Jules and I have set up our Xbox Ones. He’s trying to organise a party chat using voice commands.
“Xbox, snap party.”
“Xbox, unsnap.”Frustration mounts.
“Xbox, fuck me.”
I’m attempting to navigate the menu using hand gestures. I’ve got my open palm to the Kinect sensor. It must look as though I’m having a mental breakdown. High-fiving, groping and caressing the air in front of me.
We’re stuck at a loading screen again. The Halo soundtrack, those orchestral compositions that once gave our gameplay cosmic significance now provides our experience with a kind of transcendant, all-encompassing futility.
When we eventually get into a match, the connection is so bad three players instantly let out a dull, pathetic groan and fall to the ground. Miscellaneous bullets scatter across the map. Blood sheds from mid-air. Someone is swearing. It comes out in a slow, broken, Southern American drawl. Jules is lagging so badly I see him glitch over the same ledge five times. He falls again and again. I spot someone on a staircase. I’m desperate for at least one kill before I disconnect. I get out my pistol and hit him over the head. He doesn’t go down.
I hit him again.
If you want a vision for the future of gaming, imagine someone pistol-whipping a Spartan’s face – forever.
Release Now, Patch Later
Halo: The Master Chief Collection was one of many broken releases in 2014. One only needs to take a stroll through Assassins Creed: Unity to experience a flurry of game-breaking bugs and glitches. There’s convulsing, elephant-man corpses, invisible edifices, face-planting pedestrians. It’s as if revolutionary France has put away the guillotine and decided to trip out on bath salts (or whatever the 18th century equivalent). Driveclub, Farcry 4, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. All these games shipped as either incomplete or broken products.
One of the worst culprits is publishing giant Electronic Arts (EA). In 2013, law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd filed a class action lawsuit against EA for misleading investors as to the quality of their product, Battlefield 4. The lawsuit maintained that EA were aware that Battlefield 4 was a piece of shit, but had allowed the game to hit the market regardless.
This is all part of a growing trend in the video game industry to release unfinished products and attempt to patch them up later through downloadable updates.
My younger brother Jules and I used to walk around caravan parks with Game Boy link cables, looking for people to battle our Pokémon with. We met this kid once. He had a mullet and a compulsion for Yakult. He kicked our arses all over the South Australian fishing port, Robe.
There we all were, sitting on the edge of a ping-pong table, gripping our Game Boys with sweaty palms. In the corner, some rev-head is throttling the clutch of a NASCAR arcade machine and swearing. Another kid is placing his Redskin-fingers on my shoulder to get a better look at the action.
“He got you, dude.”
Years later, we organised system links that became an extension of power dynamics. My older brother Daniel leans over to hit me. I hit Jules. Jules throws the controller and stops playing. This was how we used to play multiplayer. In caravan parks or Dad’s shed. No subscription fees, day-one updates, microtransactions or disembodied trash talk. We were all bound together in the moment. The physical space was occupied. It’s the kind of theatre fundamentally lacking in modern gaming.
These days I sit naked in my room, fan whirring, headset on, sending abusive text messages to some twelve-year-old prick that nudged me off the track in Forza Horizon.
The sun eventually works its way through the blinds to our pale, sick faces. Jules has fallen asleep on the couch. I’m still up watching a live stream of Hearthstone. It’s an online card game. The streamer is wearing a low-cut top and I’m sort of pathetically aroused. I’ve joined a bunch of others (about 7,000) that are also watching, commenting, masturbating. My eyes hurt. My stomach hurts. I’m drinking a bottle of warm coke, staring at the screen, thinking to myself – ‘is any of this real?’
The one thing I’m sure of is that modern gaming has fed my proclivities for solitude and indolence. I can’t remember the last time I organised a system link or went out and bought a physical copy of something. My bank details are in the system. I just buy shit online and move on. The avatar I created must exist somewhere out there in the digital vortex, wearing an Italian World Cup T-shirt, spending money, scamming, sodomising.
Jules has woken up. He’s using both hands to navigate the menu. It looks as though he’s trying to embrace something… someone. There’s a baby crow outside. The crow’s caws are interrupted by a gurgle because the mother is feeding it. I’m staring at the stream, holding my stomach. I ask Jules if he remembers Robe. His swollen, sore eyes look to me.
He’s about to say something when the Xbox interrupts us. We’ve found another match. An enemy is spotted. Jules takes out his pistol and hits him over the head. He doesn’t go down. He hits him again.