Outnumbered, outmaneuvered and outgunned. Perfect. The enemy forces hurl themselves at my already battered barricades. I ready the last of my ragtag army near my central base. Many of them are injured; all of them will die soon – entirely in vain, except for the fact that I have a massive, cheesy grin on my face. Gloating messages of victory arrive from my opponent, not the least of which is “gg tho.” For me, however, the victory is mine. I lost. But that’s the win.
I believe gaming is at its best when we face not just daunting challenges, but literally impossible ones where defeat is inevitable. We constantly pit ourselves against them, again and again, with an expression of grim stoicism. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to videogames, either – my falsely heroic ideals undoubtedly have their root in the reality of the Last Stand.
Certainly, in the real world, the Last Stand has achieved an almost mythical status. Every person reading this will have had a famous military loss pop into their head, be it the Alamo or Little Bighorn for U.S. citizens or the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War for Brits. Almost every nation has one, and it’s curious how some glorify them. My country, the U.K., reigned over the largest empire in human history only 100 years ago. That naturally came about through a constant series of military victories, yet we remember very few of them. What we do remember are our “heroic” rear guard actions, hundreds of miles from home against crazed foreigners, culminating in the grueling defense against the greatest evil, Nazi Germany.
Of course, this is all nonsense. Last Stands are generally hideous massacres, large wastes of human life and often the results of poor planning. Yet they hold enormous appeal when manifested in videogames. To anyone watching us play, our pleasure might not be recognizable. Constant defeat, no matter how hard we try, often has the same symptoms: At death number one we grumble and continue; at death number two we swear and sit up straight, a malignant look in our eye; at death number 200, we roar with anger and declare that the computer is “cheating” as the controller moves with great velocity in a random direction.
One might reasonably ask why we put ourselves through this obvious frustration. The answer is in the subtle enjoyment we all feel when we somehow survive that impossible predicament. This is the root of the worship for real Last Stands as well – not in some sort of patriotism, but in the deep-seated desire for the underdog to win. For centuries, the best fiction has had its protagonists pushed right to the brink of defeat, against insurmountable odds, only to rise victorious. To place ourselves at the heart of this dramatic arc is the logical next step.
Call of Duty, for example, often pits you against impossible odds where, especially on harder difficulty settings, you will die time and time again. You restart at the last checkpoint and, if you’re anything like me, try the exact same tactic again with similar results. You are an infinite, unstoppable human wave of one, coming closer to victory with each gruesome death.
These days, I always play games on the hardest difficulty available to me. To play, for example, Gears of War on “casual” would be an affront, because the game has no meaning without difficulty. You become an invincible demon marching through enemy lines, killing with ease and laughing manically.
For the rest of us, playing on anything but the hardest or second hardest setting amounts to sadism. You are clearing through enemies with no resistance – you might as well be killing innocent civilians. The frustration I feel when the difficulty intensifies at least allows me to become the underdog. To completely be a cornered, shivering rat behind a small wall being raked by machine guns and rockets – there lies nobility. Many of the most popular internet Flash games are also like this. Think of all the tower defense games, zombie games – there are even a few called Last Stand. Giving a wave everything you’ve got? Only just survived by the skin of your teeth? Well, the next one is twice as hard.
Perhaps it’s the simplicity of defense that I enjoy. A good attack in an RTS requires excellent logistical skills, multi-tasking and directing numerous units. By contrast, defending involves massing all of your troops at the narrowest entrance(s) to your base and waiting, then replenishing if possible. Perhaps I’m more of a scenic gamer – I feel much more comfortable when I have explored my environment and know it well. Being forcibly pushed through area after area in a never ending assault tends to confuse my small brain.
A videogame is often at its best when it stops dragging the player through level after level and lets them stop and savor their surroundings. A good set piece in an open environment can create some of the most memorable moments in gaming – think of defending the rocket launch in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 or barring the doors and windows in Resident Evil 4. When a game is confident enough in its A.I. to place you in a confined space, throw some enemies at you and see what happens, it often creates a perfect combination of scripted events and emergent gameplay.
In reality, Last Stands are an over-romanticized, fantastical notion, perpetuated by a selfish desire for martyrdom. Videogames, on the other hand, are another fantasy, and I will happily indulge my adolescent, Lord of the Rings-reading hero. To me, my StarCraft troops were defending everything I held dear against the merciless hordes of orcs/zerg/crazed bad guys. I may have been annihilated, gunned down bit by bit until only the charred husks of my base remained. But I loved every minute of it.
Lee Petrie is studying philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, but more importantly works part time in a shop that gives him 20 percent off of beer. Please send all discount beer requests to ernesto_juan_sanchez[at]hotmail[dot]com.