I Am A Coward

By John Walker on March 26th, 2008 at 9:29 am.

This is a short piece that originally appeared in PC Gamer, recalling a key moment in my gaming life. While playing Call of Duty I experienced something horrific. I survived a level by hiding. It was humiliating, and with Call of Duty’s emphasis on the cruelty of war, I felt broken. The piece was written for the Double Life section of Gamer, which adopts the voice of the character. Hence, it’s melodrama. But it captures an honest moment of horror in response to my own instincts. Have games affected you this way? Revealed your weaknesses, or made you feel wracked with guilt?

All’s not fair in love or war

The building in question.

My name is Alexei, and I am a coward.

I’m a conscript, and I don’t want to be here. This isn’t my war, this isn’t my battle, this isn’t something I ever asked for. I am not a soldier. I’m not interested in being a soldier. When I was a child, the other boys would spend their afternoons chasing each other through the woods, shooting each other with sticks, practising for this. I sat in my house, the door closed, and only occasionally looked out of the window. That was where I was happy. That is where I would be happy now. Now I’m being shot at by men who don’t know me, men who look exactly like me.

That I am alive is something I do not understand, and cannot explain. What I have just been through I don’t want to understand, but feel I must explain. I need to confess. I need to be punished.

Sergeant Pavlov determined that we had to clear out this building – this house. Six stories high, and full of Nazi soldiers. Nazi soldiers who look exactly like me. With a sniper rifle put in my hands, I found myself shooting at windows, shooting at these men. And then we were running toward it, running inside it, and then just shooting – shooting at men in uniforms a slightly different green from mine. And we shot and shot and shot for six stories, until all the wrong-green men were dead. And then, at that moment, after all that death, just for that moment, I felt like a soldier. Ordered to fire anti-tank weapons at the approaching machines. Done. Simple. Efficient. And then calm.

Let's play hide and seek - I'll hide first!

And then hell.

Then the building, the building we’d emptied of wrong-green men, has now been taken back by them. And we have to stop that. We’re told that reinforcements will arrive in less than four minutes, and that all we have to do is keep this building, just keep shooting, just keep killing… But I am not a soldier. I am a coward.

This is my crime. I ran away and hid. I ran away while my comrades, my leaders and my friends shot and were shot at. Killed and were killed. And I hid, on the fifth floor, in a back room away from the sound of the tanks. I hid because I knew that here I would not die. The others would die, but I would not. I would survive, and go on to kill other wrong-green men.

My hiding place.

And I will, forever, be the conscript Alexei who ran and hid while his friends died. That is how I am able to write this. That is why I am not lying with my comrades and leaders and friends. It is their families I shall never meet. It is their graves I shall never visit. It is their dead green bodies that shall scream through my dreams every time I find sleep.

I won. They lost. I cheated.

, , .

63 Comments »

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  1. Down Rodeo says:

    I remember near the end of Jade Empire SPOILERS:

    You have to choose whether to save the water dragon-thing or force it under your control. I generally went with saving, yay, very nice, but one time I decided to be an asshole and drain its power for my own. Dialogue with all of my companions ensued where half were horrified and told me that I wasn’t the person they thought I was while the others either were evil themselves and didn’t care about death or had to do as I said (being demons sent from heaven). It was then that it transpired I had to sacrifice a group member and fight all my allies. During this fight I gave up, it was too much for me to go on with. I turned it off.

  2. sinister agent says:

    Thief 2, where you’re creeping through the pagan village and everyone is missing, and the mechanists are patrolling the area. A few ghosts that by now you’re used to are kind of sad, but the thing that really upset me was when I found a piece of paper in the hut with a (named) doll in, where the little girl had recently been learning to write.

    I suddenly realised I’d been rummaging through this family’s belongings a few hours after they’d all been murdered, and feeling short changed because there wasn’t enough loot. Brrr.

    I amended my “no killing” policy for that level until I felt I’d made it up to them. A bit.

    I also played a game of X-Com Terror From the Deep once where the random soldier generator happened to produce the full name (and very vague resemblance) of my girlfriend. Said soldier almost immediately died horribly in a friendly fire accident that was largely my fault.

    I felt quite irrationally bad about this for days.

  3. Lach says:

    I actually felt worse in Bioshock after having killed the Big Daddies with sisters and freeing all the sisters in the level. Wandering around you’d see Big Daddies roaming around, groaning and banging futilely on pipes trying to attract the little sisters who weren’t there anymore.

  4. Jesse says:

    In AVP2, I did some horrible things as an Alien. Terrible, unspeakable things.

    … and I’d do them again.

  5. Andrew Farrell says:

    I tried to play through as a dark Jedi once, but I could never get excited about killing people for money or just because.

    You say that, but I played it through as a dark Jedi (because, y’know, I’d bought the game, no point in only playing half of it), and I had a lot of fun as a “beat them up and take their money” type, except, there’s a scene on Tatooine where you’re approached by the widow of a hunter… couldn’t do it. Ended up taking a dark side hit just to avoid that specific outcome.

  6. perilisk says:

    Sometimes it’s weird what will get to you. Recently, I was replaying Thief: Deadly Shadows, and was in the part of the game where Keeper Assassins are hunting you. Normally, I don’t kill if I can help it, and I preferred to avoid or blackjack the assassins too, despite their murderous rampages.

    At any rate, I made it back to my apartment, tried to sneak up on the assassin in there, but he noticed me, so I went back and hid in some shadows. He comes out looking for me, and runs into the apartment guard. They have a fight, assassin wins.

    I don’t know why, but it really got to me. Basically, most other characters in the game are utterly indistinguishable and random, but I walk by this same guard is here every day. I steal things, he fails to notice me stealing them. We have a working relationship. And he’s practically the only constant in my virtual life. He felt like… not a friend, but something close to it. And now he’s dead. Not like the city watch or townspeople, dead to have someone else respawn in their place, but really really dead. Because of me, but mainly because of these assassins.

    So I killed the assassin. And after that I went out of my way to kill every other assassin I ran across.

  7. Kodaz says:

    You’re a coward.
    I remember this part, I had to replay it for more then twenty times, but I did it, and I won. But you, my friend, are a coward, a worthless scum. It was for your family and friends, and nation, you’re fighting for, not for a lonely child, buried deep only in your mind.
    Your comrades may never see their children fighting in the woods with sticks, because YOU left them to die.

    I hope you live forever, to enjoy the pain that you, and only you brought upon yourself.

  8. Kodaz says:

    Seriously now, I had some of moments like these while playing Red Faction.

    The rebellion, it only started because I could’nt help my friend, who were being harassed by the guard, if it was’nt by me, the Miners at M4 would be alive, and mining happily ever after.

    Seeing my friends and co-workers being assassinated by guards brought a enormous sense of impotence, no matter how hard I tried to kill the guards, they always killed the miners fast, it was just useless.

    Sorry for the Poor English he.

  9. chess from pixeljoint says:

    Fire in the hole!

    i just looked at the ground while playing call of duty 2 today.. there i saw a weapon i never ever saw before in thi game.

    it was a long red rifle with a magazine under it …. it had a grey metallish end….

    after a minut eor so i realized, it wsa a MP40 laying under a mosin nagant…. my graphicscard seems to be showing them mixed up.. :-P

  10. PoC says:

    I’ve had a few such moments, but the one that really struck me as emotionally effective was the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion, at two points.
    1) Due to some of the choices I’d made near the end of Baldur’s Gate 2, my alignment had been switched to Evil. I hadn’t actually noticed it until partway through the early stages of the expansion, when you need to get a key (to the sewers, I think?) from a local priestess. But if you’re evil, she refuses to just hand it over to you. So the only options the game gave me were to take it by force, threaten her, or blackmail her. I chose to coerce it out of her, and as she cries out in pain, I remember thinking, “look what you made me do.” And then I realized how effective the game had been in putting me into the mindset of evil, just by limiting my choices a little. (You could also get by the problem by having one of your neutral characters approach her and ask for it-even though she had just seen that character in the company of the villain she denied moments before, she’d have no problem. Hey, the game’s good on meaningful choices, not sensible AI.)
    2) When you finally confront the ultimate villain, they accuse you of being every bit as destructive as they are. The thing is, the way I’d played the game up to that point meant there was no living NPC character left on the map except for a handful of merchants. I *had* brought destruction and death to the region, and for just a moment, I felt really, really bad for that.