Sometimes what you need to understand someone is to walk in their shoes. Or, in this case, what I needed was to pilot a mech.
At first, the free-to-play first person mech shooter Hawken confirmed my suspicions about what “type” of people love giant mechs (and that, in itself, might be telling — was my problem with mechs or did I have an issue with the image a person who likes mechs projects? Hell, what does “type” even mean?)
There is a body shop in the game, and lots of different parts to equip your mech with. They reminded me of car parts. This makes sense, but I’m a chainsaw gun type gearhead, not an automobile gearhead!
I know people can get so into cars (or aircrafts, and probably other things I can’t think of) that they treat them like people — names of women and all. But to me there seemed something really impersonal about a giant mech. Just a bunch of metal, you know? How do you become attached to that sort of thing?
But then I started fiddling around with my loadout options, seeing what I could outfit my mech with. I decided to spec my mech for speed and damage, which caters to my style of play. Graceful and quick, but packing a punch.
That’s great and all, but a tinge of fondness didn’t come until I picked out a small detail: the colour of the stripes on the mech. Yellow. It looks good with yellow, I thought. Then it became kind of became personal, like — yeah, I’m not sure I love mechs, but still. This one is mine.
It reminded me of how I scoffed at the idea that putting a charm on a gun in Blacklight: Tango Down would make me more attached to my gun, only to have that turn out to be the case when customising it. Cynicism bites one in the arse easily!
Back to Hawken, though. After deciding on the colour of my stripes, I hopped into some matches. My first couple of games were solitary endeavors: either nobody was playing or I was having bad luck connecting. This was fine. I needed to spend some alone time with my mech, get to know how to handle it.
Most fast-paced multiplayer games, like Call of Duty, have you controlling characters with lots of finesse. Finesse in comparison to a huge mech, anyway. The way turns were super wide, the way I could feel my weight when I moved bothered me a ton at first in Hawken. Why would anyone fantasize about piloting this thing?
I’ve internalised all that about feeling heavy on my feet, making me initially resent my mech for, well, being a mech! Even moreso when I saw how moving around meant leaving scrapes or destroying the city around me. I thought I wasn’t going to like playing Hawken based on my testing out my movement in the empty matches.
Then I got into a game with actual people on it, and it felt much different. You get used to how the mechs move, start seeing the ways their movement is complex and nuanced. And when you’re trying to survive amidst a bunch of people trying to shoot you down, suddenly the game felt more fast-paced. I’m sure some people feel that causing destruction is part of what makes playing as a mech awesome, but I’m not there yet.
I got over the movement, and started focusing on my shooting. I realised that there is a sense of power that comes with the weight and force of a mech. This feeling was enhanced when I saw my downed enemies blow the heck up. People don’t blow up, but mechs do — and that makes every mech kill feel a tad more exhilarating.
I guess that’s why I disliked mechs at first: they seemed like a power fantasy for manchildren, one that I wrongly believed I was above enjoying. Oh, the things we’ll believe in the name of thinking ourselves better than other people.
Power wasn’t everything though. Sometimes, my mech would be nearly destroyed. That’s when I’d pull out my repair drone, which is a clever way of thinking about regenerating health. In order to get fixed, your mech cowers while the repair drone fixes it. If the mech was a person, you could imagine it getting on its knees and covering its head with its hands. But it wasn’t cowardly. Actually, it was kind of, um…cute? humanising, really.
Funny, there was resentment when people tried killing me while I was repairing — it makes sense that people would take advantage of a vulnerability, but cmon, guys! Don’t be a jerk to my mech. (To be clear, I realise how ridiculous this all is.)
After I used my drone enough, I started feeling some attachment to it too. I regarded it as my personal robotic fairy, whizzing away to help me feel better. It reminded me of EVE — this floating robot thing that made me feel inferior, but that cared for me. So I named my mech Wall-E, because I love that movie.
Now I think of my mech a little more lovingly than I thought I would. I see the engineer standing by my mech in-between matches, and I’m like, yeah, I think I know how you feel about this mech. I think I have a sense of how much you care about it.
But more importantly, mechs are just kind of cool, huh? I’m sorry for doubting you, mech-lovers.