The snow’s been falling hard for twelve hours, and I haven’t taken off my pajamas for any of them. For the six of them that I’ve been conscious, I’ve watched three episodes of X-Files, two of Archer, and three of Rick and Morty. I have not played a game. I’m saving myself.
Alex’s text comes at 5:12pm: “Be there at six?”
I steel myself and reply: “Do it.”
I crack my knuckles. This will be session eight.
My only response is moving my Valkyrie a few steps away from the door. Jun and I communicate in simple language. Warrior language. We’ve faced many digital enemies, sometimes on the field together, sometimes with one of us playing backseat sniper.
The door drops, and the zombies come out. I play the tank, trusting Jun’s finer mastery of the game to maintain order when the hordes break through my neophyte police tactics. I throw up my shield to fend off the attackers, and Jun’s wizard shatters them with his ice ray. Another room cleared. Gold bursts upon the floor, and we collect it as a matter of course. Later, we are killed by spiders.
Jun is responsible for most of my gaming. I gave money to World of Warcraft after the fifth phone call that ended in “Hey, I’d like to talk, but I’m in a raid right now,” and I knew I needed to validate our conversation with my own raiding. Long before that, I borrowed his couch for a summer, and my ability to occasionally not die at the hands of his tiger-headed wrestler earned me the twenty-something respect one needs to keep sleeping on near-strangers’ couches.
Once we were both employed, he would show me Metal Gear Solid, and I would track an old man through the jungle and kick him a lot. In the next iteration of the game, I would be an old man and get kicked a lot. Later, I would show Jun the latest Hitman game, and we would each play our signature style: I killed a dozen men to “discreetly” drop a 400 pound light fixture on my target, while Jun disguised himself as a fighter and went into the ring to beat him to death.
Alex and I are two parts of the triumvirate that transcended the closing of our sacred bar. Alex, Librarian; Danny, Blower of Glass; I, Peter, Something About Computers. No matter how many bars succumb to the onslaught of progress, we will be toasting the past and future together, and Danny will be complaining that we look gay because there are no women with us and we’re sitting in a dark corner so the bartender can’t smell the pot on Alex.
To further Danny’s frustration, Alex and I constantly descend into the finer points of PlayStation games, because we’ve accepted the emptiness of the human condition in a way Danny has not. The rift need not be, because the concerns of the player of games are the same as the concerns of life: story, logistics, and nausea. Is the story engaging? Is the environment navigable? Do you want to throw up?
Alex, despite a penchant for seizures and nausea, likes Call of Duty. I prefer whatever theme Bethesda has slapped on the latest rerelease of their graphics engine. But in the land between these #fffff0 towers, our minds meet on the odd game that resembles neither of our primary pursuits.
Fresh off a visit with Jun, I propose Gauntlet.
“Gauntlet? Like the arcade game?”
“Oh yes. And so much more.”
Danny does not pretend to care. That’s why we need him.
When you have a strong protector character, and a weak but complex character with a lot of ranged attacks, the strategy is obvious. Less so when you pair that complex character with one whose specialty is dashing straight into the thickest mass of monsters. The teamwork Alex and I display looks more like two strangers who just happened to be in the same room when the floor started squeezing out monsters. Something about summoning stones. Not sure what summons the summoning stones. It doesn’t matter.
Our strategy is I throw everything I can at the first target area to slow down or otherwise hinder the onslaught, and Alex points his whirling death machine at it. Meanwhile, I try to stay alive, maintain the flanks and the rear, snipe enemy wizards, and take out summoning stones until we’ve hacked, frozen, beheaded, and electrocuted enough things to regroup and manage the next target.
It works, because this is not a game about subtlety or alternatives. You can’t sneak through a room; every large space in the game immediately walls itself off until everything except you stops moving. This game is about maximizing your murder efficiency. The basic conceit behind most video games, that you must kill to survive, is built without subtlety into the reward mechanics: Killing earns you skull coins and skull coins bring you back to life. Food plays its usual virtual role: a roast turkey is both a satisfying meal and the entire emergency department at Beth Israel.
The game difficulty has an oddly exponential curve. After littering a dozen self-cleaning dungeons with the corpses of the nonchalantly slaughtered, the team meetings took a brisk tone.
“Dude, left, LEFT!”
“KILL THAT FUCKING WIZARD!”
“WHERE!? I DON’T SEE HIM!”
At one point after I die and Alex nearly dies after clearing a room of a hundred orcs, I mention there’s food. He needs to kill maybe two more goblins to earn the skull coin that will revive me. Alex, coming down off a killing high, turns around, then makes a series of semi-decisions about how to deal with the single, half-dead, limping opponent left in the room. It swipes at him, and he dies. I bury my face in my hands.
“I can’t even look at you.”
My parents never bought me a console system, so I only played with friends here and there. In any competitive arena, they handed me my ass with glee and/or impatience. Eventually, I stopped being a child (legally speaking) and was introduced to good drugs1 and more patient communities. There, the games made sense, even if I was still bad at them. There, the games were a combination of chess, good TV, and community. Controllers were passed around, learning was rewarded, space pirates were real space pirates, and improbably devastating kicks to the head delivered by tiny asian school girls were real improbably devastating kicks to the head delivered by tiny asian school girls.
I can’t claim there was no fetishism of violence or space pirates, or of the single most fetishized stereotype there is. But the real hard-on was for a world with a single goal: something to finish, and be done with, whether it was a back alley fight or conquering a galaxy. The games I liked offer fairy tale closure: you achieve something and live happily ever after, because there is no after. There is only a finite story, role-played among friends, with rewards you can’t fight over because they’re pixelated nothings, and can only be enjoyed with others.
Eventually I started playing the solo quest games. Final Fantasy VII was the first, and I put maybe 99 hours into it. I was no match for Luke, who let himself into my apartment to play. Close as we were back then, it got creepy, especially when he didn’t turn on the lights, so I would come home to a flickering glow and the occasional expletive.
I gave up on Final Fantasy when I realized how boring the combat system actually was,2 and that it had become another masochistic way to escape my crumbling personal life. I still play the solo adventures, though I rarely finish them. Sometimes I do it to escape something,3 but the games are beautiful and their worlds rich, so there’s genuine exploration, and some satiation of the wanderlust that goes hungry when it’s hard to otherwise travel. They expand the dreamscape and structure its voids, adding new lands to internal worlds, and a little variety in fantasies helps prevent the mind from focussing on one so intently as to mistake it for reality.
“I just can’t,” says Alex, looking into the middle distance and finishing his whiskey. “I played all day. I don’t even know how many times I did that fucking walk.”
The last level of Gauntlet has a walk. You have to do it. There are no enemies. There is only the trudge to probable death, followed by the antagonist appearing and saying, “Are you ready to die at the hands of a god?” in a scene you can’t skip fast enough. It’s bullshit, too: The “god” just sends hordes of minions at you, then occasionally makes himself vulnerable for no apparent reason. Hubris, I guess.
We’ve played together and played alone, mastering our technique, and we’ve both reached the final killing cavern.
Entering the last level of Gauntlet is like being dropped in Normandy in 1944 after two weekends of paintball. Anything you referred to as “strategy” over the last month now resembles telling mom that dad said it was okay. The ground itself is trying to kill you. Half of your attention is dedicated to keeping track of your own character amidst the visual chaos. Angry and unstoppable ogres are quickly followed by exploding fanatics backed by wizards dropping Old Testament judgement on you, and they all just keep coming.
We haven’t tried for a week. We are taking a vacation to the gentler land of the real.
The very last time I allowed Matt to be in charge of transportation during one of our visits, he drove me out to the woods behind a used car lot, introduced me to its owner’s son, and said, “Pete, we are going to get stoned and shoot some guns.”
It took half an hour to make him stop trying to get me to smoke up. I went from “No thanks” to “You know it gives me flashbacks?” to “What the fucking fuck is wrong with you you fucking jackass? I don’t want your goddamn drugs!” He eventually backed off with a “I just hate it when people say weed is some super dangerous drug.” My voice was getting shriller by the moment, so I decided not to launch into a repetition of the exact argument I’d just made, namely that weed is a perfectly harmless drug for most people who aren’t me.
The owner’s son was a ranger of some kind. I think park, maybe army. Maybe both. We rode into the woods on a what looked like a militarized golf cart, and shot things. I emptied a twenty-two rifle into a TV, and it made little tinkling noises.
“Don’t you feel more manly?” asked Matt.
“But it’s fun, right?”
“Well, nothing exploded and no aliens died. Wouldn’t recommend.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “You spend too much time in front of your goddamn video games.”
“How much does this ammo cost you?”
“That’s not the point!”
“Do I get a trophy?”
“You need to know how to use a gun.”
“Squeeze the wiggly bit? You know guns are a coward’s weapon, right?”
“I don’t even know why I bother.”
“Neither do I, Matt. Neither do I.”
Later, the ranger hands me a handgun. I check the safety and point it directly at the ground like Jack Bauer standing down so he can tell Chloe to update his kill count. The ranger carefully takes the gun away from me, waves the barrel across my face and explains that you should never point a loaded gun at someone. Matt takes the gun and manages to point it at my crotch, while telling me to always check the safety and even if it’s on, don’t point a gun at somebody. I charitably blame the weed for this ridiculous display.
Despite the nagging fear that these assholes were going to accidentally shoot me, it was a good time, because Matt’s one of my favorite assholes. I prefer pulling a different kind of trigger, but any trigger will do if the company’s right.
New York City packed most of its 2016 winter into one day. During the usual winter months, the cold made a perfunctory appearance, and the snow stopped to ask for directions once or twice. Then the Bloomberg weather machine failed, and we saw a blizzard that kept more people home than a subway strike. All the usual gatherings are silently called off, and nobody will leave their home.
Except Alex. Alex understands that for which this day was made.
He shakes off the snow and we shake hands. We commence the ritual: First, catch up on the more entertaining absurdities of our lives. Next, the pouring of the drink, gathering liquid nerve, as if pregaming for a prom date.
Three hours later we’re staring into space on a smoke break. There’s no strategy left to discuss. We weren’t fast enough. We weren’t good enough. Is this even fun anymore? We’re honing reaction times measured in milliseconds, rebalancing offense and defense at a pace that defies effective field communications, hoping the adrenaline keeps us sharp until the worm turns in our favor, hoping the worm turns before the alcohol cripples our reflexes. Every ten to fifteen minutes, we die without fanfare. Sometimes a single orc throws a punch we didn’t see. Sometimes a floating sword takes us out with a quick double tap we couldn’t evade. Sometimes that fucking wizard just casts unstoppable death before we could fight our way to him. Alex looks at me.
Five minutes in. The gateways dropped in our favor; we corral the first hordes and cut them down easily.
Six minutes. The ogres give us pain, but we roll through the first two waves. I die in the third wave, but we’ve charged a couple of skull coins, so I’m back a few seconds before Alex’s warrior gets its head smashed in. I clear out the grounds before he respawns.
Ten minutes. The wizards start arriving with their exploding fanatics. We share the obligatory sigh and switch from being clever to trying to survive.
Fifteen minutes in. The boss’s health bar is down two thirds. We’re out of skull coins. This is where we die. The world falls away. A last minute dash costs Alex a bar of health but pulls my ass out of a corner.
“Oh God, thank you.”
“No problem, my friend. Noooo problem.”
My illusions have recharged: I fire them and drop hot death on the room. Another horde cleared.
Twenty minutes. We’re not dead. We have another coin. For the first time, we discover that we’re stuck with the fucking wizard crew for the remainder. We’re not happy about it, but there’s no time to comment on it. The boss is down to one fifth. At a rare lull, Alex and I share a glance. Dare we dream?
No coins. Both of us with mere slivers of health: The next stubbed toe will put either of us in traction. My wizard gets pushed north and runs out of options; I drop a hail Mary ice bomb in the middle of the field to buy Alex some time, a moment before I’m gutted by a minion.
The boss is in a vulnerable cycle. I glance up at the health bar.
“Kind of busy here.”
He’s cutting his way through a couple of wizards. Leah hears something in my voice and looks up.
“Oh my god, is the bad guy almost dead?”
Alex mashes the attack button, gritting his teeth and grinding towards the villain. We’ve both left our seats, staggering toward the TV screen.
“Can you death spin? God, spin, man, SPIN!”
“Not yet, not yet, not yet, yes!”
The barbarian spins. Alex pulls the joystick over hard, steering the whirling axe toward the blue figure in the far left, inching closer through a spray of blood.
The blade connects.
The villain falls.
The barbarian stands.
“OH MY GOD! HE’S DEAD! IS HE DEAD?”
“HE’S DEAD! YEEEESSS!”
“YOU GUYS ACTUALLY FINISHED IT?”
Alex and I hug like we won the world cup. Celebratory drinks are poured. The cats come out of the office to see what the hell is going on. We bask in glory for half an hour. It is accomplished.
At length, once our shiteating grins subside into a contented smug glow, Alex packs up his controller. We do a manshake with three firm pats on the back. Alex completes the ritual by accidentally turning my PlayStation back on from his controller as he walks down the stairs. He pushes open the last door, and walks into the storm.