“I’m standing at the entrance, by the Titanfall booth,” I text to a friend, who is coming to meet me at the entrance of GDC.
“On my way,” he texts back, though there is no sign of him for a few minutes. After a little while, I turn around and watch a few dudes in hoodies crowd around the screen closest to me. It looks like a pretty standard sci-fi shooter: lots of movement, lots of shooting, twitch mechanics, with what looks like minimal strategy from the outside though I know better than to presume. It’s flashy; I can’t help but stare.
A guy notices me standing there and turns to me at the end of the match.
“Want to play?” Three other dudes turn and stare at me. My heart starts racing. Overwhelming anxiety. Panic. I don’t know thegame. I’m horrible at aiming with controllers. And if I’m not immediately amazing at this game, I’m going to be dismissed as a wannabe “gurl gamer.” I’m wearing nice clothes and my hair is done. This isn’t supposed to be my world.
“I’m okay, thanks.” I try to be as nice as possible as I say it. I smile.
The guys go back to their game without a second thought. They obviously weren’t singling me out; they were trying to be inclusive. I note the irony here, that I have excluded myself from the gamespace. Feeling defeated, bad at feminism and a terrible “women in games” activist, I move away from the booth enough to dissociate myself with it, and I’m relieved when I get a text from my friend to meet somewhere else.
Just before the impulse purchase:
My twitter feed generally falls into a limited number of categories:
- scholars/researchers interested in stuff that intersectionally relates to me (covers LOTS of academic disciplines)
- games critics
- feminists & womanists
- indie studios, devs, and gamers
- misc other official accounts
None of these groups immediately jump out as the kinds of people that would gravitate toward Titanfall, and yet I still see it coming up in my feed quite a bit. A few people around the lab talk about it in passing, but often, people in my circles dismiss games like Titanfall as “not for them”—by which I surmise they mean some combination of “not narratively ambitious,” “not emotionally ambitious,” or “not technically ambitious.”
But there it is, this AAA game coming up over and over. And as much as I hate to admit it, it did look kind of cool when the GDC guys were playing it…
When my local game store tweets that they have a new shipment coming in and Titanfall will be one of the games they get, I ask them to hold it. I’m still not convinced I’ll buy it, but I was planning to stop by to add a Sega Genesis Model 1 to my wish list to replace my dearly departed childhood system that recently died, and to look around at the retro games. Having Titanfall on hold won’t hurt.
When I get there, my games guy and I chat about the game for a little while. He gives me the pros and cons he’s been hearing about Titanfall. It sounds like a game my boyfriend might want to check out before buying (he’s a PC guy), and at the very least I can see what the fuss is about. So I buy it.
I turn on the game and see a beautiful intro graphic that reminds me a bit of Battlestar Gallactica. There’s a campaign that I’m excited to try, but first I open the tutorial.
The tutorial is simple and straightforward. I start in a room that feels very Portal-esque and am given some simple movement objectives, followed by some shooting objectives to teach the basic skills. I love the feel of the wall-running and double-jump mechanics. And you can control titans, large mechs with guns and magic science-shields that can collect enemies’ bullets and shoot them back at them. I finish the tutorial and look forward to practicing my new skills in the campaign.
There’s a lot of room for a cool story here, I think.
15 mins in:
I select the campaign from the menu and load into a lobby. Oh God, why am I loading into a lobby? Didn’t I select single-player? Panic again.
I probably should have done my research. There is no single-player campaign, and it turns out Titanfall has done a fair amount of its marketing around this point. It’s all multiplayer.
I’m comforted for a moment when I realize that I can be a woman. And she’s dressed! I can’t help but be happy. I see that in the future I’ll be able to customize my character and I’m even more excited.
Until other people load into my group and start chatting.
Oh God, they’re going to be such assholes once they realize I don’t know what I’m doing.
Having played both Halo and Call of Duty online a few years ago—though I never stuck with either long enough to get good—I know what I’m getting myself into in terms of online shooter communities. I immediately wish that I had changed my profile pic from my picture of whatever Xbox calls their Mii avatar characters (in my case, a girl who looks like me in a Boston Bruins jersey) to something more gender-neutral. And my anxieties are somewhat founded: before the match even starts I get a friend request with a message that just says “<3” from an account that looks like a dudebro. Here we go, I think, but I don’t have time to dwell before the match starts.
I’m sluggish and generally bad at aiming on the run. I die three times before I kill anyone, but once I get my titan, I rain fire and tears down upon the other titans. I’m much better in a mech, and I actually manage to kill some people.
Two or three guys chat through the whole round, but they seem to be talking about something totally unrelated to the match. Despite my anxieties, they never do anything assholish, and nobody bothers me about being a woman.
I end the round with a narrow victory, and a horrible kill-to-death ratio (KDR). I’m at the bottom of the ladder.
But I survived. And nobody was mean.
3 matches in:
I decide to call it for the night. I’m starting to get the hang of the movement controls, but I’m still at the bottom of the ladder every match. I decide that I like this game and will try again tomorrow. I head to the internet and find out that I can have my titan auto-attacking stuff—and that the AI is good and it’s actually worth doing—if I don’t feel like playing in the slower, lumbering style of controlling a mech. I also find out that there’s a speed boost for wall running. I’ll have to try that tomorrow.
Start of Day 2:
My boyfriend is finishing his work for the night just as I’m firing up the Xbox and asks to play for a round. Happy that I was right with my “maybe he’ll want to try it out” justification for my impulse purchase, I hand over the controller.
“I hate playing FPSs on controllers” he complains as he loads into the world. I tease him about how aiming with a mouse is Easy Mode, but we both know he’s really good at FPSs on PC. A part of me is happy that he’s at a slight disadvantage from his usual keyboard-and-mouse comfort zone, but the moment he’s in, it’s clear that we’re on different planes altogether.
He’s fast. He’s twitchy. And he never stops moving. He doesn’t flinch the way I do when people fire at him, and the camera is always moving just faster than I can keep up (a huge projector screen doesn’t help). I take some solace in the fact that I’m better with the titan, but only because he’s initially unfamiliar with the slower feel. Once he gets the hang of it, he’s amazing in that too.
Despite never playing, he’s at the top of the scoreboards. He’s disappointed with his KDR, but he declares that the game was fun, and he’ll play another. This time, I sit up and take notes. He looks around when entering buildings, so he’s almost never surprised like I am. He doesn’t bother standing in a window unless he sees someone outside of it. And most importantly, he waits until the enemy is close before firing the first shot.
“If the first shot misses, they’re going to kill me,” he explains, “so I need to be sure the first shot doesn’t miss.” It usually doesn’t.
When he hands the controller back over, I’m ready. I try to imitate what I’ve seen. I move the camera about 3 times as quickly as I had been; it’s less disorienting when I’m in control than when I was watching him. I wait until people are closer to fire. I take advantage of the speed boost from wall running. I use my cooldowns as cooldowns.
It works. When the map ends, I’m in the middle of the pack, no longer at the bottom of the scoreboards. I’m ecstatic.
The chat is silent, so I finally hear some of the campaign story. The rich narrative I was hoping for is instead some barely audible drama conveyed through voice-over. I think there’s some kind of war going on over fuel? Obviously the story is an after-thought, and I still wish there had been some kind of extended single-player tutorial to really get a feel for controls before being thrown into the deep end. There’s room for an interesting story here.
But for the first time, I’m actually treading water, and that feels amazing.
About 2 hours in:
I’m addicted. Totally addicted. I’ve found the shotgun—which I love and fits one version of my playstyle—and I’ve modified my starting weapon to be worth a damn, which fits the other version of my playstyle. I’m happy that I can switch back and forth between the two when I die, and more importantly I can now die without feeling like a total failure.
I notice a guy perched on the side of a wall waiting to kill someone and I have no idea how he’s doing it. When the match is over, I head to the internet to learn. I find lots of great tips for different maps and different types of play. I learn a lot more about being in a titan. The next match I try the wall hanging and realize how useful it might be for certain situations.
About 5 hours in:
By now I’ve realized that I’m much better at Hardpoint Domination maps, which are essentially King-of-the-Hill style matches that require you to capture and control certain map areas for points, which also tends to be my strongest, probably because I have a lot of experience with the strategy of these kinds of maps from the tons of PvP I did in WoW and Guild Wars. My KDRs still don’t look good though, and I still have the general impression that I kind of suck. Determined to never be “the girl who sucks at video games,” I ignore the countless video games I’m actually good at, and instead focus obsessively on fixing my weakest points. Though I’m almost never at the bottom of the ladder on Hardpoint Domination maps, I’m almost always on the bottom of Attrition maps in which you basically just run around and kill as much as possible. So I start there.
I channel the things I learned from watching my boyfriend and from the online videos. I try different weapons, but I know that the biggest weakness in this context is my aim. So I decide rote repetition is the way to go. I play a lot of attrition games.
I also notice that, having focused so much on my ground-game and leaving my titan on auto, my mech skills are nowhere near what other players’ seem to be. So I also play a few Last-Man-Standing-Titan-Only style matches. I’m usually the first to die in these. But being dead means I can watch through the others’ screens, and I learn a lot. After only a few of these matches, my titan game improves a lot.
Once I’ve practiced enough that I’m consistently no longer at the bottom of the ladders on Attrition and Titan-Only maps, I head back to Hardpoint maps where I’m comfortable.
This time is totally different. I’m single-handedly capturing hardpoints that are guarded by 3 people. I’m gracefully using my surroundings to evade attacks. When I’m able to call my titan, I jump right into him and kill 3 other titans sitting in strategic locations before mine is destroyed. And when the results come in, I have all of the validation I need:
I TOP THE SCOREBOARD.
By a lot. And my KDR is great (for me).
And I just know I can be better once I finish unlocking the rest of the equipment. I have a long way to go before I’m anything close to as good as my boyfriend, let alone the crazy FPS hardcores. I nestle in, resign to the fact that I’m in no place to write a rational or analytical review of the game for now, and endeavor to watch a couple of youtube videos before jumping back in to the next match.