Friday, October 10, 2008

Brothers in Arms (and Thumbs)

This feature is my contribution to Corvus Elrod's monthly writing invitational "Blogs of the Round Table." This month's topic asked everyone to think about their gaming experiences with family. I've always thought this was a great community-building exercise, and I'm excited to finally jump in. As always, comments are welcome, and I encourage everyone to join in on the Round Table with their own posts.

As the introduction of this month's round table suggests, video games were a pastime enjoyed by only part of my household. My parents generally saw video games as a neat diversion, but they rarely participated (beyond buying them for their ingrate kids of course). Aside from my mother's legendary Dr. Mario prowess, my brother, Eric, and I were the gamers of the family.

Siblings are often each others' most frequent and reliable playmates; Eric, and I were no exception to this generalization. We spent our free time playing games and had a blast doing it. Spending so many hours side by side allowed for conversations ranging from the grave to the banal, and I attribute much of the close relationship we still have today to gaming. However, that mushiness belongs in a different post. In thinking about the impact family members had on my view of games, I realized my gaming habits were largely defined by the hours playing with Eric. Most important is the fact that we were not simply playing games together: we were playing them against each other.

Born in the 1980s, Eric and I came of age in the 1990s, a time in which people played together differently than they do today. While I'll offer no empirical evidence, I believe that co-op mode enjoys a widespread popularity today that was not as strong when my gaming styles and preferences were in their nascent stages. Today, I enjoy co-op mode very much, but suffice to say that my brother and I shared very few experiences like the one Jorge talked about.

Most of our time spent gaming together was decidedly adversarial. Games like Goldeneye wore our N64 controllers to the breaking point, and to this day I have a hard time hearing the James Bond fanfare without looking over my shoulder for timed mine. The worst thing about being blue-shelled in Mario Kart was not falling out of first place, it was enduring the trash-talking that accompanied it. Even now, when Eric and I go home to visit our parents, all it takes is one aggressively arched eye-brow to instigate a pitching duel on Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.

Playing against one person so many times gave me a unique ownership of certain games. Eric and I would invariably learn each others' gaming styles, which would force us to innovate and adapt new tactics to gain an advantage. On top of this, we often drew territorial lines: certain teams or avatars would become associated with one of us, which added yet another personal layer to our digital rivalry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the epitome of our long war was Smash Bros. Melee. The game was released when we were adults: it drew upon our history together, and its superb gameplay only magnified the competition (and the fun). It was our last great battle, as college later saw us move out from under the same roof.

I chose Samus (as I always had done, tiers be damned!), Eric was either Marth or Roy. We would mess around with melee battles, but every session would eventually end with one-on-one, stock survival matches. Every action was planned, every move thought out five steps in advance. If the match momentum flagged, we would stand facing each other in a showdown, each daring the other to make the first (and possibly fatal) move. There was swearing, laughing, controller throwing, but also some good conversations and, in retrospect, the crystallization of a relationship.

I failed to truly comprehend this until Eric and I were at Jorge's house, and some folks were playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl. I was in the other room when I overheard: "Dammit, fucking Roy every time, what the fuck, come on, just have fun."

I sauntered over to the TV, picked up a controller, shot Eric a knowing grin, and selected Samus.

Fun? This was our definition of fun. We have become two old chess players. When we play each other, there are actually two games playing out: one involving the physical game pieces, and one involving the pieces of history between the rivals.

I'm sure co-op legendary mode in Halo 3 is great fun, and I often wonder how things would have been different if Eric and I grew up playing today's games together. In the end though, I would not trade our battles for any amount of cooperation.

Competition provided a perfect opponent for each of us and gave us the opportunity to sort things out in the simple language of wins and losses. But most importantly, our rivalry created kindred spirits, an understanding of one another that can only be described as familial.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful remembrance. Your remarks about siblings really struck a chord with me. My sister and I were rivals in anything and everything except sports. Games were her big opportunity to defeat me, which she did quite often, over-relishing it each time just enough to make me crazy. We laugh about those times now...but when I load up an oldy-goldy like Ms. Pacman, the game is still ON!

  2. I still tell people of Mom's unnatural Dr. Mario skills, and few believe it. I quite agree with your suggested opinion on games of today. A game of Madden '08 or Halo is in no way the same as a game of Griffey and Goldeneye. The level of skill and immersion that is needed for the games of old is one that I have not experienced in years. I'm sure I can get an argument over Halo from someone like Jorge, but I stand strong by my opinion. It is impossible for me to tell what gave me the gaming skills I have today, but the fact of the matter is that I can still only beat you half of the times we duel. Other than that, challenges come few and far between. Part of the skills can be attributed to undeniably harder games, but the majority can be attributed to the the forced evolution from simply playing a game, to being forced to think and utilize "strategery." Not only did this change the way that I look at games, but it also evolved our relationship in a way that would not be possible otherwise, considering most 18 year olds do not often choose to spend hours with their 14 or 15 year old brothers. I trust that in years to come, Samus will continue to duel Marth (though Pit intrigues me), Toad will still be trying to edge out Yoshi to the finish line, and pitching duels will remain heated until the SNES finally dies, but a soundly based relationship will remain regardless of whatever new system or game captures the interest of gamers everywhere.

  3. I too had a brother with whom competition was fierce. One of those legendary gaming moments still exists where we were playing SMB3 in battle mode and I noticed him repeating anything I said as trash talk. Therefore, I set up the scenario where I triumphantly shouted, "I am the great Denis!" He retorted when he won against me, "I am the great Dane."

    Yes, yes he is.

    It's fascinating to think of how well I know his (any my family's) gaming habits and strategies. Useful for co-op, deadly in head to head.

  4. Despite my mania for video games, I hail from the new school of video games, in which co-op played a huge role in fostering my sense of gaming. Sure, I used to play my cousin for hours on Blitz, but some of my favorite memories are spending every waking hour with my friends in team battles or trying to beat Halo (2, usw.) on Legendary to see that comepletely useless alternate ending. While competitive gameplay has its place, nothing tops that co-op feel in my humble opine.

  5. @ Michael
    Does your sister keep up with any of the new games? It sounds like she might like Geometry Wars.

    I preemptively challenge you to a Griffey Game next time we're home.

    I hadn't though about SMB3 battle mode in long time, thanks for the trip down memory lane. Also, hilarious anecdote about your brother. I'm sure he's still trying to live that one down.

    In many ways I envy your co-op experiences, as I'm just now catching up with the times.