Continuing in my series on video games I am now going to recount a particularly momentous event in competitive computer gaming, the story of the time I lost at Starcraft.
Starcraft Wallpaper (from Blizzard.com)
The facts about Starcraft are that it was a game originally developed and produced for the PC by Blizzard Entertainment. It falls under the category of being a science fiction real-time strategy war game. Of course for my purposes one of the other marvelous things about it was that you could play it on a LAN against friends who were sitting right next to you. For those of you not so much in the know, Starcraft came out in the late 90’s and although the internet was around, most competitive gaming at the time was done on machines that were directly networked together. This kind of configuration continues to be known as a LAN, local area network.
A Lan Party sometime in the recent past (from Mark Frost at Hackcollege.com)
Well in the late 90’s I was in high school and the best LAN around happened to be my high school’s computer lab. The machines were all fairly new and our teacher fairly laid back. So during a period of the day where we were all supposed to be learning about programming and networking, we often had plenty of time left over to fire up our favorite network based game, Starcraft.
At its core the point of a real-time strategy war game is that you build your armies as fast as you can, build your bases as strong as you can, and then seek out and attack the bases of your enemies before they can build up defenses or armies. In Starcraft you could choose to play as one of the three different species, complete with your own unique set of military units, buildings, and defenses. You could choose from the vicious Zerg, think giant evil sentient bugs in Space and you have it, The technologically advanced Protoss, humanoid aliens with robot armies, or the good old fashioned Terrans, humanity…in the future.
The advantage of the Zerg is that their armies tend to build very quickly, but they rely on overwhelming numbers to compensate for the weakness of individual units. The advantage of the Protoss is that they have some of the strongest units in the game, complete with armor, shields and serious firepower, but it takes a little bit longer to get your army built up. The humans are the in-betweeners having a moderate mix of speed and firepower.
Also, the humans have the most powerful weapon in the whole game, the nuke. It’s exactly what it sounds like, it’s a nuclear warhead, and it can pretty much wipe out an entire base and an army in one shot. It’s liabilities are that it takes forever to build one, and it takes a long time to aim and fire one. You basically have to send out a lone sniper and have them point their gun and paint the target you want to nuke for at least 10 seconds. If at any time during the aiming sequence your sniper is discovered and killed then the nuke does not go off. Now these snipers, called Ghosts, do have a little invisibility device, but everyone in the game has ways to see invisible units so it’s not as great as it sounds. Other than aiming your nuke a ghost is pretty worthless and easy to kill. So a nuclear launch only works if your ghost can sneak past the enemy, aim the nuke long enough for it to fire and then run like hell before the blast-wave wipes out everything in the vicinity, including your ghost.
Nuclear Launch Detected (from spacebattles.com)
Now, on to the story.
So one fine day on December 31, 1999, several of my classmates and our computer teacher were hanging out on New Year’s Eve in the computer lab, testing the machines to make sure that they would survive Y2K, (look it up it’s not really important to my story.) We were having a full blown geek party complete with snacks, soft drinks, and all the game time we wanted. Starcraft was still our game of choice so we all got a big match going and I joined in.
I like to play as the humans, the Terran armies, so as soon as my screen loaded up I started gathering resources and building my defenses. My strategy was always to try to build up to nukes as quickly as possible and then use them to simply wipe out my opponents bases. The particular style of game we all preferred was a version of everyone for themselves, last player standing wins. So I was building my defenses, hiding my base and sinking most of my resources into building up nukes.
However some unofficial alliances had begun to form, and several of the players had decided to band together and wipe out the rest of us. Even if you were playing an everyone for themselves match, you could still choose to form alliances, and then the game would be over whenever there was only one alliance left. In this particular game the major alliance was made up of players who liked to play as the Protoss. The main advantage of playing Protoss is that they could build carriers. That is, the Protoss built giant space ships which came armed with lots of little fighter craft. This was devastating since a few Protoss carriers could decimate a well defended base in seconds. They would overwhelm your defenses, confuse your targeting and make it impossible for you to do little more than die.
Soon enough the Protoss alliance began wiping out everyone, and I had barely had time to build up my own fleet and start building my nukes. It wasn’t long before it was down to me, my hidden fortress and the Protoss alliance. I had made the wrong friends and I had no one left to help me. At this point I could have given up, and the game would have been over, but I was too stubborn for that.
I sent my fleet out and they were soon defeated. This left me with nothing but my base, some meager defenses, and one nuke. It was too late to run, and I was not about to surrender. So I started pouring all of my resources into a last desperate defense. I built up all of the defensive units I could but sure enough they found me.
Their carriers launched all their fighters and a wave of seemingly endless ships tore into my base. I was taunted and told to simply give up, but one final idea occurred to me.
I set my ghost to hide and aim the only nuke we had…at my own base.
One of the great things about Starcraft is that whenever any player attempts to launch a nuke all the players on the map are warned that there has been a “Nuclear Launch Detected”. This comes through in a loud warning that resounds in everyone’s speakers. When you are playing a Lan game this sounds like all of the computers screaming out the same warning all at once.
That moment was unforgettable, and it was followed by the Protoss alliance scrambling to try to figure out where I was and which of their bases I was targeting. As they shouted back and forth that each of their bases was clear I sat stoically and silently at my computer station, quietly condemning all of my people to a fiery nuclear demise. 10 seconds is an excruciatingly long time to keep up a bluff though, and with barely one second left to go, one of the other players figured it out. “Crap! He’s nuking himself, run, run!” It was all he could think to say but the warning came too late. The other players did not even fully understand what was happening, at least not until they saw the nuke descending on their massive invincible fleet. The explosion was incredible and the destruction was massive. Some of the players even tried to run at the last second but no one made it out in time.
Sadly for me the game wasn’t over yet. I had destroyed their fleets but I still had one or 2 useless buildings which survived the blast, thanks to their fleet taking the brunt of it. So all there was for me to do was sit back, wait for them to rebuild and then wipe out my few remaining structures. This took them a while, and I was told to surrender several times. I refused, and they wiped me out. Still to this day that was the best time I ever had playing Starcraft.
This story is not about the realities of warfare, or the dangers of mutually assured destruction, or the horrors of nuclear war. No this game took place in a virtual, but competitive, environment and I was playing for something much simpler and a lot harder to win, the right to belong.
I was not a winner in high school, and I even when it came to playing video games I found myself outclassed by people who were just better at it than me. It wasn’t all bad though since at least I never found myself shut up in a locker. It’s not like that game of Starcraft suddenly made me cool, but it did teach me a thing or two about winning and losing.
Long before I lost on New Year’s Eve I was already one of the worst players in my high school. People would often complain that I would not quit the game when it was clear that I had lost and when they wanted to move on and play something else. I would stubbornly hang in there till I was decimated and I hated losing every single time. I can’t even say that I learned anything from losing, except that I really hated losing.
You can quit and lose any time you want to, and not everyone is going to win. Winning is for the smart, the clever, the strong, the fast, the affluent, and the beautiful, the rest of us do our best just to scrape by. The world is full of winners and losers and statistically speaking most of us are losers. You are not going to get what you want in life, all that you hope for will be lost, and you will be left to make the best of it. I always hate losing anything because it reminds me that there is a world of winners out there, and I am not a part of their world. I strategize and I try my best, but mostly I just make do.
In life, as in art, I have found that when I can’t win and I am definitely going to lose then at least I still make them pay for it.