Florence and the Death of My Grandfather / by Caleb Sawyer

Florence by Mountains

It’s not without a significant amount of dread that I finally sat down to write this. It has been nearly four full months since my grandfather’s passing and in that time every pursuit of outlet through writing has been stymied by a stifling sort of existential dread and survivor’s syndrome. Though upon typing that I feel it is more accurately summed up by simply saying, for the last three months I have felt like a failure. 

See, I failed to become something before he passed. I have a hard time articulating that emotion eloquently. After all, I am a father and a husband, I have a job, and I do run a little (nearly inconsequential) blog. But see, that wasn’t my plan. I was supposed to have made it. He was supposed to see me, happy, writing game journalism, or voice acting, or making games. For a living. And now he’s dead.

When I sat in the ICU at SLU Hospital, playing a little mobile game was nothing more than a distraction. Mostly for my grandmother, but also a bit for me. My grandfather wasn’t doing well, but the thought of his death in mere days was so far out of my mind it is legitimately hard to tell if I actually didn’t see it coming or if I purposefully looked every other direction. Regardless, I booted up Florence on my iPhone 7 Plus, put one AirPod in, handed the second to my grandmother, handed her the phone, and said, “Play.” Completely unprovoked.

What followed was serene and escapist. We both lost our ability to focus on anything but the music and art of this beautiful experience projecting from the screen of my phone. 

Watching my grandmother, no stranger to games, fiddle around while figuring Florence out was endearing. She was a hardcore Destiny player, both titles, but playing touch-based phone games was clearly new. She giggled as she figured out how to brush Florence’s teeth, as she tapped away at Florence’s social media. 

Video games are a huge part of my family. We threw a viewing party for every major E3 conference this year. Beer, barbecue, dogs, the whole deal. My grandma really started playing in 2012. She had conquered Portal 2, a feat she was immensely proud of, and in searching for a good game to follow that up my uncle, Benjamin, sat her in front of the Xbox and queued up Mass Effect. She was a convert overnight. 

Bioware's Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Bioware's Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Since that time, my grandma has built an impressive resume of completed games. She beat the entire Mass Effect trilogy, Journey, each Half-Life, every Halo, Deus Ex, and put 14 days into the original Destiny. I have always found joy talking about games with my friends, but there is nothing quite like the feeling I get discussing PUBG hit-boxes with my grandma. I brag about it. A lot.

Florence plays like a modern take on an interactive storybook. You help move conversation along by fitting together pieces of a puzzle into a text bubble, you place stickers on childhood paintings. Most importantly, you live the relationship of Florence and Krish as it evolves. You watch it spark. Sputtering at first, as you put together five and six piece text bubble puzzles. You watch it begin to catch fire as the puzzles have two or three pieces. You fall in love as the puzzles become one piece thoughts. 

Florence is a beautiful game that illustrates the complexities of relationships in this winsome, carefree manner. Florence and Krish’s love is contagious. I distinctly remember looking to my left to see my grandma smiling as she placed the pictures of their adventures on a cork board map. It’s an infectious experience. One that carried us along with it, in shades of blue and golden yellow. Stooped over my phone, sharing a pair of AirPods we played, like a parent and child reading a bedtime story after a nightmare.

My grandfather never really got into games. Often times, when the conversation at the dinner table inevitably wandered into chat about Destiny or Mirror’s Edge, he would look at my wife, shrug, and they would start their own conversation. It was like tradition. But we were working on him.

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity (2014)

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity (2014)

Once, while I played Assassin’s Creed Unity, he stopped as he walked past the screen. He recognized the streets. As a boy he lived in Versailles and spent a lot of time in Paris. He sat down next to me, giddy, and pointed me down streets and alleys in search of his boyhood home. That night I sat next to a six-year-old boy in my grandfather’s sixty-year-old body. 

In my family, games run deep.

florence let go.jpeg

Florence isn’t all sunshine and love, unfortunately. The lovers settle into routine, let emotions bottle up, and before you know it the relationship falls apart. There was less joy in putting Krish’s things into boxes to be sent away. There is a moment, in this valley of the game, where Krish and Florence walk side-by-side through the snow. At first they hold pace, but slowly Florence begins to pull forward and Krish begins to fade into the white. The only thing my grandmother, as the player, could do was press on the screen. Florence slows her pace. Krish returns to focus. Each time she lifted her finger Florence would speed up. She kept pressing the screen. “I don’t want to let him go,” she said.

When I was a sophomore in college, in March of 2012, I decided to end my life. I was 20.

I had planned how, when, where. The place my depression had taken my mind obscured all other thoughts. I couldn’t see a reason to carry on. I hated my life, I hated myself, I hated that I was a burden on everyone around me. I remember kissing my girlfriend (now wife) goodbye as she left my room. She had no way of knowing what was happening in my head. I had gotten good at hiding it.

I shut the door, turned out the lights, flipped on Comedy Central, and waited for the right moment. Is there ever a right moment?

Before I found it someone knocked at my door. I could have just sat in the dark. It was late enough that no one would have given my being asleep a second thought, but I got up. It was my best friend Kristopher. He held out a copy of Skyrim, said, “Hey, I’m done with this. I think you’ll like it a lot,” and walked away. 

Bethesda's Skyrim (2011)

Bethesda's Skyrim (2011)

I played Skyrim until 9 a.m., went for breakfast, came back and played until he came by to get me for dinner. I put 97 hours into Skyrim over the next two weeks. I forgot to kill myself.

In my family, games run deep.

Florence’s world, during and immediately following Krish’s departure, gray-scales. All of the vibrant color washes out almost immediately. Then she stumbles across a set of paints that Krish bought her. She sits and stares at the set for a moment and begins to start painting.

The paint brings color back into her life and slowly but surely she finds happiness in her art. 

Nine days after my grandmother and I played Florence my grandfather died, his family gathered at his bedside, a bitter mix of disbelief and unfathomable pain. I remember my grandmother petting his head, “Fly away Timmy,’ she cried, “Fly away.” Images from those few moments fly through the View-Master in my head. They are raw and violent and painful. I think they always will be.

A painting of my grandfather Tim Sawyer, by my grandmother Christy.

A painting of my grandfather Tim Sawyer, by my grandmother Christy.

There is no way to explain the parallels Florence has had to my grandmother’s life. I spent the next ten days at her side, doing everything in my diminished strength to keep it together. To be there. To distract her. 

They were married for 48 years. You don’t just “distract” someone from that. 

But as we sat in (t)he(i)r house, now half-a-human-presence quieter, I looked at the art that covers her walls. All but three pieces are her own. I was immediately struck by the image of Florence finding her paints. Before I could say anything about my revelation my grandma quietly said, “I don’t want to let him go.”

It’s common for humans to draw comparisons to things that are far less similar than we realize. Florence’s story is not my grandmother’s story one-for-one, but large pieces are there. My grandparents loved each other. They traveled. They were happy. They argued. Things got rough. She loved his art so much that she didn’t pursue her own. He built her an art studio so she would. He’s gone now. 

She doesn’t want to let go. Someday she will have to pack his things into boxes. 

But now she has her art. Art that will someday help her move forward. Perhaps not move on, but certainly forward. Away from the gray.

Tim Sawyer

Tim Sawyer

When we finished playing Florence my grandmother and I each took a deep breath. There was something strange about the timing of all of this, we both realized. Within an hour, a game on my phone had spoken to us about love, sadness, grief, moving on, and being happy again.

In my family, games run deep.


Developer Mountains Website

Christy Sawyer's Twitter and Instagram, please check out her art.