Xander is better than me at everything. And as I watch my body erupt in a shower of lumpy gore around an exploding rocket, I am never more aware of the fact.
I swear, loudly and angrily, and take a sip of Coke. I hear him laugh from a few seats up: brash, confident, mocking. He knows it, too.
I put the can down and tap impatiently at the mouse, desperately trying to get into battle as quickly as possible. Numbers on-screen tick down in seconds which feel like minutes. I'm losing time and he's getting even further ahead. I click harder, faster, as if to speed up the countdown until my respawn. I swear again, this time I'd-
A whoosh and a zoom and a flood of mind-cleansing adrenaline as my avatar is thrust back into the battle arena. I hit the ground sprinting and gun down Doug before he can claim the Rocket Launcher, grab the weapon for myself, and instantly swerve from side to side to avoid a rush of incoming plasma. I take in the room in less than a heartbeat, skip around the swirling blue balls, and pick my target. I don't even watch as the rockets drive into a wall, taking out Jen with their blast and ticking up my score by another frag. I'm heading straight for the Railgun.
I bring up the score table. He's winning, but only by a single kill.
I'd driven up North to meet Xander and some old mates in Newbury for a weekend gaming event. He'd done this sort of thing more often than me. He was the first person I'd known to actually go to a professional LAN party. We'd all cluster around our screens during half-terms in a crowded living room – normally at Xander's place, of course – mired in cabling and empty cans of pop. Our parents universally hated it, not least because they had to either drive all our computing equipment between the villages of our homes, or they had to sacrifice their beloved kitchens and living rooms for a weekend. But I learned a lot this way; about technology, society, rivalry. This was our punk concert, our Woodstock, our picket line. For my generation of affluent, technology-addicted misfits, who'd never known real strife, these high-tech events formed our social identities. This is what we did.
But this event at Newbury was something else, a step up from our parochial parties into a professional, organised, well, Event. There were over a thousand people taking up the main conference hall in the Racecourse. The huge ten-metre high windows, which normally provided a view of the green grass of the track, were draped in thick black curtains. A dark Cathedral for virtual reality. Illumination came from the blue lights decorating the black cases of our rigs. Glare could get you killed.
“Bastard!” Xander screams. One of my rockets strikes the floor of the Railgun pad a split-second before he runs over it, hurling him down into an infinite abyss. I smile. But I don't have time to smile – we're neck and neck.
He was the best of all of us. Any game we'd play, he'd win basically all of the time. And if he didn't win, he'd be in the top three. Xander was just like that: perfectly capable at everything, devoid of weaknesses. His grades in school were solid. He was an able sportsman. He had interests in things way beyond our ages. He was no genius, no savant, no Adonis. But he was never less than eight-out-of-ten. I was occasionally a seven, at best.
It just went like that, he'd either gotten there first or done it better. I had a deep and powerful respect for Xander, something which went deeper than friendship. But it wasn't always that way.
A rocket explodes over my head, dropping my health down to hazardous levels. I circle-strafe frantically, trying to find where the attack is coming from. Another rocket burst and I'm dead again – and it's Xander charging through the crimson mist that was once my body. He's three kills ahead of me now. The scoreboard moves so quickly.
We became close in the first year of high-school. When I moved away a couple of years later, I lost a lot of friends – including Xander and my then best buddy. Jay was a fellow misfit. Small, bullied, often in trouble, we quickly became close. We bonded over shooting games played over very early networks. My first ever LAN parties were multi-player games of Doom and Duke Nukem played using printer cables. I still remember reading a PC game magazine with him which promised photo-realistic graphics within two years. We both stared out of the window then, dreaming of the possibilities.
When it all fell apart, Xander became a convenient scapegoat and a symbol of the change in my life. Everyone else was being led into the scary worlds of adulthood while I was left behind. So we drifted. But those long years looked a lot shorter now, as my first year of university was drawing to a close. Xander and I had rekindled our friendship. We both found something in each other – a peace, perhaps – that we struggled to find elsewhere. Though we'd not talk much, we would talk well.
“Yes!” he cheers as the match times out. I stare grimly at the scoreboard: he’s won by two kills. I've beaten him in a couple of matches this morning, but he's still 4-3 up for the weekend. I've had three hours sleep in a stuffy tent – and now I'm getting angsty in the disappointment of defeat.
This is Quake. This is my game, and no-one can take that from me. I crunch up my Coke can and avoid Xander's gaze. If I'm ever going to get the better of the bastard, it's here and now. This is my game.
The room filters back into my senses as the disappointment evaporates: people standing, sitting, stretching. Snacks are opened, drinks poured, jokes and war stories exchanged. No-one understands gamer banter like gamers. That’s why it's special – it's almost our own language, based as much on abbreviations and typefaces as phonetics or semantics. I've always known it's childish, homophobic and inane. But it's our code and here, in our Cathedral, we were safe and among kin.
Jen creates a new server and all eight of us jack straight into the game. First to fifty kills: no problem.
The countdown begins as we spawn into the world, joining the game at different times, according to the relative power of our computers. Xander's first in. I pull my headphones up. The world around me fades into a quiet hum as I remind myself of the map's layout.
I didn't really have a best friend, although Xander was ostensibly he. I'd travelled up with Rob, who I basically knew from the internet. And we were fairly close but it was a shallow relationship. Of everyone, I'd been closest to Xander the longest. Perhaps the animosity, the jealousy, made us stronger. I guess past emotion builds up into a strong connection – be it love or hate – and in the quiet moments, when emotions aren’t running high, that connection is there either way. But since a break-up with my girlfriend, in which Xander had been less than helpful – although I think he'd tried, in his way – I was feeling pretty disconnected from society. It had been a rough year.
The battle is frantic, intense. In no time at all Xander has grabbed ten kills, running amok with the Rocket launcher and a damage power-up. But I'm closing in, picking off easy targets, buoyed by the in-game commentator who shouts “Excellent!” and “Impressive” as I rack up some frags of my own. Seconds later I've closed the gap to 12-11 and I know that I can do this. Every time Xander dies, he screams in fury and I suppress a smile. I feel alive.
When I moved away he'd gotten close with my then best friend. I wouldn't say he'd stolen Jay from me, exactly, but it often felt that way. Anytime I spoke with Jay, Xander was never too far from sight or thought. Instead of me helping Jay build his new games machine, it was Xander. I'd called him about it, shortly after moving, sneaking into my Mum's bedroom to get a private five minutes on the phone and re-connect with a world which I felt I'd left behind. Sure enough, as I spoke with Jay, I heard Xander in the background. I said something, and I don't remember what, but it showed me up. Perhaps I mentioned a game which we didn't play anymore, perhaps I offered some bad advice about how to fix a network connectivity problem. But I'll never forget Xander's jeering laughter down the phone, nor the pang of jealously that followed it. I felt like I'd lost a point that day – and unlike games, there wasn’t a reset button. This was for keeps.
We were all growing up fast and when Jay started to explore the world of alcohol, he learned with Xander by his side. All my old mates were there for each other to venture across the horizon of adult entertainment, Xander usually complicit in the exploits I'd hear about. I didn't have the trust in my new school friends to walk those same worlds – yeah, I was scared – and it resulted in a sort of development gap and debt of loneliness which it would take me fully eight years to get over.
The first time I'd gone back to see them, when I'd built up the courage after years of being old news to both of them, I stayed at Jay's house. But the party was in the next town over, and Xander was at the centre of things. Relations were cool, at best, and all they wanted to talk about was girls and drinking. We went to join a LAN party the next day, but it was an experience I barely recognised. Tin cans littered the room, smoke curled around bottles, conversation was abstract and tangential, porn played silently and in repeat on a monitor. The game had changed while I was away, and I felt completely out of place.
I peg Xander again with the Railgun while he's drifting in mid-air. For all his skill, he's not yet learned that jumping creates a predictable target, ripe for a one-shot Railgun kill. It's 31-29 to me. The Railgun is my favourite weapon. It's not everyone's first choice: though it hits the target instantly and does very high damage, it's slow-firing and hard to hit with. If you miss your first shot with a Railgun, you probably won't live long enough for a second. It's a skilful weapon, sharp but misunderstood, requiring patience and practice. It suits my game – which is always on a knife-edge, high-paced and largely improvised, best under pressure. Behind the glass I’m a different person, living a life I’d never dare in the real world.
The experience of that weekend, and the dim memories of streetlights, car parks and smoke which clung to it, were enough to keep me away for a few years. Distant relations were maintained, but it wasn't the same after that. The news I heard from the old town was rarely good – particularly when it concerned Jay, who had entered a sort of free-fall.
Xander had always been a model of discipline: even when he broke the rules, the curfews, even some of the laws – he did so with purpose. To learn, perhaps, or to enhance his reputation. He enjoyed the vices, but was always in control of them. He had an inner strength which enabled him to do that – a strength which put him right at the top of any leaderboard he ever engaged with.
But Jay never had that strength. He instead possessed an unquenchable thirst which nothing could sate. Where Xander dared, experimented and tasted, Jay would binge. The boy who taught me about computers and guitar, two things which would go on to define my whole life, was being destroyed by his own restless appetite. He was a role model to me once – and in a terrible, terrifying sort of way he still is. Jay was a broken human being, and his fall broke my heart.
By the time we get to Newbury, Jay is a distant memory to most. Even me, though I still carry the scars. An embarrassing remnant of the past, a name which isn't mentioned save in reproach. Deep down, rightly or wrongly, I've always sort-of blamed Xander for that. Part of me watched Xander lead Jay into a world which he wasn't equipped for. One emerged from the minefield adorned in war stories and medals, while the other flailed in the dust, unable to escape the barbed wire. Xander walked away from the fire, but Jay never could.
Xander emerges from around a corner, wreathed in the artificial skin of The Sarge which he wears so comfortably. Rocket launcher between his muscular arms, crew-cut silver hair, and a giant cigar clutched in the grip of his square jaw – he charges towards me. And he's good. I skip past his rockets and keep away from the walls which would trap me. He sidesteps one Railgun blast, and another. A rocket clips the floor in front of me and I tumble through the air. Freefall. Hangtime.
And that’s when he makes the mistake. He leaps from a platform, Rocket Launcher primed for the killing blow. But I already know that I’ve won. I plot his trajectory, aim a hair's width ahead of his flight, and pull the trigger while we're both still airborne.
The Sarge explodes, body parts scattering like a grim firework. An announcer screams “Victory!” and the leaderboard appears in front of me before I even hit the floor. It's 50-48 and my name is sitting at the top.
“Unlucky, mate,” I say to my best friend as he leans back in his chair, hands reaching for the skies, torn somewhere between euphoria and utter despair.
The overall score is tied at 4-4. In five minutes time, another game will begin and maybe, just maybe, today will be the day that I come first.