The sun is setting low and long feathers of gold and purple filter through the trees.
We’ve been laying in thick grass, covering different portions of the horizon for what feels like hours. The two other squadmates in my detachment devolve into idle chatter to pass the time, telling jokes about each other’s mothers, as I imagine real soldiers might. It’s just the sound of birds and crickets, with the occasional report of heavy weapons in the distance, it’s as close to serene as we’re going to get. A tinny voice comes over the radio.
“Uh, so guys, I know it’s been a bit rough, but am I doing okay as Squad Lead?”
He’s over a hundred meters away so the guys in my detachment poke fun at the kid over our local communication channel, of which he is unaware. No, he hasn’t been very good as Squad Lead. He’s pulled us all over the map. He’s been frantic in his communications and lost his cool a few times. We lost a high-value armored vehicle, on his order, because we took an ill-advised route down an often-traveled road — we were ambushed by an anti-tank detachment that must have seen us coming hundreds of meters away. I click on my long-range squad communications.
“Yeah man, you’ve been great.
Squad belongs to a relatively small genre of games referred to as “military simulators”, “mil-sim” for short.
Squad’s closest of kin is the ARMA franchise, the next closest might be something like Project Cars or X-Plane, which is to say, other simulators. While still a videogame, it’s intended to operate as a facsimile of real life combat.
After one hundred hours of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, I realized what I love about it is the sense of tactical urgency and its reliance on communication. What I want is the sensation of being a soldier on the grid in X-COM, moving on positions, taking cover in a thoughtful and organic manner. I want to say shit like “Squad Lead be advised of hostile contact at B-5,3,3. 100 meters from my bearing. Request permission to engage. Over.” And have him reply “Negative. I need you to keep vision and report back in thirty seconds.” I want to play soldier.
After eyeing ARMA III, I decided that it would be too much. I’m too old. I don’t have the time necessary to learn and understand the intricacies of its systems, but Squad, well, it looked just about right. I’ve always been fascinated by the hardcore. The people that spend thousands of hours in DOTA2, or know exactly which angles to pre-fire in CS:GO. I’ve never had that relationship with a game, but thought that Squad might be the entrypoint I need.
In Squad’s Steam Store description and any literature surrounding it, the first bullet point is always that the game is “communication focused.” That phrase could be repeated ad nauseum and it still wouldn’t be sufficient in describing just how integral communication is in Squad. It’s not just vital, it’s the game. Returning to the X-COM metaphor, what if one of your soldiers just ran off on their own? What if you were that soldier and you had no omniscient player telling you what to do? The game would break down, and so would Squad. Squad is the game that Battlefield was supposed to be — it’s the large-scale combined-arms combat simulator that DICE envisioned fifteen years ago. You can’t enter a vehicle without your squad leader’s permission, it’s frowned upon to fire at an enemy in the distance without requesting permission, or worse, to not call out that enemy position before firing. Oh yeah, and gunfire is loud as fuck.
After thirty hours of figuring out what’s expected of a good squadmate (it’s a lot), I decided to find a permanent group to play with. As Squad is so communication dependent, the logical next step for me was to find people I could trust to play with continually. I was lucky enough to stumble across the organization “21MID” in-game. They were engaged in a very specific playstyle: mechanized infantry. It was described to me as “we’re the guys that go behind enemy lines and fuck shit up, then get out” and that sounded good to me. And so after a few hours of playing with the crew, I decided to formally apply.
I’ve got a conference call for work in 30 minutes, so my fingers are crossed that the interview doesn’t take long.
I’m not sure if I’m prepared for what the interview might entail. Or how to use TeamSpeak3, their communication channel of choice. I see the name of what looks like a high ranking official enter the room, labeled “Interview Room 01”. My nerves flutter and his voice comes across as a monotone gravel, his British accent delicate.
“So you’ve never spent much time playing a Mil-sim, correct?”
“Yes. Uh, yes sir.”
He laughs at that.
“You don’t need to call me sir. Out of game, I mean.”
Our interview was rather brief. I hung my hat on having played a hundred hours of PUBG, but that I was looking for something more substantial. That my heart was in it, and that I’m great at communication. That I’m not just looking for a sick kill/death ratio. He seemed to understand my genuine interest.
Unfortunately, I learned that 21MID requires its members to participate in at least two mandatory weekend events per month, which often run for six hours. And that’s the absolute minimum commitment. In that moment, it all flashed into sharp contrast: these people aren’t just playing a game. For them, this is the game. They’re the kind of people with an encyclopedic knowledge of esoteric German war games. They’re the dudes with thousands of hours clocked in flight simulators, that have an intuitive knowledge of exactly how drag is affecting their plane at that moment (or whatever you do in flight sims.) Or more accurately, these people are actual veterans. They’ve seen real war.
“I just checked with the Captain” He sighs lightly. “I’m awfully sorry mate, but we really can’t flex our mandatory service hours. You seem like a great guy though, you’re free to join us at your leisure if you stumble across us, and if your schedule changes, to re-apply.””
And so my forray into the hardcore stopped at the same place it always does. I’ll still play Squad regularly, but I’ll never be able to be one of them. Just like I’ll never speedrun a 16-bit platformer, or run through Dark Souls naked. Maybe it’s my problem, that I can’t be truly dedicated to one specific interest, master it, then master it further. I’m truly envious of those that can make that commitment.