This article originally appeared in issue 246 of PC Gamer.
I am afraid to play Dota 2. I am afraid I will lose days. I am afraid I will lose the ability to tell the difference between day and night, dinner and breakfast, my arse and my waist. I am afraid that I am old and slow now—that I have lost what little skill I had. But most of all, I am afraid because I tried to go back to DotA once already, with the 11 friends I used to play it with.
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”