John Hathaway's father was a big fan of the Diablo-style action RPG Grim Dawn. He liked it so much that during an emergency room visit, he left the game running. In November, Lee Hathaway died of lung cancer. Upon hearing the news, the developers of Grim Dawn decided to put Lee into the game.
Diablo was one of those rare games John could play with his father, so he backed back the 2012 Kickstarter for Grim Dawn, which raised more than $US500,000 ($703,136).
"Once he activated his key he never stopped playing," John wrote in a forum post on the game's official message board. "Every time a new feature would roll out he would delete all his characters and start over to experience the new content and let me know what I had to look forward to."
Lung cancer is a fucker, which meant Lee was in and out of the hospital. The first time, though, is when he decided to leave the computer on at home.
(As someone who recently left their Wii U running all day and night, I get it.)
"Apparently he had cleared a bunch of the current map and didn't want to lose his progress," John told me in an email. "It ran the entire week so every morning when I booted my computers for work I'd see his steam account still logged in to the game. I asked him when I visited his hospital room if he wanted me to stop by and log out but he said he wanted to finish what he was doing."
It was a week before Lee made it home, but the game stayed on, and he finished the quest. This was the last time he logged into Grim Dawn; the hospital stays became more frequent.
When John would visit the hospital, he'd bring an iPad. Lee didn't want to check Facebook or see what was on the news. Instead, Lee would log into the Grim Dawn forums to see when the next update was coming and what might change.
"He was mad he couldn't see the 'new since you were last here' posts because he wasn't on his own machine," said John.
Lee, who went by Zedlee in the game, typically played as a soldier with a sword because "he just liked wading into the fray and smashing stuff up."
When John's son would visit his grandfather, he'd sit and watch him play.
On November 2, Lee Hathaway passed away. The next day, John wrote his forum post, thanking the developers for the joy their game had brought his father.
"I just want to pass along my heart felt thanks for the game you have made because it was honestly such a happy bright spot for him," said John, who signed the post as "Zedlee's son." "This is the one game where the only complaint was that he played the newest content too fast and was just eager to play more. It will always be one of my happiest memories of him and I owe Crate [the developer] for basically making the perfect game for my father."
John planned to play through the game again with this son — as as soldier, naturally — to pay tribute.
Less than an hour later, Grim Dawn designer Kamil Marczewski replied.
"Thank you for sharing this story with us," said Marczewski. "It is truly inspiring to hear that our work can touch a person in such a way. We are glad that we could brighten up your father's last days. As a small token...I wish to present you with this."
"This," as it turned out, was turning Zedlee into a guard within Grim Dawn.
"Praetorian Zedlee will be forever on guard duty at Homestead," said Marczewski, "as an honorable member of the Black Legion."
Praetorian Zedlee was scheduled for the game's next update.
When Crate manager Arthur Bruno saw the forum post, he was deeply moved.
"I mean, this guy apparently loved our game and was fighting cancer for a long time but I knew neither of those things until he was gone," said Bruno. "Even though Zedlee apparently followed the game closely, he rarely posted, so I had no way of knowing what he was going through."
Bruno only wishes he could have given Lee beta access to see the new material Crate was working on. That content was released only weeks after Lee passed.
"Occasionally I wonder if I'm contributing anything positive to the world through my work or just creating time-wasting entertainment," said Bruno. "Then once in a while we'll get a heart-felt message like that one and it helps to put things into perspective. While we're not curing disease or making any sort of meaningful sacrifice in creating games, it is good to know, at least sometimes, it's not just time-wasting entertainment and gives people some relief from the daily struggle or the dark times we have to endure in life. It was incredible to learn that our game meant so much to this family and that it was able to provide a bit of joy in a difficult time."
The post made the rounds at Crate, and everyone felt compelled to do...something. Bruno suggested adding Zedlee to the game in some capacity, but one of the designers had already beat him to it, renaming an in-game NPC. The NPC, Praetorian Zedlee, looks like a soldier on purpose. That, too, is a tribute.
Praetorian Zedlee even has some unique dialogue, so "you have reason to keep talking to him each time you pass."
"My family lost a loved one not long ago, in a similar way," said Bruno.
"It's a tough thing to lose a parent, even as an adult. When you're younger, you assume they will be around forever and it's only once you have kids of your own that you begin to fully understand the relationship. When they're gone, you've lost something fundamental to your life; a person who knew you in a way that no one else ever can. If we helped at all in making that terrible experience a little less shitty, I'm glad for that."
A few weeks later, the game was updated and Praetorian Zedlee appeared.
John sat down with his children — ages 1, 3, and 7 — and loaded up Grim Dawn.
"It was great but incredibly sad," he told me.
John called up his brother, who also played the game, and the two logged in.
That night, John showed his mother Praetorian Zedlee, who said it "was weird but very appropriate for him [Lee]."
A screen shot of Praetorian Zedlee forever guarding the world of Grim Dawn, a member of the Black Legion, is the desktop background on John's computer.
"It will probably stay that way for a long time," he said.
The Hathaway family has also opened a Child's Play charity in honour of Lee.