A True Teenage Horror Story

A stylized image shows an Xbox power button and logo with the red-ring error symbol.

It would come sooner or later. There was no escape.
Image: Microsoft / Evan Amos / Kotaku

Hidden from the bustle of Jamaica Avenue, down a winding flight of stairs, the shop looked like a mausoleum, with stacks of busted PS2s, OG Xboxes, and GameCubes lining the walls. That small store in the Jamaica Colosseum Mall was the same place I’d once purchased Splinter Cell on PS2, Doom 3 for Xbox, and the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack, among many others. But the dead consoles served as a jarring reminder that as vivid as the worlds those boxes produced could feel, sooner or later our machines of dreams would cease to function.

Back in late 2005, standing on the cusp of a new console generation, I understood intellectually that, over time, some of the new, cutting-edge Xbox 360s and not-yet-released PlayStation 3s would die someday. Maybe after another decade that shop would be filled with hourglass-shaped white monoliths and glossy black Foreman grills. But not just yet. It was the beginning of a new era, after all.

Back then, my teenage social circle was busy bickering over silly console wars, arguing in fast-food restaurants over whether or not Killzone 2‘s 2005 E3 demo was real, or our PlayStation friends’ assurances that once we saw the next-gen SOCOMwe’d leave Halo and Xbox forever. But we all agreed on one thing: We were all psyched for the wild new possibilities these new machines promised. HD graphics, better custom music playlists, a conclusion (finally!) to Halo 2and the promise of true next-gen experiences like Gears of War. What a time to be alive.

And in an era of expensive texting plans and limited social media, the new HD consoles’ online functionality would soon mark a shift in our social lives. In fact, that was the very reason many of us sought out broadband internet. United online, our circle would surely stay as bright as the flashy rings on the Xbox 360 itself.

We all saved up enough from whatever random jobs we had at the time to buy 360s and fulfill the escapist desire that bekoned us after last period let out. Our afternoons were filled with round after round of Halo 2 (eventually Halo 3), trash talking, arguing over whether Korn was better off without Head, figuring out how to best apply Gears of War cover tactics to Haloconvincing someone to give Lost Planet a try, ordering Chinese takeout (leaving one friend in particular stuck with the bill. We’re good now, right?), trading burned Incubus and HIM discographies to rip to our 360 hard drives, blasting Lamb of God’s Sacramentand saying things like, “oh my god, have you seen this Mass Effect game coming out?” “oblivion nuts looks!” and “Would you kindly die so I can take your sniper rifle?” Single-player or multi, gaming never felt more exciting or promising.

Marcus Fenix ​​shoots at Locust soldiers.

Who knew that E-day would be the least of our fears?
Image: The Coalition

But in between the hollering over killing sprees and chainsawing aliens, talk occasionally turned to the rumors surfacing on forums about Xbox 360s suddenly failing. It always went the same way: a black screen, a bunch of red lights around the power button, and silence. Soon this failure had a name: The Red Ring of Death, or RRoD for short. I started out a skeptic and soon became a denier. “It can’t happen to us,” I thought. We were all relying on the 360 ​​to stay in touch and game together as we drifted toward adulthood. It couldn’t happen to us.

The apparent cause always varied: different people playing different games for different periods of time. Eventually it seemed like the only thing these stories had in common was that three-quarters of the power button lit up red like a stoplight. Surely, I thought, folks just needed to take better care of their machines. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t the 360’s time to start dying. We all thought it was still in its best day. In our best days even.

We thought wrong.

The first among us who fell victim had it the worst. Over the course of a few years, one friend in particular would go through four Xbox 360s. By then, our social circle was in panic mode. We tried to become experts on which models shipped when, trying to glue together the internet anecdotes with what we were hearing from victims we personally knew. Which 360s were most likely? Were launch models okay? Tea Halo 3 editing? The Elite? Does horizontal or vertical orientation matter? The panic of losing our machines made it hard to be sure. But it wasn’t just about missing out on Halo nights. The 360 ​​had become central to how we socialized.

We all started to physically drift apart after high school. Sure, MySpace was a thing, but it was Xbox Live that really kept our social circle intact. That’s where we not only gamed, but also talked about music, movies, life. All of it. Live became somewhat of a digital safe space as we faced the challenges of becoming adults.

But the red rings followed us online. When one of us fell to them, a portion of that social circle, much like the error sign on the machine itself, went dark. Microsoft’s repair program was generous, but we also couldn’t shake the fear of needing to spend another three or four hundred dollars. We worried over how much time we should spend on the machine. How much time we should spend with each other.

We all feared that we were gaming on borrowed time. A game of Capture the Flag could be redly interrupted. Some, like myself, tried to dig into the denial. How could the problem possibly be so widespread? But when someone with a Halo 3 edition finally got the error, the inevitability of death was too naked to deny. Eventually someone even RRoDed on an Elite, which we’d been sure was bulletproof. I remember a brief text exchange. “I did everything to keep it safe! I had three feet of space around it and an intercooler! How does this keep happening?”

Repair turnaround took weeks. And in the hectic buzz of moving from high school to college and getting full-time jobs, those weeks made it hard to keep up with each other and stay in touch. A 360 dying meant you wouldn’t speak to someone for weeks. Forget about rounds of Halo. We weren’t just deprived of our favorite game, the red rings actively pulled us apart from each other.

A lone Spartan stands in an empty Halo 3 map.

Pomegranates were exchanged for tumbleweeds as my friends fell to the rings.
screenshot: 343 Industries / Kotaku

The red rings of death became a fog that swallowed each of us, one by one. Somehow my launch console remained exempt, but the fear of it hitting me became too much. Toward the end of the decade I started exploring the PlayStation 3’s library, and tried to convince friends to do the same. But the damage was done. Time continued to pass and the Xbox 360, once central to my social circle, didn’t just fail us. It killed us, one by one.

In the blur of years during which everyone else I knew suffered red rings, things started to calm down. Newer Xbox models appeared to address the underlying overheating issue, but our online social circle was smaller by then.

Even so, the 360 ​​generation was far from over. We’d been through the worst of it, and still had amazing games to look forward to. One evening, I, the sole survivor, sat down to start up a new Mass Effect playthrough to get ready for the sequel.

But it was not to be. A dreadfully familiar series of lights appeared on the face of my Xbox, denying me entrance to the sci-fi RPG futureworld. After tearing through all of my friends, the Red Ring of Death had finally come for me.

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