How My Friends And I Healed Through Cooperative Games

Editor’s note: the names in this piece have been changed to protect their identities. Also, this article contains brief mentions of some disturbing stuff (nothing explicit but unpleasant all the same). A general content warning applies for folks who might want to avoid it.

It’d been a few weeks of awkward not-talking before Slack buzzed with a simple message: “Titanfall 2 is five bucks.” I was on Christmas vacation and nowhere near my computer. Tony, AC, me, Zack and Jacob used to sit around when Titanfall, the first one, came out. We’d all just watch Tony play it, which sounds like something you do in middle school but in 2014 I was four years out of my master’s degree and for the first time in a decade we all lived back in the town where we graduated high school together.

They were a close knit group when I met them twenty-ish years ago — I moved in during high school so I was the late addition. On visits home from college we’d head over to AC’s or Tony’s and play video games for a few hours and hit up the diner and down Mello Yello and coffee until dawn. Zack and I smoked cigarettes back then.

Titanfall 2 is five bucks.” Pause. “There’s a co op mode that’s pretty fun.” Again, nobody said anything for a while. Finally I managed: “im not at home and I dont have $5 right this second but when I get in next week lets put a game together?” All we needed to do was break the silence. Tony, AC, Jacob, and I made plans. I suggested coordinating with Skype instead of ingame chat, which we all hate, so we wouldn’t have to talk to stinking randos if only two or three of us could make it — Titanfall’s frontier defense mode requires exactly four. These would be our first plans without Zack.

*

Last November, an old acquaintance sent us all a link with the message, “hey guys, this doesn’t look good.” I was at work, so I didn’t look right away, not until Jacob buzzed back, “well fuck” and AC added “yeah that’s definitely him,” and those seemed worrying enough that I snuck away for a sec to find out what doom had come to my friends.

It was a pretty damning video and, extrajudicial vigilantism notwithstanding, it was definitely our friend Zack getting busted by a group of amateur pedophile hunters. By that point none of us had spoken to him, or each other, much for months since everyone was still peeved about Zack’s drunk driving at the symphony the year before.

Still, we came up with a plan and pretty soon AC, Tony, Jacob, and I quietly informed our loved ones what had happened and that we had agreed to sever ties with our oldest friend. In this era, where you see men sticking up for their pals long after it’s apparent they should have stopped, it felt important to make this step, the whole time wondering, so did we stick up for him too long? It’d been tough being his friend in recent years.

*

Two years earlier, I’m wiped from coordinating a 60 player LARP. Zack’s sleeping on my couch, the only one of my friends to make the trip up to Chicago to play. I’d moved away, again, two years prior. Zack and his gossip keeps us all talking. He’s an insomniac like me and Tony and he’s quick to respond to texts, unlike Tony, and he’s always up for something. Helps that he wasn’t working at the time either. Zack lost his previous job under circumstances I’m not real clear on, but hey, he’s here now.

Point of fact he’s been here for six days, four days after the game ended, and my partner corners me when he’s out sightseeing — when is he leaving, she wants to know. I do too. She works at home, and it’s tough with this weird dude watching all of our DVDs all night smoking weed on the couch while she’s trying to get some rest.

*

“Contact, contact-” I shout, opening up with a G7 rifle as Jacob wilts under heavy fire, downed from behind by a trio of Apex Legends players who know what they’re doing. They’re probably coordinating on Skype. Bastards — that’s my move. Tony grunts, abandoning Jacob. “Get to cover,” he barks, suddenly my commanding officer, and I comply, huddling behind some rocks. Tony’s very good at video games.

Jacob crawls towards us, insisting he’s fine, he’s fine, Midwestern til the end as he’s torn to shreds Platoon style by efficient rapid-fire sharpshooting. From behind cover I have time to register grenade and right that’s why they invented grenades, you just throw them over cover as twin thoughts before I’m down too, and as things go gray I’m hearing Tony mutter “sorry” and he’s off running. I hear him growl a curse and then we’re in the lobby.

“They sent someone to flank us after the grenade,” says Jacob. “We got owned by pros.” Good tactics. I’m envious. Who’s got time for another match? All in. AC’s finished a late dinner, buzzed the Slack, so there’s time — with four of us, anyone want to try Vermintide 2 out, since ApeLeg only takes three? Jacob’s in, of course, he’s the only reason any of us know Warhammer.

*

“They changed the blend,” says Zack, meaning our Camel Turkish Golds. We’re doing laps around my tiny campus. Supposedly it’s smoke-free but not at two in the morning it’s not. I’m glad he’s here, and he’s right, the cigarettes are different. He came to see me at college, I’ve got a good role in the play and landed the set design and built half the fucking set by myself, you’re welcome everyone, Zack even helped focus the lights when he got here. He’s cool like that. None of the five of us went to school together, it means a lot he made the drive.

We kill the whole pack and he tells me he’ll be at school for another year, at least, maybe two, he failed one class but got an A in the “weed-out” math class. He’s training to be an engineer — his college stories are these wild, Bacchanalian epics of alcohol and drugs. One time he ripped a park sign with his last name on it out of the ground and dragged it seven blocks home — the police didn’t have a lot of trouble following the dirt trail from the heavy posts. He also shoved a guy through a glass sliding door. We gave him a lot of shit for that one.

Another story, a quick one this time: I invited everyone over to play Eclipse, a pretty great board game that takes hours to play, and Zack started this shouting match about whether you can move ships on a certain part of the turn — it’s not important. I’ve never been competitive. AC and I talked him down, and Tony said later he almost got in his car and left. With anyone else that’d be some kind of joke but not him. He’s done that before, he means it.

All the game nights we shared though, all those contests — when were we supposed to act? I’m not after absolution, I want to know when I stop feeling like I took the easy way out. Is there some kind of guilt-per-capita figure we can use to figure out the how to feel? I wish I could say that night was the moment I started to piece things together. It’s not though, nothing came together until that day in November, when the internet hung our collective failure out for everyone to see.

*

“Just… play through the single player, that’s like a tutorial for the multiplayer. And don’t fuck with the competitive multiplayer, it’s completely different skill sets.” Tony, AC, and I have played three or four matchups in Frontier Defense now, and I’ve had some generous time off work so I’ve had an easier time leveling up. We’re trying to get Jacob up to speed. Come on, dude, it’s time to game. Everything’s been so serious and now we’re all talking again, or at least all four of us are talking again. A lot of us talked, briefly, in hushed pairs in virtual corners, like guests at a party where we don’t know nobody else. It’s the collective that’s been silent. Now we’re back to talking and it’s nonstop buzz.

Tony mutes Slack whenever Jacob and I start riffing on the Fallout games, or when AC goes into one of his pun digressions, or when Jacob starts talking about whatever the new Warhammer 40K thing is, he doesn’t even play he just likes painting the miniatures, but it’s a good hobby and he’s got chops, artistically, and shit dude remember those minis you made for our Savage Worlds game?

Today we are united in purpose, and the purpose is to stop playing with randoms and to start playing Frontier Defense with the four of us like we planned. Jacob promises to play through single player over the weekend if he’s able. A couple weeks later he announces in the same Slack channel we plan games in that he and his wife are having a baby, that he wanted to wait until he knew I’d see the announcement as well. I’m happy to be included, especially because he just saw everyone the night before at their weekly movie nights, the whole reason we started the Slack. It’s been nice talking again.

*

“The pathfinding is good. Wish I could do more tinkering with my loadout up front. Like, experiment with the different weapon types.” The Division 2 has free play going, we’ve taken advantage of it. I’m nitpicking over Skype while we trade fire with the bad guys. “It’s pretty good. I have trouble with the, uh, politics in it.” AC cracks a joke about Ubisoft’s official statement that the game has no politics and the irony that the game starts with violent scavengers besieging the White House — “amazing that Trump’s staff stuck around that long,” he cracks.

Tony has, as usual, pretty quickly cleaned up the enemies after reviving all of us once. He’s simply the best. Jacob’s not on this night, but he and I are going to play Vermintide 2 on my spring break next week. It’s a simple game where the numbers go up in a pleasing way and we’re both into it.

Five months on, I know through acquaintances that Zack deleted all his social media. I don’t know if he got in any trouble. He usually doesn’t. I do know that I’m very, very glad Tony noticed Titanfall 2 was on sale. Zack was the reason most of us got to know each other, and once he was gone I was truly worried I wouldn’t have any friends left. It took time, but we’ve come back together without him. And now, I’m blessed with these people — friends and teammates in equal measure.

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