An Old Xbox Reveals the Secret Lives of a Good Friend

All my friend wanted was a simple, get-rid-of-it-on-Craigslist estimate for an original Xbox, two controllers, and about a dozen games. He knew that what he had was too common in its time, too obsolete in the present, to qualify as some latter-day Antiques Roadshow jackpot. Still, I couldn't bring myself to appraise it at $25. At that price, I could see him leaving it by the curb, sitting sadly on an old chair with a "FREE" sign, to be claimed by scavengers or the garbage man.

"Eighty bucks," I said, stupidly. A used PlayStation 2 goes for about $30 and that's still a supported console. "But be willing to come down to $60."

I could tell I was exasperating him. He didn't want a hassle, he wanted to get rid of it. "Look, if you get no bites, see me," I said. He got no bites.

Therefore, I took custody of the remains. The dust and the date on the beat up FedEx box bearing them, like a pauper's coffin, indicated the Xbox hadn't been connected to a power source in more than five years. It's a span of inactivity explained by all the things my friend had been doing in that time: becoming a dad, publishing two books, moving into the mid-30s career prime of husband and father with attendant responsibilities.

If we'd ever played it together, my hazy memory recalls just one time, involving a hilarious dunk he performed by accident in NBA Live. Otherwise, our friendship isn't connected by video games at all, which made for an oddly intimate discovery of what we really had in common once I brought the Xbox home.

The Xbox had been a Christmas gift from his father-in-law (at the time, his father-in-law to be). The game choices were, apparently, all his own. Examining the catalog of games, nearly all of which have a sequel or a remake on current hardware, it struck me that they were not so much relics themselves as they were relics of a younger life. The fact my friend had even tried some of these was mind-boggling to me. What, Halo? Red Dead Revolver? It was like finding out the star quarterback in high school enjoyed the same comic books as you, and was proud to talk about his level 12 magic-user, if only someone would ask.

Dusting off and turning on the machine, I pressed eject and found NBA Live 2005 in the tray, no worse for the wear. Then I examined the contents of the hard drive. As I suspected, my friend had not erased it. All of his gamesaves were intact, all missions ready to be resumed. The Xbox, the only console of its generation with an on-board hard drive, had a vast capacity for its day, and here was preserved his entire video gaming career. Had he given me a PS2 or a GameCube, which used 8 megabyte memory cards, I probably would not have seen all 100 saves he made in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, which spoke to its hold over him on a weekend seven years ago, like a page-turner keeping him up into the small hours.

An old console provides new understanding of how much two friends really have in common.

Indeed, my friend was playing his Xbox mostly past midnight, probably when his wife was asleep. Nearly all of the gamesaves were stamped between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. My memory became a little more clear. He once sent me and several other friends an email about playing Hitman late at night, "clearing out a room full of pistol-packing ninjas" with a pan of brownies, made by his wife, at his side. It was on this recommendation that I picked up Hitman 2 for myself later that year.

The Hitman series can be damnably hard even when you know exactly what you are doing, unless you just turn every encounter into a bloodbath. From the looks of it, that was my friend's M.O. Checking his stats, he held a rating of "mass murderer" on both it and Hitman: Contracts, over a total play time of 7 hours for both games. That means he basically shot everyone he met in the face. I spent five minutes going through the game's first full mission, remembering how to do it to Silent Assassin standards, and by that alone upped his rating two notches to "Slayer."

He dabbled in Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City but didn't last long, putting about three hours into Vice City. If I know him, an open-world game isn't really his speed, especially when he would have had such a limited window to play and couldn't afford the time to really sink into a sprawling criminal lifestyle. Still, if he wasn't particularly good at the stealth and surgical aggression required by Hitman, why move from GTA's crime sprees back to an espionage title like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, much less complete that game? That was the real wild card; he'd never mentioned Splinter Cell to me, nor have I ever known him to be interested in Tom Clancy's fiction.

NBA Live also showed his need to stay within limited, linear experiences. Here, he had saved only a couple of playoff series. In one, he'd left off as Sacramento, up 1-0 on Indiana in the Finals, with Peja Stojakovic averaging 26.5 points for the postseason. In the other, playing as San Antonio, he went unbeaten past Memphis and Houston and led Sacramento 1-0 in the Western Conference finals, with Brent Barry supplying 11 points per game off the bench (second to Tim Duncan's 15.8).

I'd known that my friend, a compulsive fantasy sports manager, kept entire seasons of handwritten stats in a three-ring binder when he played sports video games as a teenager, like me. As an adult, he couldn't risk the addiction offered by a season-length campaign on a modern gaming console, with all of its player management and stats tracking. However, I did see one franchise gamesave, for his beloved Golden State Warriors, that stopped before a single regular-season game was played, evidence of brief indulgence and ultimate sobriety.

If video gaming ever became an obsession for him, it was in Red Dead Revolver. He put almost 11 hours into that game over two profiles, one named for the family dog. He'd finished the main story and was working on some of the bounty hunter challenges when he put it down, having completed and unlocked two-thirds of the game's content. He wasn't the best shot, 6,678 rounds fired, 2,403 hits, 485 of them head shots, for 36 percent accuracy overall. But the playing time and the 218 mission retries speak to true persistence, if not his outright joy romping around in that comic-book cowboy tale.

I still have my old Red Dead Revolver disc from when I first bought it in 2004. It's the one disc I'll never part with, even though, if you try to play it on the Xbox 360, the game breaks on the eighth chapter. It's my favorite game on the original Xbox, one of my favorites of all time, and I was both delighted and touched to see he had enjoyed the same thing, just as much as I ever did.

• • •

My playing history on any of my consoles would be so spread out as to be unenlightening. I'm somewhat obsessive-compulsive about clearing out old saves, even if, with a 250-gigabyte hard drive on a modern console, the clutter of 100 gamesaves represents an aesthetic concern, not a capacity issue. But even then, because of my job and the luxury of devoting all of my spare time to myself, I have tried a lot of games. It would be difficult for anyone to tell what really has captured my imagination, what was a weekend rental and what was a professional responsibility; what files are there to memorialize beating a game, and which ones are the dead cells of a long-forgotten review, sediment at the bottom of the memory.

With my friend's Xbox, his gaming career is compact enough that it truly does tell a story. He and I have known each other more than a decade, and I've shared, as close friends do, in his and his wife's lifetime milestones over that time: moves, professional accomplishments, family celebrations. But here I saw him in a new light. I caught a glimpse of my friend transiting from his late 20s to his early 30s, from fiancé to husband to father. I saw a man past midnight, whose time for games was running out.