Guest Article: Die for Me

I’m normally a very cautious player.  Beyond cautious, really; I can usually be found flitting nervously between neurotic and obsessive, with occasional forays into outright paralysis.  In FPS games I always keep my health and ammo topped off as much as humanly possible, and I quickload so frequently I may as well be playing Prince of Persia.

It’s not limited to any one genre, either.  Any RTS match against the computer will end with hundreds of enemy units dead, no more than a dozen casualties on my own side, and well over three hours of game time passed; I never attack until I’ve amassed an absolutely overwhelming force.  I don’t even touch the multiplayer most of the time, because I know I might lose.  Any RPG I play will quickly accumulate a massive archive of save files, one placed just before every decision I have to make—just in case I decide, after thirty or so hours of world-saving, that I would have been better off buying the Amulet of Herpes Resistance over the +3 Death Spork back when I was level 2.

Just in case.

Totally worth the herpes.

I might have been this way forever, but there was one game that finally showed me the joy of carelessness.

Half-Life 2 has these annoying critters called antlions, which spend a good portion of the game trying to kill you.  Then, once your hatred of them has had ample time to fester, the game flips them over to your side and gives you the ability to control them.  So it was that I found myself outside the front entrance of a Combine prison fortress with four of them following me around, ready to die at my command.  I may have hated them, but they were still a necessary resource, and I resolved to keep the four of them alive as long as possible—so I was a little distraught when I made a stupid mistake and got one killed before I’d even begun the full assault.

But within seconds, another one burrowed up from the ground to take the place of its comrade.  My hand froze over the quickload button.  Overtaken by curiosity, I took a hesitant step toward this newcomer and prodded it with my crowbar.  It squealed, but did not fight back.  I hit it again, more confidently this time, and it exploded in a shower of giblets.

The other antlions didn’t even react; as bits of their slaughtered companion rolled away out of sight, yet another one rose up out of the ground almost immediately to replenish their ranks.  It scurried over to me and waited expectantly, looking for all the world like an obedient puppy.  Realization finally dawning, I felt a grin creep slowly over my face.

I had minions.

Up ahead of me was a heavily defended beach swarming with Combine, overlooked by sheer cliffs with fortified gun emplacements.  No way in hell was I going to go in by myself; this was WWII-era Normandy all over again.  Anyone attempting a frontal assault would be immediately shredded by automatic gunfire from six directions.

I know this, because I counted.  As I watched my antlions being shredded by automatic gunfire.

Go, my super bug Pokémon!

As wave after wave of my stupidly obedient companions was cut down by the merciless cliff guns, I quietly snuck up a path off to one side and lobbed a grenade into one of the gun emplacements.  Now they were only being shredded from five directions.  A few antlions were starting to push through; the enemy lines faltered for a moment, and then broke.  Silence descended on the beach as I took a moment to observe the many, many corpses of my fallen allies around me.

“That was totally awesome,” I declared, in somber recognition of the slain.  “I wanna do it again!”  Truly, my eyes had been opened to the unbridled delights of getting people killed.  Now wouldn’t it be great if I could do this sort of thing in other games?

Enter Starcraft.

No, not the sequel.  The original Starcraft, which I have been proudly sucking at since I was a kid.  And the reason I sucked, as I mentioned above, is that I took such good care of my units.  I would never send somebody to the front lines if they were likely to die, so I never even bothered with the weaker units like marines or zealots.  But after my antlion epiphany I made a point of revisiting the bottom of each race’s tech tree, and it was then that I discovered the lowly zergling.

You already know what a zergling is.  Anyone who has ever played Starcraft, talked about real-time strategy, or visited South Korea knows what a zergling is, but I want to take a second to put them in perspective for you: The weakest Terran unit—a marine—has genetically enhanced everything, swings around a high-powered machine gun like it’s a toy, and wears more body armor than the Master Chief.  These are the guys that often get brutally chewed up by larger units, most of which are described with such terms as “mountainous,” “biblical,” and “oh shit.”

Everybody got that mental picture?  Steroid-munching cyborg supersoldiers getting torn apart by gigantic alien doomsday machines?  Good.  Now the zergling, by contrast, is roughly the size of a small goat.  And where other units have plasma swords and fully automatic gauss rifles, they have itty bitty claws and teeth.

The food chain.

Send any one of these little guys into a typical Starcraft battle and it will die almost immediately; the only upside is that you can build an awful lot of them at very little cost.

And if you send a lot of them into battle?  Well, they still die.  But so does everyone else.

Suddenly my games took on a whole new tone.  I was no longer carefully shepherding my expensive units into perfectly orchestrated battles; I’d just bang out a quick army of two dozen zerglings and send them blindly into an enemy formation, then cackle with mad glee as both sides shredded each other mercilessly.  Thirty seconds later, another swarm of zerglings would already be on its way to massacre the traumatized survivors.  Suddenly, I was almost good at this game.

As I wrap up here, I feel like I should offer a moral; something to properly honor the humble zerglings and antlions of our world.  But which to choose?  ”Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is already a cliché, while “zerg rush owns all” can be difficult to apply in situations outside of Starcraft.  Perhaps I should borrow a dry witticism, such as “never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

No, I got it: “Life’s easier when you get some other sap to do your dirty work.”

Anyway, many thanks to Laura and Kent for letting me do a…guest…article…

Waaait a minute…

Peter Riggs is a gamer and a crowbar-wielding murder machine who occasionally writes about games and crowbar-related murders. Most of his writing can be found on his blog, Intelligent Design, where he uses the pseudonym “Veret” to avoid detection. Don’t tell anybody.

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11 Comments

  1. I was crestfallen when I started reading this, because I thought you had picked on one of 18 zillion topics I was planning to put on Electron Drift, you bastard.

    But then I did this cool bodyswerve move and realised you weren’t touching on that topic so thank God for that. You are no longer bastard.

    Myself and Mrs. HM have never had a problem sending other people in battle in our place but, yes, it makes it 17 times easier if you have an infinite supply of expendable drones rather than a Barney who you might not encounter again for a good 3 levels.

    Reply
    • Pangs of conscience! It wasn’t quite the same when I played the original Call of Duty – it felt rather heartless getting your fellow soldiers killed, even though you had a bottomless cup of soldier coffee most of the time.

      Reply
    • I think the Call of Duty series does a decent job of characterizing even the nameless soldiers. It’s like they made that infinite respawn mechanic and realized they had turned all the soldiers into minions, then worked really hard to compensate for that instead of just changing the mechanic. Makes sense, though; CoD is never supposed to feel like a one-man army game, so they need to make sure your less-durable allies don’t all get killed off in the first thirty seconds.

      So this idea of yours is about cautious gameplay, then? I want to read. GO WRITE IT NOW.

      Reply
  2. The one game that really gets you feeling bad about your treatment of underlings is X-Com. First, it gives you the option of naming all your guys, then it forces you to make horrible decisions based on their statistics.

    “Team! Huddle up. Okay, we’ve cleared out the barns, and by my estimation there should be around 5 aliens left. They’re probably all hiding in their ship, right behind this door with laser pistols pointed at it and enough action points to spare to get three or four opportunity attacks on anyone who shows their face in there. Hey, new guy! Yeah, you with the low bravery stat! Three guesses as to who goes in first!”

    The absolute worst thing is that at around the midpoint of the game, your scientists unlock the ability to tell measure your troops’ mental strength. So all of a sudden, you have to completely reevaluate your ranks and do yet another round of culling. Without warning, your star player who you named after your brother, who has 50 kills to his name and unmatched bravery and stamina stats is just as likely to be a liability as Newbie McRedshirt who was just recruited yesterday.

    “Sorry man, I know you’ve done a lot for me and come through in some pretty tough fights, but I’ve just learned that when the Psi Attacks start flying you’re going to get mind controlled faster than a thought-criminal in room 101. Look, just don’t worry about it, okay? I have a very important mission for you. I’m entrusting you with a lot of responsibility, alright? I’m going to need you to pull the pin on your grenade and run directly at that guy who is dug in behind cover over there. Can you do that for me? Great. Your country thanks you.”

    Reply
  3. You should check out Overlord, Veret. I hear it has good minions.

    I can almost never stomach getting my underlings killed in games. To my mind, though, no game is better than Fire Emblem at making you feel like a terrible human being when your units die. Like X-Com, you control named units who persist across levels, who you quickly grow attached to as you take them through various strategic murderfests. But the game also takes time to sketch out each unit’s personal goals and friendships with your other units, and then casually reminds you whenever you let one die that you have crushed that character’s dreams forever. It’s a cheap trick for sure, but it inevitably leads to dozens of restarts.

    Reply
    • Ahhh, Fire Emblem. I knew I was forgetting something when I outlined this piece; that game made me, if possible, even more cautious than I already was. No save games and permanent character death does that to you, I guess. But it’s still a great game.

      I tried Overlord II briefly but it didn’t actually grab me much. At least early in the game, the minions you get can just about roll over everything they meet so long as you keep them all together, so there’s no sense of sacrificing anything. There’s also something in the way they’re controlled that makes them feel more like bullets in a gun than units to be commanded: You click on a target and a minion zips out to bludgeon it to death; click multiple times and you’ll send multiple minions. There’s something about giving and order and then seeing it followed that reminds you you’re holding someone else’s life in your hands, and Overlord doesn’t have it.

      Funny writing, though.

      Reply
  4. I suppose I’m the opposite, since I even throw myself into deadly situations. Survivability for me in a shooter is low, depending on the consequences for dying. In Team Deathmatch games online, I get very close to enemies before I finally kick it since I rush straight for them. On the times it catches them off guard, I live a surprisingly long time.

    Reply
    • Feedback on commentary, if I may. You do a good job of syating active as a commentator, but maybe too good a job. You seem to reach out and state things that don’t matter just to fill time. You also talk very fast while doing this and it comes out confusing. Slow the pace just a tick and if nothing is going on, don’t search the map for something to talk about just mention some peripheral fact, maybe scrutinize costs and build times speculatively.

      Reply
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  1. Nothing to See Here « Intelligent Design

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