On the 27th of February this year, 17-year-old David Acott uploaded to YouTube a video of himself unboxing a game. His excitement is palpable. The game was Dying Light, and David had been waiting on it for months, after it had been delayed the previous year. He was a big fan of Techland’s games. “It is an 18, and I’m not 18 yet, so, uh, I’m breaking rules here, but it’s a great game,” he jokes.
Less than two weeks later, David was admitted to hospital to be treated for a rare cancer that had developed in his lower abdomen, a complication of a life-saving liver transplant that he’d undergone two and a half years earlier. His next video, dated March 3rd, is heartbreaking to watch. Talking about his treatment, David seems totally dejected – until he starts talking about Dying Light again, at which point you can see him really light up. He talks about the zombie kill montage video he’s got planned, and shows off his new official guide book. “I can read this in hospital,” he says. “I’m going to be clever with this game, I don’t want to be messing about - I’m going to be a pro at it… it’s all I want to play right now, I love it so much.”
He died on the 11th of March, a few months before his 18th birthday.
“That last video… you could tell he was not well,” says David’s mother, Janet Acott. “Watching that one is difficult. At that point he still didn’t know that he was dying. We knew he had cancer, and that he was going to have to go into hospital and stay there for treatment… but at the time they were very positive, they said it was very treatable. But in that last video we had just had the news that the lump had not responded to the chemo that he’d had so far. You can tell he’s down, he looks miserable. But about halfway through, you just see his whole face lift, and his demeanour improve… he’s thinking he’s going into hospital and everything will be fine, so he’s making plans. He was very hopeful. And that was a week before he died. He didn’t know.”
David’s love of video games was something that Janet never really felt like she could relate to whilst he was alive. She knew that it was a big part of her lovely, kind, well-mannered son’s life, and he and his younger brother Howard played a lot together. But in the wake of this tragedy, over the next six months, David’s family and the developers of Dying Light would forge an extraordinary connection. Janet and her younger son, Howard, found themselves welcomed into Techland’s world – and Techland were welcomed into theirs.
“I guess it all started off in April, with an email sent to Techland’s inbox,” says Michal Napora, Techland’s community manager in Wroclaw, Poland. (It was some of Howard’s friends who sent it.) “I got this mail that said, hey, we just wanted to show you this video - he was a friend of ours. I clicked on the link and it was the last video that David had made. As soon as I started watching it… it was sad, right. It was so sad. I went to my boss, chatted to our legal department, and they told us that we could certainly do something, but before we could do anything with it it would be a good idea to chat to a parent, so we don’t do something they don’t want us to do.”
Michal and his colleagues were thinking that it would be a nice idea to include a little tribute to David in the game: a note, a landmark, something to commemorate him. But they were naturally wary of intruding upon a family’s grief – and, as Techland’s marketing chap Paul Milewski told me, they really didn’t want to look like they were doing it for attention.
“At that point we thought, maybe we shouldn’t meddle in this, they probably don’t want to deal with something like this right now,” says Paul. “Their son just passed away, and suddenly some company is getting in touch… we thought, they probably won’t even know who we are.”
Michal sent a response to the email, giving his details, and Howard’s friends passed it on to Janet. Far from being put out, she was surprised and delighted that the developer had reached out about putting a tribute to David in the game.
“I think, for me to get through it – well, to keep going – I had to have things to focus on,” she reflects. “So that gave me something. You just want your child, or whomever you’ve lost, to stay alive somehow. This gave us that. I thought, wow, how amazing would this be?”
Janet emailed back the very next day. After talking with Michal, they decided on a mural. Michal took the idea to one of Techland’s artists, Julita Arendt, who came up with a few sketches. After Janet picked her favourite, Julita finished up the art, and Techland put it into a patch in May. The video below shows you where to find it.
“Quite a lot of people over here got really involved in this project,” said Michal. “It was really cool, because it felt like a personal mission. Once we put it in the game, after the patch, we gave Janet a map of where to find it, and she passed that on to [David’s younger brother] Howard. We were so happy to finally show it off to her.”
Video credit: The Lonne Survivor.
Everybody at Techland expected this story to end there. They were still a little nervous about drawing too much attention to the mural, so they handed it over to Janet and backed away. But for Janet, this had introduced her to a whole world that her son was part of that she had previously known very little about. Some of David’s friends and YouTube subscribers sent her screenshots and videos of the mural. Howard was over the moon about it. “It’s been like a little light in this dark, sad time,” she says. “It’s given us something to smile about. So we wanted to come out and see them, put names to faces. I really wanted to say thank you properly.”
And that is how, in late August, Janet and Howard (now 15) ended up planning a trip to Poland to meet the people at Techland in the flesh. “The two of us are going on this adventure,” Janet told me at the time. She sounded genuinely thrilled. “We’ve never been to Poland. I’ve got to buy us decent coats!”
Janet and Howard arrived in Wroclaw in early October, and Michal and Paul took them out for dumplings. “They were just so lovely,” Janet told me afterwards. “Michal is just adorable. He’s so enthusiastic and excitable, like a labrador puppy.”
Part of that, says Michal, was because he was actually pretty nervous. “I’ll be honest with you – we’ve never brought anyone from the outside world like this into our offices!” he says. “On the morning when they were coming over, I was thinking… crap, I hope they’re going to like this.”
Janet and Howard got a full tour of Techland’s offices, and met all of the people who had been involved in the mural they had made for David. Howard (who’s also a very keen gamer) got an inside look at Dying Light, which Janet says has made him even more interested in a potential career in games. At one point – when Janet brought out a framed photo collage that she had made as a thank-you gift – things suddenly got very emotional.
“They’ve really taken David to their hearts,” said Janet. “When I met Julita, that was the one moment… she welled up, I welled up, we all had a big cuddle. Nobody knew what to say. We were so overcome. Howard just stood there being embarrassed by us! I think that’s what’s so special about this. It had really touched her; you could tell that she really genuinely cared about the work that she’d done. It wasn’t them just doing a job. Everyone who’d been involved in the process wanted to say something to us about David. They felt a connection to him.”
“All of a sudden Julita's got this person in front of her, this mother whose son passed away, and she’s thanking her for what she did. She’s never had something like that. It got kind of emotional there,” said Michal.
“It was… I guess it was strange, but in a nice way. Julita started to cry a little bit, as did Janet, and she gave us a gift which was this really beautiful photo of David and the mural. She gave it to us in a frame, which was signed with thank you notes… it was beautiful. You know those moments where you don’t really know what to say? This was one of them. It was very sad, but also really, really nice, all at the same time and we didn’t have the words. We were shaking a little bit.”
It is clear, from Techland’s side, that this experience has reminded them that the things they make are played by real people, and have real effects on their lives. The realisation that this gesture – a small gesture, for them, at the beginning – has helped this family in their grief is something that caught Paul off guard. “Janet told us that our offer to do something for David helped her son Howard deal with what was going on,” said Paul. “And we thought… wow, really? That was one of the first things she told us: ‘this is really sweet of you guys, you’ve given Howard something to smile about.’ That’s when I thought… okay, this is for real now.”
“You sort of get to know this person through email, through Twitter and all that stuff, but when you actually take that relationship to the real world, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” said Michal. “We work on games pretty much every day of the week and a lot of it’s not that exciting, really, but when we were showing Jane and Howard around, there was such excitement, and it gave us energy. It made us think, you know what, this is some cool stuff that we’re doing for a living.”
“We make games, which is pretty cool I guess, but seeing you’ve made someone happy in a meaningful way… it might sound cliche, but it’s pretty priceless,” said Paul. “We didn’t expect to feel these emotions. We didn’t expect that she would actually want to come and visit us. If you’d told me this was going to happen, I’d have thought… that’s never going to happen. But it did, and it gave meaning to what we do, you know?”
For Janet, this has been something to focus on in an unimaginably difficult time for her and her family. She tells me that it’s difficult to overstate how positive this has been for her – and her younger son. “I really feel for Howard,” she told me. “The whole dynamic of the house has changed. This has given him something, he feels part of that community. He’s now an only child. He’s lost his best friend, his big brother. But this has given him something.
“With the grieving process that he’s going through, I would say video games have been hugely important. Instead of just being stuck in his room alone, having lost his big brother and best friend, with nobody to talk to, he’s on his headset chatting and shouting and playing with friends, and talking. It is a way of engaging. It’s given him that – if this situation had happened 20 years ago, he’d have been a sad little person, at home with us adults, and would have had to invite people round or go out. But he’s got so many friends he can talk to.
“We can’t get our heads around it sometimes, how incredible it is. It’s given us something to focus on, which has been a positive,” says Janet. “Of course, you don’t want this to be the case. You don’t want to have to lose a child. But to have something positive, something to focus on, was really important to help us get through.”