Picture your mind as the control room of a massive death robot, which is in the middle of a fight against a millipede the size of Croydon. It’s a hectic duel: the whole command crew are at their battle stations, doing that Star Trek thing where they try to use computers while standing up and thrashing about. And in all the uproar, the communications console has been left briefly unattended. Enter the janitor, then, with a cheeky wink to camera. They are your subconscious mind, in this metaphor. And while the rest of the crew is distracted, they’re going to have some fun.
The camera now cuts to a dramatic exterior shot of the robot, using a chainsaw the size of a Big Tesco to try to cut off the millipede’s bum. Suddenly, there is a loud sound of microphone feedback, and the vastly amplified sound of someone clearing their throat. The robot is about to speak! One of its comrades looks over in curiosity: will this be a cool foghorn noise? New orders? Or a warning that the Millipede is about to draw its dreaded revolver? Nah, it’s none of those things.
It’s a little song about boiled eggs, muttered vaguely to the tune of “anyway you want it” by Journey. And that’s why the janitor isn’t usually allowed near the microphone.
I am talking, of course, about the weird rambling that develops between friends in multiplayer team games. Those liminal chats where everyone’s too focused to have a proper conversation, but not so consumed by the game that they’ve fallen into the “terse silence interrupted by occasional snarls” fugue state. They feel almost like several people talking to each other in their sleep, at times: sentences trail off abruptly, subjects change in a flash, and otherwise idiotic jokes become prompts for explosive, “hang on is my gas leaking”-level hysteria.
It’s something I’ve really begun to relish, especially after a year and counting with no real social life. And of course, I enjoy real conversations with friends too. But if I’m honest, the longer I spend isolated from folks, the harder I find it to have “proper chat”. People ask me “how’s your daughter?,” and I freeze up: the prospect of synopsising the entire human being that’s replaced the baby they met in 2019 feels insurmountable.
It’s even worse when people ask how I am. After fifteen months of relentless introspection and gradual disassociation from societal reality, seeing the words “how are you doing?” brings me out in a deep dread, as if I’m facing that giant inclined treadmill thing from the end of Gladiators. I honestly don’t know how I’m doing. And I suspect that, if I am indeed doing well, it’s only for lack of thinking too hard about it. In any case, it’s usually the last thing I want to discuss.
But in the dadaist vocal swamp of multiplayer voice chat, there is only bullshit. Most nights since the Autumn, some time after dinner, me and two guys called Rhu and Alasdair have been blundering onto a Discord call, and yakking our way through a couple of 3vs3 team games in Age Of Empires 2. Ostensibly, we’re there for the game only, so nobody feels any ritual obligation to talk about work, family, life milestones, or the fucking coronavirus. Sometimes we do, of course, because we’ve become friends along the way. But only if someone feels the need. Otherwise, it’s just building tiny knights and chatting whatever shit floats into our heads, for as long as we like.
The games are fine. We win very slightly more often than we lose, I suppose. And after a couple of hundred of matches together, we’re getting quite well-drilled at playing as a team. But honestly, it’s the quality of the nonsense that keeps me coming back every night.
I don’t mean that in the we’re-mad-we-are, we-should-start-a-podcast way that afflicts so many trios of white men, either. The humour is abjectly situational; the epitome of “you had to be there”, where “there” equates to “playing yet another Arabia match against Franks, Goths and Britons, with ninety percent of your mental energy devoted to fending off a scout rush”. Over the last six months, hundreds of instances of someone Doing A Bit have accrued into a sort of strange gestalt, where stupid things are riffed on in tiny increments, night by night.
There is Anthony Hopkins’ Terrible Frights, for example, where someone does an Anthony Hopkins voice and talks earnestly about instances of being mildly startled. Or Danny Dyer: The Boy Who Lived, which I think is self-explanatory. Then there’s Rudus The Impossibly Rude Roman, who we became so obsessed with that Rhu’s wife even ended up painting for us – he’s the header image for this very piece.
Anti-Bullying Bane is one of our recent “season two” Bits, and involves croaking stuff like “remember, just ignore them and tell a teacher” into a coffee mug. There’s a thing we do where we just say “We’ve been beasted, m’lord” in the most defeated possible voices, for minutes at a time. Greasy wolves are a surprisingly common topic. And then who could forget “Poison Pete”, who is just a man who very much enjoys drinking poison. That’s it. That’s the joke.
This shared verbal diarrhea probably isn’t a universal experience. Some teams, I don’t doubt, are all business all the time, maintaining a steely play-to-win discipline, and saving their words for game-critical information only. Those are probably the teams we get beaten by, to be fair. But I still think they’re missing out.
I’m really going to push the boat out. I’d even say it was healing.
And sure, Poison Pete is unlikely to win a Perrier Award. But that’s not really the point of it, you know? To reach a point where the stress centres of your brain are entirely occupied with the moment-to-moment intensity of medieval murder, leaving your mind free to revel with childlike joy in a concept as stupid as Anti-Bullying Bane, is extremely liberating. And if I’m really going to push the boat out, I’d even say it was healing. It certainly beats video calls.
I don’t know if it’s an ADHD thing or what, but I spend every minute of every day suppressing the urge to blurt out nonsense. To burst into little snippets of meaningless song, or use arbitrary nouns in place of the things I’m trying to identify. If you know my work, you’ll know I don’t always succeed. But for every sensible statement I do manage to make, I’ve had to scroll through about forty dialogue options of complete bollocks in my head, served up by a subconscious which thinks it’s helping. The pressure of all that unspoken bollocks builds up, you know?
And so, my evening multiplayer sessions have become a time when I can completely let go of the reins. When the owl can blop right out of the hosepipe, as it were. And since I know it’s nourishing the people I’m hanging out with, rather than just driving them slowly mad, it’s a genuine relief just to relax and let that beaky fucker hoot.