In the fourth grade there was one thing that I loved more than anything else. I would get home from school, heat up a microwave burrito, lean back in a creaky old office chair, and boot up our family’s desktop computer. Age of Kingdoms was always in the disc tray because it was the only game I’d ever play. I was so consumed in tending to my fledgling civilization that hours would flash before my eyes. Every game started out the same, you start with a handful of pixelated villagers and a king. I’d promptly send the villagers to work cutting down trees and hunting for food, while the king sat behind the walls of his castle overseeing the fragile economy. If he died the game was over. I would lose. Eventually I would stockpile enough resources to build walls and armies to protect my people from the neighboring kingdom. Once I had built up enough I would strike at the heart of my AI opponent. Their cities would crumble under my military might, and a welcome tingle would roll down my spine. Bold white text would appear on the screen. YOU ARE VICTORIOUS.
As one of the scrawnier kids living in a small town, it gave me the chance to feel important. I was a friendless nobody in real life, but in the game I was a god. I really think it helped my self esteem growing up.
But like with most things, after a while the joy of pummeling a computer into the dust subsided. It was too easy. My dad had recently set up a DSL router. The internet was finally at my fingertips, and with it the excitement of a new challenge. After school on friday I practically ran home. I trembled in anticipation as I booted up the computer and moused over the Age of Kingdoms icon. In a couple minutes I had the multiplayer menu opened, searching for matches.
No game(s) found…
I frowned. This was not what I had expected. I restarted the game and still-
No game(s) found…
I was about to give up when a message popped up on my screen.
Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??
Eagerly, I replied.
Steven: Yeah lets get a game started.
Drudg3s74: OK you host.
I started up the match. It spawned me in the center of an island with a handful of villagers, my king and a castle. I sent my people to work, gathering wood and food from the surrounding countryside. I made more villagers and sent them to mine some gold I had spotted closer to the coast. I was losing myself in the game, it was a familiar cathartic feeling.
Drudg3s74: How r you?
Steven: I’m fine, how about you?
Drudg3s74: Not many people play this game
Steven: My parents say its a waste of time
Drudg3s74: What do you say?
Steven: It makes me feel in control
Steven: I don’t get to feel that way very often
Our text exchange died down and I returned my focus to the game. The pixelated people worked like ants, gathering resources and depositing them at my stockpile. Back and forth they went. Storing massive amounts of gold and wood. My people threw out their rags for fine silk togas. They grew fat and rich. It was mesmerizing to watch the transformation.
“Steven! Time for bed!!” My mother yelled from the other room.
I glanced up at the clock. It was 8:30. My stomach grumbled, I had lost track of time and missed dinner. Probably why my mom was so irate.
Steven: I have to go to bed
Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?
Steven: Yeah sure, I’ll save it. Night.
The next morning I woke up and devoured a bowl of cereal. I had to get back to that game. Today was saturday, meaning I had the entire weekend to play. When I got to the computer room my parents were huddled around the screen.
“I-I don’t understand, they just tripled overnight!” My father gasped.
“What does this mean honey?”
“I just made $300,000..”
The room was quiet for a brief moment before exploding with noise.
“OH MY GOD” My mother exclaimed.
“I’m taking you out tonight babe” My father beamed. “Anywhere you want. Steven’s old enough to stay without a sitter. All he ever does is play his game anyways.”
I felt sting of shame at the truth of my dad’s logic. My parents laughed with joy and embraced. They told me there were hot dogs in the fridge and to get to bed at a decent hour. Then giggled their way out the door. I waited a few minutes after the door slammed shut to boot up the game. Just a few moments to experience the bleak loneliness of real life before returning to my colorful fantasy. Immediately after the game started a message appeared on my screen.
Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??
I loaded the game from where we had left off. My villagers continued to gather and multiply. I invented agriculture and gradually my farms spread through the deforested land. The invention of smelting meant better metals for tools and weapons. My small village grew to a town, then to a city. The clay huts my villagers resided in upgraded to hovels, then to towering apartment buildings. Soon I had a sprawling metropolis, streets flooded with workers and merchants. Soldiers in glistening blue armor guarded my castle and patrolled the lands in my domain. My opponent had been surprisingly quiet the entire time. For the first time in hours I looked up at the clock. 10:45. I needed to get off.
Steven: I have to go
After waiting for a couple minutes a chat message appeared.
Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?
Steven: You bet. See you tomorrow.
I woke up on Sunday morning to the sounds of heavy machinery whirring. I jumped out of bed to open the blinds and harsh light blinded me for a second. When my eyes adjusted all I saw for miles was construction site after construction site. My school was down the street. There were new classrooms and facilities being built by an army of workers. They seemed to have appeared overnight. Progress was already visible. The frames of new houses were being hoisted up. It was strange. The events of yesterday and today were seemingly random, but I felt a connection between them. All I knew for sure was that the excessive noise was annoying. I stumbled into the living room and poured myself a bowl of cereal. There was a note stapled to the box.
Steven, your dad and I have decided to vacation up at Tahoe. We’ll be back later this week. Hot dogs in the fridge. -xoxo Mom
I sighed. Another day to myself. My parents left on these kinds of trips often. Most of the time without bothering to let me know beforehand. After a lonely breakfast I booted up Age of Kingdoms.
Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??
I returned to my people. What to do next? I decided it was time to develop my coastline. A fleet of fishing ships left my harbor, scouring the uncharted seas for whatever it could provide. That’s when I spotted a ship with red sails. The enemy. The ship retreated back into uncharted waters and returned moments later with a fleet behind it. Hundreds of red sails dotted the screen. It was an attack, and I was utterly unprepared.
Drudg3s74: Ready or not here I come
The ships landed on the beaches of my island and soldiers with fierce red armor poured out into the countryside. There was nothing I could do. They torched the outlying farms and houses before making their way inward. I rallied my troops and sent them into battle. Red knights on horseback trampled through my lines and cut down every last one. Then they marched on the city, slaughtering every villager, reducing my great buildings to rubble. I realized my king was next and evacuated him to the other side of the island where more enemy soldiers lay in wait. Red crossbowmen loosed a volley of bolts at my king–
A sharp pain contorted my shoulder. I howled at the excruciating sensation. A large spot of warm blood pooled under my t-shirt. WHAT THE FUCK?!?
I looked back at the screen. A message was waiting for me.
Drudg3s74: I don’t want this game to end yet
Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?
My king was wounded but not yet dead. The red troops had ceased their onslaught and retreated back to their ships. Then the screen went black. I sat there in that worn out office chair in shock, blood trickling down my side. I tried to process what had happened but the pain overtook me and my eyes shut.
When I opened them it was well into monday afternoon. The air was thick and harsh on the throat. I coughed uncontrollably as I lifted up my shirt to peer underneath. The wound had scabbed over, sticking like velcro to my white t-shirt. Careful not to jostle my shoulder, I slowly rose out of the office chair. If the blood on my shirt was real then-. I hurried to my bedroom window and ripped open the blinds.
There was nothing left but scorched earth and piles of rubble. The construction sites were silent. The heavy machinery and bodies of the workers were charred black. Down the road my school had been reduced to a mound of bricks. No class today. It seemed only my neighborhood had been spared the from a fiery doom. This was no game, this was real life.
I knew what I had to do.
I sat back down in my chair, still clutching my bloody shoulder and booted up the game for one last time.
Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??
Those words held a new meaning this time.
Steven: Let’s end this.
The game resumed. My city was in ruins. Like the aftermath of the fire that devastated my hometown, only my castle and a few buildings in the area around it were left unscathed. I moved my king back into the castle and rallied what remained of my villager population. Then I started to rebuild.
Things were slow at first, but I kept at it. Hours flew by in the blink of an eye. At 1 am on tuesday morning I had built my kingdom back to its former glory. My farms resown, my armies reformed. Once again my people moved from pitiful mud huts to luxurious condos. A great wall was erected around the city built upon it’s own ashes. The natural resources on the island were exhausted so I sailed to smaller islands off the coast to strip them of their wealth. From the plentiful forests of those islands a great fleet was constructed, but not of fishing ships. This time warships armed to the teeth ran patrols around my island fortress. I was at the height of my strength. Better yet, the fog had rolled in. Now was the time to strike.
Steven: You willing to try your luck a second time?
Drudg3s74: Here I come
Not a minute had passed before red sails once again appeared at the edges of my domain. They sailed straight for my undefended coastline.
The trap was sprung. I took a deep breath and continued.
Ships with majestic blue sails swiftly moved out of their hiding places amidst the thick fog. They attacked from both sides, taking the invading fleet by surprise. The exchange of fire arrow volleys on screen was a magnificent sight to behold. Red ships sank to the depths by the dozen, and with each of them a portion of the invading army.
My opponent saw my naval advantage and sent the remainder of his fleet to shore. Despite his significant losses at sea, red soldiers disembarked by the thousands. They fanned out into the farmlands, raiding and killing as they went. The remainder of their fleet, annihilated behind them. They were trapped on this island.
While the red army devastated the surrounding land, the next part of my plan went into action. A large contingent of my army stood outside the city walls. Ready to fend off the red invaders. The rest of my forces waited on the other side of the island, loading heavy siege equipment onto large transport ships. The ships sailed around the island, escorted by my fleet, and then moved into the now undefended red territory. As I neared the shore volleys of arrows rained down on the fleet. Maybe a little more defended than I had planned on. I sailed straight through the hail of fire and my men stormed the beach. After some vicious fighting, the arrows stopped. Now it was my turn. Large wooden catapults rolled onto the sand. I gave my men one standing order, to take the castle and bring back the enemy king’s head.
I got an alert from my city and moused back over to my island to see what was happening. The red army had formed up outside the city, outnumbering the defenders 3 to 1. The odds meant victory was impossible, but I just had to hold them off a while longer. The two armies smashed into each other. The screen was filled with red and blue soldiers fighting to the death. With swords and battered shields they fought on tirelessly and with ruthless efficiency.
Another alert turned my attention to the other island. There, my blue army had ransacked the enemy city. Now they moved on to the castle. Catapults hurled fireballs into it’s decorated stone masonry. Chipping it away little by little while my soldiers formed up to cut off any routes of escape. I left them to their work and focused on the battle on the fringes of my on city.
The defenders fought valiantly. But the overwhelming numbers of the red army proved too much. Every last one was slaughtered. Their blue bodies sprinkled the ground at the base of the city walls. The invaders let out a brief cry of victory before breaking out their ladders and grappling hooks. I didn’t have much time.
I wiped my palms off on my shirt. They left long yellow streaks of sweat over the dried blood. In a moment, the red army would be over my walls and the fire would rage on again in the real world. I sighed deeply and focused back in on the events unfolding in front of me.
The enemy castle was crumbling before my eyes. Arrows rained from the battlements sniping my troops down below. The square my spearmen had formed around the structure was breaking. Gaps in their wall were numerous and occupied by corpses filled with arrows.
Another alert from my island drew me away. The red army was storming the streets of my city. They razed every structure they came across to the ground. My villagers congested the streets rather than evacuate. The soldiers hacked and slashed their way through the sea of blue civilians. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Anything was worth buying my army a little more precious time.
Back on the enemy island the castle was on the verge of collapse. Every fiery boulder impacted with devastating effect. The regal sound of trumpets took me by surprise. The great metal gates of the castle flew open and the red king raced out on horseback. What remained of my spearmen chased after him. He rode east, into the woods.
“SHIT!” I screamed at my computer and threw my fist down on the table.
Drudg3s74: That was close
Drudg3s74: My turn
Red catapults set up around my castle and loosed their deadly payload. The walls of my house shook violently. The clock and countless framed pictures shattered face first onto the hardwood floor. My office chair swiveled around in circles and rolled to the other side of the room. A loud creaking noise turned my attention to the ceiling. In an instant the drywall collapsed, coating everything in a layer of white debris. The thick arm of a large oak tree followed, clipping my left hand as it crashed into the hardwood. I looked and my hand and screamed at the top of my lungs. My fingers were limp. Any attempt to move them resulted in an unimaginable spasm of pain. White bone protruded out of my forearm. My left hand was fucked.
Holding back tears, I dismounted my office chair and wiggled my way through the tangled branches between me and the game. Every contact with bark on my busted hand left me momentarily frozen in pain. Eventually I made my way through and stood in front of the computer. My right hand gripped the mouse. I had to end this NOW.
All fighting in the game had stopped. I looked to my castle, the fireballs being hurled by the red army’s catapults were frozen mid-flight. On the other island my men had the red king trapped in the thick forest. They had a him on his knees, a spear at his throat.
Drudg3s74: You said this game made you feel important
Drudg3s74: Why do you want it to end?
Drudg3s74: We can be gods, you and I
Drudg3s74: All you have to do is keep the game going..
I looked around at the destruction around me. I took a shaky breath before replying.
Steven: lol nah
The game resumed. In 16-bit color, a spear slid through the red king’s neck. I felt nothing when the text appeared on screen.
YOU ARE VICTORIOUS