Just a quick note if anyone stumbles across this blog, if any virtual eyes are still trained this way, that I now post across at The Scouring of Saucepans. The remit is wider, films and politics and esoteric Eastern religion and even some haltering attempts towards fiction, but maybe there’ll be something about good old vidjagames somewhere down the line. Never say never, eh? Anyway, if anyone cares, that’s where you can find me. Peace and cuddles.
This one is an M4. I know this one, have held it many times, in many different worlds. A Colt M4 Carbine, gas-operated, with selective fire options and a telescoping stock. Widely used by the U.S. Military. Very popular.
I turn over the one now in my hands, inspect its contours, its engineered curves, the hard, metallic faces. Carbines are shorter than typical rifles, trading accuracy at long-range for increased flexibility and manoeuvrability.
This one is so real. I wonder how much the developers have paid Colt for the privilege of replicating their designs, their brand name. There’ll be the monetary costs, fees for licensing the model and its official designation — and then there’ll be those other, hidden charges as well. Stipulations set down by Colt, not to show the weapon underperforming, not to allow it to be held by enemies of the free and the brave. The developers have, ultimately, relinquished creative control of their work to corporations whose motives are ulterior to the purity of that work.
But it’s worth it, right? For the increase in verisimilitude, to ensure a truer depiction of reality in all its authenticity, all its naked honesty. That’s what the boys in their bedrooms are craving. Right?
A bullet richochets from the wall beside me, and I remember myself. My sergeant is shouting for me to hold this position. I am in a desert town in … Well, does it matter? Somewhere that harbours enemies of the free and the brave. There is a small square. There are fruit stalls in the square. Earthenware pots, upended, disgorge their contents onto the cobbled ground. An abandoned car sits in an alley to the north, light glinting from a bent wing mirror. Our squad has found cover to the south. The sun is high. The sky is brilliantly blue.
We are under fire.
The shots come intermittently. We hear a crack, then the pop of a bullet lodging in a crumbling wall, or else a puff as a small cloud shoots up from a hit skidding across the ground.
I glance out. The rest of my squad are defending their positions, kneeling behind walls and makeshift barricades, occasionally firing forwards loosely to the north. They are not helping much.
I search for the source of the enemy fire. I hear the crack of the shot, look for the flash but don’t see it — and a geyser of fruit pulp and splintered wood explodes out from the stall inches from my face. I duck back and pull my legs in close to me.
There is the stall in front, a stretch of emptiness to the right, then the next stall. The stretch is maybe three metres. I gather myself onto the balls of my feet, my head low, gripping my weapon tightly, and I wait.
The crack comes, then barely a moment, then the thud of the bullet. I push myself out from cover, springing off my toes, and dash across the empty space. There are dates scattered over the ground, they squash as I run but I do not slip. I charge low while looking up — I see the flash, hear the crack, I try to dive, everything is very slow, there is a shattering, and then I am behind the stall on my belly and my face is pressed into the cobblestones which are warm from the sun.
There is a ringing in my ears. I open my eyes. My legs feel wet, there is heaviness on the back of one knee. I lie for a moment and listen to the ringing and wait for the pain to come. There is no pain yet only the heaviness and the wet sensation. This is what it is like then, I think.
I turn onto my back slowly and the heaviness rolls away. I look down. A basket is lying upside down beside my legs. Apricots are strewn around the basket. Some are squashed beneath me and the juice is soaking into my legs.
I find my weapon, hoist myself up, lean against the stall.
I saw the flash. I peer just over the top of the stall, then back down. Yes. A figure in the ground floor window, the house by the alley, next to the abandoned car.
I take an M67 grenade from a pouch in my gear. I hold the grenade into my abdomen, grip the body and the safety in my right hand, use the index finger of my left hand to hook into the pin, then, with force, I wrench the grenade from the pin. I arc the grenade high and hard over the stall, ensuring a bounce and roll to decrease the chance of it being thrown back. I drop and hold my hands over my helmet and listen to the roll of the grenade over the cobblestones. The roll lasts a long time.
The explosion when it finally comes is dull and fast. A patter of dirt falls, and already I am up, between stalls, racing forwards. I grasp my M4 in both hands. There is a tangle of metal on the ground, a bicycle frame, and I leap it. Halfway across the square I see movement in the ground floor window. I pump with all my energy. Forwards, forwards; I clear the square, I reach the window; there is movement; I vault the windowsill and I am inside, there is a rug, there is a television set, there are pictures in cracked frames and there is the shooter. He is retrieving his AK-47, he tries to raise the rifle but it is unwieldy, I turn my carbine on him and squeezing the trigger in burst-fire mode I drive three bullets in quick succession into the man’s chest.
He sits down. He isn’t blasted by an awesome force, he just sits down. He sits down bodily. He makes a noise. It is a gasp. It might be a gasp or it might be air escaping a punctured lung.
I look at the man. He has a soft face and smooth skin. He has a mole on one cheek. His face is that of a boy I was in middle school with, though this man wears the long beard that is traditional in Islamic countries. There is sweat and dirt on his face. His eyes are brown, they look surprised. He is wearing shalwar kameez and the shalwar are torn on one knee. The kameez is white but there are three circles of red blossoming where the bullets have entered, and underneath the kameez his chest is ragged and open.
The man lies down. He makes the small movements of an animal in pain. I look at him. He is lying in dust. There is much dust and debris scattered from the battle. The man is going to get dust inside his chest. Doesn’t he see all the dust? He is going to get dust in his wounds and then it will be harder for the surgeons to operate.
I keep looking at him. There is some blood. It is underneath him. He has smudged some under his legs where he is squirming gently. I look at the smudged blood and I feel very much that I am here. I am here and the man is here and so is the blood and the dust and all of this. The cracked pictures, the faded rug. Existence is very much here. I think about asking the man if he knows this but I notice he is not moving any more so I go over and bending down I see that he is dead so I stand up and go outside.
The sun is still shining. The day is calm. I walk to a broken wall and sit on the rubble. I adjust my helmet, it has slipped to one side and I set it back on top of my head. The strap of the helmet is itchy under my chin.
I just killed that guy, I think. That guy is dead.
There is none of the horror. Everything is ordinary. Except the sunlight is very bright. The brickwork of the wall is very real. And there is a vibration coming from somewhere, from inside me; it builds and builds, everything inside is vibrating and there is nothing in the middle to hold it, there is an emptiness between my skin, everything is coming out. The sunlight is very bright. I breathe and breathe and I am alive like I have never known it, my fingers, my intestines, even my bones are reverberating with life; I take deep breaths and suck life down into me.
I look at the red of a car door and it curves magnificently.
My squad mates arrive and we continue on and complete the level. I earn a gold medal and many points and there are upgrades I can buy but I can’t concentrate on them because there is this thought that fills me up and I cannot get past it and the thought is that I just killed that guy, that guy is dead.
Later on I still don’t know if I want to add an M203A1 grenade launcher or an M26 under-barrel shotgun to my M4, but I’m glad the money has been spent to include all these real-world weapons. It’s the little details like this that help make the game so true, don’t you think?
[This work of fiction was partly inspired by an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Simon Parkin, which explored the links between arms manufacturers and the games industry.]
He fades out on the ride home. It is later than he thought and the bus is crowded, but he is alone. His mind drifts from the dirty jokes of the boys opposite, from the immobilising sweetness of a girl’s perfume, from the condensation on the windows, and the wet streets repeating behind them, and comes to rest in the emptiness of the sky.
There is the sensation of rolling, a gentle, undulating motion, but nothing more. Time passes. He snaps back into consciousness, and finds his jaw is going.
At home he closes his curtains, turns on his computer. The whir as the machine readies itself unnerves him; he sees images of gears and cogs, arcane machinery receding into dark depths. He feels pulled down into the hallucination; the picture morphs, melts; suddenly he is travelling through the pathways of his own brain, an electrical current sparking along synapses, burning them up as it passes, coiled hairs crackling over a bonfire in the night.
He shakes his head. He should try to sleep soon, though he knows it is not time yet. Now is that hard stretch of time when existence has a physical form, when its dimensions can be felt, its choking weight, stretching dull and blank into an interminable future. There is too much existence.
He decides to play a videogame. He has not been playing games recently — their guns, their machismo, their endless, hollow grind, has begun to feel inane to him — but now, drained yet awake, his mind floating back from a distant place, he has a need to play.
What he plays is a game called Proteus. It is a short game about music and exploration, a cool breeze, a digital world he knows will envelop him — and he needs to be enveloped, before the voice that is beginning to rise back behind his thoughts, the cold voice he had heard so stark and fundamental last night, has a chance to take hold.
He clicks the icon for Proteus. He goes in.
He awakes in water. An island stretches from the mist before him. It is pixelated, pastoral. He wades to the shore, hearing only the sound of the water. It is a clear, pure sound, majestic in its totality.
On land a song begins to build in his ears. Everything in this world has its own tune — the trees, the clouds, the Earth itself. He stands and lets the island’s chorus wash over him.
He makes his way inland. Up from the shore he finds a small creature resting amongst the flowers. Startled by his approaching figure, the creature springs away into the undergrowth: Bip, bop, boop.
He stops by a tree. Blossom falls to the ground. He finds it is almost sensuous, how the blossom falls, how delicately it lands upon the grass. It has that way about it, he thinks, the acceptance, the loss of resistance.
He continues on. There are no people on the island, no objectives. Only an ever-changing symphony of meadows, flowers, rocks, sea and sky.
He finds a path and follows it. The path leads him up a mountain. He stands at the summit and watches cloud banks roll in beneath him. The clouds nestle into the contours of the land, blanketing the world in a soft-hued fog. Peaks jut from the clouds in the distance. The wind whistles about him.
The sun begins to set. Light retreats from the world, leaving the sky cool and dark and alone. Stars come out. The moon rises.
He walks to a cliff top above a little cove and follows it round, watching the moonlight on the waves below. He descends through dense woods, feeling solitary yet protected. Eventually the woods open out onto a beach, quiet in the night air. There are rain clouds. The rain falls across the ocean. He listens to the raindrops as they patter into the sea.
The sky clears. He stands under a canopy of leaves, branches groaning in the dark, waves lapping the shore. He looks out, far away, over the horizon. There is a peace to the land. The softness of the night carries him away, draws his thoughts back to a night very different to this one. To last night …
He remembers the anxiety in the club, waiting to come up. How the faux leather seats in the booth had been sticky, how they had smelt of beer. He remembers looking at the faces of the people he was with, faces he knew but did not know, and feeling that they were on the other side of a great chasm, a silent expanse he could not cross.
The dance floor had been filled with beautiful people. He had looked at them and wondered where they came from, what force propelled them, how they could glide through life so effortlessly, the thing that held him down passing over them unnoticed.
On the edge of the dance floor a girl had spoken and he had turned around, but the girl had not been speaking to him, and he had felt a chill, and he had known then that he was not going to get high.
But then later, at the bar, after the first rush had taken him, he had felt like liquid, felt smooth, like he was washing away, and he had decided it would be OK. The bartender had had one iris darker than the other and he had joked with him, how the gin was the bad gin not the good gin, and he had said next time a water, his jaw going a little, and the bartender had smiled because he knew, and everything had been fine, had smudged nicely.
But a few minutes later the wave had already broken, and he had found himself in a cubicle, his back to the door, listening for bouncers, reaching for his key. He had looked down and seen the urine on the floor, had felt the cold you often feel in toilets, and he had realised that all barriers had been destroyed.
He had been naked, alone, alert to the truth, to the realisation he could not escape from. He always felt it, usually dull, hidden just out of sight, but now it was right before him. A kind of dread, a loathing of life. Nothing was enough. All would die; all would cease to be.
In his altered state the everyday aspects of his personality had been stripped from him, and all that was left was the singular truth: he had no home in reality. Life was cold, chaotic, and utterly repugnant in its ordinariness, its blatant mundanity.
So he had done then what he always did, which was to run. He had drowned the realisation in alcohol, burned it with chemicals, trying to obliterate it, and everything else along with it. He had forced himself into the rush, charging headlong down a corridor between the stars. Smoke and lasers and twisting nothing, thrashing nothing. Faster. Coming, arriving, dancing. Lost. A bassline, a light shining through his beer bottle, a moment of tranquillity, of silence — then faster, powder, keys, drink; faster and faster, arriving, arriving; I do not know where I belong; arriving, faster, faster; I am lost; I am lost.
And then just blackness.
In Proteus, the first light climbs lazily from its slumber behind the world, and a new day begins.
He sets off to roam the valleys of spring. Wind buffets the trees. Insects chirp in the bush. A ring of trumpet-like flowers sway and honk in the dawn. When he gets close the flowers yelp and dart back into the ground.
He walks on and on.
Seasons whirl. Summer arrives. Toadstools grow in the valleys, bees hum beneath the trees. The air is thick with the chatter of life, voluminous and swollen. The sun blazes down. He looks up and feels the sun’s embrace, feels how it is boundless, yet indifferent also.
The sky turns coral, then magenta, then amethyst. An owl glides through the night, settling noiselessly in a distant tree. A shooting star streaks across the firmament above, aflame for one precious moment, then is gone.
Autumn is sombre, reposeful. The oranges and reds deepen. He watches a single tree for many minutes, its branches a silhouette against the sky, its leaves falling with an elegiac beauty. The tree’s lament, the waiting ground, the mournful arc of the moon overhead, swells something within him, and tears come to his eyes.
He heads down to the ocean once more. Always he is drawn to the sea. As he stands there a silence builds in his ears. It is not a silence of the world, but rather behind the world. It is a silence, he realises, within himself.
Then comes the hard, crystalline charm of winter. Snow draws the world in, mutes its sounds. Everything is close, celestial, sacred. He walks across the transformed land and out onto the frozen sea, and snowflakes fall from the heavens.
The snowflakes fall and fall. They fall past his eyes, through his body; they touch nothing; they fall forever. He walks into the snowflakes and he listens to the music emanating from all manifested things — and to the silence behind them, the silence from which the notes are born.
The notes and the silence. They go together, he sees. The music is not just the notes, but the silence also. Two sides forming with their union a great and impenetrable song — a song of cycles, of death and rebirth, of flux. It is a song of awareness. A song of return.
And a voice within himself begins to harmonise. It is the same voice from last night, though it is no longer twisted in fear, unable to face reality. It is his own voice. And now it is singing with the voices all about it, another refrain in the multitudinous ballad that is nonetheless composed around a singular theme. The music forms into words.
Wake up, the world sings. Wake up.
The snowflakes fall. He walks through them, and upwards, into the emptiness of the sky.
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.
“General, I return from Fort Niagara. Our regiment was … decimated. The enemy’s numbers are far greater than you anticipated.”
“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?”
“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.
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?”
“How about now?”
“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.
“How many megabytes has yours downloaded?”
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.”
“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 18.104.22.168.85.6. 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.
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.”
“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.
There’s this speech that always chokes me up, given to a graduating class at Kenyon College in America, by the writer David Foster Wallace. It’s a beautiful speech, infused with a kind of honest optimism that is less hope for the world to be a certain way, and more determination to see the world as it truly is, to see the terror and splendour that shines forth from every small moment of existence — every lonely evening at the supermarket, every petty encounter with motorists on the drive home from work.
That Wallace, three years after the speech was given, succumbed to the demons of depression he had battled his whole adult life, killing himself in 2008, in no way invalidates his message. Rather, it charges it with even more urgency, even more pathos. There are dark times ahead for all of us, he seems to say — work hard to love and to feel, while you still can.
Anyway, Wallace opened his speech with a joke about fish, and it’s this joke I’d like pilfer now, respectfully, as an opening for this essay.
There are these two young fish, so the joke goes, just swimming along, slacking off. They see an older fish in the distance, swimming towards them from the opposite direction. As the older fish passes, he waves his fin at the youngsters and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a way, in silence, then finally one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is ‘water’?”
Now, that is a philosophical joke, which means partly that it’s not funny, but also that its profundity is revealed gradually, the deeper you consider it. The point is that, while it is easy for us to see water for what it is — as outsiders looking in — for the fish it is always there, and thus very hard to be aware of.
This is a message worth keeping in mind when thinking about Journey, the latest release from Thatgamecompany, developers of the zen-like Cloud, Flow and Flower. Journey is a remarkable videogame, a work of art that commentators across the spectrum of gaming have found much to ponder within.
For me, Journey is about the only thing that art worth any goddamn can ever be about, which is what it is we’re all doing here. Journey is about truth, about base reality, about this experience of being itself we so often ignore. It is a call to look around us and remember that, as David Foster Wallace puts it: “This is water. This is water.”
We humans like to think we’re pretty hot shit. We stand, like the figure in that screenshot up there, overlooking our kingdoms, lords of all we survey. We are intellectual beings, gods on Earth; we have split the atom, put man on the moon, invented squeezable jam. We have mastered chaos.
And yet we trudge onwards under a shadow. There is a great shape towering over us, and it is brought closer with every step. We are on a fixed path, ushered forwards, and there can be no escape. We stand upon a precipice, waiting for the moment we will be tipped off. And then … Who knows? For all our nuclear reactors and space shuttles and tubed-jams, we have no clue what will happen when we take the final fall. Our arrogance is really a mask for fear, for the truth of our situation, which is that we are but insignificant flames, blazing once in an endless void, soon to be extinguished forever.
There is, certainly, a sense of this evident within Journey. Its tale of an enigmatic robed figure travelling through a vast desert towards a distant mountain can be read as a treatise on death, a declaration of the inconsequentiality of man’s power and knowledge when measured against the vastness of the cosmos. We are tiny specks scuttling across a universe that feels nothing but cold indifference to our plight. We are alone, and we will all die.
The thing is, while Journey might present us with these facts, the conclusions it arrives at are far from nihilistic. In the vigour and exuberance engendered through traversing its undulating sands, you feel not despair at your insignificance, but liberation. The treatise on death is transformed into a treatise on life. And not life as opposed to death, but life including death.
Because the real truth of our situation is not that we are standing on a precipice, waiting to fall, but that we are falling already, and haven’t yet hit the ground. Rather than peering down into a dark unknown, we are actually in this dark unknown right now. The dark unknown is, at our most fundamental level, us.
It hardly matters that we don’t know what will happen when we die, because we don’t even know what will happen when we live. We don’t even know what we mean when we say “know”.
“The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
These wry, wise old words come from the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, a screed regarding the Tao, or hidden flow, of the universe. It’s telling that the lines, among the most penetrating — and most quoted — in philosophical discourse, comprise a negative statement — telling us what is not, rather than what is. In much of Taoist (and subsequent Zen) thought, the assumption is that awareness of base reality — and thus liberation, enlightenment — is not something that can be intellectually arrived at, but a fundamental truth of existence that we simply have to stop trying to attain, and remember is here, right now, for us all to experience.
We don’t often think like this in the West. Our busy, fearful, left-hemisphere dominated minds have a hard time relinquishing control and placing faith in a more natural, less forced intelligence. A Zen master would remind us that a finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, while our great thinkers tie themselves in knots wanting written instructions how to look from the finger to the moon, how eyes switch targets, how light is converted into electro-chemical impulses, and how that happens, and how that happens.
We believe it is possible to “know” everything, and we do so erroneously. For what we mean by “knowing” is really just grouping, ordering, filing away. To know a thing is to delineate it, to demarcate its boundaries, its opposites, to cut it away from the rest of the world so it may be observed. In doing so we build complex maps of the relationships between things, yet we say nothing of the things themselves. You cannot demarcate that which has no opposite. To try is to confuse the map with the territory.
I still remember this faux intellectual punk I used to know, who once sneered, “Everyone gets so soppy about love, without realising it’s just a chemical reaction in the brain that means nothing.” The kid thought that because he could classify love, he could explain it away! He didn’t recognise that the whole universe is a chemical reaction — if viewed through the framework of chemistry. Love, or fear, anxiety, joy, are what chemistry feels like from the inside. We are a chemical reaction experiencing itself! To borrow again from the Tao Te Ching, “Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.”
This isn’t, however, to say that the Western mind is worse at perceiving truth than the Eastern mind. For where our intellectual discourse fails, our art provides answers. Art is a way of presenting truth as honestly as possible, a kind of meditation — both in the creation and the contemplation — that allows us to see deeply into things as they really are. Whether staring at a lapis lazuli pendant from ancient Mesopotamia, vibrant with preternatural colour, or feeling a creeping dread at the hellish rabbit visions conjured onto film by David Lynch, or exploring the simulated realms of a modern videogame, art lets us step back and refocus on what is, reminds us of the incomprehensibility of this teeming mass of reality blossoming each moment around us, and within us.
And when we do so we are transformed. We no longer bustle along the forest path, eyes down, heads busy with What Jason Said Yesterday, or Why Sarah is Such a Cow — but instead look up, and remember that we are, at this very moment, in paradise, and we better appreciate it now, before it is gone for good.
This is what Journey does for me. It is, I think, an antidote to the suffering we feel when we misjudge our place on Earth. Sometimes we trudge up dunes, and the going is tough. Sometimes we surf and sail downhill, and we feel borne on the wind. Such is life.
There is a mountain towering over us, the engulfing light at its peak drawing closer with each step. But this mountain need not be a spectre. It can instead be a warden — a lighthouse guiding us home, waiting patiently for our return. We soar up its slopes, our hearts glad. We are tiny, we are empty, we know nothing — and how very beautiful that ultimate truth is. For when we are empty of ourselves we can let everything else in, and it is then when we find our real selves, not apart from the universe, but a part of it, growing out of it, growing back into it.
And we are far from alone. Look at all these other travellers around us, pilgrims on the same journey. When we meet others in Journey, we no longer care about measuring them, comparing them, judging them. We don’t wish to manipulate them, nor do we fear being manipulated by them. We see them for who they truly are, empty as well, and we can enjoy simply existing with them, being with them, as we once did as children in that half-forgotten world of dreams we used to inhabit.
There we stand, together, on the precipice of all things — two tiny hearts beating in unison against the drone of an endless cosmos. What is there to do but sing? So we sing.
And, somewhere down there, over the precipice of all things, the endless cosmos sings back.