At first, I don’t realize he’s flirting because the goal of the game is to kill each other. I recognize the username (Himbo Unchained) from past nights spent online. The game is a cheap mod of a more popular one, a free-for-all arena, like a chatroom but with kill/death ratios. The thirty-minute rounds cycle through five Old West arenas and the ten character models we choose from are cowboys, sheriffs, prospectors, each with large, clunky weapons: pistols, knives, scorpions you at throw at players. When I die from a scorpion attack and see Himbo running back to where I might respawn, I realize what he’s up to.
He’s been teasing me all night, getting me down to 1 percent health and then letting me get just as far with him. I wonder what he knows about me. My username, embarrassingly, is still umpedsterfire, and my profile is a squinting coyote—for contrast, Himbo Unchained’s profile is a Bernie meme. I haven’t changed my username since summer when my boyfriend left me, which maybe I was glad about except for the timing, when the city went into lockdown. Since the weather turned cold, I haven’t been out, have barely left my apartment except for shifts at the diner. So, maybe I’m desperate, or seem desperate, or maybe Himbo knows me. Is playfulness always flirting? Is he (or she? they?) just bored? I’m making a lot of guesses. What if Himbo Unchained with a Bernie meme profile is just really bad at this game?
I go to his profile page in the game console’s main menu. I scroll through his top scores, his most played games. No bio, no links, just the online world. I realize that my player has been standing still for a long time. I jump back into the game to find that he’s been hacking me with a pickaxe and running down my health by five points a hit.
This could go a lot of different places. On games like this, nothing is serious, and that’s the point. Usernames are like Twitter handles, either clever or stupid: bl3stbuy, or Conan the Libertarian, or Kong45, or The Greek Philosopher Testicles. Himbo Unchained is the name of a regular unserious user. I tell myself he’s just like me. I can log off any time. None of it is real anyway. I move my player back; his character waves and then we chuck scorpions at each other but miss. This is already better than half my Tinder matches.
I turn down the volume on the trashy ‘90s romcom playing on my laptop on my coffee table where my feet are propped up, refill my wine glass from the box I got at the gas station next to my favorite bar that closed two months into lockdown, and punch Himbo Unchained in the face. A small splatter of pinkish cartoon blood bursts from his body and he loses five HP. I jump back; he jumps back. I make a wave gesture, my character’s weapon vanishing as my hand rises momentarily, and he repeats the gesture. Okay, I think, switching to a shotgun, let’s see where this goes.
I chase Himbo Unchained into a canyon next to a saloon with grainy, pixelated cactuses all around. There’s one player camping down here with a rifle, waiting for easy kills. Himbo fires at the camper and I follow suit with a stick of TNT, the graphics on the explosion fast and cheap, and when the dust settles, it’s just us. The rifle the camper dropped floats above the ground, waiting for someone to get it. Himbo points to it, and I point back. This goes on—is this really what we’re doing now? I run up to it, get the rifle and whatever ammo the camper left.
Then Himbo takes me out in a single shot to the chest.
“Sorry, itchy trigger finger” he types into the public chat. I laugh a little because it’s awkward and cute and also very unsexy. Who apologizes for scoring points? Was that a typo?
Was he calling me bitchy trigger finger? Would I prefer to be more aggressively bullied online?
The problem is that there is no direct messaging. All the chat is public. Everyone saw it. So Himbo Unchained with a Bernie meme profile is willing to be vulnerable in public?
I type, “Why so itchy tonight?” I regret it immediately but in a game like this there are zero consequences for typing anything. You wouldn’t believe what players have typed at me. He takes a while to respond. I try not to look too closely at the chat. There are dedicated players giving out strategy advice and newbs getting mad. Someone gets a headshot on me and I reload next to him and he waits there, spins around once, then thwacks me with a brick and dashes off. Then he comes back and drops a health kit—in this game, it’s just a single-use water flask-shaped item. He waits next to me and I aim at his kneecap.
I shoot. His health drops to 5 percent. His player gestures.
I type, “I’m switching servers. I want a team.”
“Dublin 89ers Pub Server is open 2 spots,” he replies. I type a command and my player raises a fist in the air, then quit the game. In the main page, I scroll through the open servers and repeat boundaries to myself: No contact info, no personal info, no social media. Keep it simple. The moment he gets weird (is this not already?) change your profile and username and switch games. Or just kill him hundreds of times in a row.
I join the server—it’s a capture the flag game with the same weapons and character set.
We log on just as it’s changing maps, keeping the game fresh. As it loads, I jump back to look at his profile in more detail. He’s a casual player, but has some decent scores. He really is like me—for Himbo, these games are for unwinding after work, a valve release. I wonder what he drinks while he plays, if he really is that much like me. I wonder how much vodka I have stashed in the freezer, but know I should spare it until my next paycheck. The gas station is always open anyway.
The game starts on a new map, a desert town with large blocky interiors that lead into one another. There are five flags, two on our side, two on the other side, and one in an open square in the middle. Himbo and I are on the same side, team blue. We wait in the spawn area unmoving as the timer winds down, our usernames floating above our heads with our health bars. Our characters are the same as the last server. He waves. I raise my fist. I think I know what I’m doing here. The clock hits zero and our team climbs over a wall into the town firing wildly in our hunt for the red flags.
My ex often watched me play games like this. I felt self-conscious to be in the same room with him when I played, because he was always doing something productive for his media studies PhD program, reading or grading or writing papers. We’d split a box of wine and I would log on to shoot strangers online and he would edit a chapter of his dissertation about something called analogue nostalgia. He said there was a growing demand for digital content that imitated pre-digital technology, like from the late 1980s, cassette tapes and vinyl and things like that.
Sometimes he would look up and watch me die in a pixelated explosion.
“Wes Anderson does it really well,” he often explained. “His films are like gold for me.”
“I hadn’t noticed that before,” I sometimes said back, taking the time between my death and respawn to take a quick, big chug of wine. He sat on my couch and typed and looked up at me dying and reshuffled the podcasts or music when necessary. He made me pasta and kept me company and picked me up from work in winter and sat on my couch analyzing my behavior.
“I really only read analogue lit these days,” he’d say. “It’s just so off-putting to read something where characters just have to use digital lingo all over the place. It’s trendy, sure, it’s what’s making money, but it’s gonna be as cringy in a decade as golden age 1930s sci-fi that’s set in like 2001 with flying cars. Art needs some degree of permanence to be socially necessary.”
He was smart and in grad school so I couldn’t really disagree with him. He not only finished college but wanted more of it. The program was good, from what I heard. I worked at a diner downtown in the Haymarket and did a few semesters of community college over in Omaha three years ago, so what was I to say?
“Could you switch to Edward Sharpe?” was about all I could ever come up with, changing the subject when I knew he was judging me. “I’m tired of listening to Joe Rogen.” He was not a gamer at all. He would get mad at the gamers who threatened me, when he was there on the couch watching the threats in the chat or when I got onto Discord for audio. I told him I was used to it and he said that wasn’t an excuse, and yeah. That’s true. He was right.
That was always really important to him, making sure I knew when he was right.
We capture the last flag together once. We’re in the middle and players are camping around the place with gatling guns and TNT blasting anybody who waits long enough near the flag to capture it, about three seconds We make a team effort of it, Himbo and I, standing close enough to the flag to capture it together so that if the campers get one of us, the other might still have a chance. Two other players join us in the win as the other team fires at us chaotically from nearby roofs and windows. I die first and a half-second later we win the game.
We respawn. We wait for the game again. We lose the next four rounds very quickly and players shift teams or leave for different servers, different mods. Free-for-all, sudden death, gun games, more versions of capture the flag. Himbo and I get the picture as players jump ship.
“New server?” I type.
“Friend me,” he types back before disappearing. So this is it. It’s new that the choice is mine, though. He didn’t ask to friend me. He gave me the option to friend him. It’s on me to make the next move. Which of us is taking a bigger risk? At most, we’re connecting. At worst, our motives are wildly different. I’ve barely socialized outside this game in months, barely left my apartment except for service work, all for delivery or pick-up only. Every interaction feels risky these days because of how novel they’ve become, and that makes it seem like I’m not completely wrong to be reading so much into this, even though I know, to a degree, it is wrong.
In the console’s main menu, I look at his profile. I click add as friend. A minute later, he confirms. It’s easy like that. Another minute later, his status changes to in-game and I follow him in. We’re friends now.
This time, we’re dinosaurs in space.
I become a stegosaurus in a large fishbowl helmet holding a laser pistol and he becomes a velociraptor in the same kind of helmet but with a medkit and a large cellular wristwatch. This game is much more cooperative: The map is a giant starry block of space with seven tiny planets and our job is to travel in teams of two in spaceships to the other team’s base planet and destroy their four satellites in under ten minutes. One player pilots the ship while the other fires at the satellites and anything else in the way. Here, we’re something other than projected selves. Here, we’re genderless prehistoric monsters transferred to a world without gravity. Our characters look at each other in the spawn. I decide I no longer want to be Dumpedsterfire, at least not tonight, so I change my username to El Lobotomizer. Two seconds before the game starts, Himbo Unchained becomes La Lobotomized. For short, in my head, I think of us for a brief second as Ello and Lalo.
The game starts and we parade into ships. Lalo’s small dinosaur body, the pilot in this game, fits easily into the seat while my large stegosaurus body is squished into the cockpit. Lalo steers with ease and I fire at an opposing ship lobbing bombs at the spawn. We pass over one of the small planets, where the other team is stationed to fire at us; I take out a T-rex standing on the red planet looking like the cover of The Little Prince I had as a kid, and the body flies into space like a ragdoll. Lalo types “smooth” and speeds up to the next planet.
But then there’s a brontosaurus with a rocket launcher. Lalo steers us away from one missile but the second one hits our ship and takes a quarter of our health. I aim and fire at the brontosaurus, perched on a pale blue orb, but the brontosaurus takes cover in a crater. We get into a groove now, keeping each other aware of enemies left and right. Rockets zoom through space; we dodge and fire back; we make our way to the orbiting satellites around the other team’s base. Our combat feels easy, spontaneous. We take it one step at a time, passing suspended dinosaurs floating in space, their bodies dissolving as they respawn at the start again. The clock is running.
“Go left,” I say when I see the first satellite, a silver ball with two blue-green rectangular plates flanking it like wings. Lalo follows my command. I aim at the small moving target and fire once, twice, finally taking it out in five. The other team’s chat blows up in strategy and trash talk. With three to go, Lalo steers around in a wide orbit, evading fire.
Down below, the brontosaurus with a rocket launcher has respawned at their base, fully loaded and eager. I fire on the surface as Lalo chases a faster, smaller satellite. I unload everything I can on the brontosaurus, and then the lasers stop flowing, their little red tracer lines and pew-pew sounds replaced with a faint clicking.
“No ammo. Let me reload”
“On it boss”
Lalo makes a hard 180 to one of the neutral planets where ammo is strewn across the surface, just one more challenge to the game. Lalo will have to land and I’ll have to run out and fetch. As we fly, another team takes out a satellite—one more point—and then another one goes too. We just need to take out the last one, with two minutes to spare. But, out of nowhere, the respawned T-rex appears in a ship firing in one continuous burst at our whole team, taking out everyone but Lalo and I.
“Fuck. Turn around,” I type.
On our base, our whole team is respawning. By the time they arrive the clock will be up.
I type, “Lets tank it”
Lalo pauses, then makes a sharp loop back toward their base, speeding up faster and faster toward the satellite, closing our orbit.
“Let’s go!” Lalo says. I can do nothing from where I am in the ship except cheer on my comrade as we veer around the rockets jutting up from the surface like cattails. Lalo is marvelous at this, curving in and out of fire with the faintest nudges this way and that.
The stars in the distance zoom forward as we nosedive into the last orbiting pearl, the ship’s collision engulfing it in a fast, hot ball of red and orange flames that ripple in the black sky in wiry convulsions. My screen goes red the second we win and I see, for a brief second, that we died together, Lalo and I, as the screen shifts to a full view of the map. For a brief second, there’s a ball of red and orange dust filling the sky above the planet, a thick beige message flashing success over the screen, and there in the dust is the suspended body of a small velociraptor next to a large stegosaurus, our limbs and tails emanating into the abyss as we drift together out from the point of contact, limp, our motions fluid in the continued momentum of the rupture.
Keene Short is a writer and baker in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Bridge Eight, High Desert Journal, and elsewhere.