Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Gaming Education: Empire: Total War

The young soldier stands before the older man’s tent. His face is flecked with dirt, his clothes stained, ragged. His figure is that of a boy, but his eyes are weary beyond their years. Though fatigued, on the point on collapse, he manages to snap off a salute worthy of the parade ground to his commanding officer.

The older man smiles to him brightly.

“Yes, sonny?”

“General, I return from Fort Niagara. Our regiment was … decimated. The enemy’s numbers are far greater than you anticipated.”

“I see.”

“I rode night and day to bring you this news. An army is being amassed against us. They can be no more than a few hours march from this position.”

The older man sits in thought, the freshly polished buttons on his tunic glinting in the morning sun.

“Well,” he says after some time, “do you think we should try that diplomacy thing?”

“Sir?”

“You know, I could offer them, what was it? … Oh yes, access to our military?”

“I’m not sure that would be wise, sir.”

“Right, right, of course not. A state gift, then?”

“It may be a little late for–”

But even as the young soldier speaks, a cry is heard across camp. A scout runs to the older man’s side, salutes.

“Enemy forces have been spotted in the woodlands to our East, sir. And cavalry are advancing upon our Western flank. What are your orders?”

The older man scratches his beard. “Right, okay. I’ve got this. Lieutenant, take these men. No, sorry, I meant the men with the muskets. Where are the men with the muskets? Ah, yes, here they are. So take them, and — are you listening carefully? — turn them sideways. No, not that sideways. The other sideways. Starboard. Oh, that’s ships, isn’t it? Ere the rising of the sun. As the crow flies. Yes, that’s it.

“Now, take these guys — who are these guys? Doesn’t matter. Take them and stand them next to the musket men. Sort of next to, but also sort of in the middle of. Perfect.

“Right, now let’s get our cavalry and place them behind this building and forget about them for the rest of the battle. And tell those men … I don’t know what to tell those men. Tell them to hold steady. And to about-face. And present arms. And present legs.

“You know, actually, scrap all that. Get everyone here. Yeah, everyone. Gather round, chaps. Okay, new plan. I want you all to go kill that man in the red hat. His hat is stupid. And I want it. Kill that man and bring me his hat. And when you’re done, pick another man, and kill him. Rinse, repeat. Bish, bash, bosh. Battle will be over in no time. Then back home to raise and lower taxes randomly, build half a fishery and declare war on ourselves. Go Team … Who are we again? Whatever. Go us!”

As the troops begin moving out, the young soldier looks back at his commanding officer.

“Well, general, I suppose this is goodbye.”

The older man looks down at the boy. “You know, I have no idea why you all keep calling me that. I run a cake shop in Aberystwyth.”

“Still, sir,” says the young soldier. “You command, and we obey.”

“How odd. Anyway, looks like you’d better be off. Don’t want you to get left behind. See you later, maybe.”

“Yes, sir. Maybe.”

And the young soldier marches away. The older man sits by his tent, wondering vaguely when they’ll let him play with some ships, but mostly just dreaming of cake.

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Ascension

My friend Alex is trying to get me to buy Diablo III. He’s been trying to get me to buy Diablo III every moment that has passed since it was released.

“Have you bought it yet?”

“Nope.”

“How about now?”

“Still no.”

“You never buy it. Just buy it!”

It’s June, and the world is going mad for Diablo III. The latest magnum opus from Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft (Blizzard get more than one magnum opus), Diablo III is hot news. Twitter is awash with games journalists discussing it. My friend Steve is up to Inferno difficulty already. Quintin Smith has written a great piece on Eurogamer about why the game only truly comes alive on Hardcore mode, where you get one life, and if you die you have to start again from the beginning. Quintin Smith is the definition of “hardcore”.

I want to be a games journalist, but worry I haven’t played enough games. I need to get involved in this, the gaming event of the year.

Problem is, Diablo III retails for £44.99. My part-time bar job secures me roughly £500 a month, £370 of which goes straight on rent. After food, drink, travel, and phone contract, there’s very little left over for videogames — even magna opera from the creators of World of Warcraft.

So when my friend Alex tries to get me to buy Diablo III, I simply sigh, and change the subject. I don’t buy Diablo III. This is not the story of Diablo III.

***

“What the hell are we going to play then?”

I’m sat in my room. It’s an uncharacteristically sunny day, and prismatic rays of light are filtering through my blinds. I shield my monitor with my hand, the better to see my instant messenger conversation with Alex.

“You pick,” I say.

No beat. “Age of Empires II.”

Age of Empires II was Alex’s favourite game as a kid. At university, he used to quote barks from the people in the game every opportunity he got. “Gold, please,” he’d say if he wanted to borrow money. If he won at something: “It’s good to be king.” That was just one of his things.

He doesn’t do that any more, though. Neither of us owns Age of Empires II anyway — Alex lost his copy; I never owned it, because I want to be a games journalist but I haven’t played enough games. It’s just another old joke, a way of reminding ourselves of happier times.

Alex doesn’t have a job. He was doing this soulless HR thing at a soulless bank, but then the company cut the role because they’d spent too much money on cocaine and hookers for their executives. They told him if he wanted to stay with them he had to go on the phones in one of their soulless call centres. So he walked out. He’s my hero because of that, but I also appreciate it’s made him pretty unhappy.

I still have my job, at the soulless pub, so I’m unhappy for different reasons. And I’m unhappy because I want to be a games journalist, but I haven’t played enough games, and I don’t write enough about the ones I have played. The months of languor are turning into years, and my ambitions are dissolving like ethereal dreams, fractured by the morning light.

We’re stuck waiting for something to happen, never moving forwards, never doing anything new.

“Fuck it,” I say. “Let’s play Tribes: Ascend.”

***

Tribes: Ascend is a new game. It’s research. A multiplayer shooter about fluidity of movement and precision attacks, Rich Stanton gave it 10/10 in his review on Eurogamer, and Rab Florence has been calling it one of the best games on PC. Sweetest of all, though, it’s free-to-play. Even I can afford free-to-play.

We click the launchers on our respective desktops. My launcher tells me it needs to update the client before I can play. Alex says a swearword over Skype. I guess his has told him the same.

We wait.

“How many megabytes has yours downloaded?”

“78. You?”

“Hah. 93.”

The client updates, then the new client says it needs to download the latest patch files to bring the game up to date. We both say swearwords over Skype.

Alex asks how many megabytes mine has downloaded. I lie and say a high number. Alex says a number higher than that. I think he’s lying. The Skype call loses quality because of the strain on the connection, and our voices take on a metallic, robotic sound.

“I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle,” Alex says.

“I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.”

“What?”

“The lava bit, dude. Learn your history.”

We try to play megabytes-downloaded top trumps again, but so many files have downloaded we’re not sure we’re on the same one. So we play file-version top trumps instead. Alex’s file version is like 1.0.14.0.85.6. Mine is like 1.0.1145.08.9. We’re not sure which is better.

After another sixteen hours of this, the downloads whirr to a halt, and the “Play” button glows orange. We’re in.

***

I called Tribes: Ascend a multiplayer shooter before, but it could just as truthfully be called a multiplayer mover. It places as much emphasis on traversing the terrain as it does on fragging players. The stompy robots (or men in robot armour, I’m never sure) that you control are painfully slow on foot. But holding the spacebar allows you to begin sliding frictionlessly, or “skiing”, along the ground. You build momentum down hills, and maintain it on flats. Then hitting the right-mouse-button engages your jetpack, boosting you into the air, keeping up your speed.

The game therefore becomes a test of your ability to ride the landscape, carving lines into and out of the pockmarked arenas, skiing down hills, boosting over lips, arcing your descent back into the downward curve of a slope, faster and faster, like some kind of robotic ballerina.

And you share the stage with 31 other dancers. And half of them need to die. The weapons you carry are mostly of the grenade and rocket varieties, meaning they have their own arcing trajectories, and explode on timers or upon impact. Getting a kill generally involves watching the line an enemy is taking, at hundreds of km/h, then firing off a rocket ahead of them to intersect with their line. All the while dodging and leaping and feinting to avoid their projectiles.

That’s the plan, anyway. Our first match doesn’t end up like that.

We’re both playing Pathfinders — the fastest, but also most lightly armoured, class — and the bigger boys keep swatting us away like gnats.

We’re not building any momentum. We’re getting stuck in craters, trudging up slopes then being blown apart before we reach the top. We’re using our jetpacks in the wrong places, draining energy so it’s not there when we need it. I keep checking the scoreboard, increasingly despondent at our dire performance.

One red player in particular is going to town on us. An enormous Doombringer, with a chain cannon spitting death at thousands of rounds a minute, he’s standing tall in the centre of the map, blasting us apart again and again. He looks like he’s bought the best equipment via microtransactions.

“That guy is a prick,” Alex says.

“Yeah, I hate that prick.”

“LOLLL n00bs,” he types to us over in-game chat, after squashing us both for the tenth time.

The game finishes with Alex third from bottom on the scoreboard, and me second from bottom. The guy in last place only logged on a few minutes ago. Over on the red team, Doombringer Prick is top of the server.

The next games go no better. If anything, we get worse. The afternoon wears on. My room begins to get gloomy. I’ve got work again tomorrow.

Alex sighs. “Videogames are shit.”

I don’t say anything.

We’re on the post-match analysis page, a purgatorial screen awash with statistics breaking down exactly how abysmally we just performed. It’s clear we’re not playing our class properly. Pathfinders should be about mobility, nipping in and out of fights, chasing down targets, staying clear of head-on battles. We know that. But we’re not doing it.

“What was your top speed?” Alex asks.

But I don’t feel like playing top trumps. It’s one of our old things, and not funny any more. We used to have lots of things, silly little in-jokes that were great precisely because they were so dumb. But we never come up with new ones these days. We just rehash the old ones again and again, wringing the last vestiges of colour from them until they’re dead and grey.

***

Recently I wrote an essay about a game I liked, and it got republished on a big website, and a lot of people said really nice things about it. The essay was full of zen-like insights into the nature of reality, about how to find inner peace, how this game had taught me to be a better person.

But it was all lies. I know nothing of inner peace. In truth I’ve been utterly depressed since writing that essay, certain that I’ll never write anything good again, that all these people now following my work are going to be disappointed when they realise I’ve tricked them, that I have nothing worthwhile to say.

All the old jokes Alex and I keep telling, the top trumps, the way we always suggest Age of Empires II to play together, we do it for one reason: to avoid facing the truth.

So I decide to face the truth.

I’m 27. Half a decade or so older than most starting games journalists. For years I’ve been putting weird stories about games up on my blog, because I’m scared of the rejection of trying to get them published. I’m unhappy. I’ve probably not got what it takes to make it as a freelancer. I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen to me in the future. And I suck at Tribes: Ascend.

I face all that. I don’t do what I usually do, which is wish it wasn’t true. I just allow it to be. Stare directly into the eyes of the beast. It takes a lot of effort.

But simultaneously it removes a burden. Fuck it. There’s no point arguing with what has already happened. That just keeps you shackled to the past, repeating the same mistakes.

“Let’s play again,” I say.

***

It’s the Sulfur Cove level, with the spaceship hovering above the battlefield. I start skiing. Not even trying to get kills, Just enjoying the freedom of movement. I go up and down, up and down. Faster and faster. I see the lip coming towards me, and engage my jetpack, and then I’m launching into the stratosphere, gliding down gracefully onto the deck of the spaceship. I can see the whole level splayed out below me.

“Coo-ee.”

Alex looks up. “You bad boy. How did you get up there?”

He abandons his doomed firefight and starts skiing round, trying to build the speed to reach me. He keeps almost making it, but not having the momentum, and falling short. One attempt he’s inches from the barrel of my gun, close enough to touch, then he drops comically, Wile E. Coyote style, back to earth. He’s laughing. We’re both laughing.

And that’s when I realise the thing that has been strangling me for so long, the dark veil draped over everything, separating me from everyone, has gone. That’s when I realise I’m free.

The rest of the match, we dick around. A guy on the red team is called BernieTheBusMan, and we follow him like fanboys, cheering each time he kills us. When Doombringer Prick interrupts our fun with his chain cannon, we boo him.

“What do you reckon he looks like in real life?”

“I don’t know, but to be fair you’ve got to give it to him, being able to kill us both with one hand permanently stuffed in his mega-bag of Cheesy Wotsits.”

“And the other fondling his balls.”

***

Next match, I invent a new thing.

I’m skiing super fast, hoping to beat Alex come the post-match top speed analysis, and my momentum plows me into a hornets’ nest of enemies. Red icons everywhere, maybe fifteen in total, all swarming and buzzing, out for that fatal sting.

“Uh oh,” Alex says, spotting me from his safe perch.

But I feel strange. Like Neo facing down Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix. I’m not going to run any more.

I stop thinking. All becomes fluid. I leap, land, leap again. Rocket towards three of them. Twist. Leap. Rocket, rocket. Switch to shotgun, finish one, back to rocket. Leap. Rocket. Dodge. Rocket. Rocket.

I shotgun one between the eyes, and land. I reload, scan my surroundings. I’m alone.

“Haha. Bobby-the-Berserker,” Alex says.

“Yeah, well, fuck em. Fuck em where they live.”

And there it is. Fuck em where they live. It becomes our new thing. Alex tries to say it later, but gets it wrong, and says, “Fuck them at home.” So then our new thing becomes being street in the most middle-class way possible. “Fuck them at their nan’s house,” we’re saying before long.

That same match we get revenge on Doombringer Prick. He’s got loads of armour, but he’s slow, and can’t jump far. He doesn’t intimidate us any more.

I zip past him and unload my shotgun. Alex places a nice rocket at his feet. We boost way up, away from his danger zone, and Alex angles another cheeky rocket in. I’m past the zenith of my jump, coming down fast. I grasp my shotgun as I plummet towards him.

KA-THUNK. Both barrels to the face. I sweep right through him. The speed is exhilarating. He’s blasted out of the game, probably right off the internet. Somewhere, in some darkened basement room, a man has just spilt Monster energy drink all down himself.

“Cheesy Wotsits everywhere,” Alex remarks.

***

It gets late. We decide to call it a night. We log out of the game, but stay idling on Skype, as is our wont.

“Videogames are cool,” Alex says.

“Yeah, sometimes they are.”

“You haven’t written anything on your blog for a while, have you?”

“No.” I pause, swallow. “I’ve been thinking … I might take a break from it all. Just for a bit. It’s sort of ruining my life. I think I put too much pressure on myself.”

“Yeah, badly!” Alex says, as if he’s been waiting for me to admit that for a long time. “We all like what you write, but that’s not why we like you. Just chill for a bit, go easy on yourself. Then if it’s meant to come, it’ll come.”

And he’s right. If it’s meant to come, it’ll come. Uphill struggles will only wear you out. Just like in Tribes, the best you can do is learn to ride the terrain. Find an easy route, build some momentum, then you can start to tackle the harder slopes. And before you know it you’ll be soaring into that sliver of timeless time, the eternal now, where everything is open, and glorious, and you laugh for the sheer joy of it.

***

A month passes. Once again I find myself on Skype with Alex, just idling, as is our wont. I tell him I’m thinking about writing a little something about our time with Tribes: Ascend. Something short and breezy.

“Do it,” Alex says. “Just make sure you talk a lot about when I was top of the server.”

“Of course.”

“And don’t exaggerate about the time you fucked those three reds where they lived.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good,” Alex says. “Now, let’s get back to Diablo III.”

Because I’ve found the money. You always do, when it matters. The money wasn’t the problem, anyway; it was my fear of moving forwards.

Alex logs into the game. And I follow him, into a future filled with uncertainty and strife. For the first time in ages, I feel ready to confront it.

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