In August of 2014, I downloaded a computer game called Rust and played it for 26 minutes. That would be the first and only time I ever played it. It is the funniest video game I have ever played in my life.
I’m happy they tracked this. Steam is sort of the traveling bard of my gaming career, faithfully wandering from computer to computer since 2004. It lived within them all, including the desktop PC so hideous that multiple burglars, in the process of lifting whatever they could grab from my apartment, clearly took one glance and correctly identified it as trash. The tower was permanently missing its cover, because every time I had to restart the machine, I first had to dig into the motherboard to remove the little plastic CMOS jumper for a moment and stick it back in. This sounds like a lie but isn’t: upon pulling out the jumper, I had to wait and listen for the motherboard to make a little squeak before replacing it. Otherwise, the computer wouldn’t start. Steam was there for that, and Steam is there today on my work computer, patiently enduring uninstallations and reinstallations whenever I frantically clear hard drive space to make space for an exporting video project.
It’s logged the hundreds upon hundreds of hours I’ve buried into games like Civilization and RimWorld. But most importantly, it noted the 26 minutes I spent in the world of Rust.
This isn’t a review of Rust. I have no idea whether this game is good or bad. I wholeheartedly agree with every opinion of it that anyone has ever had, even if those opinions directly conflict with one another. Continuing.
Conceptually, the game certainly seemed fun enough to try. It’s a first-person, open-world, massively-multiplayer survival game that drops you in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a rock and a torch. From there, to hear others tell it, you can build structures, craft advanced tools, form alliances, and generally make something of yourself. I wouldn’t know.
My experience with this game was a special one, because at the time, Rust was branded as “early access” or something similar. The developers clearly spelled out on their Steam page that, look, this was not yet a finished product. Bugs may happen, gameplay imbalances will abound, and you should know what you’re in for.
I paid $20, and in the subsequent 26 minutes, I played three times. I will recollect them here to the best of my ability. It’s been six years, so if you’re familiar with this game and something strikes you as inaccurate or impossible, my mistake.
The first time, I find myself in the woods somewhere, apparently naked. I take stock of the only wealth I have to my name: the torch, which seems useless in broad daylight, and a big rock. I have to hold the rock with both hands. I can only hoist it over my head and violently swing it forward.
I wander around in the woods for a couple minutes, completely unsure of what I want to do, or whether there’s any sort of objective I’m expected to complete. This early-access version of Rust offers nothing in the way of explanation or context, which in retrospect I will come to appreciate as a masterstroke.
So I’m just bumbling around in the woods like that, a probably-naked guy marching to nowhere while heaving a giant rock forward over and over, carrying on as God’s own fool. Heave-ho! Having the time of my life!
I am encountered by a wolf, who attacks me. I try to swing my rock in self-defense to no avail and I am brutally mauled. Since the game is in first person, I can’t know that I’m torn limb from limb, but I remember seeing fountains of blood and it certainly feels that way. I am dead.
The second time, I’m dropped into more or less the same situation. This time I run around brandishing the rock, but not swinging it, instead dutifully holding it aloft like I’m trying to show it the world. I’ve resolved that this time will be different. I am now aware of the dangers of this realm.
This rock is surely more than a weapon. It’s a tool. I can probably use it to chop down a tree, or at least break down a fallen log or something. To what end, I’m not sure. But I might die soon, and I’d love to leave something more for this world to remember me by than my sun-bleached bones.
I can’t remember whether I actually chop down a tree. At any rate, I am very quickly visited by another wolf.
This time, I try to run away, still ineffectually swinging my rock forward as I do. I don’t know why I do that.
There’s a wordless, deranged comedy to video games. They produce sights that are so clumsy, thoughtless, and bizarre that no one alive could ever tell a joke so funny, like this one: a terrified man deliriously flinging a rock over his head, dick whipping sideways like the Wheel of Fortune needle as he gallops away from certain doom. I’m afraid I’m unable to sufficiently describe how funny this is. I am once again devoured alive.
I’ve probably played for 18 to 20 minutes by this point. I’m not so sure I want to play this anymore. A learning curve is to be expected, but how much more of this will I have to endure before I can count a single accomplishment? So far, I can claim ownership of absolutely none of this experience. The game has been the player. I’m only the food.
I find that buying games I don’t enjoy is just the cost of doing business. If I buy three games, barely play two of them, but have a great time with the third, all three were worth it. This was a worthwhile experiment. I should count the $20 I spent on this game as a sunk cost and move on with my life.
What the hell. One more try.
The third time, I wander around some more, but this time in a straight line. I need to get somewhere. Miraculously, there are no more wolves. I guess I fed them already.
After some marching, I pass through the tree line and enter a clearing. I see a wooden fence, the first evidence of civilization I’ve come across. Beyond it, to my delight, is a log cabin.
Again, this is a massively-multiplayer online game. It’s a shared world. It seems likely that another player actually built this. As I run closer, I notice that it seems pretty well-constructed. Maybe I could build something like this myself! Maybe I could find an ax somewhere, or use this rock to sharpen a tool of my own. Maybe if I get good enough, and put in enough time, I can enjoy the satisfaction of maintaining a little home in this world.
Out back, behind the cabin, there is a man. He’s an old man with a beard, shirtless and sinewy, wearing only a crude loincloth. I know enough to know that this man is not a game-generated AI. He’s a real person somewhere out there.
And for whatever reason, at this moment I find him bashing the shit out of a tree stump with a rock that looks a lot like my rock. Maybe we can be pals and talk about rocks! I wish I could remember whether he’s splitting a piece of wood, or if this is simply his idea of a good time. In either case, he’s just goin’ to town, man, as though he was born to do it.
He doesn’t notice me at first. I decide to come closer. Hell, I don’t know. How do people communicate in this game? Maybe if I walk up to him, a chat box will open and I can actually type something? Or do you make buddies in this game by kinda wordlessly pantomiming that you’re a friend, that you want what’s best for you and for him? Either way, it could be interesting. More importantly, I need a friend. I need a bit of light in this world. It’s been terrible for me.
As I walk closer, he spots me, and I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of “sir, you’re not supposed to be here” body language you can communicate by simply moving forward a few steps and menacing someone with a large stone. He swings it forward, as crudely and robotically as I do when I swing my rock. I am not welcome here.
I glance at him, then the log cabin, then back at him, and I believe I have identified a crime. One would expect that a cabin built with such skill and care was the work of a true craftsman. A veteran player of this game, a player who knew how to fashion some sort of axe, chop some trees, and cut them just so. Perhaps this game doesn’t work like that, and you can simply manifest a nice little log cabin once you reach Level 19 or something. At any rate, he’s a shirtless, stupid, rock-hucking dirtbag just like me. I definitely could not have built this house.
This is not his house.
Someone else built this house and died at his hand. This man is a fraud and a murderer. But where else am I supposed to go? Back in the woods to be eaten again? At least this is a human being at the end of the line. His name is Josh, I bet. He’s in Wisconsin and he’s wearing a polo shirt and this prehistoric thug isn’t who he truly is. He’ll be receptive if I can just communicate to him that I’m approaching in peace.
I step forward again, his warning expires, and he charges me. My last remaining idea is to hold still and keep my rock still. If I don’t attack or resist, he’ll have to kill me in cold blood.
Polo Josh bludgeons me, over and over, as I imagine Cain slew Abel. He kills me seven or eight times’ worth. I exit the game and never return.
This game set forth no objectives for me. It wanted only to eat me. It asked of me what I ask of my breakfast. In this sense, it wasn’t much of a game at all. And even when I met another human being, that person was every bit as brutal.
I paid 20 dollars for the most bewildering 26 minutes a video game has ever given me, and I wouldn’t ask for a minute more or a penny back. It was perfect. I will never play it again.