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.
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.
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?
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.
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.