Monday, Jun 23, 2003 7:30 PM UTC

Deathmatch, Julia Roberts-style

America's most bankable female movie star confesses that she is a hardcore shoot-'em-up gamer. What does this mean?

Deathmatch, Julia Roberts-style

MY FAVORITE GAME

Julia Roberts: “Halo”

– Entertainment Weekly, “100 Greatest Videogames,” May 9 issue

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“We received your interview request for Julia Roberts. Unfortunately, she is not available. Thank you.”

– Julia Roberts’ publicist

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Julia Roberts’ weapon of choice is the M19 SSM rocket launcher. Not the zippiest firearm in the toolkit, sure, and does diddly in close-up melee action. But it’s got a double-barrel rocket payload, and pound for pound, it punches like a mofo. Julia Roberts’ favorite trick during multiplayer capture-the-flag matches is to camp near the team banner from a high vantage point and wait until the other side’s closing in. And at the last possible second, when they’re right about to nab it, pop out in the open with that hand cannon and…

“Dance, ya little bitches, dance!” Julia Roberts hoots, as the blast impact flings three opponent squaddies airborne. Her whole wiry body explodes off the Eames couch in the Emperor’s Suite at the Peninsula Hotel, and she jabs her middle finger at the 64-inch plasma flatscreen, as their crispy corpses hit the ground like rag dolls.

Ms. Roberts is trying to live a normal life, according to People magazine’s latest 50 Most Beautiful People issue, and in it, Denzel Washington says, amazed, “You’d be amazed how down to earth she really is.” But he’s not amazed now, because he’s been trying to get her bony ass off the couch for the last five minutes.

“One more round before lunch, Denzy!” But Denzel is all, “Girl, don’t even tell me you’ve been on this thing all day!” Denzel Washington tosses his controller on the couch so he can flick a bit of invisible dust off his Hugo Boss and roll his eyes. I mean, goddamn. Woman’s worse than my kids and their Game Boy Station, or whatever the hell they call it.

Up Sunset, Jennifer Garner huffs and then heaves her copy of Entertainment Weekly into the back wall of the Viper Room. She cannot believe her bitch publicist got her to tell the EW stringer that “Ms. Pac Man” was her favorite videogame. This article was supposed to get her in tight with her geek boy “Alias”/”Daredevil” fan base, but then here comes Miss Thing all talking about “Halo,” some intense, blowing-crap-up deal, while there she is naming some old school, girly-girl arcade game every female in the whole damn world has played.

Once again, she thinks, clenching her fists, America’s sweetheart has preempted us all. Damn Julia Roberts and her Xbox, Jennifer Garner seethes, damn her.

But over in Cambridge, Mass., a shambly professor with twinkly eyes rummages through the pile of PlayStation cartridges and an ungraded stack of term papers on Baudrillard, to fish out his own copy of Entertainment Weekly.

“It seems that Ms. Roberts’ appreciation for ‘Halo’ presages a new era in popular culture,” gaming academic Professor Henry Jenkins declaims to himself, as he peers out on the MIT quad. “Especially inasmuch as the game is a ‘hardcore’ title, in the lingua franca of the subculture: a gamer’s game, as it were. Consider what it means for a figure so unlike the entrenched stereotype of the ‘geek’ or ‘nerd,’ to be one. It is perhaps even more significant and unexpected than Vin Diesel’s recent self-outing as a Dungeons & Dragons fanatic — since, it must be said, the action star resembles a half-orc already. But returning to Ms. Roberts: Here we see a leading, beloved light of the grandfather medium, the princess of mainstream acceptability, finding herself drawn to, and to a certain extent shaped by, our nascent interactive medium. This represents a cultural shift of epic meaning.”*

“And good gracious,” Professor Jenkins adds, glancing once more at the photo on the marked page in EW, “What a hottie!”

Reese Witherspoon is still standing in the foyer of Julia Roberts’ suite, awkwardly shifting the gift-wrapped box of Jimmy Choos from hand to hand. Coming over, Reese decided that this little get-together was going to be some kind of A-list, big-sister/little-sister chat: you know, a passing of, like, the mantle. She tries to squint over Julia Roberts’ shoulder, who’s sitting on the raw silk carpet with a titanium Powerbook propped between her long legs.

Reese Witherspoon coughs chirpily. “So, is this like that ‘Hee-low’ thing again?” she asks, with a bit more edge than she intended.

Julia Roberts shushes her, and unpauses the QuickTime viewer. Onscreen, a military jeep goes twirling end over end while Sinatra sings on the soundtrack. Julia Roberts laughs the horsey, Southern girl laugh that gets her gross points. “Ain’t that Warthog jump just about the funniest dang thing you ever seen? Wait wait wait, have you watched ‘Red vs. Blue’ yet?”

No, thinks Reese Witherspoon, she has not watched “Red vs. Blue” yet.

For somehow, she imagined they’d be propped on the edge of the bed by now, cotton balls wedged between their toes, as they did each other’s nails and talked about boys they loved. But what Reese Witherspoon does not know is, even if that had been the subject, Julia Roberts would still inevitably steer the topic back to Bungie games. She’d talk about the times Lyle would stumble out of the bedroom at 3 a.m. because she was still there at her Power Mac, plowing through once last level of “Marathon.” (“You comin’ to bed, darlin?”) Or how Benjamin would grumble whenever he’d haul the CPU into the Lexus so he could drive it and her to yet one more LAN party in some China Basin warehouse, so she could retain her Emperor crown in “Myth II” multiplayer. (“Ah, Julia… again?”)

Once Reese Witherspoon is gone, Julia Roberts takes a “Halo” respite, so she can log into Xbox Live for a few rounds of “Unreal Championship.” “UC” isn’t exactly her thing, just a bit too macho Camacho for her taste. On the other hand, Julia Roberts has devised a strategy where she primes up three shells in her rocket launcher, then makes a flying leap off an elevated platform, because anyone below her when she lets rip is fricking toast.

In a suburban basement in outer Duluth, a guy in a White Wolf T-shirt screams, and smacks his forehead into the brick and plywood coffee table. It’s the fifth time in as many minutes that this same asshat with a totally gay online name has cold-cocked him. While bloody chunks of his torso fly every which way onscreen, he kicks his Xbox onto the orange plush carpet. “Damn you, ‘Brockobitch,’” he seethes at the screen. “Damn you!”

In her Beverly Hills hotel, Julia Roberts sends the taunt “Don’t h8 me cuz I rool!!!” (her standard online smackdown), then snags up a link gun to take after her next quarry, a chronic masturbator playing in tube socks from his dorm room in Champaign-Urbana.

Hours later, the limo swoops her downtown, and Julia Roberts is at E3 2003, standing in the long line of endomorphic dudes, waiting to catch the “Half Life 2″ demo. She has a baseball cap pulled over her eyes, and her mane of legendary hair tucked underneath, and she’s wearing an extra-large Blizzard T-shirt, and from a distance, she doesn’t even hold a candle to the nearby booth babes and their hydraulic T&A. No, she just looks like one more scrawny tomboy game geek, the kind of mousy industry girl who plays “Kingdom Hearts,” does 3-D modeling for Ubi Soft, and dates a producer at Shiny.

“Lookit that volumetric shadow!” Julia Roberts blurts out despite herself during the demo, elbowing the level designer in a black Neo trenchcoat sitting next to her. Onscreen, barrels are bouncing down a staircase in random, staggeringly realistic fashion. “And the physics, it’s like butter.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he sniffs, as he tries to get a better side glimpse of her figure. And failing that, returns to the mental wank-loop that’s still screening on the back of his head, featuring the gangbang porn star who signed his jeans at the Nvidia party last night.

So she emerges from the Staples Center dragging two giant Lineage shopping bags full of game tchotchkes, Valve T-shirts, “SOCOM” key chains, Rockstar bumper stickers, all kinds of kibble.

On the way out, she’s spotted by a junior agent from CAA, who’s there to talk with some William Spectre person about Laura Ziskin’s option on “Deus Ex,” and the agent gulps and thinks to himself, “My god, the rumors are true– she really is a gamer.” Two minutes and three cell phone calls later, the head of CAA is on the phone with Julia’s publicist Marcy, warning her to nip this oncoming public relations train wreck in the bud. Do not let Julia talk about “Halo.” Do not let Julia tell Vanity Fair about how she likes to post on Shacknews. Do not let anyone know that America’s $25-million-a-picture sweetheart is a hardcore gamer. “Whole careers are riding on this!” Marcy screams so loudly that the speakerphone shudders two full inches across CAA’s black lacquer conference table. “Why the blazing hell would anyone greenlight a picture starring someone who’d rather be in her trailer playing ‘Counterstrike’?”

But in subsequent months, Julia Roberts decides to come out to the world about her gaming. At her signal, magazine covers are committed, interviews are arranged, photo ops are calendared. The turbines on Julia Roberts’ publicity dreadnaught dip below the surface, and churn the waters of the world.

“And how does it feel, Julia,” Oprah Winfrey soon purrs, “when you… what was that again? When you ‘frag’ someone?” (Rosie O’Donnell is more effusive when Julia walks her through a single-player level. “Omigawd, didja see what I did?” Rosie yells, as she waves her game pad in the air. “That was a perfect head shot!”) The half-embarrassed giggles of 50 million soccer moms answer the airing of both shows, and one by one, they sneak into their sons’ rooms, fire up the Xbox, and try the cheat code they just heard about during Oprah’s Video Game of the Month tea chat.

Word spreads everywhere: to a game cafe in a high-rise above the neon canyons of downtown Seoul, where Tack-Jin Song hosts multiplayer “Team Fortress” and types in “DM gibfest, Julia Roberts style!!!!” for the match title. To a Moscow basement, where Sergei Ivanov, a hacker working for the Russian mob, churns out a black-market knockoff of “Halo,” in which the Master Chief’s anonymous, shielded faceplate has been replaced by a skin of Julia Roberts’ head, taken from “Sleeping With the Enemy.” (She has a half-scared, half-fierce expression, because it’s scanned from the scene where she’s right about to cap Patrick Bergin’s wife-beater character with a Beretta 9 mm.)

And to a Karachi Internet cafe, where Sayyid Rahmin is ducking a salvo of Israeli bullets in the virtual Gaza, now in his sixth consecutive hour playing “Special Force,” the first-person shooter created by the jihadi gamers in the Party of God. He is still a new recruit to The Base, so they tell him nothing, but he believes this audiotape in the back pocket of his acid-wash 501s contains the next fatwa from the great Sheik himself. He will deliver it as ordered to the Karachi contact to Al-Jazeera, and when it is broadcast, the infidels will once again shudder in their homes.

But for now, he’s trying to score his 10th head shot in a row. He is about to kill his next IDF commando, when a bizarre thought occurs to him.

“Miss Julia Roberts would not like this game.” She would not like how one wages intifada on the bastard soldiers and the settlers of Israel — and besides, he realizes, you do not get any power-ups.

He scoffs to himself. Of course she would not like it, lackey that she is to the Zionist propagandists of Hollywood. And he has heard of that woman’s great love of “Halo,” a product of the high-tech infidel Mr. Bill Gates, whose “Windows” product has already consumed the computers of the entire Muslim world. (Windows for watching what? he snorts. His unholy software crusade?)

Once again, though, the voice in his head comes:

“Miss Julia Roberts would not like this game.”

But this time, he feels a sharp pang, for he also pictures his beloved late sister Yasmeen, clapping her hands before the family television.

“Look, Sayyid!” Yasmeen laughs. “Is she not quite pretty?” On the blurry screen, above a jumble of Pakistani, Urdu, and Pashto subtitles, Miss Julia Roberts stands next to the Asiatic infidel Mr. Richard Gere, and she is punching her slim fist in the air, saying “Woof! Woof! Woof!”… and she is, indeed, a pretty woman. And she would not like this Hezbollah game he is playing now, for she likes Bungie’s “Halo,” and all it represents.

And at that very moment, the hatred just slips away. He hits Escape, and stands; “Special Force” exits to desktop. He will not, he decides right then, deliver this audiotape. He hands it to a passing beggar and makes his way to his friend Mir’s place, where an Xbox awaits him, and Miss Julia Roberts is out there somewhere too, preparing for his arrival with love, forgiveness, and an air-cooled minigun.

The influence of deathmatch, Julia Roberts-style, spreads and takes new forms with each country it enters. “To Julia” becomes a verb, and the word means carnage. Within years, international disputes are resolved in multiplayer. (After some training by Dennis “Thresh” Fong — who’s also quite good at tearful reconciliations, as it turns out — Bush and Chirac bring back the old clan and become agile enough to best the remaining members in the Axis of Evil clan.) And it is as CAA had foreseen (for CAA is always right), but then it grows far beyond what even they had imagined. Millions crowd into the game servers of all the nations, waiting their turn to be slain by Her. For the reach of Julia Roberts will encompass the entire world (which is Covenant), and She will become Shiva, gibber of worlds, and we Her willing frag victims.

Bless us, O Julia Roberts. Bless us in bloody benediction, O bearer of mystic pizza, O flatliner, O briefer of pelicans, O lover of trouble. Lay your thumbs upon the game-pad button of mortality, to let your SSM missiles seek us out, their cloud-white contrails erasing all our sins. Let the rockets find us, and launch us skyward, twirling and flailing into your waiting arms.