If war is hell, and hell is other people…

… I was going to say something clever about my new mini-obsession: playing multiplayer matches of the Arma series of games, military simulators focusing on combined operations. While that’s still what I’ll be writing about, I thought I’d drop the attempt at wit. Let’s face it, the joke would have faced the same fate as many of my Arma adventures: fifteen minutes of creeping up slowly, only to die in a display of futility.

I’ve never really been into playing multiplayer games, at least not online. I remember a long, fun night of playing Jedi Knight against a friend who’d brought along a computer, but most of my forays into online MP were brief: some Battlefield 2, some Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies beta testing, the occasional coop game of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, that sort of thing. Not that it’s not fun, but I’ve always been drawn more to story-heavy single player titles.

Over the last year, though, I’ve discovered why some people get into multiplayer almost to the exclusion of single player goodness. It all started with GTA V‘s online modes – and it’s not the whole “shoot other players in the face” aspect that got me hooked: no, what made me reconsider was the more serene moments of coop. Yes, I confess, I got some of my greatest online enjoyment out of starting a cooperative mission and hopping into a car driven by another person clutching their PS3 controller on a different continent. There’s something about inhabiting a living, breathing virtual world and interacting with others that aren’t controlled by a computer – it’s basically the Matrix, if that classic of Keanu-y goodness was about driving around a pastiche of Los Angeles in a convertible. Yes, usually that drive ended in an ambush by assault gun-wielding gangsters and swift death for my online avatar, but sharing a virtual space with other, real people makes that space feel more real too.

Arma is a strange case, actually: I’m pretty far from a fan of heavy militarism, doubly so if it’s po-faced militarism. It’s not the dudebro, Michael Bay-style kind of military porn (“Is that an M16 in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”), but the games are definitely designed to appeal to those who know the difference between an AK-47 and an AK-74 (and no, I don’t think the answer is 27!). It’s also a game that can be unforgivingly difficult – you can spend twenty minutes crawling through the undergrowth on your belly only to be spotted and shot by an opposing soldier from 200 metres away – mind you, a soldier you haven’t even seen yet, let alone shot at.

Yes, no one could claim that Arma is a friendly game – if something like Plants vs. Zombies exists at one end of the spectrum, Arma sits at the other end, readying an artillery barrage in the direction of those singing sunflowers and cartoony undead. However, I’ve found that the people I play with are very friendly and welcoming. They also make up for the game’s seriousness with laconic, self-deprecating wit, which makes for a perfect counterweight to Arma‘s seriousness. I especially remember a session with about 30 others, starting with us sitting in a transport helicopter flying us closer to the location we were supposed to attack, and the joking, singing and general silliness of that flight was what made the game for me at least as much as the following ambush we got ourselves caught up in. Probably more so.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on story-heavy single player games – I still enjoy those. But I’m pleasantly surprised that some of the most fun I’ve had as a gamer of… fuck, has it been that long?!… 30+ years consists of virtual road trips. If only I’d known all those years ago when I found long car drives to holiday destinations sheer torture – and those didn’t even end with ambushes, mass slaughter and slow motion death scenes set to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. If only.

A shout-out to the crazy people at Folk ARPS. It’s always an honour to be shot up while in your company!

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