I open up my playstation 3 account and find several messages awaiting my eyes.
This has never happened, mostly because I'm 35 and don't really play modern video games. Even if I did, I certainly couldn't be described as a gamer. True, there was a two-month foray into the MMORPG world of DC Universe Online, but even that addiction was cut short by the great Playstation hack of 2012.
It's not just the intricate button system needed to be even passable as a player (we'll get into that later), it's the time needed. You simply can't pump in a few quarters and walk away with a higher score. You need hours. You need notes. You need help. And sometimes, as is the case here, you need an overpriced strategy guide.
Back to the messages. I've been putting in the requisite time on a new fighting game entitled DC Injustice: Gods Among Us. Why and how we got here will all be explained, but for now, the messages.
The first time I see my inbox lit up, I get excited. The synapses of my brain fire with gratitude at having human interaction, even if it does come in the form of a cloaked unknown. I realize it's silly, especially at my age, but perhaps someone is writing to congratulate me on my improving skills, or revel at some 'sick' move I somehow pulled off. Maybe I can even gain a robotic and fellow game-playing friend? All seem possible.
Instead, I get one succinct word.
I can't help but thinking, did they really need to emphasize "pussy" with a period? That seems a bit much, right? I mean, you really have to go out of your way to add that period.
Nonetheless, I assume it's an aberration. I open the next message from a different user.
"You fucking suck, can't even pull off a combo."
First off, he's right. I can't pull off a combo. I wouldn't even know where to begin, but I am getting better at basic gameplay. Surely someone recognizes that?
No one does. Instead, the messages keep coming. At first, their vile-induced verbiage is somewhat amusing. Later, it becomes the norm. The hate-fueled comments only increase my scrutiny at the various usernames I'm engaging with. You know how movies utilize computer usernames so bad that you think they must have been made up? They're not. In the online world, nothing is off-limits. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and clever ways to subtly insult all those who dare play an amusing game online are fair lobs. Honestly, it's pretty sick. I assume these kids will grow out of it, and yet still I wonder how much the saturation of hatred seeps into their daily makeup? Or maybe I'm just becoming an overprotective curmudgeon?
Regardless, I'm fascinated at first. Transfixed later. And now at long last find myself rarely going a day without playing.
Welcome to the online world of gaming, a place where angry commentary is commonplace, and telling your opponent just how bad they are is an art form. A place where a guy raised on Robotron, Burgertime, and Wrestlefest doesn't stand a chance, but can't help the allure of trying.
Welcome to DC: Injustice Gods Among Us...
How I came to buying a new game on the day it came out took a triangle of unique circumstances. Most importantly, I needed a break. A break from writing, researching, and overall just going full steam in the film world. When you create, you create all day. This means even if you aren't physically forming something, you are within your head. Only the spouses of creative people understand the long, dead stares we give off at random times throughout the week. The stares that suggest we're not really registering anything you're saying because we're too busy playing with the plots and characters in our heads. Forget a mistress, my wife has to put up with hundreds of people vying for attention in my day, even if they are made up.
In short, I needed to fill some hours of the day with mindless entertainment. I call this relaxing, and the occasional video game lets my creative brain shut off just long enough to even out.
I also have some actual physical friends who were excited about a new fighting game featuring a similar engine to the Mortal Kombat games of old. But honestly, save for a brief semester toiling away hours on Rob Meshbesher's dorm room floor playing Mortal Kombat II, fighting games weren't exactly my cup of tea. I have never played Street Fighter, nor Marvel vs Capcom. Even the aforementioned MK II was played on Sega Genesis. To be frank, these new games were way out of my hand-eye coordination league.
BUT- these were DC comic characters. The very idea of duking it out with Batman and The Flash was far too enticing to turn away from, so I quickly plopped down the 60 bucks needed for Injustice. I called my friends and we made it an entire day of first-game perspective.
It started out harmless enough, just the three of us trying out different characters. No training, no instructions, just press play and fight. This was a decidedly foolish move on my part, as my friends were well-established fighting game veterans. Within hours, I was an afterthought. I was the guy you played when you wanted to try out moves and characters. This is akin to being the last guy on the roster spot of an NBA team. You're there, but really just as a body.
Baron would pull off a move and comment to Sherlock that it was similar to "blah blah blah" from Street Fighter 2. Sherlock would lock a few buttons in and perform dynamic moves using "the wheel" motion.
I hit buttons.
It didn't get any better after lunch, and the competitiveness got the best of me internally.
I vowed to get better, not realizing the fangs of gaming were sinking deeper within me. First I used the in-game tutorial. This gave me some marginal knowledge, but wasn't nearly as helpful as it could have been (the ability to tutorial with any character would have been appreciated). There was a practice option as well, but nothing helps like actually playing people. So after I mowed through the various computer challenges, I went online.
The first thing you need to know about going online is that these kids are amazing at their skills. Granted, I'd rather they be amazing at math or english, and certainly common manners would be nice, but this doesn't take away from the fact that at gaming, they're amazing. Maybe I'm just old, but I literally have no idea how they do it. Least to say, challenging video game maneuvers have come a long way since the super jump to Bowser's castle in Super Mario Brothers.
To be clear, I was always an above-average player at video games. The timing and precision came easily, and my instincts usually served me well. With Injustice, there is literally lines and lines of button code needed to be pulled off in order to perform one of these combos. Combos are my enemy. They are your enemy. They are everyone's enemy. Getting stuck in a combo is like being in rush hour on a Friday afternoon. And someone cuts you off. And honking occurs. And people flick you off. And a bird shits on your car. And then an asteroid hits it.
That's what the receiving end of a combo feels like. Does your kid have anger problems? It might be directly related to being on the receiving end of a Green Lantern combo. Think I'm kidding? Imagine being jacked up with Red Bull, adrenaline, and focused energy... then being caught in THIS:
Now at this point, there were no messages. I wasn't good enough to even warrant recognition. Naturally, I slunk back to to my couch and forgot about Injustice. For about an hour.
In the days that would follow, I played every day. Never for more than three hours, but never less than an hour. I got better.
One of the reasons I got better was I honed in on playing with one character. For me, I chose the smarmiest of characters, Sinestro. The pencil-thin mustachioed villain of Green Lantern lore, Sinestro screams out douchebag, which would serve we well based on my playing style in the weeks to come.
Sinestro has many moves, but none worth mentioning except for the rock. The rock is annoying. The rock is lame. The rock is cheap. But ultimately, the rock wins me matches. Essentially he releases a falling rock on top of someone's head, rendering them useless and in pain. If you plan for it, I instead can unleash a ball of fury that can't be blocked the same way the rock is. Yes, I just used the phrase ball of fury.
The problem with the rock is, professional gamers hate it. Their skills, finely tuned from 10+ straight hours of playing, are mute if I guess correctly. This infuriates people.
The messages start.
Now, I could point out that the rock is simply one small move, and they should be able to block it. It's not like I'm using Deathstroke in the game. Everyone universally loathes Deathstroke and his abilities. Even the worst player can win with Deathstroke. I don't even think he should be in there because he's so good. He's a "ranger", which means he can take you out from afar by just shooting over and over. They've also made him incredibly gifted at fighting, so he's just plane the worst to deal with. Entire rooms are dedicated to "NO DEATHSTROKE" get-togethers.
I'm just using a rock. And a ball of fury.
The messages continue.
Years of pitching baseball has prepared me for this mental edge. I can often outguess my quicker opponents. Nonetheless, I try and not use the rock. I get pummeled. And so the rock returns.
Eventually I string together other moves, though the elusive super-combo evades me. I practice more.
I play online with the same friends who so easily threw me aside just a few weeks earlier. It's not a challenge. I can win fairly easily with a whole slew of characters- Aquaman, Nightwing, Batman, and even the slugging and sluggish Doomsday.
I get obsessed with my stats, which hover over .500. Not great, but certainly not terrible after 400 matches. I'm pleased, but there are side-effects to all this time spent playing.
I write nothing. My brain goes blank. It's filled with nothing but endless, methodical Injustice matches. The only emotion I show is an occassional scream, often followed by a slam of a hand. Beaten again by some rat-faced teenager from South Dakota. That's what I imagine, though he or she is probably really good-looking and headed for years of a beautiful life filled with breath-taking combos. Nonetheless, it's easier and angrier to imagine them not.
I apologize to my wife, and promise her our upcoming vacation will be a reprieve from Sinestro's yellow light.
And it is, for the one week I am cut off from Injustice, I don't miss it. I sightsee and enjoy nature. I read. I begin the wheels of script development again, a machine that can't be turned off.
It is here that it occurs to me how goal-driven I've become. Had I not invested my time into something I love, like filmmaking, I might begin to buy game after game after game. Because really, isn't it the same driving force? I must pull off a combo. I must finish a rough draft. I like Sinestro. I like a character named The Rev, so much so he's made multiple appearances in scripts I write. I write every day, a man possessed by where he wants to go in life. This is similar to Injustice, refusing to be a laughing stock.
The break is nearing its end, a self-imposed no screenwriting rule until June 1.
When I come back from my trip, Injustice has left me. It has left me, pushed to the back of my shelves and regulated to a hobby.
And then I see it.
A new message.
GG means good game, and some unknown user has sent me this message. This two-letter message which means triumph to me. I have been given validation.
I log on.
There's still two weeks left until June 1. Maybe I can master one combo before then....