The Epic of Gilgamesh Was The Original Co-Op Campaign

Gilgamesh and Enkidu in Final Fantasy 5

Lately I’ve been playing games cooperatively and finding that doubling down on an experience with another player is always a blast, regardless of what game you’re playing. Our titles of choice have been Borderlands (excellent!) and Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days (obnoxious!)

I also nabbed a Netflix account and started watching terrible films on Instant Watch, including the ultimate buddy cop movie: Bad Boys 2. It’s the best! I think the itchy corners of my brain that get scratched by buddy cop flicks are the same spots that are stimulated by solving games cooperatively. What is that, and why do we humans love to buddy up?

I think it’s a primal thing, an entertaining expression of the deep subconscious desires that helped our species survive it’s formative years. I wasted a lot of time studying theology in college, and I think the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh was probably the original co-op story. The ur-buddy cop flick, if you will. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at an early passage from the second tablet:

“There will come to you a mighty man, a comrade who saves his friend–
he is the mightiest in the land, he is strongest,
his strength is mighty as the meteorite of Anu!
You loved him and embraced him as a wife;
and it is he who will repeatedly save you.”

Alright, let’s whisk a pinch of sophomoric literary analysis into the mix and see what comes out. Clearly Enkidu is a wild man, the prototypical Starsky to lawful Gilgamesh’s Hutch. Though their partnership opens on a rough note (with a knockdown, drag-out brawl through the streets of Uruk) the duo quickly build a relationship based on mutual respect, brotherhood and copious amounts of homoeroticism. It’s like Army of Two, except it’s almost three millennia old and actually entertaining.

Anyway, like DMX’s reformed jewel thief in Cradle 2 The Grave the renegade comes in from the wilderness for justice, revenge (or in Enkidu’s case, a totally sweet wedding feast) that evolves into a permanent lifestyle change as the wild one comes to respect the laws of society under the influence of a powerful lawbringer (the god-king Gilgamesh, represented in this classic piece of buddy cop cinema by Taiwanese Special Agent and all-around asskicker Jet Li.)

Gilgamesh and Enkidu cement their newfound partnership by paying a visit to the Uruk weaponsmiths (like a tutorial level, or the ancient Sumerian equivalent of the precinct gun range) before embarking on a quest to seek and slay the great demon-god Humbaba, guardian of the divine Cedar Forest. Enkidu’s decision to aid the god-king against the wild god Humbaba is significant, because the wild man was originally created to oppose the tyrannical excesses of Gilgamesh and protect the people and the wilderness. This is an archetypal test of faith for Enkidu, who must sacrifice his previous ties to the wilderness (just as the Arbiter sacrifices the Prophet in Halo 3, or Sam Jackson sacrifices his rep to protect Bruce Willis from a Harlem mob in Die Hard 3) for the sake of brotherhood.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the demon, and Enkidu convinces his partner to slay Humbaba despite the god-king’s pity for a vanquished enemy. The wild man fails the test of civility and reverts to his primal nature, a failure that presages a fall from grace (this is analogous to Lynch’s psychotic episodes or Brad Pitt’s murderous rage at the conclusion of Se7en.) Later the pair hunt and defeat the Bull of Heaven, and when the goddess Ishtar protests Enkidu literally rips the Bull’s ass off and throws it at her:
“Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of
When Enkidu heard this pronouncement of Ishtar,
he wrenched off the Bull’s hindquarter and flung it in her face:
“If I could only get at you I would do the same to you!”

Enkidu’s bravado and disdain for authority prove to be his undoing, as the gods lay a fatal curse upon him in retribution for the murder of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. The wild man pays for his “bad cop” antics with his life, much as the traitorous Lance Vance gets capped in the climax of Vice City or Denzel buckles beneath a hail of Russian gunfire at the end of Training Day.

Weird, right? It’s a classic story, one told and retold throughout human history. Games like Gears of War and Halo may seem like definitively modern entertainment, but they’re really just mining the same striated veins of folklore that have supplied us with stories since we started telling them. As before, so it always ends: the death of the wild man reminds the “good cop” that justice without the blessing of the gods (or the law) is a venal sin, and Gilgamesh mourns his fallen brother for days before condemning Enkidu to the earth and walking off into the sunset. We’ve heard this one before, but like little kids at bedtime we’re always begging to hear our favorite story one more time.

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