This Door Requires a Key to Open: Gaming Mechanics and Executive Dysfunction

Brains are weird and difficult. As an autistic writer-person with ADHD, my executive dysfunction is pretty boss-level. It’s frigging hard to combat; it’s physically exhausting, mentally frustrating, and emotionally draining.

Often times, I feel like I’m playing an RPG and I’ve encountered a locked door; I need wha’s on the other side, but I don’t have a key, and the game mechanics have literally made it impossible to get through the door any other way.

But where is the key? That’s the problem: nobody knows.

You ever have those days where you feel like you should be able to do something, like sending an email or doing an errand, but there’s a brick wall between your awareness of this need, and your brain’s ability to satisfy the need (aka Do The Thing)? The electron signals just can’t make it through this barrier. It’s not that you’re lazy or don’t want to—it’s that you can’t.

(gif of Hellboy (2004) saying “See, I don’t like that.”)

You may want to do it so badly it makes you sick with anxiety that you aren’t doing the thing…but your saving throws are natural 1s, you have no bonuses, and you get nowhere. There is a mechanic in place that will not let you pass this wall, however much you want to go through.

Sometimes you can decide that this door is just a bonus, a side-quest you don’t have to finish. But usually giving up is harder than running in place, stuck behind that locked door. At least when you’re running in place, you’re still doing something, even if it’s wasting energy and howling into the void.

(gif of Stitch, from Lilo & Stitch, banging his head against a wall)

As a level 30 warrior, you’re pretty good at smashing stuff with your battle axe. You can take on bandits and dragons and giants with no problem. Your armor is buffed and you can haul around a couple hundred wheels of cheese in your backpack if you want. Hell, your lockpicking skills aren’t too shabby either: you’ve got 99+ lockpicks and a couple of potions to boost your skill. Master locks on chests and gates to a dungeon may be a challenge, but they aren’t impossible.

So you’re bludgeoning your way through living skeletons, looting bookshelves, and you can even solve those goddamn puzzle doors without setting something on fire or getting shot full of poisoned darts. Up ahead you see a new door, just a plain wooden affair; you swagger up to it, confident you’ll be in the next room full of treasure and enemies in no time.

But this door is locked, and it requires a key.

You don’t have the key.

(“This lock cannot be picked. It requires a key.” Iron Door in Skyrim.)

Now, if this wasn’t a video game, maybe you—level 30 mighty warrior with a battle axe—could hack that door to kindling and move on. In the movies, heroes kick in locked doors all the time! How hard can it be?

But in this game, you have no way to get through that door unless you find the key. The mechanics simply will not allow you to pick the lock, break down the timbers, or find a way around through a hidden passage. You need a key. The game will not let you progress until you have it. There aren’t any cheat codes or hacks available to magically transport yourself to the other side of the door.*

*(Yes, I know there are mods for some games, and glitches happen, and patches are released to fix weird bugs. For the purpose of this analogy, pretend that you need the key to the door in any given situation.)

So where’s the key? Is it on an enemy? Hidden in a chest further back in the level? Somewhere else on the map entirely?

If you’ve played the game before, you may have found the key once and you know where to get it. But let’s say you don’t have that experience. After searching and searching, with no luck (because, let’s face it, sometimes these keys are infuriatingly hard to find) maybe you do a quick google search or watch some YouTube walk-throughs that guide you through the problem.

That key was on a table at the entrance to the dungeon! Great, now you have to walk all the way back to the beginning of the level map, grab the key, and make the tedious return journey to that locked door. It’s a lot of time, effort, and frustration at times.

However, once you get through the door, there’s a sweet loot chest: shiny armor, a magical new axe, and some awesome potions to revive you after the boss fight.

(Skyrim: a fighter with sword and shield battles a dragon )

The rewards behind that locked door may vary; sometimes it’s a helluva lot of work to find the key, too, so the reward isn’t as cost-effective. But there are advantages: next time you replay this game, you will know where to look!

On new levels, you might do some extra searching to see if you can find a key you may need later; perhaps you’ve bookmarked a wiki that walks through all specific dungeons types, so you know where to find answers when you get stuck. There’s nothing wrong with having a toolkit outside the game to help you play and minimize your frustration when you encounter obstacles.

(Talion standing before an Ithildin door in Middle-earth: Shadow of War)

I was lying in bed the other night, my brain spinning like the ambigious top in Inception, berating myself that I spent three hours playing video games instead of sending one email that I’d been putting off for days. It’s a two sentence email! Surely I, a bunch of anxiety stacked in a trenchcoat, could make a passble effort of adulting and send this email?

The internal dialogue went like this.

Me: It’s one email. We used to respond to dozens of emails at work every day.
Brain: No. Can’t.
Me: But why not?
Brain: Also everyone thinks you are an absolute failure, just FYI.
Me: >_<

(Look, I know my brain is sometimes made of lies and I’m not an absolute failure; it’s just really inconvenient when my brain decides to fixate on this.)

(“No matching keycard” for I.T. supply closet in Prey)

Sometimes those locked doors that require a keycard are vital to the plot, or to getting that achievement.

Again, because of the mechanics—the way the game is programmed, its “brain”—you have no way to hack the system. You must abide by the rules in the game; you must acquire a keycard to enter this door.

Brains are basically the character menu: they hold the maps, the codex entries, the inventory list, the stats for your character, probably five billion random herbs you’ve collected, your active and finished quests (god, so many side quests…), books read, skill-set charts, and more.

You will probably get lost (basically 50% of any time spent playing a game is me getting lost), and that’s okay! Maps are confusing and directions are a lie, but either there will be clues or you can look it up—usually someone has found the answer and shared it for the other seekers. No judgment; we’ve banned asshole gamers from this post. If you need help, there is nothing wrong in seeking it—whether tips in-game or from a network elsewhere.

Because here’s the thing about game levels: you’re single-player, but you’re not alone. Most games have a logic to where the keys are found. You get a sense of where to look as you gain XP. If you can’t find it, someone else has probably faced this same situation and solved the puzzle, and will be happy to help you figure it out, too.

The trouble is, in life, sometimes there is no logic to finding the key. Maybe there’s a glitch. It’s floating over a mountaintop or you accidentally melted it for scrap and there was no warning to highlight that this action might be a BAD IDEA.

But the other thing about life is that there are many, many players out there documenting their playthrus. You can find a community, especially online, who have tips, tricks, and ideas on how to solve the unbreakable door puzzle.

(Room 302’s door from Silent Hill 4: The Room)

I started writing this post in early 2020, then forgot about it for a year, and in that interim, any idea what I was originally going to talk about (or how to wrap this up) has vanished from my head. Was there a point? Did I have some big revelation? I have no idea. 😀

So let’s go with this: over the hellscape that was 2020, I have connected with so many folks who are also learning they have ADHD. I often see threads about overlap traits (ADHD and autism), ways executive dysfunction fucks you up, sometimes brain hacks to get around the things (like locked doors—we will fashion our own key!), and it’s incredibly validating. (Also painful, because yeeeeeep.)

There are resources people share; threads with links to other info and posts and videos and discussions; tweets about how lived experiences affect daily life in a neurotypical-centered world; writing-related discussions when one has ADHD. (Naturally I have not been functional enough to save links in accessible places so I have to trawl my twitter feed trying to find things. The links about are only a few grains of amazing stuff I’ve seen in, like, the last month.)

(gif of Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove saying “Oh yeah, it’s all coming together.”)

Everyone’s brain is unique and no singular solution will work for everyone. It’s a process to find the particular alchemical recipe that works for you. (Meds are great! Not everyone can access them or finds them effective! Don’t be a dick about this!)

For me, just realizing that the many doors in life likely have keys, and that there is a community out there willing to offer help and ideas on where to find the keys (or how to hack the lock or break down the door with cheat codes) has been a huge morale boost in the last year. Self-diagnoses are valid. Knowing that I, a person with terrible executive function, can turn to fellow brains and be like, “Yo, does anyone know where to find this key?” and most likely someone out there will be like, “This is where I found it in my playthru!” is a game-changer.

Doors will always exist. But if you need help finding a key, you aren’t alone. Together we’ll unlock the barriers and complete the quests.

(photo of my cat Tater Tot, an orange & white cat, flopped on his back with his feet in the air, lying in front of a closed door, with an open door in the background)

[Like what I’m doing? I have a Ko-Fi! Technically coffee relaxes me and helps me sleep—ahh yes, the wonders of an ADHD brain—but I find tea works much better in helping me focus. In which case, tips are for tea. :D]

1 comment

  1. I love how you compare mental situations with video games, because I love playing games, especially RPGs, so I totally get the locked door example. Thanks for sharing such a vulnerable piece of information with us!


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