Sunday, 21 September 2008

Breaking the faces of friends

Lei and Xiaoyu

I am a Tekken god. 

Seriously, challenge me. I dare you. I would put money on most people not being able to beat me at the game. Give me Devil Jin, Lee or Baek, and you're only laying a single punch on me before I floor you. Let me choose Xiaoyu, and you won't even get that punch. 

Tekken is a visceral game. It's so violent that it's poetic in form; a brutal and elegant shit-storm of a fighter that – to me – faceplants its competition into the mud and then puts in a final boot. I hate the choppiness of Street Fighter 2; it's easier to learn an actual martial art than play Virtua Fighter; Soul Caliber is just too serious about itself; Dead Or Alive and Mortal Kombat are frankly jokes. 

I first played Tekken during its second incarnation, back in 1998 – ten years ago. It was on a flatmate's PlayStation, and I was awful. I only played a couple of games, and then went back to Zelda on the N64. The following year, however, I started hanging out with a guy called Chris.

Chris was good at Tekken 3. Unlike me, he owned a PlayStation and had been playing the game since number two, and knew what the buttons did. Being a bit of a gamer, and having an aptitude for fighters, he had become something of an expert, and pummelled me into the distance. Which, with the infinitely big stages of Tekken 3, was a long, long way away. 

Ordinarily, that would have been it. Normally, I get bored with things I'm obviously bad at very quickly, which just makes it all the more surprising that I've stuck with my current job. However, with Chris, I had a conundrum. I was spending a lot of time at his flat, and we were both video game fans, and we needed a game to play together. 

After watching him play Final Fantasy VIII, action was needed. I went and bought a PlayStation of my own, and – unbeknownst to Chris – picked up a copy of Tekken 3. Then, after a few late nights learning a quick, tricksy little Chinese fighter called Xiaoyu, I went and whomped him. 

Whomped him. 

I remember Chris being speechless. Never in the ten years that I've known him have I seen him so incapable of uttering a single word. We fought a number of times that day, and he barely laid a finger on me. I was on fire. 

Not literally, obviously.

Of course, the next time we met, the battlefield had been levelled. He picked his own character to play with: Lei, a Jackie Chan-a-like. We both knew how to play the other characters, but we always came back to Xiaoyu versus Lei. Eventually, we had to turn off the game timer, as rounds could go on for four or five minutes at a time. 'Epic' wasn't the word. Half the time, neither of us would even try to hit the other for the first minute. We knew each other so well, we could actually predict each other's opening gambits. When we finally figured out reversals, we could win a fight without throwing a single punch. 

These days, we don't play Tekken very often. Sometimes, one of us will be in a room with other friends, and sometimes we'll play Tekken against them. We play and talk, only one eye on the TV. We'll usually win, but there's something missing against other people. 

Yet, every so often, when the moon is right and the mermaids are swimming, we'll break out the latest version of the game. At those times, nothing can tear our eyes off the telly. At those moments, Tekken is more than a game, it's a conversation carrying more information than mere words. It's a bond between two friends who – through the game – know each others' mood and state of mind. People watching us have accused us of taking the game too seriously, but we have to be, because the moment we let our guards down the other will break through and win. 

Chris and I have often joked that we're friends only because we've got so much blackmail material on each other that we could never be enemies. We've known each other for ten years this month, and for nine of those years we've had Tekken to translate our Big Conversations into a secret language. Happy anniversary to us. 

Postscript: Chris and I played Tekken 5 tonight, which was the impetus for this article. I beat him 8-6, but it was a close call. Even without any practice, we fucking rule.