November 25th, 2011
First of all, a confession: I’m not very good at computer games, in the same way that I’m not very good at telly, or at keeping up with my friend Jessica (whose collected editions of Uzumaki I eventually had to get The Boy Fae the Heed to return, due to my shameless ineptitude).
I don’t know why, but in my flailing attempts at adulthood, some things have ended up getting pushed to the side and properly playing computer games has been one of those things. For perspective: I don’t think I’ve properly lost myself to a full-length computer game since the original Half-Life, or maybe Deus Ex. I still play the damned things, of course, but it’s more of a social occasion or a light distraction – a little bit of Death Tank on the weekends with my pals, a wee bit of Arkham Asylum when I need to feel like Batman and eating Mulligatawny soup just won’t cut it.
So sure, I can admire the way Jason Rohrer tries to make the simplest game mechanics into little tests of your capacity for guilt and sentimentality, just as I can giggle when people take pot-shots at his work, but put something like Bioshock down in front of me and I’ll have to admit that I just don’t have the time for it.
I am a grown man, after all, and like all grown men, I’ve got comics to read!
So why is it that when I started to think about horror, about what I could possibly contribute to Notes From the Borderland, that I couldn’t escape from a pair of zombie computer games that I play for laughs with my friends?
Ah, well, maybe it’s the friends that are problem here.
What’s worse, after all – to stumble out into the borderlands on your own, or to do so with your friends, knowing that you’re going to betray them, or be betrayed by them, or that you’re at least going to let each other down when the real nastiness shit starts?
Okay, so you’re playing Left 4 Dead II with your pal Liam K, a man who – by his own admission – doesn’t play computer games very often. It soon becomes apparent that this is an understatement, because no matter how often you gently remind him which button does what, he still can’t seem to remember which one makes you shoot and which one makes you spin round 180 degrees. The fact that he’s constantly spinning in circles instead of shooting zombies is amusing at first, but quickly starts to make every encounter twice as stressful.
Things get properly horrible when you’re both running up a roller-coaster in a zombie-infested theme park.
Your pal’s too busy flipping back and forth to keep the path clear, so he ends up getting knocked off the roller-coaster by some undead bastard. You like to think of yourself as a good friend, and more than that, you’re deluded enough to think you could act heroically if it all went bad – maybe you absorbed a bit too much Optimus Prime in your youth, who can say? Regardless, you plunge off the roller-coaster after your inept comrade, hacking and slashing at the zombies until you make your way to him. Your vision is blurry with red now, another side-effect of your fondness for close quarters weapons, and as Liam starts to race off into the distance you realise that you’re moving slowly now, that you can’t keep up, that you are – in all likelihood – going down. You shout to Liam for help as the rotten hordes drag you to the floor, but no help seems to be coming.
As you lie there, firing your pistol impotently into the sky, you find time to glance over onto Liam’s side of the screen – “I’m coming to save you man!” he shouts. Still, as his avatar spins round in circles while firing automatic weaponry into the air, even the zombies, with their diminished functionality, must surely realise that he’s not coming to save anyone on this particular day…
You’re not sure when it occurs to you that you love The Tank, but when it does it hits you like one of the creature’s giant, meaty fists. You’ve never been one to crave the meat before, but you’ve got to admit, as your character cowers in the bathroom, firing uselessly at the doorway, that there’s a certain anticipation mixed in with the fear.
You could never tell your girlfriend about this, obviously. She’s already had to sit in the room with you while you were playing the game online with your pals, and her derisive giggles, while entirely well deserved, were enough to make sure that you’d keep those two parts of your life separate from now on. Plus, you know, you’re not sure how she’d take the whole thing about the meat either…
While your friends aren’t anywhere near as horrible as some of the shit-bastarding, fuck-headed, wank-monsters you meet on Xbox live, you’re not sure how they’d take the news about the meat either. They’re not exactly homophobic, but they might just want to take the piss, just a little, all the same. Plus, also, you worry that there’s a little bit of genre puritanism in them that will make them particularly hostile to the idea that the Tank (the fucking Tank!) haunts your dreams. The very idea of the Special Infected had initially seemed off-putting to all of you. Zombies with special powers… well, that didn’t exactly sound promising, but a giant, muscle-bound zombie? Fuck if that didn’t just seem emblematic of geek culture’s quest to make zombies properly rubbish. And yet! And yet you’d struggle to deny that the creepy fuckers have infiltrated your consciousness. Your girlfriend’s first L4D-related giggle came when she heard you muttering the names of various Special Infected down the microphone to your pals – “Boomer near, maybe a Hunter too”.
Thinking about it now, it’s hard not to join in with the laughter, but you still find it hard not to say these names as soon as you hear the right filthy sounds in the darkness.
Still, while most of those other fuckers work by dividing the group up or picking off loners, you find yourself drawn to the Tank because he works best when he’s right there in the middle all the team, breaking it down from the inside.
As you and your three friends cower in the bathroom, pushing back against the wall of flesh in front of you, you find yourself looking forward to being annihilated by the big bastard. And not just because you were going along with your pal’s shite plan of hiding in the bathroom until the boat came, but because you want to get smothered in those muscles, to drown in them, to fight back against the meat until you can’t fight any more…
You get home from work to discover that your boyfriend has already worked out what you’re going to do with your evening, and that his plans involve both of you playing Left 4 Dead online with a couple of randoms. This sounds alright to you, because you’re the kind of person who has yet to tire of zombies, who can still find time to be excited about the fact that the World War Z movie is filming in your home town, who’s still watching The Walking Dead (aka The Wanking Dead), and whose sister has absorbed so much passive zombie damage from you that she actually has a grab-bag under her bed in case the zombie apocalypse actually happens. It’s rumoured that she keeps a machete in the grab bag, but so far no one has dared to look in it to check.
The game’s going well enough, it’s No Mercy again and you’re a little tired of that campaign but you’re enjoying yourself just fine until one of your teammates decides that differentiating between you and the zombiess who’re attacking you is no longer a priority. You let this slide at first, but eventually you find yourself grabbing your boyfriend’s headset so you can tell the kid to stop being such an insufferable little arsehole.
You realise that your trigger happy teammate is a teenager and that you should probably be an adult about this, but when the little fuck gets caught by the tentacle like tongue of a Smoker and you’re the only one close enough to save him, you still find yourself standing in front of his character as it hangs suspended from the side of a building, choking to death while. You could save him – in fact, it would be easy to save him – but instead you just stare at the wee scrote, contemptuous and inactive as that evil fucking thing strangles the life out of him with its sickly kiss.
Later on your boyfriend tells you that the little bawbag is his boss’s son, but you can’t find it in you to apologise for not saving him. As far as you’re concerned the kid got what he deserved, fuck the consequences…
The helicopter has barely arrived when you see your pal David getting dragged off the stage, through the fireworks, and into the horde. You jump after him like a right dafty, thinking that since your previous game crashed on you at the last moment, there’s no way you aren’t finishing this one together.
It probably helps that you’ve always hated the Jockey…
It’s not that you’re a control freak, exactly, but you’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that the basic mechanics of gameplay could be turned back on you, i.e. that you could be controlled by the game. Of course, you’ve also got a longstanding history of being creeped the fuck out by small things that scutter in the night:
So of course you jump through the exploding fireworks to save your friend from the creepy wee monster that’s currently riding him away from safety, and of course you save him, but what happens next is that he runs off through the mob like he’s coated in butter while you find yourself struggling through a swamp of gnashing teeth and angry limbs. The last thing you see before you go down is David looking down on you from the helicopter as you and the two computer controlled characters are overrun, and through your petty resentment you somehow realise that this is what you come here for, this sense of betrayal, this absurd reminder of the fact that when it came down to it you could always be left to die by your closest friends, and that there’s nothing you can do about it…
Click for Note 1 – The Overlook Hotel
Click for Note 2 – Uno Moralez