Sweaty Palms of the Swarm
There’s not a single good, damn reason for my hands to be ever-so-slightly shaking as I click the Play button, but there they are, just sort of fluttering around of their own accord. It’s not fear at all, but it is a kind of tremorish anxiety. My neck is tense and my shoulders feel like they are pulled up to my ears. I take in a deep breath to steady myself, thinking the entire time that the fight-or-flight response feels radically out of context for the situation.
There is a futuristic whoosh kind of sound that indicates a match has been made, and I feel my nostrils flare with a deep, determined inhale. I flex my fingers, feeling a strange cold settle into the knuckles and the tips. I wiggle the still-slightly trembling extremities to loosen up. I’m pointlessly, needlessly, hopelessly tight, tense as the few seconds tick by. And then I’m loading.
My opponent is some rando-nobody. I automatically knee-jerk to picturing some half-doped college kid in a dim dorm room somewhere, or a teenager in ragged and faded jeans sitting at a computer chair not unlike mine. That person, whoever and wherever they are, is chill, with ice-water veins and a plan for my humiliating demise. With that internal image, a cold resolve settles in my belly. I feel it click into place like the last Lego, and then I’m looking at my drones spread out from my hyper-futuristic home base while I click out basic commands, start building my first unit, set hotkeys for key units and get comfortable for the bloodshed to come.
That is what it feels like every time I start a multi-player ladder game in StarCraft 2, a stressful, invigorating and intimidating exercise in nervous recreation.
I had walked away from StarCraft 2 for a good long time. To be entirely honest it was mostly because, for all that I like StarCraft 2, I don’t necessarily like how it makes me feel. The game just stresses me the hell out. No matter how fast I’m moving through the build order, how good I feel about my unit mix, or even how far ahead I am whenever I seem to be ahead, I feel like I’m walking the proverbial razor's edge. In a weird way, I’m out of control when I play.
If you watch StarCraft 2, it can be somewhat deceptive how easy the pros make it look, even when it doesn’t look all that easy. For those who don’t know the game intimately, a lot of the time it just looks like people moving pieces back and forth on a board, which is still exciting when armies collide and desperate defenses hold beyond all reason. Those who have some inkling of the game, who have ever tried to play even briefly on the ladder, recognize another layer below that. Seeing a player separate his forces as Zerg banelings come rolling in to deliver doom, or a player dropping the perfect scan at the perfect time to uncover a beautifully crafted trap — We’ve been in situations like that. We know that those players are a kind of super human.
But there’s another, deeper level beyond that. While these heroes of StarCraft are micro-controlling their forces in active combat, positioning their pieces on the board in a way that I couldn’t — even if you slowed the game by half. While they are doing all that, they're also building new units in their base, or expanding to new corners of the map, or scouting out the enemy’s edges and weaknesses. They are not only holding a dozen different pieces of information that inform small but vital decisions. They are building, expanding, scouting, and manipulating data in real time.
I can’t do anything like that, nor do I imagine I should be able to. But, there’s something about the chasm between my play and the play of the gods, something that sets me on an uncomfortable edge, even when I’m playing someone who is likely every bit as bad and as good as I am. I feel the mistakes. The moments when I can’t build any units for a minute because I forgot to keep enough supply. The moments when I realize the enemy has obliterated my worker units because I hadn’t remembered to look at the mini-map. The moments when I send my units carelessly into a chokepoint, and the enemy descends from all sides.
When those things happen — and at least one of those along with countless other normal flubs will happen every game I play — I have the knowledge and experience to know exactly what I did wrong. Every game provides a lesson, but my ability — the reaction times, the very degrading flesh I have to work with in my nervous hands — is not enough to correct everything that needs correcting.
I tell myself I don’t care, and I can take that not caring into the game with me. But, there’s a moment in every game where I have to make the active choice to keep not caring, and I rarely roll that particular saving throw. Either the enemy rolls into my base with a slightly superior force and I become engrossed in the defense, or I smell blood in the water of a weakened enemy and I seek to unleash a passionate hell upon them. The fire of competitiveness is too great a siren call for me.
There is this high when you win a StarCraft 2 ladder game, particularly against a competitive and challenging foe, that few games can evoke quite so keenly. It is this raw thing that makes you want to pump your fist and bare your teeth. It is the reason I push the Play button to begin with, because even in the face of error and incompetence, StarCraft 2 makes you feel like a winner when you win.
Of course, that coin has two sides.
The release of the Heart Of The Swarm expansion brings with it an inevitable return to the scene of multiplayer gaming. The new units, an extra helping of complexity for a puzzle I never really sussed out the first time around. New highs and new lows as I take on whatever opponent the system decides is a good candidate for my skill level. Here in the middle of it, as I am, I’m jazzed to be playing again. The pregame jitters are still a slightly desirable buzz, though that won’t last. Eventually, I just won’t need that kind of pressure anymore.
And, if I’m honest with myself, I’m kind of looking forward to that day.