The first bullet pierces your chest, the second your skull. As you bleed out on the floor, you watch a slow-motion replay, notice the way he drew his gun half a second before you, the way your body falls limply, your shaved head soaked in blood spatter. Shit. You were dead before you started firing. The screen asks you to press “square”. You respawn at the other side of the map, ready to fight again. Then a crackle in your headset, your brother’s voice: "Revenged you, pal."
We grew up with video games. At the Welsh holiday park we visited every year with our parents, we’d spend our days in the arcade, clutching sweaty coins, mining the pockets of denim shorts and shell suits for stray silver, choosing which game to drop them in: Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat or Two Crude Dudes. Sometimes we’d play two-player, sometimes we’d stand to the side of the cabinet, craning our necks to see the screen while the other had his turn.
Summers were dedicated to mastering the button timing for the Hadoken or the Spinning Bird Kick, to preventing the game from slipping into the hands of button mashers, defensive slide-kickers, the one kid who was really boringly good with Zangief. Games were best out of three – if you lost you had to move over. Among the preteen tribes of the video arcade, there weren’t many rules you could enforce. But winner stays on was solid-gold gospel.
When our coin supply was exhausted, we’d watch other players, picking up tips, techniques, hoping our high scores weren’t wiped off the leaderboard. One heady afternoon an older boy showed us how to pull away the panel at the front of the cabinet and hit the button that gave free credits.
The arcade rock star was a guy with the username ROB, who owned the high scores on almost every cabinet. There were rumours he didn’t exist, that he was a member of staff, that he invented the games. Others spoke of a kid who beat ROB once, but no one knew where he was now. Some say he died, others that he was only here for the weekend. My brother’s name is Rob. He’d watch faces turn from glee to grimace as he explained: not that ROB.
At school if you were anyone you had a Sega or Nintendo, or for the lucky few, both. We had neither. We played on consoles at friend’s houses, and on the communal Mega Drive at the local youth club, where you put your name on a list and got one shitty life on Altered Beast. There was always one kid who swore his uncle had the mythical Neo Geo console. That kid was a fucking liar. Without an internet to consult, cheat codes were passed on scraps of paper in the playground, torn from magazines, whispered in secret.
We might not have had a console, but we shared a Game Boy. On long drives we’d play a level each on The Simpsons or Duck Tales. Sometimes we’d have to let Mum have a go on Tetris. The music was always too loud, the screen never bright enough. At night you’d wait for the glow of streetlights to break through the car window so you could play for a split second. A fractured, staccato game better than no game at all. At some point, a Christmas or birthday, we got another Game Boy. The thing with twins is that we’re good at sharing, but we’d prefer not to.
It was Christmas of ’92 when we got a Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis if you’re so inclined). Back in those days you got two controllers in the box, and we sat and played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 until the turkey was cooked. Most games were better single-player, but fire up ToeJam and Earl or NHL Hockey and two-player was the only way.
As we grew, matured, so did the games industry. By the time we got to high school, in ’95, the first PlayStation was released. Santa delivered, and another Christmas Day was lost to a new game. The tradition was set. My favourite was Tomb Raider. A new one would arrive in time for Christmas each year and Rob and I would play a life each, filling our faces with chocolate coins.
Later that year we graduated to our own bedrooms. Our old room was now the TV room, where the PlayStation was kept, and where we lost countless hours to NBA Jam and Coolboarders 2. If we stayed up too late, beyond bedtime warnings from our parents, my dad would trip the fuse in the cellar and the screen would suddenly shrink to a single white line, then darkness.
I’ve never considered myself a die-hard gamer. I’m woefully incompetent, for starters. My learning curve is a slow upward slope. Put me in a basketball game and I’m sharp, alert. Give me a set of tools and I can build and repair all kinds of things. But in video games there’s a lag – my hands become ham-fisted, my reflexes muddy. Rob was always better than me, still is. At solo games, at multiplayer, at anything head-to-head. On the losing end, it never takes long for me to descend into button-mashing, controller-throwing fury.
Maybe that’s why I found myself letting gaming go. Towards the end of high school Rob and I weren’t getting along. We rarely hung out at all: We began attending different sixth-form schools with our own groups of friends, our own interests. When the PS2 came out, he got one. We didn’t share it.
I was at uni when Microsoft released the Xbox. It was practically giving them away in order to carve out a chunk of the market. Be rude not to get one, I thought. So I did. I loved it. I was the only one I knew who had one. I didn't have to lose to anybody at Halo or watch someone best my efforts on Splinter Cell. By this point, Rob and I were no longer living in the same house. No longer playing a level each on Tomb Raider. We’d grown, changed, drifted apart. A hobby that once brought us together now saw us camped either side of the console wars. I went Microsoft, he stayed Sony.
I live in London these days. Rob is in Huddersfield, our hometown. He has a house, a couple of cats, a PS4. At Christmas I stay with him. The tradition the past few years has been to fire up Call of Duty, play a round each on multiplayer, and keep the coffee coming until the early hours, until getting shot by highly skilled teenagers gets old.
I sold my Xbox when I left uni, never got another. Since I’ve been unconsoled, the whole business of video games has changed: networked gaming, season passes, pay to win. The Call of Duty franchise has replaced Grand Theft Auto at the top of the box office. Though I enjoyed the annual CoD binge, owning a games system was a distant concern.
But in September, Sony and Microsoft both released cheaper, smaller versions of their consoles. Having just spent most of the past 18 months confined to my room working on a book, I was in the mood to relax, to distract myself from myself. To reconnect with Rob. We’ve both had our share of ups and downs the past year, and though we're closer these days, we don’t get to hang out much.
The choice of which to buy made itself. Some 20 years after I got my first PlayStation, and over a decade since I switched to Xbox, I returned to Sony, to my brother. I bought a new slimline PS4 and a second-hand copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. At home I set up the console and texted Rob a picture. “Wanna burn?”
I plugged the headset into the controller, fired up the game and drew the blinds. After a little google-fu, Rob was in my ear, and the timer was counting down to our first side-by-side multiplayer game, 200 miles and a decade or two removed.
For the next couple of weeks, every night, near uninterrupted, we met in the futuristic battlegrounds of Black Ops. As my clumsy thumbs got used to the game mechanics, as I learned not to flinch when my guy was shot, stabbed, pistol-whipped, or blown up, we fell into a dialogue both familiar and new: casually venting about our days, our jobs, and our relationships while celebrating in-game successes and laughing over frequent failures.
We played so much we developed our own language: to play multiplayer together is to burn, blast, or bash. If one of us gets killed, the other tries to kill the guy who did it. For this you earn an “Avenger” badge. During an early game, I got cut down in the opening seconds while still trying to work out how to fire my gun. Flustered, I shouted “Revenge me!” into the microphone. Rob did just that, and the phrase stuck.
We’ve calmed somewhat since then, meeting up a few times a week when we’re both free. Despite my severe lack of aptitude for it, there’s something soothing about getting home from a long day, running round a colourful if physically improbable map, getting shot at, surviving, picking up a few kills, dodging snipers and lying-down wankers and boxing glove cunts, venting about your day while you do so.
It isn’t in any way productive. But that isn’t the point. I’m hanging out with my brother. That’s all the excuse I need. We shoot people, shoot the shit, lose our shit. We talk for longer than any phone conversation we’ve ever had, with more meaning than the occasional text can carry. Others have written about the benefits of FIFA for male friendship. With us it’s a similar story, different game. Call it CoD therapy. It’s the closest we’ve been in 20 years.
Almost everything in life and video games comes back to ToeJam and Earl. In case you never had the pleasure, TJ&E was the classic tale of two aliens from the planet Funkatron stranded on Earth after a crash. Your job was to collect parts of their ship so they could return home. You also picked up presents, which gifted you a variety of temporary powers. There were rocket boots (for speed), root beer (for health), and an inner tube (to float).
In two-player mode, the best present to get was called Togetherness. Because of the free-roaming nature of the game, you and your co-player could walk in different directions, and end up in miles apart, or on other levels. But no matter where on Earth you were, using Togetherness would transport your character back to his best friend, instantly.
It’s almost 25 years since we first played Toejam and Earl. It’s a cult classic now, one you can’t play on a PS4. But it’s a game I’m reminded of every time I play Call of Duty with Rob. Wherever we are, whatever kind of day we’ve had – however far apart we’ve drifted – picking up the controller and putting on a headset has a welcome effect: togetherness.