Like every good geek, I have a favourite gaming moment. It’s in Aliens Versus Predator, a vintage but oft-forgotten first-person shooter that gets mentioned by my games-hack peers about as often as the Pope says “are you sure this hat makes God happy?”
In 1997, I was a callow youth whose only real experience of the internet was having a friend who claimed he’d seen a naked picture of Jennifer Aniston on it. Playing AvP online was an impossibility, but, having finished all three of the singleplayer campaigns, I wanted more. AvP was/is a rarity in that it had a dedicated feature for folks who wanted infinite replay value without involving other human beings. Skirmish mode was not simply multiplayer versus bots. It was singleplayer without end – like a Superman ongoing comic, it was purely a Second Act, the origin already known and the story never truly concluding. (You could ‘win’ Skirmish mode by scoring enough kills, but as the default victory condition was 10,000 kills, it’s clear developers Rebellion knew full well this was about bloody glory, not success).
You know why you’re there – you’re a Marine, and you need to kill Aliens. And really, wasn’t that why I bought AvP in the first place? The loss of any set narrative didn’t matter a jot – Marines always suffer a horrible death in the end, so it’s just a matter of how many damned Xenomorphs they take with ’em. That was all my tale needed to be.
Except for one thing. One little detail Rebellion added to the ‘Stranded’ map that gave it a purpose of sorts. The map’s a long, rocky tunnel with occasional open areas; though not visually interesting, it’s dark enough to be creepy, and the perfect setup for a bughunt. Your situation is established instantly by having you spawn next to a crashed APC, then there’s a small drop that can knock off half your health if you get it wrong, but hand you a grenade launcher if you leap off at the right point. It’s the boost-start from Mario Kart but with high-explosives.
Once you’re down on the ground, the Xenos spawn continuously – as in James Cameron’s Aliens, there’s never more than half a dozen on-screen at once, but a replacement brings up the rear almost as soon as the front guy goes down, creating the illusion of infinite numbers. Not terribly good at strafing and headshots and all that vicious jazz at the time, I rarely made it far into the map, and at any rate presumed it was either an endless tunnel or a loop. Then one day, I made it much further than ever before. The last tunnel opened up into the largest area yet, a outdoor valley with no exit other than the way I’d come in.
In the middle, the only source of light in the place, was a bunker.
Shelter and defence was not a concept I was familiar with after several hours of being clawed to death in the great outdoors. Of course I ran for it without even considering anything else. It was pure cinema – the howls of my foes on either side as they tried to bring me down before I reached the door, the desperate clicking as my Pulse Rifle finally ran out of ammo, and, without a pause for thought or breath, taking in the inside of the bunker with one glance. A button. Press it. The door closes – not too slowly to mean death, but not too fast to drain any of the heart-in-mouth tension I was drowning in. [SHUMMM]. Closed! Safe! In, of course, the nick of time.
I remember smiling. I remember shouting arrogant obscenities at the Aliens skulking outside my tiny fortress. I’d won. I’d beaten the game. That’s what the bunker meant, right?
Sudddenly there’s light above me. It’s because the roof is gone. The Alien eyeballs me, standing stock-still for a moment. Then it hisses, and lightly drops into the bunker through the hole it’s just ripped through the ceiling. The hole I can’t reach to escape through. I gun it down, straight in the head, the body sliding to a halt right at my feet, claws outstretched and just an inch from ripping my gut out. There are more behind it, of course. I grimly keep on firing, but I know what this means. This isn’t victory. This is suicide. I’ve made the kind of textbook mistake someone always makes in an Alien movie. I’ve shut myself in, believing myself safe, but what I’ve really done is lock myself in with the beast. Game over, man. Game over.
I was delirously happy. I couldn’t possibly think of a more Aliens moment – and, whether they’ll admit it or not, that’s a movie that means more to men of my generation than any other. As kids, we quoted it endlessly, we practiced Bishop’s knife trick with maths compasses on school desks, we gaffer-taped plastic guns together… Seriously, screw Star Wars.
I still went back to the bunker after that, but with a different purpose now my Classic Movie Moment had played itself out. I was playing it in Skirmish mode again, this time knowingly locking myself inside and using the flamethrower in there (the only place there was one in this map) to incinerate as many of the buggers as I could before they got in. It was never quite the same as the first time I hit that button, utterly, smugly convinced of my triumph, but it was still Aliens – the only thing since Aliens, in fact, to really feel like Aliens.
I went back and played it again this evening, half a decade from my last time with it, and did exactly the same, and still with utter geek joy in my heart. The sudden appearance of that glowing bunker, a metal and concrete stairway to heaven, at the end of a long, dark tunnel is not an offer that can be refused, even when you’ve learned to know better a hundred times over. I’d kill far more Aliens if I stayed outside the bunker and chased a points victory, but an Alamo death means far more than beating the clock. I don’t need to fight the Alien queen, to control a powerloader or take off and nuke the entire site from orbit – I just need to be the last Marine left alive, fighting to the inevitable end.