Coming of Age of Empires
The pathetic remains of the Mongol nation lay nestled in the corner of the map. The back of the hoard long since broken by the might of my longbowmen en masse. We have located the stragglers, but they don’t know that they are being watched. Villagers are despatched to to begin work on my own wall just out of sight of theirs and they are soon completely trapped. Blissfully unaware, the few refugees of numerous previous exterminations scrape together sustenance under the harsh sun of the desert. Just beyond their meagre encampment waits the largest army these lands have ever seen. Massed longbows numbering in their hundreds encircle their prey, gruesome bodkin arrows quivered, they swap tales of battles gone by. The cavalry regiment, itself no less than a hundred men and beasts beneath them await the order to attack with eager, dark hearts and blood-thirsty blades.
A Mongol scout takes the first tentative steps beyond the gates of her camp in many years. Her land is spent and she has been tasked with finding new resources for her struggling people. Before she even has my walls in her sight an arrow is loosed. It flies a graceful arc in the sky and hits home, wounding the target. She hasn’t a chance to register the pain before the sentry fires off another burning arrow which, with pin-point accuracy, proves deadly.
The reaction over voice chat is at first one of confusion. A horse-archer rides out to assess the situation and appreciating for the first time how well and truly gubbed he is, my Dad begins to laugh.
Dad and I have been playing Age of Empires 2 together for a long time. It all began during one of the best periods of quality time he and I ever spent together. Cooped up in a top floor flat, we would wage war into the night. Breaking only to cook dinner together, we whiled away the hours dominating the AI and shouting taunts back and forth. He as the horse-archer heavy Mongols and myself as the Britons, we battled through the ages. Across land and sea, as allies and as fierce opponents we sharpened our skills in warfare and strengthened our bond.
Yep, those LAN cables transmitted some of my happiest and most contented moments.
I gradually grew from getting whupped every game and insisting on only playing co-op, to standing a fighting chance over time. The games became hotly contested but I still lost more than I won. It was during the course of these constant hammerings that I developed the desperate strategy of having several backup settlements to safeguard against the seemingly inevitable destruction of my main base. It was also a really fun way to play!
Reality couldn’t sustain such blissful isolation for long however and keeping the flat became untenable. The games stopped and I foolishly grew up. Attempts were made to get the old times back over the black magic of internet based multiplayer but life just seemed to get in the way. I went from seeing my Dad every weekend to being a proper, boring adult, moving from Scotland to London and keeping very infrequent contact.
After the loss of my mother from cancer a long six months ago, it felt a lot more pressing to make the effort with him in terms of simply keeping the channels of communication open. He and I are equally useless when it comes to remembering to call, or finding the time to fire off a quick email but there is nothing quite like saying goodbye to a parent for the last time to make you realise just how important they really are.
I have a lot thank my Dad for. It was him that plonked me down in front of The Secret of Monkey Island as a wee lad and introduced me to the limitless possibilities of games. It was he who developed his own take on the Bomberman formula- coding and spriting his own game ‘Pyromaniacs’ complete with four way multiplayer. All this so that he, my two older brothers and I could crowd around the Amiga to blow each other up, together. He and I co-opped our way through Streets of Rage many times. He even bought the family’s first PS1, gibing me uncounted hours of joy and memories which I still hold dear to this day. Suffices to say that games would not have been nearly so influential in my life were it not for him. It simply would not do to drift apart.
As ‘fate’ would have it, the newly prettified Age of Empires 2 HD edition was released on Steam shortly thereafter. The gods of gaming had sent me a sign: I had to reconnect with my old man, to remaster our relationship if you will. Sure enough I bought two copies and gifted one to him on Father’s day. It wasn’t just gift to him though, because I had bought myself a ticket back to those golden moments of my youth. Those halcyon days when nothing mattered but defending my lands to the death and maximizing my resource income. With that a pact was made, and almost every Sunday since, we have been battling across the ages, with all of the jokes, taunts and post game roundups that made these times so memorable well and truly in tact.
It is a testament to the potential to bring us together which games possess that now, after all of these years it remains a powerful bonding experience. This is true despite the fortunes of war having well and truly turned. Yes it is now his fields and houses burning, and him starting again in far flung corners of the map, but we are both still invested in a joint endeavour. It may be virtually destructive, but the this shared experience holds not only the nostalgic joy of the past but also the promise of a future closer together.
A lot has changed over the past few years. I may have fled the rolling hills and glens of my beloved Scotland, but my heart and my family remains there. My old man is further away now than ever before, but thanks to Age of Empires 2, we will always have this joyful common (battle)ground to return to.