I am a freelancer. In FromSoftware’s Armored Core VI that means I am an augmented human pilot for hire. I exist only within the interchangeable, artificial confines of my mech. I go on missions solely for the highest bidder, and always team up with the side that’s guaranteed to win. Upon returning from one particularly brutal sortie, deep within a mine carved into the planet Rubicon’s icy surface, after blowing it sky high and barely making it out alive, alone amongst countless other lost souls, my handler, Walter, referring to the corporation he hired me out to, remarks: “Dafeng doesn’t know your true value.”
It’s true, I have value. In so far as the man who assigns me tasks decrees it. He signs my checks, fills my imaginary coffers with credits I can use to procure more gadgets, more weapons and component parts that will make me faster, stronger, look cooler, fly faster, right up to the very end of the leash I have been given.
Freelancer. Hired Gun. Mercenary. Shooter. Fixer. All signifiers denoting a certain coolness, a sort of disinterested cachet. In my twenties, those signifiers carried depths of meaning. They fueled me and buoyed me through endless crushing encounters as a Self-Employed worker. They were a way to distinguish myself, to add a certain mystique, a sense of flair to the path I had set out on.
The freelancer need not display false loyalty to a company, nor a brand. Need not show up for office birthday parties or check in with quarterly reports or justify their existence during employee evaluations. We need not dress up in khakis and polos and wear close-toed shoes or adjust the thermostat or start a new pot of coffee after finishing the last one. The freelancer’s first responsibility is to ourselves. We’re our own primary booking, as the conventional wisdom goes. Don’t get strung along by temperamental clients, don’t follow along glibly waiting for their discarded morsels and crumbs. Hold out for the good gigs, the ones that’ll be gold marks in your portfolio, that’ll net you bigger fish, better jobs, higher rep, sterling classifications.
In Armored Core VI, everyone is your competition, everyone is your enemy. Even those pilots you fight alongside in one mission will inevitably end up as your adversaries in the next. Allies and enemies alike, they’ll all wind up at the end of your gun’s barrel, whether as virtual avatars in your training simulations, there to hone your skills against, or as living, breathing combatants in the real world, come between you and the goals your mercilessly drive toward. You study their builds, their choice of armaments, their strategic approaches. Do they hold some advantage that I am not seeing? Does their laser shotgun counter my burst rifle? Do their tetrapod legs give them a height advantage over my tank treads? Do they have some secret knowledge that makes them more valuable, more worthwhile as pilots?
All I can see are their callsigns. They are hidden behind armor, hidden within hard steel shells, hot-swappable exteriors, opaque and mysterious. The only means I have of identifying them are the musical stings which accompany their entrances, and the trail of dead they leave in their wake.
Among freelancers, it's commonly understood that you must protect and hide away that thing that makes you unique. Your ability to feed yourself and your family seems to come directly from your jealously hoarded talents, the perception of your abilities. Anyone else is merely just another hungry mouth, eager to snap up that job which you obviously deserved more. The freelancer, at the same time perceived as being all-powerful, as one who holds close the bounty of their skillset, the prized possession of their dependability, tempting eager and slavering clients with their availability only to beg off as busy on the faintest of whims, their calendars sacred, hidden knowledge, is also the miserable misanthrope, holding onto a tiny, glittering sack of tools and accolades, those bric-a-brac which make them feel all shiny and attractive, that keep their LinkedIn pages hot and their email notifications pinging.
In Armored Core VI you are designated as hound, a dog; the canine companion which must fetch and retrieve whatever its master wishes. Even after that master disappears, you might still yearn to carry out his assumed desires. At the start of each mission you are dropped, like a bomb, into the midst of the enemy, to burn like a wildfire, to erase them from existence. That you come back at all is the game’s core fantasy. After all, the only way to improve in Armored Core VI, as in so many FromSoft games, is to die. You are required to throw yourself over and over again against the enemy’s superior skill and vastly greater numbers until you truly begin to understand their patterns and routines, their weaknesses, their tells. You must engage from within the protective shell of videogame immortality, not as flesh, or as a mortal soul, but as an idea, a desire within the player to surpass and to excel.
Outside of the realm of fantasy, this hound is a lost cause. A bright flame, a burning supernova meant to flare brilliantly out, to follow a fatal course toward the false promise of riches and esteem, directly into the metal-strewn graveyard of the battlefield, one more dumb hopeful in search of a name. The longer you survive, the more enemies you make, the more pointless your battle starts to feel. All around you, those few remaining safe harbors, erstwhile allies, stable salaried positions in-house, disappear, burn away into nothing; leaving you floating alone, a memory.
The freelancer was never meant to last, to keep pushing forward, to keep shining brilliantly, forever. We weren’t meant to keep growing bigger and bigger until all the clients trembled in fear and assigned us jobs out of obeisance and awe.
Here I remain, an oxymoron, an old hound, still running and fetching, still playing email tag with clients, still chasing down late invoices, still sending off estimated tax payments, still writing off comic books and videogames as “research expenses.” A hound who doesn’t die starts to realize the limits of just how good reputation and status and relative success can actually make you feel. They were never meant to be permanent rewards, just temporary stopgaps, there to keep us grinding away, loyal to no one, enslaved by all.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.