I have enough self-awareness to know that I am no longer a skilled gamer. Sure, I still have the True Gamer’s Heart, and love to play probably too many new games. But the actual skill of gaming—the ability to manipulate a character on the joysticks or, god forbid, on mouse and keyboard—has eroded over time. Perhaps that’s why I focus mainly on single-player RPGs and card games these days; my strategic mind is far better than it was when I was a fast-twitch teenager.
I’d say the last time I was truly excellent at a video game was in 2007. I had just moved to New York City for college, and the GameStop across the street from my dorm was hosting a tournament to celebrate the release of Halo 3. Conveniently for me, the tournament was played on Halo 2, a game that I had lived and breathed since its release in November of 2004.
I cleaned house. Though I was never great at one-versus-one Halo—I’ve always been a team player in shooter games, probably because Halo was my first real shooter franchise, and Halo is, above all, a team game—I wiped the floor with everyone who came to participate. I wasn’t particularly surprised. I had played Halo 2 with some of the top players in the world, and while I was nowhere near the skill level of, say, the Ogres, twins who dominated the competitive Halo scene way back when, I held my own enough to know that a GameStop tournament was going to be an easy win.
I felt that same rush of gaming dominance recently, for the first time in a long time. On Nov. 15, nostalgic Xbox gamers got a gift: Halo Infinite, the new installment in the now 20-year-old series, saw its multiplayer released into the world for free, a month before the game’s announced release date. I haven’t owned a current Xbox system since the Xbox 360, but I now have a computer that can play the latest games at least passably. So, I fired up the janky Xbox app, downloaded Halo Infinite, and off I went.
It fills me with a giddy form of joy to say that my skills returned to me much faster than I expected. I didn’t think that playing video games which require reflexes would be like riding a bike, but I put thousands and thousands of hours into Halo 2 in my late teen years, and some things the body just doesn’t forget. After a brief and doomed attempt to play the game with a mouse and keyboard, I busted out my old Xbox 360 controller and returned to my roots. Suddenly, shots were landing square in opponents’ heads, objectives were completed with ruthless efficiency, and my kills far outnumbered my deaths.
Of course, being good at a game is only half the fun. Halo 2 came into my life when I was an angsty teenager, as I’m sure it did for a lot of people. I had friends, and luckily my high school was small enough that there weren’t really any exclusive cliques or bullying tendencies. Still, though, I needed a bit more. In what I now realize was a precursor to being too online in my adult life, I found the Halo message board over at IGN.com, a little paradise in a true cesspool of the posting ecosystem. (IGN’s general message board, The Vestibule, was like 4chan-lite.)
There, I found my people, even though I only ended up finding out the real names of about three of them (hi, Zach). I played with teens my age, grown men who were weirdly good and not-so-weirdly territorial, and players just on the cusp of going pro. Sure, I got better by playing with really good players, but I also used the downtime between games to talk about whatever 15-year-old Luis had on his mind. I also listened, and picked up some new habits; I found out about Pitchfork and Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem through the Halo boards, which probably had something to do with me becoming a music journalist just a few years later.
I’m twice the age I was then, but I still love the specific sort of camaraderie that only comes from playing Halo for a few hours with three other people. Sure, the main focus is winning and playing well, but no one would enjoy that in complete silence. The first day I got Halo Infinite, I jumped into a party with a rotating cast: Discourse Blog’s Jack Crosbie brought me in but then had to go do actual work; Jordan Uhl streamed the latter half of the night; Washington Post games reviewer Gene Park popped in and absolutely dominated. Some people had to go because they had newsletters to edit, or podcasts to record. Others just didn’t have the same stamina they probably did as teenage gamers. Either way, adulthood hit hard on our little November holiday.
I stayed, though. I played from about 6:00 p.m. on launch day until 2:00 a.m. Not because we were playing particularly well, but because it was fun to remember that video games, especially multiplayer video games, are about the people you play with, or talk to, or just generally hang out with. Since that day, I’ve played Infinite with a variety of friends that I’ve been lucky enough to welcome into my life over the last decade or so. Every combination is different, and everyone has a specific vibe they bring to the table. My friend Ryne threatens to log off after every bad game, but is also quite good.
Playing Infinite like this reminded me of my earliest days playing Halo, when friends would gather at someone’s house to play the first game for hours on end. By necessity, we had to rotate, since we could usually only count on four Xbox consoles. We staged various tournaments at our own private LAN parties, but the specifics both elude me and don’t matter anyway. These were the friends I had chosen, and talking shit with such fervor that an entire summer day would fall away was all I wanted.
To have that feeling again with Infinite was wonderful; I knew everyone’s tics and styles and could move with conversations ranging from where the enemy flag carrier was to politics. I don’t think I’ll ever be as invested in a video game as I was with Halo 2 back in the day, but it’s been a relief to be able to hit up my various group chats for teammates and dive in.
I don’t see myself dropping Halo Infinite any time soon. I’m working my way slowly through the controversial Battle Pass system, getting new customization options at a glacial pace but enjoying it nonetheless. I watch my friends dominate games and carry us to victory, and sometimes I do the carrying myself. I enjoy myself playing a shooter game, something I thought was squarely in my past, particularly due to my distaste for the Battle Royale trend that took over the genre over the last half-decade. It’s just what I need right now.