We’re trapped. Terrorists everywhere, closing in. Taz is crouched against a wall, his assault rifle swapped out for a close quarters MP5. The enemy are just round the corner. We don’t speak but I can see the play: with Taz covering me I’ll angle a grenade round the bend; in the ensuing confusion Taz can lean out and neutralise remaining threats. Textbook move.
My finger is off the button before I realise my mistake. I’ve not switched grenade type to Frag, instead letting loose a movement-concealing smoke grenade. Not ideal but it’ll still give us an edge – except I’ve misjudged the angle … the grenade traces a graceful arc through the air and lands against Taz’s face, exploding in a cloud about him. Kapooosh.
I charge through the smoke, hoping to atone for my blunder with the corpses of our fallen assailants. Round the corner and – I’m totally exposed; glint of weapons, body armour, daylight beyond … and I’m torn down in a storm of bullets.
* * *
My week off wasn’t supposed to be like this. The plan was no drink, drugs or distractions, only writing as if my life depended upon it, which maybe it does.
Except Day Three and I’ve written nothing, woke up this morning on my supervisor’s sofa after scum vodka … I stumble home and Taz is skinning up in a deckchair in the living room. Guess I’ll just have a few drags to cure this hangover circling like a buzzard … and there goes the day and the plan and my life.
I go “Brrrrr” as I breathe out, and don’t know why, and laugh. I realise I’m immediately stoned. Immediately Stoned – with capitals, like a phrase, like: “What’s up with Rob?” – “Nothing, he just got Immediately Stoned.”
That’s not even funny. Half a minute in and I’m already talking nonsense in my head and being a dick. Doesn’t bode well.
We put Rainbow Six Vegas 2 on. Taz sniffed it out in Game for a few quid and neither of us has tried it yet. We’re living together but working bar shifts at different pubs and never see each other. The prospect of some co-op buddy time together is inviting.
I remember a Rainbow Six on the N64, but that was forever ago. They’ve taken out the bits before missions where you pour over briefings and plan routes since then – guess Tom Clancy fans don’t like to read or think ahead – but in game it’s still about the tactics. First thing I notice is the preposterous storytelling – they’ve shot for a 24-esque tone, all: “Where’s the bomb? WHERE’S THE BOMB?! Dammit he’s not talking I need tech on the line NOW!” – except it doesn’t work, I don’t know who anyone is or why anything is happening. Fucking video games. I turn to laugh about it with Taz.
His response is cagey, irritated. He doesn’t like when I tear into a game’s writing, thinks I’m being elitist and missing the point. Could be, because while I’m scoffing at the garbled narrative Taz is settling into the game and learning its groove.
I’m feeling the sting of his resentment and playing badly. My brain gets muddled in a courtyard fire-fight and I unload a full magazine into someone’s back before I realise it’s one of our squad mates.
The controls feel back to front. You’ve got to click the right stick in to aim, what should be Aim is actually Take Cover, what looks like Change Weapon actually orders your squad about … it’s like they’ve made the scheme purposely counter-intuitive. Though that’s all academic, because in the heat of battle whatever move I attempt I just end up throwing a smoke grenade at Taz’s head.
It’s funny at first, joking how if I go into my pause menu every button will be assigned to “Throw Smoke Grenade at Taz’s Head” – we’re both laughing and this might turn out alright after all. But the laughter soon evaporates and I’m left worrying I’ve ruined my flatmate’s day.
Creeping out of a warehouse and suddenly the crack of a sniper shot. It hits me square in the chest and I crumple to the floor, dead. I dunno even where he is, Taz is asking me and I just dunno.
It’s stupid. I’m supposed to be the gamer, with the gaming degree and the knowledge and the blog, and I cannot play games. Solo, alone, is okay, but put me in a multiplayer situation and I go to pieces. I get this thought repeating over and over: “I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail” – it ricochets around my skull and it feels inevitable, like I can’t stop it coming true.
Taz spots the sniper – rooftop opposite – but too late; he’s hit and down. I haven’t respawned yet so that’s Hard Luck and back to the start of the level.
The weed is giving me a nervous, oppressive high, and I’m not feeling good. Losing control of my thoughts. Remembering playing sports at school, how I’d get the ball and before I even shot I’d just know I was going to miss.
Taz adjusts his setup before heading back out, puts a scope on his assault rifle and takes flashbangs in place of smoke grenades. My thoughts are fragmenting and leaping about and I adjust nothing because I’m too busy lost in memories of humiliation on the football field.
We reach the sniper again, Taz kills him. A little further and we get pinned down in a scrap yard – I think it’s a scrap yard, hard to tell on our lame TV and I’m barely concentrating on our surroundings anyway. Taz is a rock, squeezing off shots from a position of cover. I’m out in the open Blam-Blamming away, like Rambo but hitting shit-all, and it doesn’t take the terrorists long to rip me apart.
Taz has said nothing but I can feel his frustration, his rising anger. I’m way too stoned and close to tears.
The scrap yard has us snagged. Taz goes to make food and I get up and open the French Windows and stare out at the city below. A young girl wrestles a pram up the hill. Her hair is slicked back. Shopping bags swing from the handles of the pram.
Everything is wrong. I feel very afraid. All this failure is pulling my thoughts inexorably towards the only logical end point, which is oblivion. Not the Bethesda game, but nothingness, death.
Life’s been set up as a fight for survival, a raging against the dying of the light. But now, stoned, staring down at lugubrious streets, I am aware of how futile the fight ultimately is. The more I rage, the closer I come to the end. I am going to die, everyone I love will die, the earth will be eaten up by the sun and the whole universe will blink out of existence.
The idea of death is terrifying. I can’t get a hold on it. What is it? What does it feel like? Nothing, it is no-feeling. But how can that be? How is it fair that I am this brief blip of existence, surrounded on all sides by non-existence, a flame that flickers once and is then blown out forever?
Then a strange thing happens. I become aware of the emptiness around me. The space between objects, the void in which all things hang. It is entirely still, and there is a power there. I feel it inside me.
My thoughts are still exploding out, but I can feel the stillness between them, around them, within them. There is so much empty space. My thoughts lose their power. The empty space is peace.
There’s this story, really old but I first came across it in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The story is about an Eastern monarch who gathers the wisest sages in his kingdom and sets them the task of creating the perfect phrase, some words that will be true in all situations. After much deliberation the sages return to the monarch. The words they bring him are: “And this too shall pass.”
The fear of death is the fear of permanence. An ending, a finality, that lasts forever. But I’m not sure this makes sense. I don’t see any endings in the universe I live in – or beginnings either. Only changes.
If life passes then death passes too. If being passes then non-being passes; if the universe passes then no-universe passes. Whatever non-existence is – I was born out of it. I don’t remember it being so bad.
* * *
Taz comes back from the kitchen with food. It looks terrible. Reheated takeaway and there are suspect chunks. Suspect Chunks, with capitals. I smile.
I make eye contact with Taz, for the first time in hours, and feel my face relax. It’s like I’ve come back from far away.
We play Rainbow Six again, and it has changed. I drop the Rambo ego trip and take more of a backseat. I spend less time in direct contact with the enemy and more time issuing orders to our team. As Player One I’m in charge of our computer-controlled squad mates, able to manuever them around and give instructions with the D-Pad. I was mostly ignoring the system before, but now find giving it some attention increases our flexibility and flushes us with the thrill of team work.
I’m marking more targets as well – highlighting their position rather than taking them out directly. It allows us more time to plan moves, and using it to set Taz up for a neat headshot feels like the Taoist principle of victory through yielding, letting go of personal gain and enjoying the happiness of others.
We clear the scrap yard, sweep through a Rec Centre. We’re roleplaying like real Swat guys now, covering each other and shouting Clear when rooms are empty. Boys with their toys, although the right-wing cynicism of the game is beginning to grate – who the hell are all these terrorists? What do they want? Why do they hate America so much? I look for the button for “Take Terrorists to Coffee Shop and Discuss Hypocrisy of Western Hegemony with Them.”
I throw a smoke grenade at Taz’s head.
* * *
It is later. We’ve had enough. Fighting through swanky apartments and there’s too much resistance. We both die for the fifth time and Taz suggests calling it a day. I agree.
We didn’t complete the game. I never became a legendary Swat commander. The universe is still collapsing, and I and everyone I love are still going to die.
But it’s alright. I’ve had a grand time this evening, and I’m reminded of something else Kurt Vonnegut says, from the same book with the story of the Eastern monarch. It’s the last novel he ever wrote, as an old man imparting his wisdom upon the world. “Listen,” he says. “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
Affirmative on that, Kurt.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is a tactical shooter developed and published by Ubisoft. It is available for the PlayStation 3, XBox 360 and PC. It has a rubbish story, but don’t tell Taz.