The Games I Play

Nonfiction by | July 12, 2021

The noon sun hangs high overhead, glaring into the canopy of my F4U Corsair as it hurtles along at 425 kilometers per hour. The noise of its R-2800 Double Wasp engine, a guttural howl, fills my ears as I cast my eyes around, trying to pick out the tiniest speck against the deep, dark blue of the sky.

I’m not alone. To my portside wing is an eclectic mix of aircraft, some of them American like mine. Others are British. Strangely enough, one or two Japanese planes–a Mitsubishi A7M Reppu perhaps–are on my side as well.

Below me, squadrons of attack aircraft arrayed in broad Vs roar towards their objectives, wing pylons laden with munitions, barreling through dark puffballs of flak and weaving through the streams of red and green tracers that rise to greet them.

Up ahead, I see the enemy. Tiny dots for now, and if I squint, I can make out the tiniest profile of their wings. One of them maneuvers, and streamers of white vapor peel off its wingtips.

I angle upwards, the engine roaring as I gain altitude. Some of my wingmen do the same, hoping to avoid flying head-on into the engagement and instead attack from above and behind.

The dots grow closer, details more defined. I begin to make out the sleek profiles of German Bf-109s with their square wings and Soviet Yakolevs with their tapered, almost triangular wings.

Approaching head-on was a mistake.

It might be strange to say that gaming is what got me into writing, but it did.
I’d always been a voracious reader. Over the years, my father had accumulated a veritable library of books and by the time I was born, the living room of my childhood home was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books. I grew up with my own encyclopedia set. I stayed up all night to consume novels like Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star, or the various anthologies of science fiction and fantasy I could pull from any one of the shelves.

But I was merely content with reading until I played my first computer game.
I was enthralled by the alternate history of a world where Albert Einstein invented time travel to assassinate Adolf Hitler, where the Soviet Union rose to challenge the Allies, and where a madman named Yuri created mind control to establish a secret base on the moon.

I spent time drawing tanks and stickmen duking it out amidst electrical storms and aerial bombardment instead of paying attention in class and taking down notes. I’d made my first friend that way too, and by December of that first year in elementary school, I had an idea on what to gift him for the Christmas party.
One of my teachers saw that I liked to draw and suggested that I make a comic for my friend. I labored for days over the comic, crafting a story where the Soviets had captured a weather control device and were planning to use it to level our hometown. It wasn’t the best, but in writing it, I’d gained an understanding.

I hope it’s still with my friend. It’s been a while since we last talked.
Fast forward to 2007. I’d found myself experimenting with a game called Battleships Forever. It was a small game, and one available for free. It wasn’t graphically spectacular, nor did its story delve deep. But the best thing about it was its gameplay. At its most basic level, players were assigned a fleet of ships to command and a variety of scenarios to test their strategies. It wouldn’t have been groundbreaking were it not for another feature: players could assemble starships, have them fight in a variety of battle modes, and share them over the internet.

The community was centered around that aspect of the game. Members pushed themselves and each other to innovate, to improve their skills as shipbuilders and artists–and when it became part of the forum’s culture to give background information and backstories to their creations–as writers.

Storytelling became part of the game as members formed alliances and rivalries, weaving their nations’ backstories together. We argued over inconsistencies, brainstormed plot and technical details, and sat at our keyboards with bated breath as we awaited responses to our roleplaying.

By the time the Battleships Forever community began to dissipate, I’d come away with a new appreciation for writing. I’d realized writing isn’t just part of a game; it could be the game. Stringing together parts to form a ship, executing a perfect maneuver to put myself in the perfect position to take out an enemy in a dogfight is just as mentally stimulating as putting words together to create sentences and whole paragraphs to illustrate a new world.

Nothing gets my blood running like flying by the seat of my pants, weaving through a hail of tracers or frantically ordering troops around as well-laid plans are put to rest by the first contact with an opponent. That same rush of adrenaline manifests in the revision process as holes are poked in my manuscript, as new opportunities are created and flaws are exposed.

There’s a sense of freedom, of limitless possibility hidden behind the intimidation of starting anew. It rings when I gaze over a landscape and see a city waiting to be born, sounding clearer and brighter as I lay down road networks and zoning, plan the routes of utilities, and finally see the first settlers move in.

I feel it too when I stare at a blank page, just waiting for my words–whatever they may be–to fill it up, waiting to be read, to be critiqued. To be challenged.

Tracers flash between my compatriots and the enemy. A Spitfire tumbles to the earth, smoke pouring from its engine. A 109 explodes into a pall of flame and smoke, its debris fluttering in the wind.

The British and Japanese planes are maneuverable, but flimsy. They can’t afford to get hit. So, they try not to. Engines scream, airframes creak and shudder, pilots black out as they duck and weave through a hailstorm of fire.

Movements begin to slow, maneuvers straightening out as pilots struggle to disengage, to recover lost airspeed and energy.

Energy. Potential energy. My wingmates and I have a lot of it, having taken positions several hundred meters above the furball. It’s time to convert. My wingmates nose down, beginning their own attack.

I see it, a pair of Bf-109s trailing smoke, one behind the other.

I pull my control to the right and the plane tips over, nosing downwards while I pull back on the throttle. Four-hundred-twenty-five kilometers per hour. Four-three-zero. Four-five-zero. Five-zero-zero.

A peregrine falcon, when it dives to make an attack on its prey, can reach an excess of 300 kilometers an hour. It attacks from above and behind, giving its target very little chance to escape.

I’ve left it choking on my exhaust. I plummet at six hundred kilometers per hour. My wingtips begin to flutter, a sign they’re about to break off. I’m close to overspeeding. But a reduction on the throttle balances it out.

If I do this right, I can take both out with one pass. I change the angle of descent, losing some airspeed while my altimeter’s downward tick slows. But now I’m behind the rear 109, and with a pull of the trigger, the F4U-4B’s four M3 20mm autocannons lash out, red tracers lancing through the air and into the German fighter’s tail and wing, blowing both apart.

But I’ve misjudged my angle, and the tracers flashing by his cockpit alerts the second German to my presence. He puts his plane on its wingtip and turns around while I flash past. To turn would be risky, sacrificing most of my speed to engage him. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

I flip upside-down, then pull back on the control, pulling the plane into a half loop, almost halving my speed even as I meet him just as he completes his own turn. I fire, he fires. Red and green tracers flash past each other. My plane shudders as its starboard wing is torn off in a hail of shrapnel, but I’m gratified to see his 109 disintegrate into its component parts.

Grinning, I reach for the keyboard and type “GG EZ.”

The reply: “F**k u!”

Bien Carlos Manzares is a couch potato with his head in future worlds. In the present world, he is a creative writing student of UP Mindanao.