Role-play it (again), Sam

I was, I think, trying to play the Half Life mod Vampire Slayer this one time, when I inadvertently ran into a bunch of people - a dozen or so, which was fairly respectable even at the height of the rabid modding community (dilution of the playerbase an’ all) - doing some very strange stuff. Vampire Slayer, as its name would suggest, was a combat-orientated experience where a team of humans (the titular Slayers) duked it out with a team of pastier humans (the titular ‘Pires) using all sorts of John Carpenter’s Vampires-inspired gadgetry. Only these players weren’t doing as they were told. Instead of swiping at, staking and shooting one another as would be expected, everyone was gathered around chatting or walking about, enacting something that kind of resembled real life. That is to say they were all simply flaunting the generally accepted rules of a team deathmatch game and just not killing one another. After a little polite inquiry I was informed that I’d happened upon a role-playing server: a place where one was free to pretend to be anything or anyone you desired - as long as you didn’t mind doing so dressed as a vampire version of the G-Man with great big claws and a nasty looking omelette scalp.

I was quite impressed by the dedication these inhabitants displayed to their chosen pastime. The rigid nature of multiplayer Half Life doesn’t provide much leeway when it comes to methods of interacting with others, in fact, past killing you can only really text chat and spray graffiti tags - mine was the picture of Eazy-E you see nearby - as a means of communication. Which is why I was so in awe of the people I’d been thrown together with, particularly the way they were making do with these tin can telephone-quality amenities and running wild with them. One person, dressed as a hip looking vicar, stood in the hollow innards of a building - mods of the day were often criminally sparse when it came to interior design - rping (role-playing) a bank clerk. He (a male avatar at least) just stood there, idly chatting to other players as they came in to manage their personal finances. Others ran a little market, there was a pair of jail guards, a cop and what I can only assume were lunching office workers, such was their confident and carefree sauntering in between the sandwich purchasing and bill paying.

I didn’t get in on the act too deeply myself, satisfied as I was to simply watch the patterns of the townsfolk emerge. I felt an acute sense of being an outsider, as if I were a literal new arrival in an already established community; a testament, I suppose, to the investiture of the people I was playing with. And they must have been pretty into it, because there wasn’t really a whole lot going on past the idle chitchat and symbolic “I’m going to walk over here and collect your cheque/foot long/bunch of flowers/pressed shirts and then walk back and give them to you” dalliances.

It was bizarre to see, if I’m being honest. Not for what it was - people can do whatever they want with their free time; I had a slavish devotion to LEGO well into my late teens - but for the discipline and creativity on display. Now I know that electing to not shoot one another in favour of playing pretend isn’t really a great stretch of the imagination - even if, by definition, it entirely is - it’s just the way that these people were conducting themselves was striking - inspirational, even.

I’m terribly conservative when it comes to my consumption of games. The zenith of my subversiveness when playing was probably cheating in each of the PS2 GTAs, but that involved codes put into the games by their developers, so that doesn’t even count I suppose. Then there was that Metal Gear Solid escapade where I ‘hacked’ the game, but that didn’t end anywhere near as well, so I’m not sure if I can claim that as a dissentient victory either. I don’t pull my punches when trying to accomplish game things: basically, if I play something I’m going to do it in a very orderly manner, using all the tools I’m given to get where I need to be. Easy mode, I think, is a super valid way to interact with video games, one which is often overlooked because, hey, “games are meant to be challenging”. Except no, actually, they really aren’t meant to be that way at all, because being able to make them super easy is built right into most of them. I take the simple route all the time.

Call it lazy, call it foolish, call it missing the point entirely - call it whatever you want - but the basis of my relationship with most of the things I play is largely adversarial. I don’t think I even enjoy most of my time spent with video games, largely, I’d assume, because I still feel beholden to the tangible shiny round ones and so spend far too much time thinking about The Triple-A rather than the ethereal download stuff one doesn’t find down their local Gamestation (if they were to still exist). So yes, I hate games and want them to be over as quickly as possible, which is why I’ve never gone in for overcomplicating them or fiddling about and playing them in a seditious way. Which is why, to get back to a more positive bent, I was so happy to see my rping chums having such a good time.    

In choosing to just stand about and twiddle their thumbs in inventive ways they’d accomplished what I’ve never myself managed, namely, to positively influence and alter their video game experiences. In eschewing the goals set out by Vampire Slayer they were taking control of their affairs and making the game work for them. (Why they chose an obscure mod to call home is beyond me, maybe the broody, modern gothic aesthetic was found to complement their brand of tertiary sector rping.) I don’t think it really matters that what they were doing wasn’t particularly well suited to their chosen canvas - Second Life and Playstation Home et al were still years off - in fact that part maybe makes their stand against conformity all the more impressive.

The only time they ever resorted to playing by the rules was when a stranger entered the server and tried to ruin the vibe (man) with shooting or stabbing. Then, and only then, would the citizens all drop their day-to-days and possefy, hunting down the interloping party with swift vengeance, the like of which hadn’t been seen since the heady days of Hallowen 4: The Return of Michael Myers. It actually made for a rather strange sight: I’d become so accustomed to the peaceful comings and goings that these little bursts of leather-clad disorder didn’t seem to fit with the game at all any longer. In that respect, I can’t deny that their subversion of what was expected of them as players - participants, at this juncture might be a better label - was wholly successful.

I never took this any further though, instead choosing to wilfully ignore what could have been a broadening of my interests and just slide back into the comfortable cocoon of generalised apathy, a place I still largely remain tenanted in to this day. Vampire Slayer was one of hundreds of multiplayer mods created for Half Life and one of almost the same number to disappear with very little attention. I went on to have a lasting relationship with Day of Defeat, spending many an hour playing silly deathmatches on custom servers, the kind running user-created maps that looked like Mario levels or very large suburban rooms, whilst playing music ripped from horror movies and the announcer from Unreal Tournament. Sadly, that pretty much sums me as a player up perfectly: I tread only the most well-worn paths, in generally the most obvious ways and without ever deviating further than someone else will allow me to. I lap it up and hate the taste, but Christ, it’s easier than trying any harder.

So “great job” to those who do, you’re better than me by far.


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