Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Gaming Education: Self-Esteem in Shooters

When I was at school there was this girl. You know how it is. She wrote a joke on my pencil-case once, I didn’t wash it for a week. Sometimes I’d see her on the walk home and she’d ask me if I’d done the maths homework, and I’d try to think of a funny reply, then say “no”.

She was a lot cooler than me. I used to try dead hard to be the kind of guy the kind of girl she was might like. I bought a Travis CD after I heard her talking about Fran Healy. I wore trainers the same as this guy she hung around with. I stopped bringing N64 Magazine to school with me after she said videogames were dumb.

Nothing ever worked though. And I’ll tell you why. It’s not because I played sports like an epileptic giraffe, had the hair of a scarecrow on crack, or sometimes wore a sweatshirt from Debenhams that said “Space Quest 3000″ on the front.

… Well, the Space Quest sweatshirt probably didn’t help — but mainly, the problem was that I lacked self-confidence.

No one will love you if you don’t love yourself. And nothing gives that self-loathing away more than constantly attempting to be the kind of person you think other people will like.

Individuality isn’t something to be masked, it’s something to be proud of. Not overly proud, you understand. I’m not suggesting you stand on a rooftop and shout about how you have webbed feet and that’s just fantastic. No sir. What I am saying is that you should be content in your uniqueness, because nowhere in the universe is there anyone quite like you, and that’s pretty cool when you think about it.

Want to know what’s put this wisdom in my mind? No, not the fridge magnet of a messy middle-aged woman with too many cats. What’s put it in my mind is first-person shooter videogames.

Two games, to be precise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I’ve been playing both recently, thanks to the canny pricing strategy of that-Steam-that-they-have-now.

The two games — in their single-player campaigns, at least — are strikingly similar. They’re war simulators, or more accurately, teenage-fantasy-of-war simulators.

There are explosions and ambushes and slow-motion bits where bad guys are about to shoot your bessie mate and you have to pick up a knife and throw it at the bad guy in time. Occasionally, you leap into or out of a helicopter, and said helicopter is oftentimes on fire.

The games are theme park rides, with pop-up enemies and pre-rigged effects. A blast, as long as you don’t peer too closely at the track or the wires or the edges of the set.

Thing is, Modern Warfare has my blessing to be big and loud and dumb; Bad Company 2 does not. This is because Modern Warfare is big and loud and dumb; Bad Company 2, however, is just trying too hard to be liked.

Modern Warfare was an evolution of the Call of Duty brand, a move away from realism and towards high-octane Hollywood theatrics. It carved out an identity for itself within a genre not known for its originality, and spearheaded a new approach to men getting shot at. Whether or not that approach is for me (it’s not), I appreciate the fact it exists.

The Battlefield games, meanwhile, had their own identity. They were PC-centric, team-based multiplayer games where players arranged themselves into squads on two opposing sides and fought across large arenas. Some people would fly helicopters, others drive tanks, others still would hide in bushes and snipe passing infantry.

They were games that asked much of you — an online connection, friends to join a squad with, a joystick to pilot the aircraft, hours of practice to ensure you didn’t embarrass yourself — but your investment was rewarded with an experience unlike any other.

Then Battlefield gazed across the war-torn expanse at Modern Warfare, at the piles of gold it was sitting in, and had a crisis of confidence.

Thus the Bad Company games were born. They were aimed at the consoles, where all the trendy kids spent their time. Though multiplayer was a familiar, albeit stripped down, take on the old formula, the focus was now on campaign modes following a linear path, triggering set-pieces and watching cut-scenes that raised an eyebrow at American hegemony without denouncing it entirely.

Bad Company 2 borrows (steals) every aspect of its persona from Modern Warfare. From the overarching mechanics to the zooming-in radar loading-screen, from the weapons system to the box art, it is a game that refuses to take a step until it has checked which way Modern Warfare went, how heavily it trod, what colour boots it was wearing.

The follow-the-leader approach produces a competent game, for sure, but there’s nothing in it to love. It’s a reproduction, is all, a simulacrum of what some shitty publishing executive reckoned a shooter “should” be like.

Which is a shame. Battlefield’s take on a campaign could be really interesting, with AI squad co-operation, open levels, vehicular combat and perhaps an evolving, specialist class choice. But any attempt at individuality has presumably been nixed by money-men afraid of unknown directions, afraid of idiosyncratic exploration rather than proven hack work.

Battlefield 3 comes out later this year, going head to head with Modern Warfare 3 for the title of Big Dumb Shooter of 2011. Previews hint at Battlefield 3 being another linear shooting gallery, rich in earth-shattering set-pieces, bereft of originality. Maybe that won’t be true. I hope not.

The times in my life people have liked me the most, responded in the warmest ways to my personality, I haven’t been seeking approval at all. When you’re happy to just be yourself, when you want nothing from others because you’re already fulfilled, that sort of shines through, and you’re fun to have around.

I wish Battlefield knew this. I want to grab it by the shoulders and shake it. “Relax,” I’d say. “We like you a lot already.”

And as for that girl? I bumped into her recently, on my walk home from work. She asked how I was doing. I tried to think of a funny reply, then shrugged and said “alright”.

You can’t win them all, I guess.

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Spectres of the Past: Halo 3

Halo 3 will always remind me of rum. I’d just finished university and moved back home, into the pokey corner bedroom of the house my mother had owned for as long as I’d been alive.

It felt like time had been rewound, as if the last three years had been a wonderful, seemingly infinite dream that I’d nonetheless awoken from and discovered meant nothing.

I’d split up with my long-term girlfriend, both of us agreeing our time together had been fun but ultimately worthless. My friends had drifted off to separate corners of the country. Most of the people I’d known from home had left to pursue careers elsewhere, occasionally emailing me to tell me about the design competitions they’d won or the freelance work they’d secured.

I had no plans. My degree was meaningless, an average grade from a bad university in a course I’d long since lost interest in. None of the jobs I could get I wanted, and the ones I did want required an effort to attain that felt beyond me.

I’d lie in bed in my tiny box room — the “Harry Potter cupboard”, as my sister called it — and stare up at a crack in the plaster by the ceiling, and wait for something to happen.

It was like losing a save file in a favourite game and having to start back from an earlier checkpoint, the thought of clambering over all the hurdles I’d leapt before draining me of energy.

So I gave up. I coasted. I got a job at the supermarket at the bottom of my road, rising at four in the morning to push trolleys down deserted aisles collecting shopping for online customers. I listened to Elliott Smith, read Sylvia Plath, watched interviews with David Foster Wallace. The irony that my heroes had all killed themselves was not lost on me.

The only person I really saw during that time, save my mother and the work colleagues I had nothing in common with, was Taz. We’d attended the same Methodist church playgroup as toddlers, and been close friends since we were eleven.

Taz had stayed behind while the rest of us went to university, and was now working at a mobile phone shop in town. Life was as fucked for him as it was for me.

We’d spend our evenings off together bored and directionless. Sometimes we went to a corner of the park and shared a joint, shivering in our winter coats. Other times we’d sit in the pub by the fire and talk about the traveling we’d done in New Zealand after sixth form, about the smell of the pine trees and the size of the sky, and the one morning we’d awoken in our tent to find it had snowed outside and the world was enchanted.

Mostly, though, we just bought bottles of rum and played videogames.

We drank a lot of rum back then. It felt romantic to me, always reminded me of Hunter S. Thomspon, his early novel The Rum Diary, or in the Las Vegas book how he’d talk about “sticking to rum and hash”. It was a drink to go with wild adventures. For Taz’s part, I think he liked the idea of being a pirate.

Sometimes we bought Havana Club 7 Year Old or OVD or Appleton Estate, if there was an offer on. Usually all we could afford was Captain Morgan. We’d buy a bag of limes and a bottle of Coke and make Cuba Libres, though I learnt later you’re supposed to use white rum. We always mixed the drinks with the same measure of Coke as there was rum. We thought we were pretty cool.

I don’t remember when exactly Taz bought Halo 3, whether it was the day of release or a week or two later. What I do remember is the rum we drank the evening we played through the co-op together. It was a bottle of Havana Club Anejo Especial. Not as good as the 7 Year Old, but still nice.

My day at work had gone the same way all days went. I’d walked to the supermarket through the frosted night, too early for it to be morning. I’d watched the delivery lorries coming in and day-dreamed (too-early-for-morning dreamed) about being on one, about the warmth of the heater and the enclosure of the cab, about the open road beneath my feet.

I’d shaken off my fantasy and headed in to work, logged onto the touch-screen computer of my first trolley, logged off from my brain. I’d watched the drunks stumble in for their cans of special brew, watched the racist bread man filling his shelves. I’d stood in the toilets and breathed slowly and tried really hard not to dissolve.

Hours had passed, empty, cavernous, submerged in a sepulchral blackness.

Then Taz had texted me, and it had read, “Got Halo, need rum.”

Three hours later I was letting myself into the kitchen of Taz’s dad’s house, the Havana Club and limes and Coke in a bag at my side.

Taz was in the backroom with the big TV and the ceramic-topped table, an Xbox controller in his hands, a lot of shooting on the screen. He looked up as I entered.

“Turns out,” he said, “I’m no good at Halo.”

I went back to the kitchen and found glasses and a knife. I chopped the lime on the ceramic table and mixed our drinks. Taz quit out of the single-player and set up a co-op campaign for us.

The co-op was the same as the single-player, except we went through it together. Taz got to be the Master Chief, futuristic cyber-enhanced yada yada yada, while I was a stick-insect alien with a rhino head and a glowing sword.

“I want to be Master Chief,” I said.

“It has to be this way round,” Taz said, “because in real life I’m pretty cool, and you look like a stick insect.”

I stabbed Taz with my glowing sword.

We played for a bit, and it became apparent I was no good at Halo either. I’d lost touch with console games over the PS2/360 years, and my thumbs were rubbish on the dual joysticks. Stumbling across a patrol of aliens in a riverbed I fired wildly into the water, wrenching my sights up in time to see a horde of purple grunts swarming me.

“I think we need to kill the leaders first,” Taz said. “Then the little guys will scatter.”

He shot the larger alien, then punched it to death with the butt of his gun. The purple grunts ran away waving their arms in the air.

We got lost in the woods, then Taz found a path over a log bridge, then a marine dropship crash-landed and we had to find the survivors. We reached a concrete facility and Taz got a grenade launcher, but then an alien with a giant hammer killed him. I ran away waving my arms in the air.

Taz poured us more rum. It was good, and along with the colourful Halo world made me forget the supermarket and all the rest.

Taz shot at the alien with the hammer and I shot at the floor.

“Use your sword,” Taz said.

I’d forgotten I had a sword.

Taz shot the alien more and I stabbed the floor with my sword, and eventually the alien went down and Taz took its hammer.

“STOP,” I shouted.

“What?”

“Hammertime.”

Taz looked at me. I drank more rum.

I started to get drunk. We found the sergeant from the crashed ship and escaped to a military base. Aliens invaded the base and we fought them back.

We drove out of the base in jeeps and we drove down an abandoned freeway and then we were in hoverbikes blowing up anti-air defenses and we were both getting drunk and we didn’t know where to go.

“This way,” I told Taz.

He’s shootier than me but I’m better at exploring. He followed behind me.

“We’re going backwards,” he said.

“I don’t think so.”

“This is the start of the level.”

I looked around. It was the start of the level.

“Well I think it’s this way then.”

I drove my hoverbike off a cliff. It wasn’t that way.

I respawned behind Taz and he got us back on track. We blew up the anti-air guns, then a giant mechanical scorpion appeared and killed us both. Taz rolled a joint and we went out to his patio to smoke.

It was dark. A gentle rain was falling and the flagstones were wet and shining. I was swaying a bit.

“What are we doing?” Taz asked, passing me the joint.

“I think we’re breaching a hole for our fleet to attack an alien artifact. Or we might be defending it. Or it might be a warp-gate. Or a weapon.”

“No, I meant what are we doing … here?” Taz waved his hand vaguely.

“Oh.”

I smoked the joint and tried to think of something to say.

“Remember New Zealand?” Taz asked. “How big the sky was?”

“Yeah.”

We finished the joint and went back inside.

We drank rum. Taz shot the legs of the giant scorpion and it fell over, and I jumped inside and found a glowing thing and shot it and the scorpion blew up.

A spaceship crashed into a city and killer plants came out and turned people into plant zombies, and we shot them. The killer plants crawled under the skins of their victims and mutated them into hosts to spread the parasitic infection. The hosts couldn’t think for themselves and weren’t really alive, they were just bags of juice and gas, coils of slippery guts … Mindless drones, their cells dividing — a self-replicating routine initiated with no purpose other than to maintain the routine, a meaningless plague trudging ever onwards against the endless void, repeating and repeating, until a day the stars would blot out and the sky grow black forever.

It reminded me of my job at the supermarket.

For the past few months I’d been meaning to write this script for a short film. The film would be about one of those human statues who perform on high streets, made up in silver paint, and the central conceit would be that this wasn’t just a job, but the guy’s existence. He could never move when people were looking at him. You’d see him on his lunchbreak trying to eat an iced bun, but a little kid would run up and he’d have to freeze, the bun halfway to his lips.

He’d be lonely as hell, surrounded by throngs of shoppers and tourists yet always silent and alone.

I wanted the story to have a happy ending. I wanted the human statue to meet and fall in love with a mime artist, and she’d recognise his separation and want to be separate with him.

The problem was, I kept not getting round to writing it. I’d think about starting, then I’d get kind of dizzy and unwell, and have to get up and do something else.

Taz had been meaning to apply for this apprenticeship to be an electrician recently, to learn a trade and maybe go traveling again. I imagine every time he thought about that application form, he got kind of dizzy and unwell the same as me.

Back in Halo 3 it was all kicking off. We’d gone to rescue a computer who looked like a woman from the plant zombies, but she’d only been a recording so we’d taken a battle fleet through a blue warp hole and now we were in a desert with sniper rifles. The aliens had energy shields and I kept missing with my sniper rifle and then we were driving round the desert and we had to clear a landing zone and I was dead drunk.

We needed to kill an alien who thought he was god because some rings were going to light up. Or did we want to light the rings so we could be gods? I was a god in this hovertank. I drove my hovertank into a wall and an alien blew me up. I wasn’t a god.

I respawned and didn’t have a tank anymore and ran around and there were aliens with energy shields and they wanted the rings but I wanted the rings and I had a gun and they had shields and I didn’t know where Taz was and I found a rock and hid behind it.

What did this all mean? What was I doing in this godforsaken desert, rum-drunk, stoned, a pink laser gun in my hands. I clamped another ammo pack into the slot and waited.

“Where are you?” Taz asked.

“Here. Where are you?”

Taz was zipping around on a hoverbike.

“Where’s “here”?”

“Let’s have more rum.”

I poured us more rum and missed my glass a bit and some of the rum went on the table. I had to concentrate to hold my glass without dropping it. The Coke was all gone but the rum went down well and didn’t burn.

I couldn’t see that well. Taz got off his hoverbike and came and crouched next to me. There was sand everywhere.

“We should push forwards,” Taz said.

There was sand and a rock and shit universities and laser guns and supermarkets and stories you couldn’t write and parasites that crawled under your skin and sucked the life out of you and turned you into a drone and you just existed and existed and existed. And then there was rum.

“I think we can complete this,” Taz said … but next thing he was skinning up and we were outside and he was saying Fish and I was saying Fish-Fish and we were back on the sofa and we were lying down and the bottle was in my mouth and I was the bottle and Taz had the rum and the rum was drunk and I was drunk and Taz was the lime and everything felt inside out.

Then I had the controller and I was looking at the screen.

“Why’re we in the desert?”

“We’re trapped in the desert.”

The Halo sky was large and expansive above us.

“Hey,” Taz said. “Like New Zealand.”

And it was like New Zealand, like that morning climbing out of the tent, with the snow blanketing the earth and the silence and the pounding of my heart, and the feeling, even then, the weight that is always there, at the bottom of it all, that feeling of pressure, of entombment, the prison that is your own skull, the isolation of existence itself.

We were trapped in the desert. I crouched behind our rock. Dark shapes moved at the edges of my vision, never there when I turned to face them.

Taz was beside me. We were trapped. There was nothing else for it. I took a drink of rum, and waited.

[Screenshot of Master Chief by Jacob Benton, used with permission]

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