I wrote a slightly more sombre piece than usual to commemorate Remembrance Day.
You can read it over at SquareGo.
Midnight on the Firing Line
It was late in the month of September, some five years ago. A dark and dismal evening when the weather outside was sure and sternly reminding me that Scotland isn’t a place that frequently lends itself to pleasant autumn strolls. Naturally this meant that I was doing what I usually did on inclement evenings; I was shooting digital incarnations of the Allied and Axis forces of World War 2. Some recreational matches of Day of Defeat (DoD), a game that was then and still continues to be one of my favourite pastimes. However this wasn’t just any night of gaming. There was something about to happen, something in the air. A little something called Source.
Being a resolute DoD enthusiast, I’d been more than happy to part with the money-pounds that it cost for the Silver Edition download of Half Life 2. I had good reason as well; the promise of DoD remade using the Source engine. The popular Counter-Terrorist mod Counterstrike had already been given the frills and tassels treatment of this new toolbox and had shown what new life could be breathed into a classic experience with a few simple visual and physics-based additions. This refined and upgraded re-imagining of my favourite online game had been denied to us for months after buying HL2. However, that night was going to change it all, that night was when it would go live. We would finally have the chance to see how the future of the game would be realised.
Typical army balls up
I’d decided to get a little extra practice on one of my regularly visited servers in order to be in best form for the new game and found many others were like minded. The (now sadly defunct) Typical Army Balls Up [TABU] clan server was brimming with a selection of army-mad but endearing nut-jobs and my earphones were hotly crackling with the excited chirps of young men, strained in anticipation for the impending event. Maps and minutes flew past like the warped lead that screamed from our MP44s and Springfield rifles, and surely the chatter became less about tactics, or even the gentle ribbing between old friends and rivals.
“What do you think it’ll be like?”
“Do you think they’ve changed the maps much?”
“Will the guns be the same?”
The same questions kept popping up, with the barest hint of apprehension, even melancholy in the voices. True we were excited, but we were also afraid. Day of Defeat wasn’t just any game to us, it was our game. Few of my real life friends had ever really caught onto it, preferring the instant death trappings and peacockery of Counterstrike, with its modern assault rifles and anti-terrorist sentiments over the period madness of the blasted streets of Italy and France. I’d been consumed by its WWII charm and the fantasy of reliving the gun battles in Saving Private Ryan and Anzio! and wasn’t alone in this feeling. I’d see the same names, week in and out on the servers, people who felt the same as I did and they, like me, held the fears that the engine upgrade might have altered the game enough to take away what I loved.
Waiting on the clock
As the minutes ticked towards the hour of release, people had started to become half-hearted. The conversations had begun to take precedence over the play. We were playing a map called DOD_Flugplatz, [‘Airfield’ to any non-German speakers – Ed] a wide strewn wasteland of burning buildings and the wreckage of Jeeps and downed Luftwaffe planes. In the middle of the map lay a wide open central street, permanently lit by tracer fire and haunted with the flashes of grenades. Crossing that void was always the hardest part of the map to achieve, as seasoned veterans we each knew every sniper’s sweet point, every good flanking corner and the best place to land a grenade. There was a stalemate for most of the round when one of the [TABU] Clansmen piped up with a question:
“Anyone want to see the cow jump?”
There were a few chuckles and some confusion, from me as well as others. It wasn’t a map I particularly cared for and had no idea what was meant, but was happy to play along in this strange situation.
“Alright, everyone head to the main street.” He cried. And to a man, they obeyed, surprising me, as I’d expected a flurry of backstabbing or men shooting one another in childish disregard of this momentary lapse of the usual insanity.
The coming together
The street that normally spun with blood like a charnel house began to fill with soldiers from either side; standing like grim sentinels in the black pave stones beneath the harsh light of the full moon and the far distant flack sparking above. It was an eerie moment, with only the occasionally chuckle or comment breaking up the stillness until the clansman spoke again:
“I’m going to fire the bazooka. Everyone look to the moon.”
We stared up together and somewhere out of sight, a whoosh and crunch echoed, nothing happened for a second, then suddenly a cartoon cow flipped with a comically pathetic ease over the top of the moon in the sky box scenery. A flood of easy laughter and joking began to stream over the server, cries of encore began to go up and yet, still, no-one fired a shot. No-one wanted to end the reverie and as we stood there; sitting at our keyboards, it occurred to me that this was in fact something special. Something natural but awe-filling. A collection of strangers forsaking the very point of even playing the game yet unwilling to break this moment.
A brief moment in the madness
Human nature does not change. I know now what I witnessed was an age old event, one that has probably taken place a thousand times on a thousand real life battlefields. This was my 1914 ceasefire. This was a game of football and a Mass sung by tired voices in no-man’s land between the trenches. This was a moment that would be lost almost as quickly as it had begun. It was hope at the very end of something beautiful and terrible.
The cow leapt over the moon twice more and then with a laugh and a sigh the clansman spoke again:
“Well that’s it.”
The rest of the players remained motionless for a few seconds and for those fleeting moments in time, we were brothers. Then just as suddenly the crack of an MP44 rent the air and all the soldiers fled to cover. I disconnected from the game. Less than an hour later I was exploring Day of Defeat: Source, my trepidations all but forgotten, yet something was different. Source had taken away what I loved in a way I’d never dreamed was possible. I’ve never been back to the original game for more than a few minutes since, partly because the update was so well accomplished, but also because, for me, that war had ended. The conflict had died in a moonlit street, one chilly night in September, when a dozen strangers on opposite sides laid down arms and laughed and joked in harmony.