The thing about WipEout HD is that I love it wrong.
I don’t love it because of its insane speed, which is totally insane and breakneck and makes my brain melt into a gooey, twitching, satiated mess. I don’t love it because of its high-definition 1080p visuals, which are so luxurious I wish I had higher definition eyes to take in the true majesty of its high-definition with. I don’t even love it because it reminds me of the first WipEout, which, back in those halcyon days of the mid-nineties, helped make gaming cool as it had never been before.
Those would all be right and proper reasons to love WipEout HD. But sadly they’re not my reasons. I love WipEout HD, purely and honestly, because I’m certain I’ll be better at it than my best friend Alex.
What you should know about Alex — a spidery, wire-haired Liverpudlian I met at university — is that he’s not someone who wants to win; he’s someone who needs it. His lungs fill not with air, but with the agonised screams of his defeated opponents. His heart pumps not blood to the gnarled recesses of his body, but a black ooze thick with the life-force of his many victims. Alex doesn’t play you at a videogame, he crushes you, remorselessly, in order to feed his organs the nutrients they require to … carry on crushing you, remorselessly.
I used to consider myself a laid-back gamer. I didn’t play to win, but to enjoy myself, and victories and losses were all part of the experience, and every failure held a lesson, and whatnot and so forth.
Then I met Alex, and a darkness was introduced into my life — a darkness from whose gloomy interiors rose the repeated, scouse-twinged refrain of “BOOM, HEADSHOT!”
I cannot begin to impress upon you the agonies of finding yourself in first place in a heated game of Mario Kart, not ten yards from the finish line, when a blue shell arcs down from nowhere and envelops you in its explosive radius … Then as you crash back to earth you see a blurred figure swerve round you and across the line … And you turn your head and there’s Alex, sitting back on the sofa, this tiny smile pulling at the lips of his otherwise impassive face.
He’s my friend and I love him, but moments like that I want to break every tooth in his goddamned mouth.
He once killed me 75 times in a row on the awp_snowsk337 level of Counter-Strike, and I punched my keyboard so hard the space bar hasn’t worked properly since. Our friendship was nixed for a full week in third year after some idiot brought Mortal Kombat into our student house. The less said about Diddy Kong Racing, the better.
And yet, just as Superman has kryptonite, Achilles has his gammy foot, and James Murdoch has Guardian journalists spearheading a Twitter-based grassroots protest against decades-worth of mud-slinging and shit-stirring, Alex too has his one weakness: he is useless at futuristic racers.
Not normal racing games, you understand. He takes to cars, karts, jet skis and snowboards with aplomb. Hand him a racer set in the present, or the past, or a mushroom kingdom in the clouds, and he’ll hand you back the last vestiges of your dignity.
But drop him in the cockpit of an anti-gravity hover-ship circuiting neon tracks suspended above the glittering spires of an alien city in the year 2342, and the lad is flummoxed.
Idly zooming around on my friend’s dog-eared copy of Star Wars Episode I: Racer one weekend at uni, I figured Alex to be unfortunate. He was awful at it, but then again I’d played years before, and still remembered how to do the boost. Even so, the look on his face as he limped over the finish line half a lap behind me was something new, something I could get used to.
Then one day I picked up F-Zero GX from the deserted Gamecube section of some videogame shop or other. Neither Alex nor I had played it before, so we were on level footing, only our inherent talent with the form to fall back on.
I proceeded to trounce Alex in every race for the next two weeks, until he threw down his controller and shouted that the game was “shit”, and I was cheating by “just fucking knowing when to turn quicker than me”.
The same complaint was echoed the day we found a second-hand Extreme-G cartridge for the N64.
Now I don’t know the reason he’s so bad at futuristic racers, I just know he is bad, probably worse than your mum or your baby sister or some kind of disabled crab. When there’s a boost-start he fluffs it; when the track splits in two he crashes into the central partition; if there’s a giant pipe to race across the outside of he accelerates too quickly and falls off. He doesn’t even remember to fly over the glowing blue pads at the end of a lap to recharge his shields. I mean everyone knows to fly over the blue pads. Martians composed entirely of gamma particles, residing in a dimension diametrically opposed to our own, in which the mere conception of digital entertainment is an impossibility, even they would be looking at him, going, “He didn’t fly over the blue pads, the moron!”
Alex has not, to my knowledge, played WipEout HD before. But it wouldn’t matter if he had. He could practise every day for the next forty years, and he’d still be pathetic.
And that’s why I love it. Videogames serve a variety of purposes. Some of them provide worlds you can lose yourself in for months at a time. Others are works of art to find meaning within, or dreamscapes waiting to be explored.
And then there are those others — the ones you buy simply so you can present them to your best friend and say, I will destroy you at this.
And then you write a mocking, defamatory article on your blog about it, and you imagine your friend’s face as he reads it.
And then you worry if somewhere along the way you lost sight of right and wrong, if gradually you’ve become everything you once despised.
And then you remember the feeling when that blue shell hit you in Mario Kart, and you think fuck it, and you click “Publish”.
And then you lean back, and you smile.