A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
The Division, from the start, was always a game about two things. It was a game about numbers, and it was a game about the cold. The numbers poured out of enemies as they were hit, were totaled in endless columns in inventories and statistics menus, were balanced and tweaked and altered week by week.
The cold never changed. Snowstorms blew through Times Square while ice, marked by thousands of bootprints, gathered on roads and sidewalks. Playing The Division you would sometimes leave a building into a white-out, snowflakes gold under the light of a halogen lamp, and exhale, expecting to see your breath become steam. And then, after a while, the numbers would overwhelm the cold and you'd stand for minutes in the blizzard, double checking a gear selection, and the fear and the urgency would dissipate, and that would be that.
In Survival, the game's new expansion, the numbers are pared back, sharpened, and what they bring out is the cold.
"I can't see," says Austin. "It's really bad down here."
He's about six feet ahead of me, a dim shape in the blizzard, and he's desperately looking for medicine. The helicopter we took into Manhattan has crashed, and we've both been stripped of our gear, weapons, and skills. And we've been wounded—no, worse, badly infected. A timer on our screen shows how long we have to live, and it's hovering at around forty five minutes. I've just taken some painkillers, so mine is paused, but only temporarily. Austin's isn't. He disappears behind some broken down cars.
"There's fabric here. Do you need fabric?"
I do. We both do. If we collect enough fabric and make it to a hideout, we can warm up. Try and make some new clothes—a bulky jacket, a better scarf, anything to stave off the cold. I catch up to him and pick up the scraps. In the top right corner of my screen, I can see the local temperature, and it's bad. Above it, a bar slowly decreases, and what that bar means is that I am freezing to death. I spin the camera, peering through the snow, and find what I'm looking for: About fifty feet away, I see sparks rising from behind a wall. A fire.
You are perpetually running in Survival, and it is not a graceful gait. It is an urgent dash, head down, kicking up the snow. We are running because we're freezing to death, and because our infection timers are ticking down, and because we don't know who is behind us. It is bleak and captivating.
Beside the fire we take stock. Forty three minutes, says the timer. Here is what we need to do: We need to make filters that will allow us to enter the Dark Zone. There, in what is an extremely dangerous and contaminated area, we will find antivirals. That's why we're here. We were supposed to find the cure to the plague, the end of the end of the world, but the storm rolled in and snatched our helicopter out of the sky. It gathered the city up in its arms and it became quiet and cold and dangerous. We were going to be heroes. Now we warm our hands around a barrel. "Are you hungry?" Austin asks. I am.
The game breeds focus. We talk in questions. Are you hungry? What's your timer at? Are we going across the intersection? Where's the fire? Do you have tools? There is one question we ask every couple of blocks. Gunfire.
"Do you hear that?" I say, and I turn around from the fire and Austin gets shot. We scramble for cover and the snowstorm picks up and we are relieved to see that these are "red" enemies, the lowest tier of NPC opponents that wander the frozen streets. There are two of them and the fight is brief and efficient. "Are you hurt?" I ask, but it was just a scratch, not enough to worry about. We return to the fire. One of them was carrying an energy bar. The other was carrying a bottle of water. They're ours now.
On our way to a crashed helicopter, we duck into an electronics shop, we climb a fire escape, we pass another player warming his hands beside a fire barrel. His microphone crackles.
"What did he say?" I ask Austin, unsure.
"He said 'Are you dying?'"
As we reach the helicopter, a notification appears at the top of both of our screens.
18 Agents Remaining
And then, moments later,
17 Agents Remaining
I wonder if one of the deaths was the man by the barrel, and I open a crate to find some body armor and a long range rifle. Austin finds an submachine gun. We are very confident and we are very cold, and we sweep through the next couple of blocks like the storm. We quickly flank some purple enemies, the second highest tier, and make short work of them. Their armor is broken down into constituent parts, the fabric and metal used to construct the filters that we need to enter the Dark Zone. They carried snacks and soda in their pockets. They're ours now.
The timer shows twenty five minutes.
The Dark Zone sits squatly in the middle of our maps, its ghostly skyscrapers colored blood red. One of its entrances is a straight shot down a street, and wordlessly we split off, covering the left and right sides of the road. A figure in the snow ahead of us reveals itself to be a gold enemy, the highest tier, ambling patiently down between the wrecked cars. We see him at the same time and freeze in place. To try and take down a gold when we're this close to the Dark Zone would risk throwing everything away, and so we crouch silently behind cover.
There is no music. The figure approaches, and he swings his rifle by his side idly. He could destroy us in between four and six seconds. He is about five feet away. I hold my breath.
He passes and disappears into the blizzard and we move on.
Just outside the Dark Zone, we stop at a hideout and see what we can build with the items we've gathered. I get a new scope for my rifle and a warmer jacket. Austin picks up a skill that allows him to designate certain pieces of cover and provide those behind them with various bonuses. I unlock pulse, which when triggered alerts me if there are any threats nearby. It is invaluable. In The Divison's main campaign, these are skills that we'd unlock after hours of slow, steady play. We'd slot them in casually, test them in sidequests and random encounters. Here, they are the miracle responses to desperate prayer.
We triple check they are equipped correctly.
9 Agents Remaining
We approach the Dark Zone.
I should talk about what this thing looks like from the outside, because it is frightening. As you approach, the blizzard fades away a little, and it is as though an entire ten or twelve block area has been completely sealed away. A chunk of the city is boarded up. Tall fences and quarantine signs reach up towards the cloud-covered sky and all around are the discarded remnants of a desperate attempt to close something off. Hazmat suits. Quarantine tents. National guard ATVs and police vans and ambulances. Piles of debris. "Let's go," says Austin. We climb a fence, then another fence, then drop down onto the roof of an ambulance, then we're in. The blizzard calms. For the first time since beginning, we aren't slowly freezing to death.
My pulse scanner ripples out in concentric circles and we see NPCs moving distantly a few blocks away.
"There," says Austin, and moves towards a building. The antivirals are inside, and the high level enemies guarding them have a momentary gap in their patrol route that means that, as I take cover and prepare for a fight, I hear Austin say "I got them."
"The antivirals. I got them. Let's go."
There is an urgency now. Neither of us want to say it, but our infection timers are creeping down and we don't have the medication necessary to stall them. We need to craft a flare gun, then make it to an extraction zone and wait for a helicopter to get us out, and that's it. It feels very close. We are both dying. And—
My objectives haven't updated. My list is stuck on "acquire antivirals," and we realize in a horrible rush that this is a group effort, we need antivirals each if we both want to extract. "Just—" says Austin, "Just use pulse every time it recharges. Please?"
We start to run. My antivirals are towards the northern half of midtown, and as we near, Austin stops suddenly in the street and ducks into cover. . "There're… three, three gold enemies," he says. I pulse to confirm his number. I do not.
"There are fourteen."
They are spread out in little groups—some of which who skirmish with each other, but this only makes things feel more out of control. We move carefully past them—there is little to be confident about now. We also move past two extraction points—two places where Austin could leave, safely—before we find the office building my antivirals rest in.
There are thirteen enemies in the building, and there is no gap, no patrol route. They stand, cradling their weapons in their arms, in a rooftop garden. Perhaps in the summer roses would grow on the lattices up here, but now, the blizzard beginning to pick up again, they are bare. I know this, because I fumble a button and stand up from cover and one of them sees me through the lattice, and I die at once between a chic restaurant brazier and a four person dining table with matching seating. "Run," I say, but I don't need to. Spinning the camera I see that Austin is gone.
He is gone, in fact, so expeditiously that he is outside the range at which I am allowed to spectate him, so as the camera hovers over my body I am treated to what is an urgent, unpleasant radio play.
"I'm going to try and extract. Oh god. I don't have pulse. I've got seven minutes."
My screen has faded to grayscale but I can see that the snow is falling hard.
"I don't have pulse. I'm three blocks away."
We have been playing the game for almost exactly one hour, and Austin goes quiet.
My game crashes, and it crashes with a message that says "A connection to the servers could not be reached." I pull out my phone and try and refresh twitter and nothing, it doesn't work. My internet connection has collapsed. Austin is still out there in the snow.
I get up and run into the other room and stand on tiptoes and hold down the button on the router. The three lights go off, and two of them immediately turn on again. The house is quiet. I hop from foot to foot. When the third light turns on, the connection will be re-established and I'll be able to call Austin again. I know that this will take less than seven minutes.
While I wait for the router to turn on, I pull back the curtains and look outside into the dark. Fog has crept up from the cold earth during the day and it hangs around the garden, drapes itself in the trees, around the streetlights.
During the holidays, they light the church down my street with golden-colored floodlights, and it's beautiful. Tonight, though, the fog obscures the tower and catches the lights, and just for a moment I am taken aback because, through the window, it looks like the church is burning. Wrapped in flame.
The third light turns on.