Read an Excerpt
I know it’s my job to get punched in the face repeatedly, but this?
This is the worst.
All the color bleeds out of the screen as my character drops his shield and falls to his knees with an exaggerated groan. For the third time in less than a minute. Just in case I missed what happened, I’m helpfully reminded in big red letters:
ELIMINATED by Viperzz!
The game spins the camera around so I can see from every angle as Viperzz jumps repeatedly on my fallen avatar’s face. I designed it to look similar to my own, since the game had enough character options for me to get pretty close to “skinny Chinese kid with glasses.” Regretting that decision now. Two of my own teammates charge onto the screen and join in the stomping of my too-real-looking face before finally attacking our enemy like they’re supposed to. Somehow, in between slinging arrows of electricity at the other team and trying not to die, my so-called teammates still manage to type out some trash talk.
StryderX: Get good, you DELIGHTFUL UNICORN OF SUNSHINE
OohShinee: Try staying alive for more than ten seconds, SUPER NINJA
I roll my eyes and hit the F12 key to take a screenshot. DELIGHTFUL UNICORN OF SUNSHINE is a pretty good one. Within a week of getting this game, I downloaded a mod that turns common insults and whining into something much more fun, and I haven’t turned it off since. Things slip through the filter once in a while, but at least it makes match chat only mildly annoying instead of a vast ocean of school-lunch vomit that makes me sad for the whole human species.
And sometimes the filter’s random positivity makes for some really funny screenshots. I still have the shot of the time some random guy’s string of insults ended up telling me I was a FLUFFY PIRATE CHEETAH OF JOY who could go CELEBRATE myself like a PRO ASTRONAUT.
There’s no filter in the world that makes voice chat tolerable, though. Forget that.
My two “teammates” run off just as my respawn timer counts down to zero. I appear back at my team’s starting point at full health, ready to try again.
I shake out my hands and resettle them on the WASD keys and mouse. I really do try not to let it get to me. Those other two are sticking together for a reason. They’re probably friends who play together after school, just like I’m doing . . . but by myself. Because we had to move for my mom’s job yet again, for the third time since I started middle school. Maybe I’d be like them if I had someone to play with, too.
Then they charge headfirst together into a giant, obvious net of stun traps set by the other team, leading to their quick and ugly demise.
Never mind. There is no universe where I could ever be like them. Even my dog, Marvin, would be a better gamer buddy than these guys, and all he does is sleep on my feet and fart in the middle of every match. His stink instantly turns every battle into Hard Mode.
If I can’t have someone to game with after school, though, at least I can be the top-ranked Affinity player in my role. I’m a tank, and it’s my job to take the hits and keep others safe so they can do their own jobs: healing, attacking up close, or attacking from long range. No matter how bad these two guys are, it is my duty: I will protect them from their own stupidity.
Or try to, I guess, because there they go again, walking headfirst into the other team’s clutches without my backup. Our other teammate, who’s been totally silent, is attempting to follow along with their “strategy,” but they’re clearly ignoring her. All three of them get destroyed before I have a chance to catch up and protect them.
StryderX: Uuuuugh, we are getting completely owned
OohShinee: Why are you two so bad?
Yeah, ’cause we’re the bad ones. Normally I don’t bother with jerks like these. They never listen, and they’ll never change. They’re like bullies at school: anything you throw at them will just get used against you five seconds later. Fighting back only drags the whole thing out.
Maybe it’s the miserable day I had at school, or maybe it’s the four matches I played right before this one that all had teams just as selfish. But this time I can’t let it go. I do the thing I never do, and type furiously into team chat while waiting to respawn again.
TankasaurusRex: Maybe if we actually had a team of four in this match instead of two bestest buddies ever skipping around alone together, we might walk out with a win.
TankasaurusRex: We could, you know, actually try to play *together.*
OohShinee: DANCE off, SPACE CHAMPION
StryderX: You can’t keep up with us
Should have known better.
The match timer ticks downfive minutes to go. I can deal with these guys for five more minutes, take the loss, and move on with my life. It won’t hurt my ranking that badly.
Then a private message pops up in my chat window.
PunchyTime: Ha, nice
PunchyTime: We could work together and make this a 4 vs 2+2 match, at least.
PunchyTime: Assuming these two noobs don’t rage quit on us first. This other team isn’t even good. We can take them.
I check the party list, and sure enough, PunchyTime is my silent fourth teammate. She’s our melee DPSthe short-range damage dealerand I like this person instantly. Her character is weird. Like mine.
In Affinity, you can customize your character in a thousand small ways, but everyone makes the same two major choices at the start: your affinity, which is where your character gets their power, and your teknik, which is your style of fighting. There are ten Affinities, from magic runes to nature, demons to nanobots. For your teknik, you choose from twelve more selections, like sword knight, martial artist, hacker, sorcerer, or whatever else. There are over a hundred possible combinations, but like every other game in the world, people have decided that certain combos are the “right” ones. You don’t see many players who don’t use one of those popular builds.
Except me. I watch more Let’s Play videos on YouTube than anyone, but I don’t want some streamer to tell me how I should play the game. I want to play it, my way. I’m a Rune Knight, the least popular tank build.
PunchyTime apparently agrees. Her class combo shows up as Demon Puncher . . . which I have literally never seen in any match, ever.
This could be fun.
TankasaurusRex: Meet me at the gravity bridge. Let’s destroy these guys.
PunchyTime: I am SO excited right now, you don’t even know
My character respawns at the beginning again, standing proud in his shining silver armor, and I launch myself off the starting platform without a second to waste. This match is a “storm the castle” sort of game, but the castle we have to claim for our own is a spaceship that will let our team escape a moon base that’s exploding under our feet as we go. Whichever team reaches the ship and defends it for one minute while it prepares to launch will win the match. I’ve played it a hundred times. I know we can win. Even with this team.
I see the glow of PunchyTime’s demon energy before I actually set eyes on her avatar. My footsteps clang on the metal deck of the moon station as bursts of purple fire explode from around the next corner. I pull up my shield, glowing with a magical Rune of Protection, and launch myself around the corner, straight into a raging battle.
The gravity bridge is a long, thin walkway that stretches over a giant crater. Minor complication: the gravity occasionally flickers out, sending everyone floating in midbattle. That’s not the most fun part, though. With a flash of blue-green light, my shield launches from my grip . . .
. . . and soars straight into the face of the girl trying to take out PunchyTime. She flies off the bridge with a comical shout, and my shield slams back into my hand as if pulled back by the world’s strongest magnet. I love that move.
PunchyTime executes a lightning-fast roundhouse kick to another guy, and just like that, the bridge is clear. She casts a quick flash of a spella speed boostand we’re off, racing side by side toward the objective.
PunchyTime: LOVE IT
PunchyTime: You know how to wreck some face
I grin. Is there any better compliment? This total trash fire of a match has completely turned around. I tap out a quick reply:
TankasaurusRex: It’s an honor to punt fools off a bridge with you.
TankasaurusRex: Now let’s steal a spaceship and win this match.
The moon base falls apart around us, raining debris and fire as we run. The other team attempts an ambush during one of the big explosions, but it’s a common strategy no one actually falls for anymore. We take them out easily and push onward. At some point, our other two teammates catch up with us, silent and focused.
No one’s laughing or trash talking now. Not with the shuttleand a potential winin sight. I can feel it in my gut. We’re close.
Knock knock knock.
No, not now! I think at the door, like I can telepathically keep my dad from opening it. At my feet, Marvin sits up and growls. We’re finally turning this match around. I can’t leave! PunchyTime lands a crushing blow that glows purple with demon magic, clearing the way to the final stretch of the map between us and the escape shuttle. All four of us run together, as a team, dodging collapsing bits of roof.
The shuttle ramp descends, waiting to welcome us aboard. We’re so close.
Then the other team comes charging on-screen.
Knock knock knock.
“Josh, dinner. Open up.”
“I’ll be down in a few minutes, Dad,” I say, trying to sound bored, like it’s no big deal. Like I’m doing homework or something. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe he won’t open the door. If he sees what I’m doing, why I’m stalling, it’s gonna turn into a fight.
But I’m never lucky.
The door pops open, and my dad pokes his head into the room. Even from the corner of my eye, I can see how his whole body language changes.
“Josh, turn that off and get downstairs right now. Dinner is on the table.”
The laser force of his disapproval hits at the same time as a fresh onslaught from the other team, and my brain struggles to balance the two. Dodge the fireball, protect PunchyTime as she crushes the opposing healer, come up with something to put Dad off for a few minutes.
He just doesn’t get it. There are people relying on me. These are timed team matches and I can’t just walk away in the middle of it without letting everyone down. Not that it stops most people from dropping midmatch, but I like to think I’m not like most players.
“Josh, hit pause right now and be at the table in thirty seconds.”
I slam my finger repeatedly on the key to keep a protective bubble up around my team as we take the shuttle, then throw myself in front of a laser blast intended for StryderX. The shuttle countdown starts. Gotta save the others, gotta take the hits and buy them time. Gotta buy myself some time. My dad loves to ramble on about responsibility to your family and community, and this is my community, so maybe . . .
“Dad, there’s no pause in this game. This is happening live, and these are real people I’m protecting. If I leave now, the whole team loses. It’s my responsibility to at least finish out the match. There are only two more minutes left on the timer, and I promise I’ll be down as soon as it’s over.”
I risk a quick glance away from the screen to see my dad’s reaction, just in time to catch the SLAM of the door as he storms away. Not good . . . but that’s a problem for Later Josh.
Right Now Josh has a shuttle to capture.
“Thirty seconds to Blue Team liftoff,” the voice-over intones, and my heart pounds hard against my ribs. Only thirty seconds until victory is ours. We’re so close, and the other team knows it. With far more coordination than our team has shown so far, they meet up at the bottom of the shuttle ramp . . . then charge as one.
I can’t let them on board this ship.
The voice begins the final countdown and the shuttle rumbles to life as I meet the other team head-on. I slam my shield into their tank, knocking her off the side of the ramp, then swing around to throw a magical wall up between our two teams. They turn their weapons and magic on me, but it’s no use.
This is what I do. This is my kind of fight.
I absorb or deflect blow after blow, my shield flashing bright white with each hit. PunchyTime bounces around like some kind of demon rabbit, leaping from one enemy to another to interrupt their attacks before they can hurt us. OohShinee has actually decided to do his duty as healer, too. A bright green flurry of healing leaves rains down over our team, each leaf mending the damage done to us. Arrows and spells zing through the air, swords and fists fly, and the voice-over counts down ever closer to our win.
TEN! NINE! EIGHT!
StryderX flies backward, a bright bolt of electricity shorting out his nanotech armor. He falls to the ground.
SEVEN! SIX! FIVE!
PunchyTime throws herself at the other team’s healer, fists wreathed in purple fire.
FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE!
BLUE TEAM: VICTORY!
The words splash across the screen in bright letters as the shuttle lifts off. Our team is carried to safety just as the moon base crumbles with a final BOOM that makes the whole screen shake. I suck in a deep breath and shake out my hands with a wide grin.
Despite that awful start, we actually won!
I can’t believe it.
The match stats display over a faded-out version of the Affinity logo, and I grab a quick screenshot before the image times out.
“Yessss,” I hiss, pumping both fists into the air, then quickly putting them back down. My dad definitely wouldn’t approve or understand, but even he can’t kill my good mood now. Terrible teammates or not, I am now the number six tank in the entire game.