Ryan: I am not a clutch player when it comes to sports. I still remember that night, over a decade ago, when I lost the ability to pitch a strike in softball. The stakes were exceedingly low (co-ed church softball), but I still walked five people in a row and nearly lost the game for us because I couldn’t toss a ball underhand through an immaterial zone the size of a watermelon.
It was a mental hiccup I find fairly common in writers. Most of us are terrible athletes and, to a lesser extent, really bad at shooters. A lot of that probably stems from our tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Competitive games of skill require the ability to continuously calculate a host of variables on the fly. The brain is there to act as a conduit—syncing the eyes, fingers, muscles, and reflexes so they can work together like a finely tuned machine. What we call “focus” really just means calibrating the mind to a state of Zen-like mindlessness while we let the genius of muscle memory take over. The things that writers often excel at—second guessing, careful consideration—are the dastardly enemies of athletic success.
“If you start thinking about how you come down the stairs and think about how each muscle is working, you can’t go down the stairs,” professional tennis player Ana Ivanovic once said. What I suspect when I watch Alex play Destiny is that he’s thinking too much about walking down the stairs.
Alex: I died a lot this week.
SqueakyScarab88, my unskilled but determined Hunter, bit the dust at the hands of all kinds of aliens—quick, messy, just-let-it-be-over deaths. Each night, I launched into the moon’s orbit, landed on some cold hunk of rock, and tried my best to carry out the assigned mission. I’d like to say that every time I was forced to respawn, it was at the hands of some badass level-20 nemesis. Sometimes that was the case, but just as often, it was a damn zombie-looking thing sprinting toward me, claws outstretched, as I fumbled backwards and tried to aim.
Mostly, I wasn’t killed by gunfire of any kind, which surprised me. Almost every time I bit the dust, it was the result of close-quarters combat, as Hive Knights with cleavers ran me down or the aforementioned claw-bearing Hive Thrall swarmed me. It seems I’m pretty good at avoiding death by long-distance. (Even when fighting an Ogre—a massive dude that takes forever to kill and can obliterate you with only a few direct hits—it was more often the underlings that did me in, running up to me while I was distracted and unloading into my back.) So the realization that my deaths, in a game that revolves around shooting, most often came from non-gun-related means, felt odd.
I do look forward to telling Ryan about my one proud accomplishment: I have managed to successful complete two of the three “official” tasks he assigned me last week. I killed 100 aliens without dying, and I managed to complete an entire mission without dying. True, I hadn’t finished my other mission/bounty (get 9,000 experience points without dying), but two out of three felt better than nothing.
Ryan arrives, and he tells me to start the same way we did last time, by playing through a mission while he watches. I launch into one that takes me down below the surface of the moon. This time, there are whole minutes that go by without Ryan laughing. That feels like progress, of a sort.
Ryan: During our third session, I notice an emerging pattern in Alex’s play. When enemies are limited in scope and scale—perhaps one or two Acolytes shooting at him from a stationary position—Alex has a good handle on it. He’ll smoothly aim his reticle toward their heads and fire with relative skill and efficiency. But when too many Captains come strolling out of spawn points or a horde of zombie-like thralls sprint at him and add to the number of small calculations to make, he loses focus and his decision-making goes south.
During one heated firefight, he does the opposite of what’s prudent. He panics and stands in place while firing at a nearby group of enemies with his scout rifle, which is kind of like trying to hole an 8-foot putt in golf with your driver. I can’t really blame him, especially since I keep throwing new information and tips at him throughout our tutor sessions. So I silently vow to talk and instruct less during his hands-on game sessions and let him play without thinking so self-consciously about what he’s doing.
Alex: Ryan breaks it down for me afterward. When we began the session, he says, I again wasn’t aiming down sights. When the fusion rifle was charging up its shot, I would just stand there and let people shoot at me. Most of all, though, I still panic: As soon as someone gets too close for comfort, I start jumping into walls and losing my sense of location, because I’m no longer thinking; I’m just trying to get away. It’s not a good look on me. (Or on anyone, I think to myself, but maybe I make it look especially pathetic.) Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about, showing how I’ll panic even when it’s just one guy, if I sense I’m in trouble. (Also, it’s a good example of how I manage to muddle through shooters in the past: sheer dumb luck.)
But there’s some improvement, Ryan says, especially as the session went on. I started moving while shooting more. I started scoring more headshots. I would remember that I have throwing knives and grenades and actually apply them. True, I still don’t switch to heavy weapons when I’m being charged. I explain that I feel anxiety in those moments, and sticking to the gun that fires the quickest and with the most accuracy feels comforting. He tells me to cut that shit out.
Here comes the moment I’ve been dreading, though. “Let’s try another multiplayer match,” Ryan suggests, perhaps because he is a damn sadist. I curse silently, and enter the crucible.
Ryan: Considering that I’m not sure if he landed a single shot during his first competitive multiplayer session, my expectations for this latest Crucible match are cellar low. When you add real human teammates and opponents into the mix, all capable of unpredictable decisions, the number of calculations required climbs, and I’m worried that Alex will again succumb to a case of the yips.
That prediction ends up coming true—some of the time. Shortly after booting up a match on the Cauldron map, he whiffs on a major opportunity for a kill when an opposing player strolls by, seemingly without seeing Alex standing there. But Alex can’t maneuver his sights in time, and the oblivious enemy escapes unscathed. Other times, it just looks like his reactions are too slow compared to other players. If Destiny were one of those gentlemen’s duels from the Old West, where the first shot almost always wins, Alex would always be lying face first in the dirt.
But all is not lost. Alex scores a couple of assists midway through the game and barely loses two close firefights. Then comes his big moment.
He’s standing a few feet from a doorway in the Cauldron, knowing that an enemy is around the corner, and tosses a grenade nearby in anticipation. The other player emerges through the entrance and is struck by some of the grenade fragments. As he leaps high into the air, Alex adjusts his aim upward and fires two or three bullets into him to finish the job.
It’s his first ever kill! I clap and yelp in genuine excitement. I feel a bit like a Little League coach who just saw Billy hit his first single. Wait, is that super-condescending, considering Alex is a grown-ass man? I don’t care, I’m happy. And I’m already excited to see what he can accomplish next week.
Alex: I managed to kill a guy! That’s right! I pointed up as he jumped and took him out. It was glorious, and I have no idea how I did it. I think I got lucky, but Ryan points out that, since I took him out in the middle of his jump, I had to have been tracking what he was doing and keeping my eyes on him in order to pull it off. I’m killed two seconds later, but it’s worth it. I feel like a king. No wonder people enjoy this game.
Ending on such a positive note has given me an adrenaline rush. I want to go home and immediately practice some more, but work beckons. Ryan gives me a few assignments for next week. First and foremost: Stop panicking! No, really, I need to start swapping to heavier weapons when multiple targets attack my Hunter.
This week, I’ve got dual assignments, one in the singleplayer game and two in multiplayer:
- In singleplayer: Beat the level that Ryan beat for me during the session (sigh). Then, go back and do that last low-level mission on the moon, only set the difficulty to hard. Eek.
- In multiplayer: Win three crucible matches, which seems like it will be a matter of lucking into the right teams, and get two kills in a match, which seems like it can only result from an act of God.
Let’s get to work.