Life had never been fair to Gabe Marcelo, but video games gave him a chance to experience a world that was beyond him.
Last July, Gabe Marcelo wasn't sure he could attend PAX Prime. This wouldn't normally be a big deal, but the 26-year-old's lifelong heart condition had taken a turn for a worse, and he'd been stuck in the hospital for a while. The problem: PAX might be his one shot to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the newest game in his favorite series, before he died.
"Being home bound for the most part," said his mother, Anita Marcelo, "these dates were really important. They were his calendar, just as birthdays and holidays were."
He found the strength to attend PAX. Though the plan was to only show up for a single day, due to his condition, Gabe managed to surprise everyone. His family helped him around in a wheelchair all four days. Unfortunately, Nintendo didn't bring Breath of the Wild to PAX, prompting Gabe to ask his mother if she'd ask Nintendo for a chance to play the game early.
Anita wrote her first letter to Nintendo while they were still at PAX.
"I called Nintendo on the phone and spoke to some really nice people who gave me an address to write to regarding 'donations,'" she told me. "I did not get any reply. I sent it again about a month later. Still nothing."
Gabe came into this world with a congenital heart defect (CHD), leaving him with a single ventricle and a missing area in the middle of his heart. Forms of CHD are common, showing up in eight of every 1,000 newborns. Most of the time, it's treatable, but Gabe's version was complex.
At three weeks old, he was sent into surgery. That snowballed into another set of surgeries before the age of three. In-between, he suffered a stroke. There was no way to repair his heart, and complications from surgery ruled out a transplant. Expectations for his quality of life were low, and it was possible he'd never make it out of his teenage years.
"His heart always had to work a lot harder to manage his body than a regular heart would," said his older brother, Jaime.
Think of this way: Most people have 100% oxygen in their blood. Gabe had 92% until junior high school, at which point it dropped to 88%. Then 83%. Last year, it plummeted into the 70s, before cratering further into the 60s. The sheer act of sitting caused him to lose his breath.
"He did not get enough oxygen to his body to have energy," said his mother, "and as a young child would 'spend' his energy and get fussy because his body just could not manage. He would go out in the backyard and not be able to get back inside because he was tired."
"Gaming was all the more important for the ways in which it could bring such happiness, fun, and beauty."
Over the years, various surgeries would help, but Gabe was never going to be an athlete. (For a while, he did manage to play baseball.) What he could do, though, was play video games. It was an opportunity for him to explore the world in ways that would never be possible for him. Saving the world is cool, but for Gabe, just being able to run across an open field was a fantasy.
"Gaming was all the more important for the ways in which it could bring such happiness, fun, and beauty," said his mother. "There were characters he loved, and challenges that his very smart mind needed. It was distraction from the physical discomfort and pain."
"I recall sitting in front of the living room TV in the early 90s playing Super Mario 2, Excitebike, and The Legend of Zelda," said his brother. "He was pretty young at the time and didn't really know what was going on, but that's where it all started. [...] I remember playing through Link's Awakening and being annoyed at my brother pestering me to play. Any chance he got to enter that world, he was mesmerized. I'm pretty sure he erased my file so that he could play at some point. I don't think he really knew much of what he was doing but he just loved exploring."
Games became even more important for the brothers when Jaime moved across the country to New York City about 10 years ago. To distract themselves from Gabe's condition, they'd play games online with one another. Last summer, all they did was play Final Fantasy XIV.
But the Zelda series became a constant for Gabe, one of his touchstones. Breath of the Wild, his mother said, was a reason to live. If he could hold on for one more day, he might play it. That's why his mother found herself writing letters to Nintendo and making phone calls, even if no one was responding. When Jaime visited the family last October, he overheard the plan to ask Nintendo for early access to the game. His first thought? Try posting the request online.
"I've witnessed the power of masses of people banding together to raise awareness," he said, "either in person (à la protesting) or through online campaigns, so I figured if I could get some support online I would be able to get Gabe on Nintendo's radar."
The result was a reddit post to Nintendo fans, which was quickly upvoted. As the post exploded, the three were at a doctor's appointment for Gabe. Jaime was in the waiting room, anxiously looking at his phone. He'd considered making a petition or Facebook page, but within a few hours, Nintendo's social media team heard about Gabe and wanted to help.
(Nintendo confirmed to me this is all true.)
"His face just had this mix of shock and joy," said Jaime. "He'd do this laugh while holding his hands up in front of him like he was juggling something invisible, trying to process what was happening."
The overwhelming support caused Gabe to burst into a mixture of tears and laughter. As more upvotes filtered in on reddit, he'd read the comments to his brother. The burst of positivity was a welcomed change of pace, too; at this point, Gabe's condition was awful. He could only climb set of stairs once or twice a day, and his usually cheery disposition had become muted.
"I could tell things had gotten very bad for him," said Jaime. "It was wonderful to have so many kind words of support and people relating their own experiences."
"He always said, 'Meh, it could be worse,'" said his mother. "He really would cling to that, all the while knowing he was getting worse."
And it really was getting worse. As 2016 went on, they discovered some of his medications were no longer helping. He couldn't stop coughing, and when he did, he'd cough up blood. He began to take on an enormous amount of fluid weight, sometimes as much as 30 lbs in a single week. Gabe took pride in self-care, making the weight gain emotionally devastating.
"I had my work cut out for me keeping him aware of the fact that he was battling something that was beyond his control," said his mother. "His shame over his size was heartbreaking. His waist was sensitive and uncomfortable, so I needed to buy more and more jean shorts and long jeans in bigger sizes. His palliative [pain relief] care doctor tried to explain that the weight gain was medical in nature as the fluid built up from the heart failure. Gabe would still try to find a way to cut back on eating, though that happened naturally as he just could not eat as much."
"He always said, 'Meh, it could be worse,' He really would cling to that, all the while knowing he was getting worse."
A few weeks after Nintendo reached out, Gabe and his mother made a trip to Nintendo of America's headquarters in Seattle. Sporting a blue t-shirt with the words "Thank you Mr. Iwata," he was given a chance to live out his dream and play Breath of the Wild, for a little more than 30 minutes. It was the same demo that's been shown a million times, a constrained slice of the game's open world. (Given Gabe's physical limitations in the real-world, it was oddly fitting.) A group of Nintendo employees huddled around, cheering him on as he jumped, swam, and climbed up mountains. He even got into some mischief, lighting things on fire.
"He was, in that game, what he was not in life," she said. "I could go out walking and Gabe could not join me. When I did, I thought about the fact that he could not get the benefit of fresh cool air and the freedom of just walking in our wooded neighborhood. When I saw the Zelda game, I realized that this was the wonderful world he wanted."
Besides playing the game, Gabe toured the facilities, excited at the sheer prospect of seeing a meeting room where people talked about making Nintendo games. After lunch, where everyone swapped gaming stories, he visited the gift shop to buy gifts for other people. ("Gabe was very generous to friends and family and loved giving gifts," said his brother.) Nintendo returned the favor, handing over a Zelda backpack with, among other things, a signed poster.
"I could tell in his voice that he was filled with pure happiness," said Jaime, "something that had become harder to attain as his condition worsened."
If there was any justice in the world, this would be the point in the story where, out of nowhere, Gabe's health starts making an inexplicable turnaround. But there was no miracle cure waiting. And as Gabe prepared to face death, his mother kept on a brave face—or tried to, anyway.
"I knew my son was going to die," she said. "I was so fearful, wondering how this was going to happen. Was he going to be so intensely sick for years to come or would he die suddenly or with great pain? I had to be upbeat for him. I had to be as positive as possible for him. That was getting harder and harder. That last week, he said, 'I need to borrow your positive attitude right now, because I am really struggling.'"
That week is when Gabe put on 30 lbs in just seven days, and soon, couldn't breathe on his own. As his body fell apart, he held onto a singular hope: a chance to stick around until Breath of the Wild came out, giving him another chance to join Zelda, Link, and Ganon on another adventure. His mother is confident Gabe wouldn't have made it as long as he did without that.
"The night before he died, he called me into his room," she said. "He wanted me to see the two-minute trailer he had downloaded. He teared up as the colors and sounds and snippets of action were coming across the screen. At the end, it said, 'coming 3-3-17.' He looked at me and said, 'I'm going to make it!' I really have to think about how happy he was, and not that he did not make it. I did remind him, that night, that he had already played Zelda... and yet I knew what he meant."
On January 14, a few weeks after Gabe's 27th birthday, he peacefully passed away.
"The last time I talked to him was a couple days before he died," said his brother, "and we just had a casual conversation about some games that were coming out. At the end, we said goodnight and that we loved each other—as we usually did. I had no idea at the time that I'd never talk to him again."
Not long from now , Breath of the Wild, the game Gabe had been waiting for, will be released. Jaime hasn't quite processed what it'll be like to play the game without him.
"Someone mentioned that when I play Breath of the Wild, I won't be alone," he said. "Gabe will be my Navi, helping to guide me through the game the whole time. I really love that thought."
"I have never known a stronger person," said his mother. "If it had been his sheer will, he would still be here today."
Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham.