There are games in which the player serves as a driving force in completion. We shepherd the little characters on the screen onwards toward some inevitable final victory, and we taste the sweet, sweet nectar of success at the end of the rainbow. The story is told without taking us too greatly into account, and we serve primarily as some kind of mind-control device for the main character of the story, inhabiting their body to wring every delicious ounce of fun we can from their experience and their story.
However, there exists an arena in which the stories of many gamers are told. Where there is no boundary of story or character development to be had. It is a place where skill and luck mingle like no other place on Earth. It is a place where we shed the paper-thin caricatures constructed for us on linear pathways, and we take to the field with our own chosen name.
I am talking, of course, about multiplayer.
The multiplayer arena offers a space in which there is nothing to be had except the gamers’ story. Your story. My story. We all have one; that perfect headshot, that one-in-a-million rocket, that lucky break you never saw coming, that one second you saw your opponent’s guard come down, that first “GODLIKE”. These are truly our stories and no one else’s. While clever plot twists are interesting, and events culminating in the defeat of a CPU opponent still offer the sweet taste of victory, nothing else provides the same delicious sense of purpose and connection as the multiplayer experience. It is what keeps us coming back to games like Call of Duty, Killzone, Battlefield, SOCOM, Unreal Tournament.
Perhaps it is just the presence of a human opponent that creates this atmosphere. Another gamer, like you or me, is standing on the opposite side, ready to do everything they can to stop you. You have to be better, faster, and luckier than they are to stop them, and they feel the same way about you. The strange combination of human opponents and sheer luck ensures that most of our best moments will never repeat themselves. I’ll never jump out of a helicopter in Battlefield 2 and watch as it careens toward the Earth, only to collide in mid-air with a jet again. I’ll never get that double-headshot with a Scout in Counter-Strike again. These are moments written exclusively by us, to be recounted among gaming brethren, for no other community would understand them.
Now, with that said, I’d like to share some of those unique moments from my gaming memory.
The Legend of the Terrible Wheelmen.
Battlefield 2 was a game I played extensively. I was so into Battlefield that I recounted stories of triumph and victory snatched from the jaws of defeat to anyone who would listen. It took months of browbeating, but finally I’d gotten two of my friends to join in. Together we were a formidable three man strike force of Medic, Special Ops, and Sniper. I led us into battle, C4 in hand. Our Medic was never far behind. And the Sniper always had our six covered. On the ground we were practically unstoppable.
It wasn’t until one of us got behind the wheel that things turned sour. We all had our distinct habits when it came to driving. I, ever the ground-fighter, avoided driving unless it was necessary to get from Point A to Point B. Jax (our medic) would plow directly into the thick of things and grab the turret to lay down hot lead death from relative safety, and Libra (our Sniper) preferred to approach all objectives on foot, so he often bailed out at a suitable sniping position before we got anywhere near our targets.
The problem was, none of us could drive worth a damn. Each of us had the tendency to profoundly foul things up repeatedly every time we got behind the wheel. Jax, a “leap before you look” kind of guy, once drove all three of us off a cliff and directly into the only tree in sight in Mashtuur City. Libra, who tended to lose all sense of direction and path finding behind the wheel, took us all for a swim by launching our patrol vehicle into a pond in Gulf of Oman. And I, perhaps the most terrible of all, had a peculiar habit of running into tanks and large clusters of infantry wherever they might be.
No matter how calm or how quiet it was, if I got behind the wheel, you could be certain a tank would be around the next corner, or an infantryman on a TOW launcher, or just some cleverly hidden mines. If it could kill us, I could find it, and it’s been that way since we started playing, and it’s still that way today. God help any of you who dare to jump into a vehicle with us at the wheel.
The Night of the Hacker.
Counter-Strike was the first game I played where the word Hacker was thrown out at every turn. This trend, of course, continued into Counter-Strike: Source. I can’t count the times I saw “HACKER!” appear in the text box, but I can clearly remember the first time I ever pulled off something crazy enough to be called one.
It was de_dust, and it was 2 in the morning. The match had gone downhill from the get-go; we‘d lost three rounds already due to slow starts. We needed a win, if only for morale. The rush we set up for the next round as Terrorists was bound to be messy, but it was worse than I expected. Half our team was gone in the hallway, flash bangs and frag grenades going off everywhere, with a lot of gunfire sprinkled on top. The survivors were ambushed at the bombsite, but we‘d made it in. It was even now, down to two of us, and two of them. I planted the bomb I’d picked up off one of my comrades during the bloody massacre in the hallway, and we waited. It didn’t take them long.
My partner in terror was dropped by an AWP shot to the face. His body crumpled where he’d stood, watching the end of the tunnel. I had no time, I had to take my shot before they got in the bombsite, if they got too close my Scout would be useless, and my Glock wouldn‘t stop two CTs armed to the teeth. I took a deep breath and rounded the corner, but there was nothing at the end of the hallway. My heart was beating so hard in my ears I thought artillery was dropping around me. They had to be going around, coming through the doors to surprise me.
I snapped out of my scope, and knife out, moved as quick as I could. I forgot everything I knew about tactics and rushed out the door, and there they were, running strait at me from the little walkway that comes around the outside of the building that contained our nearly-failed rush. The AWPer had his pistol out, I had a chance!
A weapon switch never took so much time. I mashed the Q key with all my might and watched as the lead CT opened up on me with his M4. Bullets started hitting around me just as my Scout came up. The scope finally lifted and those crosshairs lined up perfectly. You couldn’t ask for a prettier shot. The Scout’s snap of a gunshot rang out, and two bodies dropped where they stood. I was dumbstruck. I stared, mouth gaping, at the two headshots I’d just tagged with one bullet from the Scout. "Terrorists Win."
The entire CT team went nuts; “Hacker!” “Cheater!” and other words I won’t repeat on this article filled the chatbox. I was greeted with the cheers of my teammates at the start of the next round. I have never laid a hand on a Scout since, to avoid tarnishing that wondrous event.
I have felt similar levels of accomplishment since then, in a variety of games. But nothing will ever be as sweet as the first time.
The multiplayer arena is where our stories are written. Victory, heartbreak, intensity, fear, loathing, and pure delight. No one else can write these moments for us. I am the Author of these, and many other unique stories. I pulled off those stunning victories, and I was stung by those crushing defeats. It was my story to experience and to tell, not an analogue and not a character. They are and always will be mine.
What are yours?