This article originally appeared in issue 246 of PC Gamer.
Some people think that gaming is a solitary hobby. But for me, DotA was a way to connect with my real life friends through an experience that didn't include a darkened room serving overpriced alcohol we couldn't afford. We got to know each other by style of play and syntax of insults. We got to know each other better by issuing orders or coming to someone's aid. We talked to each other over the game like it mattered that we heard each other. And later, when we could afford to leave our rooms, we'd sit in a pub together and laugh endlessly at mishaps and in-jokes and personality quirks, as if our characters were part of ourselves.
Take Vexd. An old veteran of Quake tournaments, his trigger finger was well exercised on unassuming Quakenet noobs, crazy-eyed American smack talkers, and squeal-happy losers. Vexd had a fetish for hopped-up graphics: he riffed on overclocking, he got hot over shiny surfaces, cold over jaggies. He'd go crazy for gutsy, voluptuous environments. Once he told us that Crysis was going to be the best game ever developed. We all politely told him to go and fellate himself. In DotA, he was hot-blooded, impetuous and slightly demented. He put the enemy off. He made them go mad. As an example of this, he always played as Goblin Techies, a set of three tiny green monsters as mad as Vexd's tactics. Watching Vexd's trap-laying, mine-spewing gang of gobbos was like leaving your flat and seeing a toddler with a machine gun on a quadbike: you know something bad will happen, you just don't know why or when or how. And you don't want to be near when it does.
Compare this with Pottej. Pottej was our jack-of-all-trades guy: he was a good leader and could be decisive without being controversial. It was rare that he made a call in DotA that didn't work out, which was unusual: when he played other games, such as clan-level Counter-Strike, his temper could put him on tilt and he'd scream in, guns blazing, and get shot. Yet on the DotA floor he was quick to throw down, quick to escape, and never took a risk he didn't have to. He was an economical player, restrained. He always played like he was playing for us and not for himself. He played quietly. His play reassured us all.
We each took turns to swap in and out of games, depending on who was available that day. We'd met via my university's Games Society, and classes tried their best to dictate our schedules. They often failed. We'd load up on awful canteen food and hunker down for the day's losses and victories, never looking at a clock until 3am. Sometimes we'd forget to go to classes at all.
Playing a good game of Defense of the Ancients – a game where you have assisted, been assisted, died and been reborn, been present at a close scrape and been the saving grace in the small hours of the morning – is to know both raging glee and gutting disappointment. Looking back, I can think how strange it was that those diametrically opposed emotions could exist in the same brain within seconds of each other.
Back then, I didn't have much time for thinking.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” I scream, mashing the push-to-talk button down so hard it was almost pressing through the keyboard into wood. “AAAAAAAAAH THEY FOUND ME AAAAAAAAH!”
The Queen of Pain had found me in DotA's forest item shop.
“JESUS,” says Cumminz, after a few seconds of echo recovery. “They might have found Cara.”
In these few seconds of silence I imagine all of them putting their headphones back on, sighing. I feel repentant but am still panicking and screaming down my mic.
“I AM SHADOW STRUCK I am SLOWING I AM GOING TO DIE WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?” I say. “FUCK.”
I look at the minimap. My teammates are miles away. They could not be further away if I'd told them I was carrying a nuke. Why the hell had I gone to our team's shop?
“Come this way, Cara, down the river,” Airhorse says, with a slight smirk in his voice. God, I hate him. He's a fucking god at this game. “Kite him here,” he says. “We're coming to you. Hurl all your specials at him until we get there.”
From across the map, Lavos, who is playing shit horseriding beard-wearer Chen, performs a universal heal which gives me back most of my health and tops up the rest of the team. He gallops towards me too, but I can see on the game's mini-map that the enemy team are disappearing one-by-one from their assigned lanes into the fog of war.
They are coming for me. They are all coming.
I am slowing to a halt. I'm being hit. The poison gouging my character's stats is making me slow, falling inexorably into the grasp of the Queen of Pain behind me. And behind her – oh god. The horror.
“SKELETON KIIIIING,” I say, my throat sore with the words. I'm playing as Tidehunter: a giant fish man. I unleash my Tidehunter's Ravage, damaging and stunning the King and Queen who are chasing me. Finally the slow spell releases me and I run into the arms of my team.
'Oh god, I am so glad to see your ugly, weird faces,' I think, staring at the motley band of characters running past me into the fray. I look at my stupid fat Tidehunter character with annoyance. He looks sheepish. “The rest are coming,” I say, dawdling on 5 health. “But I did some damage, Queen is on less than half.”
“Let's deck them,” Cumminz says, succinctly, “then kill the dickheads that come late to the party.”
Skeleton King and Queen of Slow and Excruciating Pain emerge from the trees to the river, and my team descend on them like ravens on eyeballs, slowing, stunning, hacking, slashing. Both Skeleton and Queen promptly die, and I disappear into a nearby bush to regain some health. My teammates wait for the rest of the enemy to arrive.
“Why,” I begin, “do the characters with mounts not get a speed bonus? If they have a horsie they should -”
“Shh,” Airhorse says to me. “Shh. They're coming.” We listen for the sounds of footsteps in water.
'This is the moment I should leave,' I think. Although I'm regaining my lost health, I'm still on less than 20% and all my abilities are on cooldown. But I just cannot drag myself away. I am part of it. I started it. I want to be there at the end.
The remaining enemy team descends in a pincer movement of weird noises and spells. AI creeps bite into our towers back at our base, and the calm Night Elf voice that seems to speak for the Ancient that needs defending informs us that 'our base is under attack'.
No one pays attention to the towers: Airhorse is ducking in and out expertly, his health miraculously near full even though he is always in the middle of the action. Cumminz is low, but he's winning this one. These two stragglers are too late: there are three of us in the fight and only two of them, and we have them now. I stride out and attempt to kill-steal Cumminz's one.
“Get tae fuck, Cara!” he whines, always more Scottish when complaining. Wait. Skeleton King. Doesn't Skeleton King...
“AAAAAH!” I say. Skeleton King's ultimate ability – earned a good ten minutes into the game, usually – is Reincarnate. Assuming that he's got enough mana and the skill's not on cooldown, one kill won't be enough to put him down. He has just Reincarnated behind me, trying to finish what he'd started by hacking into my Tidehunter's shell.
I am going to die.
I turn around and anchor the guy in his bony, smug face. Airhorse comes in to help. I am down to 5 health again though, and just as I think I'm done -
Silence. The bodies are on the forest floor.
Cumminz laughs. Then Lavos laughs. Airhorse says, “Cara, you idiot, you're on 1 health.”
I look at the health bar. I was one nasty look away from death. We laugh, slightly madly, like one should late at night. I immediately go to All Chat and type: “ul guys 1 hp”
The reply: “fuk u tidhonter”
That little battle gave us the advantage we needed, and two hours later – in the darkness of the night – when we'd won the match, it felt like we'd earned it.
Our tacitly acknowledged RTS king was Airhorse. His micro was so tight you could have one building left and herald a GG – then hand over to him and he'd have six bases and raise an army so efficient that he could wipe the map clean of hostiles in three AC/DC tracks. Airhorse was the cause of every single enemy swearword in the latter half of our DotA games. I hear that some of them still quit out when they see his name on a loading board. Airhorse named himself after his favourite PC in the computer labs, as if it were a lucky charm.
Cumminz was a joy to play with. Almost as good as Airhorse, Cumminz was the heart and soul of us. On Ventrilo, we depended on his singing Basshunter and Britney Spears hits, terribly, to us at 3am. It was the only thing that kept us going in three-hour-long games that we knew we were going to lose. Any surprise that Cumminz encountered was immediately registered down Ventrilo with a wail so high-pitched we'd all throw off our headsets in pain. His energy was infectious; we wouldn't have played without him.
Everything that was important in my life at that point was arbitrated by in-jokes and DotA. Our post-exam triumphs were celebrated with ten-man Battle.net hookups, straight in the vein. My woes over essay marks were treated with a DotA suture and 11 grinning faces over post-match pints in the pub, walking home falling into bushes, and drunk DotA at 1am.
Games took on different tones. Losing at 7pm is not the same as losing at 3am. The world is a different colour then, in those small hours, with the voices of the people you love in your ears. It becomes something else. It is not a game. It's a conduit.
Facing your shrine, you have a seance with people you know and love, and you raise the totems of cursed monstrosities, and you use them to kill your inner demons. You gorge yourself on camaraderie. You feed on the togetherness of a shared rampage through enemy territory. You kill your diffidence with a little bit of help from your friends, a super-fast university proxy, and some Pro Plus in vodka. There were 11 of us, give or take, and whenever a handful of us were home there was a match on, and someone, somewhere in the DotAsphere was alternately kicking our arses or cursing our stupid nicknames. Maybe a few were chewing gum. It was hard to tell.
I remember that Lavos had a quiet disposition but a sharp wit: his ironic leet speak was next to none, and he could taunt our opponents into such
a rage that they'd lose it and make a mistake. When we got frustrated with his dawdling in a lane we'd call him Lavatory, aware that our insult skills were meagre next to his word-smithery. And we were bitter. Lavos works on League of Legends now.
Protoc was a solid player, but he had a temper on him like a pissed-off rhinoceros. He once broke a keyboard and switched off his PC mid-game. Our main job through the years was to keep the other side from provoking the hell out of him so that he wouldn't just suicide on them like a pre-emptive Leeroy Jenkins. His distinctive angry Yorkshire brogue in our ears was the hallmark of a tumultuous game. He was emotional to play with. It was like being in a radio dramatisation of Black Hawk Down when he was around.
When I said that losing a DotA game at 7pm is not the same as losing at 3am, I meant it in the sense that you have seen a journey. When you lose a game together at 7pm, the whole night stretches out before you: it is not a loss. You have the chance to win again. But a loss at 3am is decisive and soul-destroying. This will be your last game.
It's the same with winning. Win too early in the evening and it means nothing to you. But win late at night, your eyes gleaming in the glow of your monitor, and you're a king in the dark; you may sleep undisturbed. Winning late in the night is the best of all worlds. But the temptation will always taunt you: the temptation to play again.
Don't play again. You are already invincible.
Long after I had left university, and had, in a moment of madness, moved to a flat next to a volcano in rural Japan, I found myself craving our easy friendships and wondering if they were still alive. Pottej and I had buried a five-year relationship, Lavos had got married and moved to the US, Vexd was busy ploughing to the top of a development company he'd only been at five minutes.
Protoc was letting me proxy back into the UK for iPlayer because he worked for the London internet hub. One of us had become a doctor, another a ski instructor. The once magnificent giant ginger afro that Airhorse had sported had been shorn off for a job at John Lewis. This last thing was most painful to swallow.
Three and a half years after our last DotA game, I put the batsignal out and got the band back together.
It was Christmas, and I want to say that we 'drove for days' to get to the frozen north east of Scotland where my parents were hosting us, but some of us lived quite close to that frigid place. My old friend Sman and I lived in Edinburgh, and Airhorse and his younger brother Jeto roadtripped an hour from Glasgow to pick us up. Cumminz came from Fife with his gang – a three-hour drive – and Vexd came from Dundee on the train, also three hours. Al made the five-hour trip from London. But Lavos and his wife travelled the furthest, all the way from South Carolina in the USA.
My parents were bewildered but accepting. We made a very large stew and LANed solidly for two days.
It was amazing, but it wasn't the same. We had weights on us now: there were things we had to do in the world that weren't this. There were things we wanted to say to each other, but too much time had passed. It was as if no time had passed, and yet all the time in the world had just rushed by, impudent. We were strangers who were fond of each other. There was nothing to say: we didn't want to talk about our responsibilities, but we didn't want to talk about the past either. We just wanted to talk about the game. It was a relief, and it became obvious that the perceived distance between us was not a spiritual or personal distance; it was a distance of time only. We slumped in our chairs gleefully, and didn't talk about our problems, or how Airhorse had no ginger afro. I wanted to cry because Airhorse had no ginger afro.
I'd sat there in Japan, longing for their company, when the very act of making that bond had given me the confidence to swagger through strange cities. I think what convinced me that people could overcome, really overcome, was the fact that people could create such a strong bond by playing a game together.
After the LAN party I felt settled. As I waved them goodbye in the snow, I no longer needed to reassure myself that everyone existed: of course they existed. They were the same. We just had stuff to do now. They had spouses and jobs and holidays to go on. I had my own ambitions to follow. There just wasn't the time to coordinate our matches any more.
I don't need to go back now