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How One Zelda Fan and His Mom Bonded in Hyrule

On March 3, the day Nintendo launched its Switch console alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Tato crept into his mother's hospital room and pulled up a chair beside her. People complained about the scent of antiseptics permeating the air. He could not smell them. There was no way to close his ears, however. The beeps and hum of machinery assaulted him, drawing his attention to the small form in the bed beside him and driving home the reality of her situation.

He spoke to her quietly. She did not respond or open her eyes, but Tato did not expect her to. Still chatting, he carefully unboxed his Nintendo Switch and slid it from its plastic wrappings. He had no way to free his mother of the nasty beeps and hums and rasps. They were unpleasant, but necessary. The best he could do was drown them out.

"My first boot-up of Breath of the Wild was beside my mom," he told me. "She was sleeping, but it gave me peace just to start the game next to her. Then I watched the trailer once again by her side, to make her listen to the music one last time."

I met Tato, who prefers to go by his online handle, on the r/Zelda sub-Reddit. Breath of the Wild was just a few days out, and I was on the hunt for any new information—screenshots, previews, early reviews, leaks, anything—to fill the void left by being unable to play it. Tato's post, in which he opened up about what the franchise has come to mean to him and his mother, caught my eye. It epitomized what Nintendo hoped to accomplish with Breath of the Wild, and resonated with me as a lifelong Zelda fan who often turns to the series during difficult times. 

At the 2017 Game Developers Conference, three of Breath of the Wild's principal designers gave a postmortem about the process of reinventing Zelda. Their aim was to break away from 30 years of conventions and build a game that players could approach their way—personalized stories told from their battles against Ganon's forces, their solutions to brain-bending shrine puzzles, their connection to Hyrule and its denizens. This is Tato's story.

Tato and his mother have shared in Zelda's many legends since his childhood. Growing up in Chile, games were hard to come by. An outmoded law enforced by the Brazilian government classifies video games as gambling, saddling them with steep rates. "Latin America doesn't have an official distributor so almost all [games and hardware] are imported from USA, with all the taxes and costs that this implies," he said.

Growing up, Tato got lucky. There was a video game shop just down the road from his school, and the proprietor offered all manner of systems and games for rent. He even charged an additional fee to preserve a user's save data, so kids like Tato could rent over and over until they finally finished a game.

"I and a group of friends all went to the store almost every day to play Ocarina of Time, taking turns to play a dungeon or a challenge," he remembered. "We talked too during recess, sharing tips and clues with other people at my school. In that time my brother and I did not have our own N64, but some friends used to invite us to play theirs. Then, like a year later, we got one and started trading and lending our games too. It was like that for almost the entire N64 lifespan."

Games served as an extension of his classroom education. The games he played, such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past—his favorite game of all time—and Pokemon Red, were in English, so he kept a dictionary at hand while he played. "Thanks to that, I always had good grades in English," he explained. "I have almost zero knowledge in grammatical rules or things like that, as probably you can tell for some mistakes that I am sure I had made, but I try to do everything I can in English—websites, forums, games, books—so I practice every day and I have an advanced level in comparison with my friends and relatives."

His favorite games are RPGs. For Tato, nothing is better than a story about a group of heroes—or, in Zelda's case, a lone hero clad in a tunic and armed with literal and figurative steel—setting out to save the world. He has read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels countless times and looks for virtual experiences that let him experience adventure on a scale as grand as Frodo's.

"I can immerse myself and spend hours completing quests, searching for lore, talking to NPCs, grinding for items or leveling up. It's very hard for me to get bored doing that," Tato said.

Besides a learning tool and a source of entertainment, games have also been an escape. Tato is 27 years old. At age two, he and his mother, father, and brother were involved in car accident that damaged his skull. He was confined to the ICU for two months, and his traumatic brain injury topped a long list of severe impairments. The impact of the wreck broke his nose and shattered his frontal bone, depriving him of his sense of smell. Hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness suffered as well, and damage to his optic nerves resulted in dizziness, severe headaches, and photophobia, pain triggered by exposure to light and increased sensitivity to the eyes.

Fortunately, Tato isn't the type of person to let anything keep him down for long. "I still can't smell anything, and will always have photophobia and headaches," he explained. "I control the headaches with pills, but rapid flashes of light or some very bright ones still make me dizzy and sick. But with time I trained my coordination and all that. That lasted until I was 12 or so. Today I don't have problems with that."

Due to the side effects of his injuries, Tato was never an outdoorsy kid. Headaches and sensitivity to lights made it difficult to play sports, and he shied away from parties. While other kids his age played outside, Tato gravitated to indoor activities. His mom was always right by his side. 

"All that I am is thanks to my mom," Tato stated. "I've always liked to tell her my troubles or a joke or just something stupid that happened to me on the day, and there are many of those stories. I used to study with her when I was little. She is one of my best friends, as cliche as it may sound."

Over his childhood, Tato's parents played different roles. His father was the earner in the family, and he worked tirelessly to provide. The drawback to his father's efforts was that he usually came home from work exhausted, leaving little energy for family time until the weekends. During weekdays, Tato's mom held down the fort.

One of their favorite pastimes was hanging out in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning while actors in Spanish soap actors conducted their histrionics in the background. "I learned to cook, and took the responsibility of that this year, thanks to my mom," he said. When the soaps weren't on, they watched movies. "The last movie I saw with her before all this began was The Return of the King, so now that is my favorite movie, even though The Two Towers is better."

Their other favorite pastime was gaming. Tato's mom didn't play much, although she had a knack for Super Mario Bros. that never failed to impress her sons. Most of the time she was an enthusiastic spectator. Tato would sit next to her while playing GBA or Nintendo DS, letting her listen to music and sharing the stories he was experiencing.

Many games came and went, but the Zelda series quickly became a staple. Every year, Tato drags out his Super NES and plays through A Link to the Past. "We still have those by the way," he told me. "Every one of my 24 play-throughs of A Link to the Past has always been on the original cartridge. For real. It's an annual tradition at this moment and I beat it in one or two sessions without problem."

Some Zelda odysseys affected Tato and his mom more than others. "She watched almost all my play-through of Skyward Sword," he said, "and cried with me when Fi left and with the staff roll music. The ending of Tales of Symphonia was a tear-jerker for us too. I have many memories like that."

Tato has amassed a sizable collection of Zelda memorabilia. One of his favorite pieces is his New 3DS XL themed after A Link Between Worlds. He owns every game in the series. However, his most cherished collectibles are three homemade ornaments: two pink fairies and another that resembles Navi from Ocarina of Time. "My mother always loved Christmas and every year I gifted her ornaments for the house, handmade or from stores. Last year, with my sister—she's seven years younger than me—we did the fairies for the Christmas tree. So, they are special."

The family knew going into last Christmas that it would likely be the last time they celebrated the holiday together. "She was diagnosed with a brain tumor on the final days of January last year," Tato said. "She has a glioblastoma multiforme on her frontal cortex."

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is one of the most aggressive types of cancer and comes with a median life expectancy of just over one year. Many patients succumb in three months or less. "She had been on surgery, radiotherapy and two types of chemotherapy," Tato continued.

From the beginning, his mom knew she fought a losing battle. The tumor began by picking away at her, sapping her strength before robbing her of the ability to walk, to speak, to look after herself. She's been in and out of the ICU four times over the past year. At the time Tato and I communicated over email, she had been fighting for 13 months and six days.

"It's very hard to finish the answer of that question, having to remember all that had happened," he admitted. "It was a living hell but with many, many sprinkles of happiness in between. At least we had the time to give all of our love to our mom. Thankfully, we can say we did everything [time allowed] and can live in peace with all of this."

Tato held out hope for one more gaming session with his mom. He had been talking to her about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for over two years, sharing every trailer and nugget of info that Nintendo let slip free. In the days leading up to the launch of the game, her condition worsened. On Saturday, February 25, she fell into a coma. Doctors informed the family that they did not expect her to survive the week.

On Thursday, March 2, her eyes fluttered open. Tato and his family were by her bedside, waiting for her. They bent down so she could kiss each of them. After that, she went back to sleep. The next day, she awoke again and whispered that she loved them.

Her body is deteriorating, but her spirit remains strong. "She had a pulmonary infection but she managed to get well from that with antibiotics," Tato said.

Tato distracts himself by making plans. He anticipates pouring hundreds of hours into Breath of the Wild, and intends to play it to completion at least three times: once in English, then again in Latin-American Spanish, and finally in Japanese. But playing will come later.

Once, when browsing for previews of the game, he came across a write-up by Lucas Thomas, editor-in-chief of Nintendo Force magazine, claiming that Breath of the Wild is fated to be a game that those who play it will remember forever. Tato thinks Thomas's prediction will pan out, but the game meant something to him long before he held it in his hands.

"It will be my distraction and my escape route for months, and it will help me to overcome the hit of losing my mom with a little more peace of mind, and making the grief a little less hard," he said. "The reviews are amazing at the moment, and I have no doubt it will not disappoint. But in this particular moment that I am living, [Breath of the Wild means] more than that, so it will always be important."

For now, thinking about playing consumes as much energy as he can commit to his favorite series. As long as his mom holds on, he will stay by her side.

"She was and will always be my angel, the person that I love the most in my life. I will keep fighting, will try to make her proud, and she will be forever with me in everything I'll do. And I love her forever—to Infinity and Beyond as we always said to each other." 


Author's note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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