movement, camera rotation, action, listening and looking at the world, and conversation as distinct tasks. If I tried to point her in a direction while walking, she would occasionally mix up left and right something I’ve never seen her do in real life, because pointing the stick in a direction took so much concentration.
By June, she had gained the ability to move the left and right stick at the same time, and she had met her first video game rival in hesitant antagonist Aranea. By now, she was routinely clearing dungeons, and the Easy mode stopping her from dying meant that her being perpetually under-leveled due to rejecting every single side-quest didn’t impede her progress.
Before I knew it, I got a text message from my mother showing Noctis and his friends abroad a ship in the open waters: my mother had - without any instruction or help - finished the open-world section of the game, and had placed Noctis and his entourage on the linear road to the ending. The story started to coalesce in her mind, as she approached the hinging point between the open-world and linear sections: an enormously impressive battle between Noctis and Leviathan, a sea dragon, amidst a giant whirlwind of water.
Five months into Final Fantasy XV, I realized that my mother had never used the warp strike, a crucial attack type that allows Noctis to deal extra damage by attacking from afar. The Leviathan fight was impossible, and it was the only time in the entire game that I took the controller to show her how something worked. After I made a few warp strikes, she took back the controller, and eventually felled Leviathan on her own. After the fight, she sheepishly admitted that she had bought some potions “just in case”, and I had to reassure her that that hadn’t been a waste of money.
Towards the end of the game, my mother also struggled with a number of sequences that had timers, and a two-minute driving sequence easily took her two whole hours to get right. In the middle of those two hours, she had her first ever rage-quit, shutting the game down after her latest attempt resulted in her crashing the car five seconds into the sequence.
During another timed sequence, Noctis is asked to abandon his friends and leave them fighting a never-ending onslaught of enemies to rush through a door before it closes. My mother made it through the door on the first try with under a second of time left, but the cutscene during which the door closes is apparently still on timer. That meant that as the door closed, she got a Game Over which she interpreted as having made the wrong choice. She spent the next six hours trying to fight the infinite onslaught of enemies as the timer kept triggering new Game Overs, until I nudged her towards trying the door again.
Final Fantasy XV jumps ten years into the future as Noctis sleeps gathering power to stop an eternal night that has fallen over the world. Noctis returns to the world at the same Galdin Quay that mom visited at the start of the game, something that is supposed to spur the players’ memory. It did absolutely nothing for my mother as her original visit to Galdin Quay was before she had learned to control the camera. During her first visit, she had mostly seen the floor or the sky, wildly swaying the camera up and down. Almost six months later, she was controlling the camera with a modicum of confidence.
Eventually, the game took us back to the first in media res sequence of the game. By then, Noctis has learned that the only way to return a new dawn is a self-sacrifice, something that my mother believed would not happen in a video game. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say ‘wow’ more often than in the last hour of Final Fantasy XV, whether it was the cutscenes, the screen-filling summons, the plot reveals and threads, the boss battles, or the eventual conclusion of the game. By the time the credits rolled, my mother had experienced something that felt real to her. My mom had played a video game, and she had loved seeing Noctis ascend the throne. When the Final Fantasy XV logo showed it’s final, post-game form, my mom loved it even more than she had done when she first commented on its Jugendstil influence.
We read the Twitter responses to the last post of #momvsffxv together, and told each other our favorite moments of the game, and discussed her thoughts and perspectives on having just finished her first video games. She took a photo of the ending screen, an overview of her adventure, and sent it to me to post to 'all the Twitter people'.
And then, after that photo had uploaded to Twitter, she asked for a new game.
One of the largest issues we had with Final Fantasy was that every time she got stuck, we had to wait until the next visit to resolve the bottleneck. After the game was over, we decided to switch her over to a PlayStation 4, because the system supports Share Play. That way, I could watch and explain things while watching remotely.
I replaced the Xbox One with a PlayStation 4, and to my mothers’ surprise, the device was entirely different. We spent the afternoon discussing her surprise to learn that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo weren’t all making games for the same device. While amongst this industry and the mediums’ enthusiasts many truths are assumed to be ubiquitous, the reality is that games still have an enormous part of the world to reach. The reality is that as a medium, we still throw massive assumptions about base knowledge at our audiences, and those assumptions keep games from being accessible to so many.
My mother asked if we could play Destiny, since my wife and I got engaged through the first game. I had told her the story of how my wife had worked with Destiny developer Bungie to hide a proposal in the game, and how she had proposed to me in the Tower - a central location in the game and the home of the protagonist of the game. My mother really wanted to visit this digital place that was so important to my life, but I decided that we’d wait a bit longer with a game played from a first-person perspective.
We picked a number of games as suggestions for my mother, all based around the idea of getting her to understand and engage with side-quests, and after showing her the trailers and explaining a bit of the game, we were left with the sprawling fantasy epic Dragon Age: Inquisition and Persona 5.
On July 17th, my mother started on Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I started on the hashtag #momvsdai. My hope was that Inquisition’s structure would force her to play more side-quests, as the protagonist in the game must gain the support of surrounding forces by helping them out in whatever way they can.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is also different from Final Fantasy XV in a crucial way: Final Fantasy XV is entirely linear, while Dragon Age is known for its long-term decisions and story branching, offering choices that can reverberate through your personal Dragon Age: Inquisition universe two sequels later. The choices also mean that the game uses Bioware’s recognizable “dialogue wheel”, a system that offers the player multiple ways to respond to any dialogue, and allows the game a way to offer appropriate consequences to the choices of the player.
My mom went into Dragon Age: Inquisition carrying the snark of Noctis. Really quickly she learned that the attitude of a know-it-all snarky prince did not work as well when you play a prisoner suspected of murdering one of the highest powers in the world during a peace conclave and someone who probably caused a rift in the heavens that spawns demons everywhere. After getting herself into a number of unfortunate situations, she decided to start being more diplomatic.
Before long, my mother’s Inquisitor was running through the world of Dragon Age solving every issue she came across. By now, she could walk through the game with two sticks navigating corners smoothly, and although verticality would remain an issue until the end of the game, she could now navigate anything but tight corridors with confidence. The biggest obstacles in Dragon Age: Inquisition were anything controlled through menus - inventory management and character development would remain an issue that required assistance every single time. Diplomacy and combat, however, came naturally. My mother negotiated, discussed, investigated, researched, and fought her way to solving the mystery and conflict of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The story often meandered, or asked for a lot of its players, and more often than not the complexities of the Dragon Age universe would elude my mother. She kept written notebooks to keep track of names and places she’d learn about, and kept a written quest log because she couldn’t consistently find the in-game one. Regardless, she went and solved the issues of any person she came across with her little crew of Cassandra, Varric, and Solas. Where at first, she would talk to everybody at Haven, later on, she got tired of talking to the same people to get the same conversation. By the time she had acquired the mountain fortress of Skyhold, she had started to focus exclusively on the world outside, instead of the characters closest to her.
Every weekend that I visited, my mother would’ve unlocked a new location, or a new major quest point. Sometimes, I'd find her finishing off a giant boss, while sometimes, I’d find her on her third day of trying to find a flower that didn’t grow in the area she was in. Either way, every week I’d find her playing on the PlayStation, and every week, she’d have a story to tell of her progress, the intrigues, or the little adventures she’d spent her last few days on. Some weeks, I’d watch her stumble and fail through quests that I’d consider incredibly straightforward, while another week, I watched her defeat Kaltenzahn - the second-most powerful High Dragon boss in the game - with relative ease.
Last week, I was checking my mothers’ PlayStation trophies, I noticed that she had just unlocked Doom Upon All the World, the trophy unlocked for beating the game. A moment later, I received a message from her saying she had finished Dragon Age: Inquisition after 268 hours spread over 150 days of playing. She had completely exhausted a majority of the areas in the game from quests, and after getting all the benefits of completing so much of Inquisition, she had disposed of the ultimate threat in the game without too much trouble.
As the final shot faded to black, her Inquisitor stood on her balcony in the mountaintop fortress that had been the Inquisition’s base of operations. Mom did not think there was time for getting romantically involved with any of the characters. There had been a world to save, after all.
I was there
Somewhere in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition, we ended up taking a short trip into the world of Destiny 2, because my mother really wanted to see the place of my engagement before my wedding. It turned out to be a prescient want: at my wedding, a game developer friend who was also attending asked her what she thought of the engagement being in Destiny’s Tower, and she proudly answered that ‘she’d been there.’
The journey from having never played a game to having played multiple games was full of little moments of understanding for both of us that I will treasure for life. There was the first time my mother got lost in the flow of a game, the ludic theory that a balance between challenge and skill creates a mental state that makes people lose track of time as they focus fully on the game. There was the cathartic moment of the quiet apology she made for all the times she pulled the plug on the computer when I was scrambling to find a save point at the end my daily computer allowance time. Most of all, it is her slowly evolving understanding of the structure, grammar, vocabulary, and phrases that make up the language of games - a language that I have loved for as long as I can remember, a language that I write, speak, read, and listen to for both my entertainment and my work. It is the language of the stories that I love, and the language of many of the characters and worlds that defined my childhood.
For my mom’s next game, we have decided that she will play Persona 5. I think changing the game style from real-time to turn-based will introduce my mom to the ubiquitous concepts of status ailments, elemental weaknesses and strengths, and critical hits. In preparation for the game, I took my family to see the Japanese animation movie Your Name. It was the first time my mother ever watched an anime, and as we walked out of the cinema, my mother looked at me and - after a short silence - she grinned.
“You completely forget that they’re just figures and drawings. The places and people become real, and you can really believe that they’re just like you and I, and you can feel what they feel. It’s clearly a lot of work and effort to make a movie like that, but it is magic.”
I nodded. There was a second of silence, a short hesitation in her response.
“I guess it’s a lot like video games,” she concluded.
“Yeah, I like to think so, mom.”
Rami Ismail is the Business & Development Guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, LUFTRAUSERS, Super Crate Box, GUN GODZ and Serious Sam: The Random Encounter.