It’s 2005 and I’m at university. I’m also lying prone in the undergrowth of some godforsaken battlefield, cradling my sniper rifle to my chest, watching an enemy helicopter descend out of the blue sky. There are three men in the chopper; I’m entirely outgunned.
But it’s cool. I have a line on those bad bitches. The three enemy soldiers are my housemates, sat in their rooms beneath me, and I’m listening in on their voice chat server. That’ll teach them for not waiting to make sure we’re all on the same team. Off having fun without me, are you? We’ll see how much fun you have.
I hear them talking and I get a weird frisson of excitement as I become aware of the power I hold over them. It’s fascinating, inferring from their radio chatter the aerial view of the battlefield they posses, then watching the same events on my monitor from an entirely different perspective. This is one of my first incursions into large-scale online multiplayer gaming, and my mind is still being blown a little bit by the possibilities. A shared world of objectivity, with these little threads of subjective first person storytelling being woven through it, crossing now and again, entwining, ricocheting off one another.
“Undefended base,” yells Mark, one of my so-called-friends. “Take us down.” In the nicest possible sense, Mark is the kind of guy who spends his evenings off browsing military databases, memorising the calibers of different guns. He likes war.
“I’ll land the chopper; you two claim the flag,” Robin yells back.
It’s ace in that helicopter, I wish I was with them. Robin, the eldest, has been gaming forever and leads the squad. He has a super-duper, turbo-charged joystick — probably a replica of one they use in real aircraft — and he flies helicopters like they’re an extension of his being. Me, I just power the things up and crash them into the nearest hillsides, but Robin could pilot one up the arsehole of a wasp, though I doubt he’ll ever be called upon to do so.
Off he’ll leap into the cockpit at the start of a game, and you all go barreling towards him, screaming to him not to take off until you’re inside as well. The first two to arrive get to be side gunners, controlling these mounted cannons that spit a thousands bullets a second and make you feel like God on a Bad Day. Everyone else clambers aboard where there’s room, pokes a rifle out, and prepares for the show.
Then you lift off, and it’s great. The ground shrinks below you and the whole level comes into clear focus. You can see all the way to the river winding away down there, and into the valley with the enemy tanks trundling through, and over the rooftops with the little ant-men scurrying across, and your left-brain knows you’re only watching a two-dimensional image made up of pixels of light on a screen, but screw it, it feels so real, and you experience actual giddiness.
At this point, if it’s your first time flying, you start shooting indiscriminately, empty cases zinging off the roof of the chopper and you laughing like a lunatic, lost in the crazed bliss of height and speed and power. “Get some, bitches! GET SOME!”
But the experienced soldier holds back. Relaxes into the groove. Difficult to hit anything at this level, with the chopper banking wildly, and no point wasting ammo. So you pick your target, and you wait, and when the pilot turns and you’re face to face with the enemy, in that one instant you let loose a motherfucking barrage like it’s Judgement Day. And whatever your sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading, left-leaning political tendencies, it always feels good.
At least, that’s what happens if you’ve been allowed on the right team.
Because, otherwise, you jog and crawl and puff your way over mountains and across lakes and through solitary forests, utterly alone since those thirteen-year-old jerk-offs you’ve been teamed up with have decided they’d rather ride away from you in their jeep, honking as they go, than play the damned game properly.
And you end up in some backwater grasslands, miles from the main thrust of the battle, checking your supplies for cyanide tablets and cursing your friends and the game and the world in general.
… And then you see the helicopter.
It’s not fifty yards above me, now. They’re going for the usual plan. The aim of the game is to capture bases, or “flags” — each one gives your team a respawn point for when people die, and helps deplete the enemy’s score. Get their score to zero and you win the match.
So my housemates’ tactic is to commandeer the chopper and fly it around all the out of the way bases, capturing them without encountering resistance, overwhelming the map before the enemy team realise what’s happening. It can be a little dull, winning points by avoiding the thrill of combat, but it certainly works.
The helicopter touches down on the grass in front of me. An expert landing.
“Good landing,” says Mark, over voice chat. Him and Robin take this war seriously.
“U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants Alex, the third housemate. He’s pretty much along for the ride. I think they bribed him with crisps to make up a full squad — although with me on the wrong team it doesn’t much matter — and, yes, if I listen carefully I can even hear the inimitable crunching of Monster Munch in the background.
I’m watching them through the sights of my sniper rifle. I try to gain control of the adrenalin rush making my mouse-hand shake.
“Looks quiet,” says Robin.
“Everyone ready?” asks Mark.
“Chomp, chomp, chomp,” says Alex.
I take a breath in, and hold it.
The crack of my rifle echoing through the valley is satisfying, but nothing to the sight of Robin slumping forward onto the cockpit of the chopper. There’s a circular hole in the windshield where my bullet has pierced the glass.
“Something is happening!”
Mark’s limp body drops from behind the mounted cannon and onto the soil below.
“I’m down! Get the hell out of here!”
“I’m down, too!”
Only Alex left. He makes a dash for the lake. We’re best friends; not two hours ago he was in my room listening to Janis Joplin records and watching Dylan Moran clips on Youtube.
I shoot him in the back of the head. He falls at the water’s edge, the lapping waves enveloping his lifeless corpse.
“Man,” Robin says. “Where’d they come from?”
“Dunno,” says Mark. “But they’re good.”
If anyone was watching the foliage sprouting beside the concrete bunker, they might see it wavering slightly, as if a figure hidden inside was giggling quietly.
Alex comes stomping up the stairs to my attic bedroom. I Alt+Tab out of the game and pick up a book from my desk.
“Battlefield is so shit,” he says.
“Tell me about it,” I say.
He sits down on my bed and throws me a half-eaten pack of Monster Munch. Pickled Onion, my favourite flavour.
Video games are great sometimes.
Battlefield 2 is an online multiplayer shooter developed by DICE and published by EA. It’s pretty old now and everyone will be better than you if you play it, but you can fly helicopters into hillsides, and that’s still so worth it.