Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Game Saved: Performance Theatre

This is Game Saved. I’m Daniel Ness.

(orchestra tune-up)

The lights come down. The curtains open.

The actors take to the stage

* * *

We went to the amusement arcade, my family, myself, in a beach town full of buckets and spades, sticks of rock, fish and chips.

And in this arcade was a game in a cabinet that let four people, four players play side by side.

And its name was Teenaged Mutant Hero Turtles.

(turtles music)

I’d played it before. Donatello was my turtle of choice: the technical geek, not because he was my favourite in the cartoon--that would be Leonardo--or my favourite in the comic--that would be Raphael--but because he of all the turtles, with his staff, his bo, had the longest reach. Donatello dispatched enemies from half a screen away, shoving bo in their guts and lifting them over his head, smashing them down behind him. The Foot Clan fell when I played Donatello.

But that day, I wasn’t playing at all.

Two other kids were. Rich kids, I’m assuming, or kids with rich grandparents, who stood in the background like senile bodyguards, watching their grandchildren pump coin after coin into the machine. They hammered that coin slot, feeding it ten pences and twenty pence pieces, pound coins. At twenty pence a credit each had, what, twenty lives? More?

They played poorly, just the two of them, waggling joysticks, slapping buttons. Their frantic actions didn’t match what they were doing on the screen. They were hit and grappled, and when they couldn’t break free the Foot clan punched them, Mousers bit them, robots electrocuted them, and when their lives dipped too far they’d reach back behind, half-turned, never looking from the screen.

And Granny and Granddad would give them more money to feed to the machine.

They thumbed it in so clumsily coins spilled onto the carpet; arthritic Granddad stooped, his back cracking, to pick them back up.

The kids didn’t notice. They hit the buttons, jump, attack, both together, and when they accidentally hit the Start buttons bringing the two other turtles to life they alternated hitting all buttons and yanking all joysticks, two players, four turtles, everything spiralling out of control.

A crowd of us gathered: kids in bermuda shorts, coin holders hanging from our necks, eyes half popping out, watching the two boys lose it. Granny and Granddad were pushed behind the semicircle of onlookers: an audience, watching from the stalls. The kids were sweating. They’d beaten Rocksteady but Bebop, Bebop’s too much.

And one of them--without tearing his eyes from the screen--says to me:

“Could you help us out?”

And I step onto the stage.

I’m Leonardo this time, not Donatello. Not a role I’m familiar with but I’m doing better than the other kids. Another boy steps from the audience, takes on Michaelangelo, and then there are four of us, playing the way it’s supposed to be played.

We are so much better than the rich kids. We are the senseis and they are our pupils. We school them, scores rising, racking up body counts as more kids join the audience. Older kids, bigger kids try to muscle us out but we stand tough, holding our ground and kicking Baxter Stockman to the sewer floor.

Reaching through the crowd Granddad taps the rich kids on the shoulder. “It’s time to go,” he says. The kids don’t want to--we’re almost to the Technodrome!--but they do. Neither Michaelangelo nor I spare them a second glance as they leave the arcade, and the crowd heals around them, two more kids stepping to the machine as our benefactors are forgotten. There are still more than thirty credits, more than enough to go around. Whenever we want extra lives we need only hit the Start button.

We save Splinter. We beat General Traag. We’ve never got this far before, never been inside the Technodrome. We take on Krang, eyebeams sizzling at our heels, a flurry of amphibian skin, leaping, fighting, kicking his ass.

And then: the Shredder.

The tension’s on. Our audience is so big, half the arcade is watching, not cheering, just watching, staring, waiting for us to slip up, waiting for their turn.

The Shredder is tough. We’re having a hard time, getting knocked on our asses, and though we still have lots of credits our lives are falling fast. We’re so caught up in the final battle we forget to top them up. One of us dies--he runs out of lives--and in the time it takes to buy a few more another turtle falls. The crowd gets restless. We’re not going to make it.

And the kid playing Donatello looks at me from the screen. “Do you want to swap?” he says.

Do I want to swap?!  We switch places so gracefully, if Teenaged Mutant Hero Turtles was at the Olympic Games we’d get ten, ten ten. Suddenly he’s Leonardo . . .

. . . and I’m Donatello.

And I don’t care that he has my score. I don’t care that he’s the one putting his initials into the leaderboard when we blow up the Technodrome and beat the game. All I care about is that bo staff, that reach. I go to town on the Shredder and together, we take him down.

(Turtles sound effects)

There is no applause. There are no cheers. There are only the end credits and a machine still pumped full of coins.

But for a second the four of us, all breathless and flushed, step back from the machine and look at one another, grinning. We did it. We beat the whole damned game.

And the other kids watching, though they all want a turn at Teenaged Mutant Hero Turtles, they don’t rush forward elbowing us out of the way but stand respectfully to one side, watching us go.

Already the crowd is dissipating. Once the spaces at the game are filled, there’s no reason for anyone to hang around. The show is over.

And we take a bow--not physically, of course, but every time we think about it. Every time we see a crowd gathered around an arcade game, we remember what it was like to be in the spotlight and what it was like to be stars of the stage.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Game Saved: Rez

It’s nineteen-ninety something--two or three, I think--and I have these glasses.

This is important.


They’re made from lurid dayglo cardboard and they came with a video cassette. The video’s called ‘VR Cyberdelia’. It’s a music video, only not the kind they play on Top of the Pops, or the ITV Chart Show. It’s rave music, the sound of the underground, with spaced-out, trippy visuals. It’s not as hard or as good as some of the stuff I like, but the visuals, the sights accompanying the sounds . . .

It’s MTV on acid.

On something, anyhow. Screensavers gone wild. Computer generated imagery flashing subliminal Spectrum loading screens and Amiga demo disks mashed together with soothing waves of plasma and crystalline reflections. It’s like someone pointed the camera lens beyond our physical dimensions and now, in fragments of colours the human eye can see if not comprehend, we can watch the vibrations that tickle our inner ear, sound-waves playing in their own environment, as surely and as clearly as if David Attenborough was narrating the footage.

But those  cardboard glasses, those 3D-looking glasses are in fact 5D, 7D or more-D. Omnidimensional glasses that expand your senses as they expand your mind.

In reality they lenses are prismatic, or some such. They make abundant lens flare, conjure fireworks from light fixtures, and when you slot VR Cyberdelia into your VCR they make TVs appear in your darkened room, eight new screens surrounding one that really exists in a dazzling halo, reflecting its graphics in all colours of every rainbow.

And it’s cool. To a techno kid like me it’s really cool, and I’ll watch that cassette so many times it wears thin and corrupts. Every glitch is like a cat’s lives, refracted nine times over.


And then . . .


It’s many years later, and onto the nascent and mewling Internet is released footage of a Sega game people claim will change everything.

It’s called The K-Project--K for Kandinsky, the abstract painter whose art was a physical representation of music, of sound. The game is synesthetic, blending sound and visuals, one reflecting the other. Music triggers lightshows, lightshows trigger music. Actions in the gameworld prompt instruments and musical motifs. How it works isn’t entirely clear; it’s a shooter of some kind, but the RealVideos are blurry, indistinct. There’s nothing to latch upon, no characters or designs. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, as abstract as anything Kandinsky painted.

And I watch the videos too often, and they never wear through. Rumour has it The K-Project will have a different name by the time it’s complete and reaches British shores: a name more in line with the dance music culture I adore, that the K-Project sucks in and spits in hallucinatory rainbows.

The rumours prove correct. When released, the game is called Rez.


I connect the Dreamcast to my sound system. It’s stereo; the cables are white and red. The room fills with swirling ambience, the ticking of one menu option moving to the next . . . but it’s not enough. The controller, rattling with Madkatz Force Pack vibration throbs, but it’s still not enough.

I dim the lights and put on the glasses.

-- REZ AREA 4 --

Squashed between a floor of bass sound and a wall of colour I’m the digital Indiana Jones delving intrepid into the system. Viruses fall with a wave of my hand; I’m sat in lotus position in my protective bubble, encircled by code like a hamster in a utoplastic ball running Straylight. Walls shimmer and crack, the ground rises and falls, mechano-organic lightships puffed on solar winds and solid state tides blot the sky with missiles, and every payload, every stroke and potential flatline is spotted, targeted, and dealt with.

Because I’m in the zone. Heart beating to the bass kick, eyes drying, dusty, fixed to the phantom screens, I’m sat cross-legged as my avatar ascends to the next form: a pulsating, spherical sound wave. From log-in through decryptions, maximum lock-on, maximum hitcount, racking up a high score above and beneath a grid the world of Tron can only dream of. The landscape mutates; it contorts as I melt ICE and unspool code. Towering wormlike monstrosities fire laser beams, curled, surrounded by nautili; everything’s a spiral, a Mandelbrot nightmare, except me, the Hacker, actual intelligence in an artificial world.

Things get serious in Area Five. It’s late--late enough for the neighbours to complain--but I’m too deep into the system to quit. I spin and dive into digital seas, and when I break the surface the sky opens in peach-gold sunset, soon darkened by a viral ship big as an Imperial Star Destroyer. It appears and falls gracefully over. It’s surely too big to move in such a way, but here in the bowels of the system physics operate to the whims of the incarcerated AI. The ship is exactly as heavy as it needs to be, and so it drifts with the ease of a feather.

The music flourishes, that Californian Soul. The ship becomes a dark tower choking space with viral craft. My omega beams move at sharp angles, hunting and seeking and ultimately destroying as I’m taken on a brief tour through history. This is the Earth that was, the game seems to say, and how it came to be.

And this is how things will be from here on in. Life is an aberration, or if not that, a facilitator, existing only to create new virtual worlds in which the next evolutionary link might flourish.

All this and more it tells me as holographic forests grow, fall, and are disassembled.

Security breached. Data analysation 100%.

Past metal falcons with wings outspread and far above the Earth within, every item collected, every enemy appearing only to dissolve in fire. I evolve into 2001’s star child, the ultimate human form, and enter into our final confrontation.

It’s Earth versus the almighty artificial intelligence.

My presence unwanted. Why am I here? What do I want? Our conflict is like a greatest hits compilation of our recent, meaningless skirmishes. Enemy bosses reappear as coarse reconstructions of their former selves. Overextending itself, the system has fractured.

I repel them and plunge deep into the core as some forgotten processor or memory chip begs:

Save me.

I claw back fragments, exorcise the virus and resurrect the ghost in the machine. She--undoubtedly ‘she’--turns to face the dawning sun, reaches for it, examines her half-formed hands, her half-formed form.

Black diamonds give chase, charging like current along an electric fence that seperates us. They open fire, desperately ramming into me, and I unleash my Overdrive, smartbombing them from the sky to claim the polygons scattered far below. They’re final pieces that might complete. They’re the final pieces that will give her life.

In that moment I am not sat on a carpet in a lounge in the South-West of England. I am not wearing cardboard glasses. My legs are neither cramping nor tingling with pins and needles. I do not look ridiculous wearing a relic from the days of VJs and 2 Unlimited.

Her skin is silicon and light. In her hands are cupped the beating wings of a thousand pink butterflies, which she sets free to other networks. She never thanks me--the music, the colour, the joy of it all is thanks enough. And as the game’s eye wanders from her expression and out to the butterflies dancing away from dawn I hear their colour, I see their joy, I feel the music . . .

I remember to breathe.

(This is important)

And mission accomplished, I log out.


Game Saved: The Handheld War

This is Game Saved. I’m Daniel Ness.

For Christmas my nephew was given a DSi in 3D.

That’s what he calls his 3DS. A friend of his sister’s--Bella, the kind of bossy older girl feared and worshipped in equal measure--had a DSi that she guarded with her life. Whenever she felt magnanimous she let them play with it, and so they both wanted DSis for Christmas, DSis above all else.

“Don’t you want a 3DS?” I said. I explained to them what it was. “It’s like, the new DSi, better than a DSi, better games, better graphics, and--” I played my trump card “it’s in 3. D.”

My niece looked mortified. “No,” she said. “I want a DSi. Only a DSi. Like Bella’s.”

“But why?”

“Because if I have a DSi that’s better than Bella’s, she’ll take it away and won’t let me play on it.”

My nephew is a video game freak. He gets through games faster than we can buy them, largely because he doesn’t understand the concept of saving, and plays through the first levels over and over until he’s bored, starting a fresh game every time. He wants to take his DSi in 3D with him to school.

We tell him he’ll lose it.

“I won’t,” he says.

“Older boys will take it from you. Bigger boys.”

“I’ll beat them up.” He’s six, and short. He goes to ‘kicknastics’ classes where he’s earned a white belt, the belt you get for showing up.

He doesn’t understand that his DSi in 3D is a status symbol. He doesn’t understand there are kids, teenagers and grown-ups who’re all too willing to push a little boy into the mud to steal his pride and joy. He doesn’t understand what separates a DSi from a DSi in 3D, he doesn’t understand what makes them different. He doesn’t know because he wasn’t there when the sides were drawn up, when the opposing forces squared off, when bigger, older boys circled the battlefield like vultures and the Handheld War began in earnest.

But I was.

Paul Winter was our first recruit. My best friend, his parents were on the cusp of going through a messy divorce. Desperate to win his love his dad bought him a plaything so unimaginably grandiose, when he brought it into school, as if wired together, our jaws fell as one.

An Atari Lynx. A full-colour 8-bit handheld back in the days when bits meant everything . . . and didn’t it look at least 16-bit, maybe even 32? It was massive, the size of a tug boat, big enough to fit an entire family aboard, sturdy enough to pull the Titanic. To a class more used to monochrome Game & Watches he might as well have brought an arcade cabinet to school. Crowds gathered, so dense not a photon of daylight could penetrate the huddle. It was just as well, then, that the Lynx had a backlit screen. Paul could play California Games in a power outage. He could play Slime World under the covers, after dark. So what if the graphics were oddly interlaced, with as much of the screen devoted to blank black columns as to the games themselves--he could play Pac-Land on the toilet, even in an eclipse!

The war had begun, and the vultures circled nearer.

Game Boys entered the field, wowing us, every one. They weren’t in colour--they were probably only 4-bit--but who cared about that when you could play Super Mario wherever you went? Kids brought in link-up cables, staged multiplayer tournaments in the lunch hour. Tetris. Super RC Pro Am. The tinkling chime of the start-up screen could often be heard during class, and you’d hope, pray, the teacher didn’t hear it as well and thunder to the back of the room to claim the Game Boy as his own.

More exotic handhelds appeared: the Turbo Express, looking like a walkie talkie, genuine 16-bit graphics processing, imported from overseas. Rare and precious, Lee Clark brought one in and the whole year forgot Lynxes and Legends of Zelda to crowd around and watch. He sat on the stage during a drama class when the teacher failed to appear and we gawped; he was only playing Bonk’s Adventure but he might as well have been delivering the Sermon on the Mount.

Then it was my turn to be called up for action. Having no console of my own but buying copious issues of Mean Machines I was a SEGA kid; of course, I came to own a Game Gear. Sonic, Wonderboy, Shinobi, Fantasy Zone--the full roster of SEGA greats, now mobile, taken with me wherever I went.

“Don’t take it to school,” my parents warned, but how could I not? I had to show this thing off, this badge of honour, this medal on my breast. I had no knives, no paintball guns, no cool older brothers, no WWF wrestling figures. I was nobody; this was my chance to be someone, owning a status symbol everyone in class craved.

So I disobeyed and took it in, and crowds oohed, aahed and gathered, and when Mr. Butcher caught me showing it off in CDT he didn’t confiscate it but asked me to demonstrate this futuristic technology that let me play Columns on the go. “Don’t let me see you taking that out again,” he said, but in a good natured way. He understood what it meant to a kid to show off his status symbols. After all, CDT stood for Craft, Design and Technology.

My school’s biggest fundraiser was the 24-Hour Sponsored Event. A single day and night where kids were sponsored to dress as they wanted and do as they liked. For some, this meant showing up to school in football gear to play sport while kids not participating studied end of term maths. But they’d always tire of tennis and rugby, and end up joining the rest of us in the bowels of the school basement where our war was fought with gusto.

Every computer, every console, every game, hooked up to the school’s electricity, syphoning voltage and current, the music room lit like a Christmas tree, sounding like an amusement arcade. For twenty-four hours we punched, jumped and shot our way through myriad stages, single player, multiplayer, playing in shifts, bleary-eyed, determined to last through to the wee small hours. While those in school uniform slept in their beds and kids who weren’t hardy enough crashed on their desks, we soldiered into the night, playing video games.

John Secker brought in his Spectrum. The games took eight minutes to load, but it was okay, we had time, and we played Underwurlde while the cockerel crowed, unaware we were still awake.

I brought in my Game Gear. Most of the time it stayed hidden in my school bag. I didn’t really want to take it out; I knew the dangers that could befall it, the vultures croaking nearby. Most of the time we were too engrossed in Megadrive or Master System games, or watching Paul Winter playing the Super NES his father had left in his stead--a poor swap for his dad, but an excellent way to play Street Fighter 2.

Some Game Boys circulated, played by kids waiting turns on Tazmania and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. The school’s dim bulbs were hardly the best light source for the Game Boy’s blurry screens, but with Tetris and Mario Land to tide us over, we muddled by.

And nothing bad happened, no crooks, no thieves befell them, so I figured, what’s the harm? At three in the morning I took out the Game Gear, let someone have a burn. No harm. No foul. I wandered off to play something else.

Twenty minutes later the kid comes up to me. “Where’s my Game Gear?” I ask.

“Somebody took it.”

He wasn’t upset. As far as he was concerned the only thing that had happened was his game of Sonic 2 had come to an early close. But me?

It felt like my stomach had fallen through the floor, and that the floor was the highest floor of the tallest towerblock, and that instead of basements below there was only a pit that ran to the centre of the Earth. There, the Devil waited, mocking me in my parents’ voices: Don’t take it into school.

And I’d disobeyed and now I was paying the price. I could have grabbed the kid who’d so carelessly lost my pride and joy and shaken him until his eyes sank into his skull and his teeth rained to the ground like diamonds at a robbery. I wanted to pick him up and throw him down, and then raze the school to its foundations. Burning this haystack was the only way I could find the needle buried within. My justice would be swift and searing. My vengeance would blaze.

And then I was only a kid again, scared he might never find his favourite toy.

I looked from room to room, in the classes where bigger, older, smellier kids slept and watched smut on portable TVs, and played with flick-knives, and talked about loose girls, barely noticing a scrote like me passing through. I ventured onto the haunted upper floors where, my school being old, and having once been a hospital, innumerable souls had passed away. There were no children and no handheld games consoles. Instead they harboured instead shadows, bats and spectres. I looked outside, across rugby pitches which had once been creeks, under a sky where the sun dared not tread, starless and moonless, cloud-covered, unforgiving. I looked everywhere in my panic, in the off-limits office block, near the cottages with gardens that backed onto school property.

What about my property? I wondered.

But the Game Gear was nowhere to be seen.

I sloped back to the music room, disconsolate, exhausted, giving up hope of ever seeing it again.

And then, a sound: the crystal chime of a hedgehog grabbing a ring.

My console!

I located it at the centre of a committee of vultures, held between them as if they were pecking at its innards. I’d like to say the boys were bigger than I was, or at least older, but while we were more or less the same age the three of them were shorter than me by far.

But they were mean, cruel and twisted by years of people making fun of how small they were. They came from the bad part of town, where no amount of renovations and renaming ceremonies made the roads any safer to tread. They lived on streets we hurried through in the car, doors locked, lest they were opened and we were flung to the gutter.

All of this passed through my head when I saw them playing on my Game Gear.

One of them--the smallest, angriest, hardest--looks up from his game, glaring: a poison dwarf sucking nature’s bitterest seed.

“Wot?” he says.

And in this war, defeat’s claws chill on my back, I decide to fight.

I step forward--stride, really, with a swagger I don’t feel, with a confidence false--and take it right from his hands. “This,” I say in a voice like God’s, “this is mine.” I could have been talking about the tree of knowledge; instead it’s the games console I’m taking--no, winning back.

And the kid--the rough kid, the kid my parents always warned me about--and his cronies are gob-smacked. They don’t say a word as I leave. They don’t move a muscle. They don’t follow or shout--they don’t even drop their hands, but sit as if still holding the Game Gear, now invisible.

My heart hammers and my legs feel weak, but my fingers hold tight to my medal, my toy. I place it back in the school bag and zip it up tight, and don’t let it out of my sight until dawn has come and gone. And when I get home, school over for the summer, I sleep until teatime, bag under the bed below. The war rages on but this battle, I know, is won.

I want to tell this all to my nephew, who insists his toys will be safe. “I just want to show my friends,” he says, unaware he’s skipping through a minefield that might detonate with one false step. He’s too young. He doesn’t understand.

But I do, all too well.

And though I’m older, and the rough kids are far away, there are other vultures circling, hungering for his status symbol: a DSi in 3D.

The battle might be over but the war rages on.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Game Saved: World of Warcraft

The World of Warcraft. Talk about your digital crack.

No, let’s not talk about digital crack. If WoW were digital crack I’d have lapsed by now. I’d have broken, screaming through jitters, jonesing for more, and after downloading the client buried my face in a great snowy pile of it. Smoke it, toke it, huff it, snort it. Tie off a vein and smack my bitch up. Class A games, uncontrolled; as addictive and dangerous as every Fox News editorial has always claimed.

I played for two months, coasting on in-box credit. Paid pennies for base game and Burning Crusade and got my money’s worth. Two months of grinding and questing and hiding from Alliance scum as they happened past. Two months of red names and nonsense text as they taunted me, too near to my hiding place, going thicket to thicket searching for an easy kill.

WoW has a reputation that’s entirely undeserved. Between all the stories about mothers abandoning children to raid Zul’Aman nobody thinks to mention that WoW is only a game, and a good one at that. Entering for the first time, The Valley of Trials was filled with leaping initiates clothed in rags, careening about the zone like a swarm in search of honey. They camped at spawn points offing scorpions by the hundred and crowded caves in confused knots, the drops they were looking for stolen from under their noses. At their back, unable to see over the myriad bald green heads I became part of a recursive queue. Players joined behind me, and more players behind them, and somehow the line looped around so we paraded in a conga circle through the cave system with no one player knowing what was going on.

It was confusing. Quest givers and tutorial tips told me how to play but there was more to WoW than inventories and fetch quests. When approaching the steely doors of Orgrimmar advanced players duelled like gods on the road which led to the city. I stepped around them, me, a lowly messenger, wanting to watch but too afraid to do so. A troll shaman planted a totem and my screen filled with mystic symbols. A warrior wearing a mine’s worth of bejewelled and jagged armour swung a sword the approximate size of a double decker bus. Meanwhile, sunning itself on a rock nearby, watching the whole affair, a big cat swayed back and forth, snapping its claws to a rhythm only it could hear.

Orgrimmar was a tank filled with tropical fish. Gaudy-armoured players ran errands, gossiped in groups, broke out MC Hammer moves on postboxes, sat cross-legged around a Tauren asking questions on gaming trivia. An orc fell from the sky; he’d run across roofs I hadn’t dared tread on in case whoever lived inside complained. There was clearly some kind of caste system at work--level 10s bowed and scraped whenever level 60s strode by--but it was one I couldn’t fathom, not least because I found it hard to distinguish between players and NPC shopkeepers, who bartered spider-silk for cloth the same way AI bots advertised illicit gold exchanges.

That was day one; or possibly day two. Days passed in-game with the turning of our real life globe. When I stayed up through the night--as I did all too often, spurred in hope of completing one more quest or reaching the next level--I welcomed dawnlight like a hippy straddling Stonehenge. The moon and newly risen sun offered the most cinematic angles on the gameworld, those big-sky screenshot opportunities that litter WoW fansites. Riding a bat below unfamiliar stars, the sky lightene. Far beneath Azeroth blurred by, and white ruins like bones erupted from the sands of a beach held in place by tides, by programming, by in-game history. I sought fossils there, and when three low-level Alliance players dared to track their stench across the crabgrass I offered them a friendly wave.

They huddled, clearly debating whether or not the three of them could take this lone Hordesman before deciding no, they could not, and waved back. They went about their business at the other end of the beach and when an enraged mob several levels too high charged their party I killed it with an off-hand spell. In words rendered incomprehensible by WoW’s translation subroutine they thanked me.

At least, I assume they did.

If not living, if not breathing, the World of Warcraft at least bears the semblance of life. Like a Frankensteinian golem it shambles on, the push and pull of interminable warfare raising breath in its lungs. The Barrens Crossroads are lost and retaken. High-level Alliance lay waste to Grom’Gol, then, bored, venture away from the Stranglethorn Coast in search of greater prey. In PVP battlezones where insects build palaces and plagues jaundice the sky factions contend with little impetus, grinding rep, then moving on. There’s little satisfaction striking down enemies in designated warzones; far better to lead an assault on an outpost or city or capital.

Our war lasted two hours on a Sunday evening. We were summoned by message board and then by word of mouth, to a massive PVP event on the Hillsbrad bridge. Factions massed on both sides, glaring across the river, fidgeting with excitement. When the clock struck, we’d surge like Biblical seas and meet battle, buffed and ready to bleed. Totems, druidic enhancements, a dozen sorceries, icons flickering on screen. I’d never felt so powerful.

And I’d never been a team player, never braved instances, never grouped. My one companion in the World of Warcraft was a middle-aged Greek man who whispered to me whenever he needed help with a quest. He’d talk about his son, who’d hit level cap and urged his father to do the same. He couldn’t join his guild, he said, until he had the right armour.

Mine was falling apart. I was clad in hand-me-downs and whatever greaves I could find in the bellies of the few mobs I could dismember. I was a charity case, taken pity upon by a guild who fought the Warmaul champion in Nagrand in order to win me new threads. Still, according to the WoW armourysite I had the worst equipment on the entire server. I had no place in war.

Our organiser grouped us in a gargantuan raiding party. Prompts flashed on screen, red print accompanied by the dread chimes of computer crashing. On his word both parties jumped, ran and flew into battle. Screams split the air, magical effects fell like fireworks as buff and de-buff met and cancelled one another out. The battle crept forward; we held our ground and pushed, killing low level, high level, every level, forcing back the hated Alliance. They dug in their heels and sent pets and familiars baying, laying traps where we trampled, planting totems like pinwheels.

But we pushed, and we won, and after carving enemy lines both sides reset positions and prepared to fight again.

We warred in bouts, both sides exuberant, both sides breaching battlelines before word was given. Beyond the World of Warcraft, the Alliance complained we were attacking before they were ready; inside, gathered at the end of the bridge and muttering over raid chat, we said the exact same thing of them.

Their numbers thinned. Their army became ragged. Alliance scum logged off, bemoaning the state of the game, and our organiser scolded us like a teacher: “If you don’t behave and play by the rules this’ll be the last time we have a PvP event.”

The fourth bout of the night was to be our last. We’d spent an hour or more milling about, playing tug of war with an increasingly brittle Alliance army. One more push and we’d all go home.

Cobbles under our feet, we pushed. Enemies at our throats, we pushed. Bodies falling, spell-shimmer, cries of defeat, we pushed, we pushed.

We pushed enemies from the bridge, an unstoppable bulldozer sweeping them back, following their defeat onto road and on grass, on mud, on land, pushing harder, barking wildly as they turned tail and, no longer pushing back, fled.

This was unfamiliar territory: the enemy’s lands glimpsed only on stealthy midnight sorties. I’d hastened through snow, past farms, steering wide berths round NPCs patrolling by torchlight. I’d explored under cover of dark when few Alliance were awake, running quests that took me through lands where the Horde was emphatically unwelcome.

Now we were brazen. We snaked single-file up crooked paths, ignoring low-level players who gawped as we drove on. We fanned out, swallowing guards and spitting out remains. We were a terror, a plague engulfing the land. I’d been caught in daring raids on Thunder Bluff, where Alliance had captured elevators and people leapt, risking sudden death on Mulgorean grass rather than fall to their blades. I’d seen Cairne Bloodhoof roused from his tent, sending humans and night elfs flying to restore peace once more.

But nothing like this. No daredevil attempt on the capital city had ever driven so far. We hewed down gatesmen and as alarms sounded their champions fell beneath our onslaught. We stampeded through streets, and drove up through the tundra, rampaging across Dun Moragh to brand our mark on Ironforge.

How far distant was the nearest spawn point? How could we reclaim our bodies amid the thunderous shuffle of combat? To fall now would be to leave the assault, so we fought on, numbers falling as all of Ironforge answered the call to arms. We hid in alcoves to recuperate, then sprang back into the fray. Their champions massed against ours while their low level comrades skirted battle, killed carelessly by level 70s who knocked them unnoticed to the ground. Coming from every corner of Khaz Modan, every enemy was a target.

An army against his warhammer, qe reached the throne room to face King Magni Bronzebeard, With every attack our numbers thinned. We bled from hundreds to scores, then dozens, then tens, and only our fading buffs gave us any chance to succeed.

I kept out of range and still my health was whittled. We all had seconds left; only the strongest and most craven remained. I fought like a coward, attacking from the shadows, attacking, eager to witness what would happen next.

And Bronzebeard, best of all the Alliance could, was not insurmountable. Chipped in miniscule fragments his health bar ran low. His magics and special attacks ramped up in their ferocity; he clung to life, with only code to guide him. Our numbers sank, but his vitality fell faster. Surely he realised he had come to an end.

If the World of Warcraft hadn’t been a game, on that night we would have claimed its throne. Let an Orc sit upon it, a Tauren or a troll. Let a Blood Elf wear the crown and decide the fate of Ironforge. For though Bronzebeard fell with so few of us left to gloat, in defeat he left his throne empty, and undeniably ours.

Alas, WoW is just a game and those within it merely players. Bronzebeard remained dead a matter of minutes. We jumped and danced and many big cats snapped claws in jubilation. Moments later he returned to his still-war throne and struck down those few brave Horde still dancing. I never saw his warhammer coming; he smote and then I was a ghost, suffering resurrection sickness rather than reclaim my body from where it lay at his feet.

The final tatters of the Horde army ran to safety across the bridge. Some Alliance followed, but for the most part they stayed close to Dun Moragh, in case we returned to conquer once more.

Azeroth. A living, breathing world, and a game unlike any other, where war rises and falls with the swelling of the seas, and epic battles are a staple every Sunday, after tea.

And while I only spent two months there, by which point I’d more than had my fill, sometimes I feel its call. If even the lowliest, weakest orc on the server can feel powerful its easy to see why for some the World of Warcraft is more than just a game.