The EVE battle logs: Running With The Wolves

Phil Hartup concludes his series of reports from the world of EVE: Online, the largest virtual war the world has ever seen.

Yesterday Phil Hartup, our embedded reporter in EVE: Online, took part in his first major battle. In this, his third and final report from the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen, he explores the conspiracy theories that breed inside the game.

Although the experience of fighting in a massive battle had left me somewhat nonplussed, I was hopeful that I’d find a more engaging fight at some point, something smaller. Luck was seldom with me on this front however. Meanwhile, I kept an ear to the ground, listening to the reports of smaller battles and station attacks occurring outside of my time zone. The traffic was mostly one way and it was clear one side was feeling the pain more. CFC came into the war with a bulging war chest and the systems in place to turn those resources into ships as needed. Even if TEST had been able to turn those results around early on in the war the logistical structure of CFC could withstand the hits. But TEST wasn’t winning those fights and the disparity only grew.

The moment for a faster-paced battle came during the last action I fought before my subscription ran out, tackling as a part of a Wolf fleet. Our role was to pursue and destroy fleeing enemies. We hunted the remnants of an enemy fleet, chased down the stragglers, cut off their escape routes and hounded them back to their own space, killing several along the way. Well I say we, even in one of the fastest ships in the group it was a struggle to keep up with the pace of the orders. This was the game being played well above my level.

The fleet were having a whale of a time, and there was an urgency and pace to the operation I had not yet seen, but after a while I wasn’t feeling it.

The reasons for the disenchantment came down to two realisations about the game and about how wars work in online games.

The first realisation came after a battle fought between CFC and TEST forces that day. A small battle broke out between a few hundred ships from each side in the innocuously sounding system of Z9PP, with more being brought in as the fight progressed. Before too long this skirmish had grown into what looked to be the decisive battle of the war. TEST had gone all-in, deploying their fleet of capital ships alongside those of their allies from another alliance called Pandemic Legion. While TEST and PL might have thought that they would turn the tide of the battle by bringing out their big guns all this extra firepower served only to provide a juicier target for CFCs pilots and commanders, and they brought even more forces to the battle.

As the battle wore on it became apparent that there would only be one winner. CFC was bringing more firepower and was grinding through the enemy forces inexorably, the TEST and PL capital fleets had been committed hastily, and things were looking bleak. PL, thanks to some deft flying, managed to extricate their capital ships from the battle, saving them from destruction, but there was now no saving the TEST fleet, whose hopes of escape had faded and their only chance for survival now rested on hunkering down and staying alive until the scheduled server downtime.

Or so it seemed until an employee of CCP, while supposedly attempting to increase the performance on the server node running this system of space, pressed the wrong button and at a stroke ended the battle. Nearly the entire TEST capital fleet was saved, but my faith in the game and the way it is administered didn’t. Such a spectacular mistake from a company with ten years of experience running the game really puts into perspective just how silly the whole thing is. There is a schism between how seriously the players take the game in terms of how committed many of them are to it, and how seriously the game takes the players, at least those in nullsec. It becomes difficult to see the rationale to a game when events of such import can be determined remotely.

Conspiracy theories abounded, mostly because of the timing, it was a literal miracle for the TEST fleet, but it was clear enough now from how the battle had been going before the plug was pulled how the war was going to end. Both sides had shown their hand and it was clear which one had the four aces and which one had Mrs Bun the Baker, a Top Trumps card about triceratops and the reference for the rules of bridge.

It was perhaps this second realisation; that the war was now over bar the considerable administrative effort required to obliterate the many thousands of remaining enemy ships, which also led me to lose interest in the game. Going into this war it felt like I was going to see something exciting, a feat of strategy and skill at arms, albeit with oddly shaped spaceships in a video game. Instead what I saw was the cold, grim, reality of how EVE works on the grand scale. It’s not so much about being good with yours ships, nor is it about being clever with combat strategy. It’s about logistics. It’s about organisation. It’s about getting your players to turn up and put in a shift and getting your opponents to find a new hobby.

Every battle CFC was burning enemy materiel, but more than this, CFC was stretching the enemy’s will to fight to breaking point too. Fleets would be formed to offer battle and then stood down to frustrate the enemy, who would have to commit maybe two or more hours to every no-show. Constant, niggling asymmetrical attacks demanded the time and attention of the enemy players at all hours to deal with, and the superior numbers of active CFC players forced the enemy to work harder just to hold what they had. When a game becomes work it becomes less fun to play, and sure enough the enemy numbers began to shrink. Battles and fleet actions remained fairly common, but weight of numbers and superior organisation saw CFC bleed the enemy without losing anything it couldn’t afford to in the process.

To outsiders it looked like CFC had been contained, that their invasion was being stalled. In truth it was simply that CFC was happier to keep killing them by inches and after around two months of fighting TEST and its remaining allies were a shadow of the force that had fought us to a standstill at B-DBYQ.

When the stakes are high in a video game, and you start to lose, and you start to see what you had in the game evaporating in front of you, then you have two choices. You can dig deep into your soul and summon up the will of a champion, try your best to rally your friends to your side and fight over and over against impossible odds. Or you could play something else and come back later; that’s the player’s privilege, and a lot of players avail themselves of it when the chips are down.

This conquest was scary to see in action, especially from the logistical side, CFC is a war fighting machine. But something felt wrong. There’s this vast, unstoppable space-battle-winning machine, without any equal in EVE, and it fights to win with a ruthless efficiency, even against enemies it vastly overmatches.

It is hard to argue with results, and it is not like CFC was always on top. They learned strategy under the harshest circumstances, but it is not a plucky underdog any more. Maybe they paid TEST a compliment by treating them as such a serious threat, but part of me laments that the CFC forces didn’t simply smash straight into the target and keep smashing into them until everything was blown up on both sides. If you’re going to play the weight of numbers game, in terms of experienced and motivated combat pilots if not necessarily raw player count, it’s only polite to be bad at everything else. But that’s the commitment to game these guys have.

The concern for EVE has to be now where the next big fight comes from in nullsec, because assuming CFC goes on to lock down the valuable Fountain system that’s about that. The developers like to throw in the odd curveball to shake the game up and promote conflict in nullsec, but there’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant is dressed as a bee and it is very good at stamping on threats. After a decade of conflict in EVE it really doesn’t look like anybody will be challenging that elephant in a meaningful way, perhaps ever again.

*

A few days after this article was written on the 29 July the Fountain War saw what will probably be its final large scale fighting, in the 6VDT system. This was the largest battle in EVE history and it has even been reported on in mainstream media outlets. It is interesting to see how it is reported however because watching the fight happening and listening to the information coming through from CFC it looked about as one sided an affair as could be imagined.

The actual fight lasted barely two hours before the TEST forces broke. This sounds like a long time, and it is when you’re sitting there in agonising slow motion trying to make a ship fight, but in the heavily time dilated battle space meant this only about ten minutes of actual shooting took place. So two fleets, each approximately two thousand strong, met in combat, and with about ten minutes of fighting one of them was in full retreat with massive casualties. That is not a battle; that is a massacre.

The reality that the stories seldom mention is that this war was done and dusted months ago, and there was little doubt of the eventual winner even when the announcement to invade was first made. When the 6VDT battle began, TEST were late, and they turned up in the best ships they could reasonably afford to lose, they were not expecting a victory or committed to gaining one. The TEST capital ships for example that escaped at Z9PP, for the most part they remain escaped. This was not an all-in last ditch defence of a system; rather it was an end-of-war party, with TEST offering up their own lame duck fleet as the buffet.

Lose an affordable ship in return for getting to say, "I was there at 6VDT, the biggest battle in gaming history." Congratulations to TEST for their contribution, because if they hadn’t bravely stepped up to be the EVE equivalent of those little metal ducks in a shooting gallery history would not have been made that day.

A fight underway in EVE: Online.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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