Fantasy saved my life as a queer and neurodivergent person. Neurodiversity is a broad term that includes all sorts of communities, but essentially it means there’s no such thing as a "correct" brain. All forms of cognitive difference are part of a spectrum, and no one is less valuable because they happen to be wired differently. The sign of the neurodiversity pride movement is a rainbow brain, which connects with queer pride imagery as well—especially since so many neurodivergent people identify as queer, trans, and nonbinary.
Fantasy literature in particular helped me to survive my childhood, but also the broader tools of fantasy: worldbuilding, mapping, thinking with magic. I grew up in Chilliwack, BC (Stó: lō territory), a sleepy town in the eighties. When I read about farm boys in fantasy novels, I could relate: the Fraser Valley was surrounded by fields. I spent nights driving down dirt roads, looking for a quest.
I grew up at a time when fantasy culture and computer gaming had united to create a new landscape. The internet was still a series of bulletin boards, which you connected to with a screeching modem. They had names like The Black Tower, and the charmingly titled Colin’s BBS. It was like visiting someone’s house. You could chat with the Systems Operator in a texting mode that was still experimental. Each letter appearing slowly, like a rune.
When I was around thirteen, I invited a SysOp to come over and exchange some games. I can still remember his face when I opened the door—a guy in his twenties who’d obviously expected to meet someone much older. My first awkward hookup. I think about how heavy games used to be. Stuffed with soft and hard media, crammed under maps and manuals. Stories about dangerous worlds, melancholy kings, and incompetent heroes.
As someone who was anxious and socially awkward, I turned to these games for a sense of order. The rules were clear. But there was no fold-out map for navigating society.
King’s Quest II (1987)
A company called Sierra dominated the fantasy computer game business from the late eighties through the nineties. Their logo was a gleaming mountain, and King’s Quest was one of their earliest and most successful properties. The games incorporated fairy-tale and high fantasy elements, as you guided King Graham through different adventures. I played King’s Quest II on my dad’s old Tandy HX computer, which didn’t even have a hard drive—you had to constantly insert new disks, the same way you’d flip a record.
The king would trek obediently across varying screens—forests, deserts, mountains—winking his pixels with each step. The disk drive would sing for a moment, and he’d stop, frozen, as the orange light flashed. The universe would hold its breath. I’d watch that amber glow flickering, and wonder what King Graham thought in that moment, so exposed. Was it the same thing I felt in the boys' locker room—terrified in my body? Was it like all those moments in the classroom where I couldn’t speak, because everyone was looking?
In 1990, King’s Quest V changed the world of computer gaming. It was one of the first games to use the new VGA graphics system, which included 256 colors (a step up from the original sixteen). We were medieval scribes, and someone had just handed us vials of ochre and aquamarine. I remember soaking in the light of those colors, and thinking: this is the future. A vast and unimaginable spectrum.
So You Want to Be a Hero (1989)
You could choose between a fighter, a wizard, or a thief, all of whom had recently “graduated” from a Hero Studies program, but what they all shared in common was their total lack of experience. I can’t think of a greater love story than my data-hungry brain encountering the world of RPG character building. In order to increase your stats, you needed to perform repetitive actions. I can remember typing “climb up tree” and “climb down tree” over and over until my fingers cramped, and I’d never felt happier.
I realize now that it was a form of stimming. That’s a blanket term that includes all kinds of particular physical gestures, like squeezing a ball, snapping your fingers, or repeating a word. Stimming is often connected with people on the autism spectrum, like me, but it’s also an activity that a lot of neurodivergent folks engage in. I’ve come to see stims as tools for survival—a way of being sly and crafty in the face of overwhelmingly ableist narratives about how we should exist in public space.
Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail (1990)
In Conquests, King Arthur needs to heal his kingdom, drawing upon the medieval myth of the wounded Fisher King. He’s guided by the ghost of Merlin, who speaks to him through signs. He was the one who narrated the game. One of my secrets at the time was that I had no desire to be a knight. I wanted to be a wizard, and Merlin’s pixelated blue face in a crystal ball was a powerful temptation.
Two scenes in this game have stayed with me. The first is a moment when Arthur needs to cross a frozen lake, and he calls upon the power of the Virgin Mary. This is exactly what Gawain does, when he’s searching for the Green Knight’s lair in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the game, Saint Mary manifests as a pink force field around King Arthur: a fluttering of rose petals. You have to inch your way across the ice, staying within that flowery shield. I wanted a similar force field to cover me whenever I left the house, so I could vanish in a bright flurry.
The second moment occurs at the end of the game, when you have to fight a “Saracen” knight. This is the only person of color in the game, and you need to defeat him in order to win. Conquests encouraged a narrow view of the Middle Ages that we still have today—a view of noble white “crusaders”—the same reductive idea used by white-supremacist groups to justify racist violence. It frames medieval people of color as villains, and ignores the Black characters who actually appeared in Arthurian literature, like Sir Palamedes and Sir Morien. Arthur heals the land by pretending it was all his to begin with.
Space Quest IV (1991)
Space Quest IV was a series of games about failure. There were hundreds of ways to die in each instalment, and the sketchy controls meant that your avatar—Roger Wilco—was always falling down chutes or into vats of acid. Failure was something I could understand. For instance, I’d already failed English—twice (so it was ironic that I’d go on to become an English professor). I’d never felt much like a boy or a girl—I connected with the shape-shifting character Odo on Deep Space Nine. The world felt so intense that, most of the time, I didn’t want to have a body.
In Space Quest IV, Roger Wilco is captured by an interstellar dominatrix. As she ties Wilco down, she brandishes an electric razor. Then she tears off his pants, exposing his hairy legs. This scene gave me pause. As a kid who had trouble making eye contact, I was often looking down, which meant that I stared at a lot of boys’ legs. Summer was interesting. All boys are curious about each other’s bodies, though exploring that curiosity is forbidden. I could never say this, but I wanted to pet a boy—to run my fingers gently through his fur, the way I’d pet a friendly cat.
Another scene takes place at an intergalactic mall, where Roger Wilco needs to dress in drag in order to complete his mission. You guide him into a women’s clothing store that resembles Mariposa, a place where my mom used to shop in the eighties. I loved browsing with her, picking out earrings and sequined tops that she’d never actually wear. Metamorphosis through gold lamé or shoulder pads. If I could crystallise what I was feeling back then, I would have said: I need to wear a dress, and also become the Sorceress from He-Man. Feathers and power. If I could be an enchantress, that might solve my problems.
After Wilco puts on a black dress, the narrator intones: Even in drag, you still retain your animal magnetism. The game was released in 1991, when the AIDS crisis was still apocalyptic and little progress had been made on retroviral “cocktails.” I wonder, now, what these programmers thought about drag. When you guided Wilco out of the store, he sashayed. I felt a wormhole open up, and suck me in.
Betrayal at Krondor (1993)
Betrayal at Krondor was one of the last great fantasy games of the era. It adapted Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar saga, which had the comedic charm of David Eddings while avoiding the moodiness of Robert Jordan. The story centred on a farmboy named Pug, who surpassed everyone’s expectations by not only becoming a powerful wizard, but also traveling to another planet. I used to stare at the painted cover of Magician: Apprentice, captivated by the image of this farm babe coming out of the rain and into a magician’s workshop.
I was working on my own fantasy writing at this point, and I longed to be an established author with a beloved series. It felt so impossible, so far away from the stories yowling to life on our dot matrix printer. Betrayal at Krondor was an RPG that closely resembled a novel, focusing on political intrigue. There were chests that you had to open by solving riddles—I can remember calling friends and comparing notes, trying to unlock the word that would grant us everything we wanted. The 1993 version demanded so much processing power. It would often crash, and we’d have to feverishly re-weave CONFIG.SYS files, hoping our spell would work.
This was around the same time I began to figure out that I was queer, and the “betrayal” in the game’s title took on a whole new meaning. Not an abstract plot hatched by elves and wizards—a personal crisis. I remember searching for a spell called “Fetters of Rime” that would lock my enemies in ice. I wanted that in my own life. Something to freeze those desires. Games had rules that I could understand, while life was messy and often dangerous.
The old cheat books had red cellophane panels that you’d hold over scrambled pages: you could illuminate clues one by one, as if by the light of God. I would have done anything to possess that lens, to decode the facial expressions, tones of voice, and social alliances that gave me nightmares and panic attacks. Just one perfect charm.
These games taught me that a hero could look like someone who was scared, someone who never intended to do good in the first place. That kings weren’t perfect, and fairy tales prepared us for reality. As I finally unlocked the ice spell, I realized that my queerness wasn’t a betrayal. It was a gift. I’d spend the next few decades trying to unlock the riddle-chest of my brain. When the key finally turned, it was like leveling up. Realizing that my penchant for puzzles, my slanted thinking, even my fears, were all vital statistics.
When I finally saw my first novel in the fantasy section of a local bookstore, I remembered King Graham, that dear little EGA toothpick, letting me guide him across perilous screens. Trusting me, before I’d learned to trust myself. When I see old disks, I remember that time: both the victories and the ruins. And the little plastic toggle on the disk that let you write over everything—to record a new story.