You could always tell when Aaron was playing Geometry Wars because of the breathing.
It started out normal enough. Hand him the controller and he’d square up to the TV, the screen perfectly centered in his field of vision, alert to every unfortunate possibility of his downfall – a snake spawn along the edge of the grid, a particularly squirrelly green square, the chaotic spiral of pink debris.
Five minutes later, his breathing quickened, as if he was physically exerting himself against the image in front of him, or attempting to regulate his pace in the uphill leg of a marathon. Conversation ceased, and walking between him and the screen became a cardinal sin, a burdensome reminder that the world around him still existed, in all its three dreary dimensions.
Ten minutes into his run, and he was in full-on Lamaze mode. I’m still not sure how he kept from hyperventilating, but the tension was apparently so unbearable that it became a struggle to keep from passing out. The only relief was death, a precious three-second respite from the onslaught of brightly colored shapes that poured from every corner of the grid. Eight or nine times later, and he was back to the title screen; the thumping techno beat faded into a more atmospheric wash of swirling synths, and his breathing returned to its resting state.
If Aaron smoked, this is probably when he would have a cigarette. And we’d continue to look on with a mixture of amusement and mild discomfort.
Geometry Wars belies a surprising amount of complexity and depth for a 30-second download from Xbox Live Arcade. Like most classic arcade games, there are no extrinsic awards except for a paltry 200 achievement points. And unlike its sequel, there are no outside indicators of your performance aside from your score. It’s just you, a grid and an endless supply of 2-D polygons whose sole purpose is to send your hexagonal ass back whence it came.
Two months into the Xbox 360’s life cycle, Geometry Wars was the best game on the system. Not simply the best Arcade game, but the strongest title in an otherwise terminally weak launch lineup. Aaron had camped out in sub-zero temperatures to secure his console, and he wasn’t about to let his suffering go to waste. Geometry Wars was the reason his Xbox wasn’t on eBay in time for the pre-Christmas price spike, and while Perfect Dark Zero was collecting dust, we were attempting to extract every penny of gameplay from our $5 download.
A run through Geometry Wars unfolds in a few distinct phases. The first 100,000 points are your adolescence: skittish, erratic, awkward. There are too few enemies on screen at any given time to truly compel a route, and your cannons don’t have the surgical precision necessary to pick off individual shapes with any ease. As a result, the easiest strategy is to tentatively approach slower targets to pick them off and retreat from faster shapes that can close in on you before you’re able to land a hit. For a seasoned player, dying this early in the game is a failure that will inevitably cast a pallor of doubt over the rest of his run. Yet even though a skilled Geometry Warrior will rarely encounter any difficulty in this passage, it’s hard not to feel a bit fragile.
Between 100,000 and 500,000 points, a transformation occurs. The spawn patterns stay the same, but the number of enemies thrown at you increases exponentially. It’s no longer possible to move away from one group of enemies without running directly into another. And this is where a novice player will typically hit a brick wall.
My friends and I went through a multitude of half-baked, one-off strategies in our attempts to push past the half-million mark. One memorable tactic instructed the player to keep as many black holes in the center of the screen as possible by scuttling from one engorged circle to another and pruning the extra mass away with cannon fire until it became less prone to explode. This created an all-consuming vacuum in the center of the screen from which no enemy could escape, but it wasn’t sustainable. While the rotating coronas of red light provided some amazing eye-candy, it always resulted in a cascading explosion of blue ringlets.
We spent the better part of our winter break searching for ways to move beyond the 500,000-point threshold, with little success. We even experimented with different screens and viewing distances; still, the half-million mark taunted us, tantalizingly out of reach. And then, weeks after we had gone our separate ways, we found a prophet that would guide us deeper into the grid than we thought possible.
His name (or Gamertag, rather) was K4rn4ge, and over the course of what had to be a 90-minute session of continuous gameplay, he achieved a world-record high score of over 16 million points, more than doubling his previous record of 7 million. Best of all, he had the foresight to record the last 20 minutes of his run, which shows him scoring the final 4 million before no doubt collapsing into a heap on the floor and sleeping for three days.
We treated this document with a mixture of curiosity and reverence. Here was someone who, in the course of 20 minutes, had shattered every assumption we made about a game that we had spent weeks practicing. We discovered the difficulty actually ceases to increase after around 4 million points; perhaps the developers never imagined anyone surpassing that mark. K4rn4ge had reached a level of mastery where the only thing preventing him from continuing on to infinity was his own crude biological needs for food and sleep.
His reaction time bordered on the prescient. He showed absolutely no hesitation when a stream of marauding shapes blocked his path; he carved a swath of destruction in front of him that provided just barely enough room to squeeze through. And he had an almost unshakeable confidence in his own survival. After being whittled down to his final life, he managed to continue for another 900,000 points before finally succumbing to his own mental fatigue.
Nonetheless, it was possible to emulate some of his style, and it was by playing in his example that we were able to transcend our frustration and demolish our personal bests. We quickly adopted his circuitous path: always at least a few ship lengths from the edges of the grid and always traveling counterclockwise. And we found the simplest solution of destroying black holes on sight was also the most effective. Each time one spawned in his path, K4rn4ge would rush headlong into the abyss, coming within microseconds of a crash before it disappeared with a satisfying “pop.”
Separately, we each broke through the half-million doldrums and continued to climb. We had, at long last, reached the final chapter of Geometry Wars.
Past 500,000 points, you begin to see clearly the forces that underlie the game’s single-minded vocation. Dozens of iterations of self-contained AI multiply into hundreds; individuals slowly meld into swarms. You no longer have time to reflect when determining your route. A moment of hesitation is all it takes to be engulfed by the herd.
Between spawns, it becomes increasingly difficult to clear the screen of enemies: They’re replaced faster than you can cut through them. Your circular route results in a malignant mass of shapes that gradually huddle in your wake. You’re both their shepherd and reaper until the swarm begins to overtake you and you’re forced to clear the screen.
Learning to function under such duress means being able to block out every piece of information that isn’t an immediate threat to your survival. You have to reserve every ounce of mental energy twitch evasive maneuvers; attempt to glimpse at your score or your number of remaining ships and it could precipitate a quick and dirty end to your run. Your own barely perceptible moments of self-doubt are as hazardous to your long-term success as the enemy AI. If you’re lucky, you’ll score just enough points to be able to replenish your dwindling supply of ships and bombs.
It was thanks to K4rn4ge’s desire to immortalize himself as the Once and Future King of Geometry Wars that we were able to achieve respectable high scores of 2-3 million points. They were nothing compared to his best. But even if you’re K4rn4ge, the game has to end sometime.