The EVE battle logs: Going To War With Goonwaffe

Phil Hartup becomes the first embedded reporter in the largest virtual war the world has ever seen.

On Sunday 28 July, the universe of EVE: Online experienced the largest battle it had ever seen. Almost 3,000 ships were destroyed in a clash between the two corporations which dominate the game. But the battle wasn't the beginning of the war; instead, it was the dying embers of a protracted struggle. Phil Hartup has been embedded within CFC for the last month. These are his reports from the front-line of the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen.

Like many men with too much time on their hands in the early part of the twenty-first century I have dabbled in the dark arts of the MMORPG, the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Of course very few of these are actually massive, most relying on small isolated zones with limited numbers of players in called instances. Fewer still involve anything like what anybody who has ever rolled a twenty-sided die in anger would consider role-playing. Some barely qualify as a game, becoming arbitrary time-sinks, boondoggles for the age of the internet, absorbing time and enthusiasm like great soulless sponges. But not EVE: Online. EVE is the real deal.

The best way to think of EVE is as three distinct games, each one based around being the captain of a spaceship and each one defined by the level of in-game security present in the areas in which it is played. In Empire space, which is the most secure, EVE is a game of commerce, of adventure, of hunting pirates, buying spaceships and flying around with your friends, safe in the knowledge that you are probably not going to be killed in an unpredictable and violent fashion. In low security space, known as Lowsec, things are a lot more dangerous for players. Gangs of other players hunt these regions, not necessarily in large numbers, but in this cut and thrust world of do unto others and cheese it with their cargo the game is played at arguably its highest level in terms of player skill and risk. Lastly there are the lawless areas, Nullsec, where alliances of player groups numbering thousands do battle over territory, bragging rights and personal grudges.

EVE: Online is now a little over a decade old with a subscription base that has grown over the years though which has never been exactly high, in contrast to most MMORPGs which start high, drop around 75 per cent after the first month, then quietly go free to play a year later. Even the fact that EVE maintains a subscription model speaks to its somewhat anachronistic nature, although it has begun to allow players to buy in game money, called ISK, with real money via game time tokens. Many players who have dipped into MMORPGs will have given EVE a try at some point over the years though most don’t stick around for too long. It is an old school game, cutting the player loose in a hostile universe with no direction, no planned level path, and most importantly, a user interface that feels like the bastard child of a scientific calculator and a pager.

In fairness to the user interface, it is ugly but it is powerful. Like a mad scientist’s mutant lackey the EVE interface will, once sufficiently tamed, explain everything that is happening around you, allow you to easily fly your ship and smite your enemies, even allow you to browse the internet, run voice communications with other players, send emails within game and spend all your hard earned money on shiny new spaceships. It is a loyal beast, just try not to actually look at it.

I have played EVE off and on since 2004, mostly off, keeping an eye on it but seldom playing. I watched the old alliances rise and fall, I watched the emergence of the Goons, a horde of players out of the Something Awful forums, tearing through the game in cheap ships, showing no respect to anybody and being generally hated for it. I watched them grow over the years. Watched attempts to stamp them out and even went to war with them myself in one of my earlier groups in the game, although saw no combat. Despite all efforts by the old guard and elite they kept going. They grew and grew, tearing down the old order, to an extent replacing it.

My experience with Goons in other games was uniformly negative, though always second hand. Nobody had a good word to say about any of them, and nobody ever seemed to talk to them. I was told they were ill mannered teenagers, the worst Xbox Live ranting kiddie stereotype you could imagine. They were a horde of mouth breathing idiots who only played the game to ruin it for other people, the barbarians at the gate, and the end of gaming civilisation. They were the other, the savages, but damn it all, they seemed to know what they were doing.

With that in mind, when the opportunity to join what is now called Goonwaffe and ride along with them and the rest of the Clusterfuck Coalition (CFC) during their, at the time, impending invasion of The Fountain region of the game appeared, seemed rude not to go.

Joining Goon is a remarkably sophisticated process, because it needs to be. I’ve seen plenty of gaming clans struggle under the weight of administration just to keep a few dozen players, a web forum and a voice comms server ticking over. Goonwaffe has thousands of members so recruitment, training, communications in and out of the game, forum admin, tech support, even security are all major concerns. You can’t just round up thousands of players, point them at the bad guys and type go in local chat, at least not anymore.

Getting squared away on the assorted secure communications programs, the Pidgin server, the forums, this all took place very quickly, the process largely automated, backed up by a brusque yet effective tech support team who consider the capacity to properly set up your various permissions and peripheral software programs as a kind of final entry exam. Considering this is a group that is based on volunteers everything about it was slick, polished and professional. No corners cut here, like the football fans that make it to every away game, braving Russian cold and Italian knives, many EVE players take their game very seriously.

Finally ending up in the recruit forum with a gaggle of other new and equally starry eyed players I felt strange, like I had been thoroughly processed, even absorbed. I have experienced friendlier welcomes to gaming clans, but there’s nothing like the feeling of being passed through automated scrutiny and acknowledged, accepted and issued the appropriate clearances to make you feel officially at home, recognised by the system. My character in game got the mail a few minutes later, the offer to join, one of the few parts of the process that has to be done manually by another player. Like magic, the tags appear on my character. It was official, I was a Goon.

Tomorrow: battle begins.

A fleet attacks. Photograph: CCP

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

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear