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Monthly Archives: April 2014

 

 

Bullets.

 


Raiden
was my introduction to STGs.

What hooked me into the game was its clean presentation and great controls. It was the first scrolling shooter that I played with any level of seriousness.

My goal in those years was always to see how far I could get on only one credit. While I never beat Raiden without continuing, I really enjoyed the time I spent with the game.

The Raiden series has grown up since the first game came out in 1990, but it has retained much of what defined that first entry developed by Seibu Kaihatsu.

However, the series has not aged well. Even later entries such as Raiden IV (developed by MOSS, a team of ex-Seibu devs formed after the company went bankrupt) retain much of the early mechanics (direct fire, sparse enemies).

I understand that what makes one series in a genre stand out from another is precisely what the devs define as the series’ core values. In the case of Raiden, those values center around precision. The game wants you to be in the right places firing at the right speed as enemies shoot directly at your ship.

With its insistence on precision, Raiden cannot keep up with the innovations of the genre.

When I first played Strikers 1945 (developed and released by Psikyo in 1995) it felt like something had totally changed.

It was a faster game, it was the kind of game that forced you to focus.

It was the fighting game of shooters.

The enemies would swoop in and fire rapid bullet streams that spread through the screen, forcing the player to weave and counter. Each boss was comprised of nested mini-bosses. The music drove everything.

Strikers was the better game, why? With all its elegance, why couldn’t the Raiden series stand up to this?

Because Strikers had intensity, it was all digital grit where Raiden was the stuff of cold patience.

After Strikers, STGs became mind-melting exercises in intensity.

A movement that was especially driven by Japanese developer Cave.

Cave released DoDonPachi in 1997 after the success of the more mild DonPachi in 1995. DoDonPachi featured swarms of enemies that fired massive bullet curtains, a very intense aesthetic, excellent music, and great animation.

DoDonPachi took everything that made Strikers great and pushed things even further. DDP is as close to an ideal arcade game as any company could get at the time. It never felt ‘cheap’, it was very much a game of skill, and it was visually captivating.

After DoDonPachi, shooters have only become more intense. Games like Mushihimesama Futari 1.5 (also developed by Cave) have bullet patterns that look like ocean waves.

The DonPachi series itself has remained fairly close to its roots throughout the years. DoDonPachi DaiOuJou (the fourth game in the series, released in 2002) is arguably the best STG ever made (more on that later).

 

Watercolor.

 

There are two schools of thought in the world of scrolling shooters:

1) The genre won’t continue to exist unless new gameplay mechanics are added.

2) The genre will always thrive if it stays true to its roots.

In the first school, we see games like Sine Mora (developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper, released in 2012) which features a strong plot and a unique time-manipulation mechanic. Time is important in Sine More because it is the measure by which you succeed or fail.

However, the best game to come out of this school is Ikaruga (developed by G.Rev and Treasure, released in 2002).

Ikaruga has reached legendary status not only among STG enthusiasts, but among the gaming community as a whole. It has been ported to system after system through each console generation and was recently released in February 2014 on Steam.

It is an icon.

Ikaruga’s attraction lies in the innovations it makes in the three core game elements present in any STG: Aesthetics, shooting mechanics, and music.

The game has fantastic art. The environments are well-defined and deep, your ship is asymmetrical and beautiful, the enemies (especially the bosses) are extremely detailed and fluid. The whole game is amazingly cohesive. The hook in Ikaruga is that you don’t simply dodge bullets, you transform your ship to absorb one of two kinds of bullets.

The game has two enemy types: light and dark. Each enemy type fires either light or dark bullets. The player’s ship can switch between light and dark, whatever color the ship is, is whatever color you can absorb. This has made Ikaruga a favorite for players looking for High Score challenges.

What makes Ikaruga’s soundtrack so unique in the genre, is that it is voluminous. Most arcade STGs rely on electronic thumping and grinding to push their games forward. Ikaruga’s music is very orchestral and does an excellent job at conveying a sense of loss.

If Ikaruga is the best game of the innovative shooter school, which game is the best of  the second, more traditional school?

DoDonPachi DaiOuJou.

 

Dollhouse.

 

In spite of all the innovations and the high-level coherence Ikaruga displays, it feels like a puzzle game.

Ikaruga is less Raiden and more Tetris: Maneuver the ship to fit into the bullet patterns.

I admire the game for what it does. I admire the devs behind Ikaruga for making a shooter that takes itself seriously, that is somber and heroic.

But there are times when the gloss tears, that you cannot help but feel that the game is a series of novelties, the game plays with itself and its own mechanics. After playing Ikaruga long enough, it gets a little boring.

The strange part is that the game starts out so strong, it throws you right into the action, but with its constant referencing to a single mechanic (switching colors), both by enemies and by the environments, it wears on you.

This is where DaiOuJou wins.

DOJ lacks all of the finesse that defines Ikaruga. Its music is brash and loud. The environments are dark, synthetic, and alive.

DaiOuJou is all about force: Gunning through the swarm.

The title of the game is roughly translated as “Blissful Death.” It has no illusions about itself. It asks a lot of the player.

I recently described DaiOuJou as a ‘cyberpunk samurai death poem.’

It is an ode to the extreme focus and insight demanded of the player in occupying a beautiful and uncomfortable place. It is a process of celebrating your mistakes and being reborn.

The action in DOJ is intense. Enemies explode, multi-colored bullet spreads cover the screen, you scrape by in pixels.

This is a vast departure from what Ikaruga offers.

For a non-traditional game, Ikaruga can almost be seen as an extension of Raiden’s elegance. Ikaruga and Raiden are both quiet, cool, thoroughly-designed games.

On the other hand: DaiOuJou is the diary of a medieval battle-axe.

For all the credit that Ikaruga has received over the years, DOJ never quite got the attention it deserved.

I understand that a lot of this has to do with taste, but as an avid fan of shooters, it is very difficult for me not to see the amount of thought that went into crafting and honing DaiOuJou from a team of arcade purists that almost single-handedly drive the genre today.

It is Ikaruga’s mechanical novelty that fundamentally propels it as a phenomenon. DoDonPachi DaiOuJou, though, is driven by the purity of its action.

It is a rapid-fire exploration of the significance of moments.

DaiOuJou is a celebration of beauty and decay.

It deserves a second look.

 

It is the better game.

 

 

 

 

 

Film.

 

Growing up my mother told me to respect women:

“If a woman hits you don’t ever hit back.”

The rest I was going to have to figure out on my own.

As a child, I was always more comfortable in the company of girls. In those early years when identity is at its most fluid, I felt more relaxed in with the opposite sex than I did with my own.

I suppose two things drove me to that point:

1) A fair amount of bullying from other boys.

2) A lack of judgment when hanging out with girls and older women.

It wasn’t until I really got into video games in elementary school that I began to find other boys like me, the outliers.

One of my problems in relating to damn near anyone has always been my attraction to complicated ideas.

Even though I am often struck by starkness and elegance, my mind tends to get lost in the larger picture of things. I would say this has granted me the ability to see very tenuous links between objects or ideas.

In a family of engineers, this has done me no favors.

Games, though, that was a shared narrative. Myself and anyone else in that group could talk about them without the fear of being misunderstood (a big frustration of mine to this day).

So that was my company as a child: Gamers and girls…and girl gamers.

Some of the best afternoons I had living in southern California in the 90’s was playing Double Dragon on the NES with my friend Nadine while talking about Salt-n-Pepa.

I discovered Kirby’s Dreamland while attending one of her swimming competitions.

 

Hello.

 

One of the things that we lose as we grow older is that fluidity of identity and culture that leaks across gender lines.

It was never considered weird or abnormal to see girls on the playground with Gameboys, plugging away at Metroid.

It was never considered out-of-place for a boy to play made-up imagined games with a girl.

But something changes somewhere and the Gameboys are stowed, the imagination falters and things get serious for a while, I suppose somewhere around the time when romantic love becomes a thing.

The outliers remain, but they are not as abundant. From sixth grade on, games become overwhelmingly male-dominated.

This is where things get strange.

After spending the entirety of my childhood gaming and reading, I had absorbed the hero’s narrative. I decided at some point that I could be the savior to all the women that I met. It was almost as if I wanted to repay an imagined debt from my youth, that I owed women something for making the fringes in my life a little more comfortable.

Everytime I became involved with a girl to any degree, my foremost thought was “I have to protect her.” It was such a deep part of me that it felt like instinct.

In my childhood I had seen girls as my peers, I treated them the same as I treated my male friends, but things changed.

The fundamental problem of the hero’s narrative (especially in that dawn of modern games) is that you store the morals of the narrative without realizing it in those formative years. Much like fairytales are told to children to teach them morality and gender roles, games operated in a similar way then and operate that way today.

I was always uncomfortable with the assertive male dominance of Lebanese culture. Assertiveness in general is a strange feeling for me because I see the world as a stark and fluid place with little room for certainty.

In spite of this, I became patronizing. I became a ‘White Knight’.

The problem centers around not viewing women as fully formed people, but rather as stereotypes that either need saving or protection. By the fact of their gender, they cannot function well without a male around.

I’m not putting the blame solely on games for this, that would be ridiculous. Societies and cultures all over the world are coded with this message and I was simply the latest sponge to absorb it.

I didn’t used to understand the problem with my approach towards women, I genuinely thought that I was one of the good guys, a real feminist.

I read Sylvia Plath.

I read Nawal El-Saadawi’s novel ‘Woman At Point Zero’ and rather than really analyze what was going on, I leaned on the idealistic crux that ‘men are jerks, women got it rough!’, missing the deeper points and nuance of a story about a woman choosing to die as a final act of freedom after being pushed around by circumstance and difficulty in patriarchal Arab society.

Fundamentally, being a ‘White Knight’ is really not so different from being outright dismissive of them.

You’re never really listening to them, you’re simply waiting for them to say something where you can jump in and help or ‘correct’ them.

You’re erasing women as people.

Narrative games propagate this. To this day, the narratives simply have not expanded. There are some interesting things being done by the likes of Bioware and Bethesda in the mainstream, but for a vast majority of games, it’s the typical male hero narrative/power fantasy.

I recall a young woman released a game a few years ago that dealt with some of the darker issues of her life (can’t remember the name). It had gained some attention online and I read about it on some gaming sites. Despite what she was trying to do, there was so much hate directed at her mostly coming from male gamers.

They kept deriding her for making some garbage game that talked about ‘girls’ emotions. Some of them went so far as to question the experiences she lived through. They attacked and marginalized her without even giving her a chance.

The darker extension of the ‘White Knight’: Women can’t have a voice, especially not in games.

 

Expansion.

 

In college, I was fairly lonely. No place to fit in.

I took literary and poetry classes where I felt everyone’s writing was bloated, over-reaching garbage. The new attempts at intelligentsia.

I tried taking mathematics and programming to try to strengthen my weakest fields, only to feel alienated.

I attended philosophy and political theory courses where I was most comfortable with the professors, but the students either didn’t care or didn’t think enough about the world.

I wrote for a newspaper, but people really didn’t like what I had to say.

I saw the Dalai Llama speak. That was fulfilling, but unsustatining in the face of the blank confusion lurking in the corners of my life.

It wasn’t until I wandered into a Gamestop in Downtown Madison on a dark, rainy day looking for something to play on my PSP.

I saw the box art for Guilty Gear and I thought: “Hey! Yeah! I remember that game!”

I used to hang out in arcades a lot in my youth, spending a lot of time on STGs and fighting games. While I understood at that time the nuance of scrolling shooters (one-cc, high score, multipliers, etc.), I hadn’t really thought too much about fighting games then.

I bought Guilty and that became a haven for me. I sat outside my classes just practicing all the motions on the awful PSP nub.

Eventually, I bought all the fighting games I could for the PS2.

My first stick was an X-Arcade.

Around this time I met a girl from France: Elise. She had come to UW-Madison to study law for six months.

She was very sharp. She wouldn’t let me get away with my usual bullshit. When I tried to ‘White Knight’ her, she would deflect until she got to my real face.

She made me deal with her on mutual terms, as equals.

Along with that association, I had discovered a professor on campus: Dr. Moneera Al-Ghadeer, a prominent middle eastern feminist and academic with a mind sharper and clearer than many of the Zen masters I read today.

Moneera forced me to come to terms with my identity. She forced me to find my own voice instead of reciting narratives that I had digested. She forced me to synthesize my own views.

While I was still uncomfortable being outwardly assertive, I decided I needed to dig into myself and see what’s in there.

I began to see all the mistakes I had made with myself.

In high school, after 9/11, some other kids would call me ‘Bin Laden.’ Some classmates started making terrorist jokes.

My closest friends didn’t though.

Still, for some, I was the token brown kid.

As if it wasn’t enough that I was a different race, I was also just a weird kid reading Lovecraft and Nietzsche, playing Neo-Geo Pocket at school.

I should have made the connection sooner between my marginalization and the way I had been acting with women.

I don’t know why it took me so long.

So, there I was, learning fighting games and digging into myself all at once.

The greatest beauty in fighting games is the telling. You can tell so much about the player based on how they play and what character they pick.

Fighting games provide a window into a person’s mind. They showed me something I was beginning to become aware of: I lived on autopilot. I accepted information without any critique or analysis.

I had been a sponge for as long as I had been alive.

 

Grip.

 

As I dug further into the FGC (Fighting Game Community), I began to see a place that accepts all kinds.

I began to see a place full of talented, devoted people from a whole host of backgrounds. I was a brown kid among other brown kids, I wasn’t on the margins anymore.

Fighting games, by the nature of their design, also touch on the fluidity across the sexes that all of us experienced when we were young. You have males, females, different races, different ages.

However, the most interesting thing is after awhile, you no longer see them that way. You see the characters as sets of tools, you judge them based on what they do, not where they come from or look like.

You try to find a character that is mechanically and aesthetically an expression of yourself.

While the FGC might be the most inclusive community in gaming, it still has a sexism problem which has reared its head on more than a few occasions in the last few years.

Star female players like Kayane have to work so much harder at getting respect in the FGC, often being viewed as either a novelty or being judged by appearance.

Here again we find the dark extension of the narratives that marginalize women, even in a place driven by multi-racial communities.

My life since college has been a slow, agonizing process of deconstruction.

Deconstructing language, deconstructing beliefs, deconstructing myself, and deconstructing my view of women.

There are times when you can’t start something on your own, but at some point, you are in charge of your own momentum: Fighting games and some insightful, brave women were my trigger.

Its amazing to me how much effort it takes to unclog the mind, to remove all the passive garbage that society and culture dump on you.

I am married now and still looking for that fluidity of my youth. I see the small changes being made by the games industry, I hear the discussions taking place in the fighting game communities, I wish they would grow faster.

I wish people would stop being so damn defensive when confronted with another perspective.

There are some things a person just does not have the tools to understand.

Ever since I stopped my own awkward and dangerous thinking on women, I have become more open to the world as a whole. Things are less rigid for me and through my wife, I am able to gain even more insight into my own interactions with women.

It’s impossible to say that a person can ever understand someone else completely. Language does a mediocre job simply because it is colored by experience.

I think the first step towards growth is the willingness to march alone into the darkness of the self.

Will the games industry as a whole be willing to do that? Are people in general even willing to do that?

 

I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

Gaze.

 

One summer, a year or two before college graduation, my father decided to help my brother and I out and bought us laptops.

We decided (not knowing much about laptops in the mid-2000’s) to get Lenovo Thinkpads similar to what my father had. They seemed well-built, portable, and powerful. At that time, neither of us were into PC gaming. These were going to be our work computers.

When the laptops finally did come, my brother was more excited than I was. I had no idea what to do with it. The desktop I had at the time was an old, junky Compaq Presario that I used mostly as an internet machine and to play the occasional bout of Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. So, I felt that this new laptop was useless to me.

I gave up on hardcore PC gaming in the 90’s during the era of rapid hardware development. At that time, new GPU’s and architectures were being announced every other week and being a young child with no job left me little choice but to stick with consoles like I had since the 80’s.

So when the laptops came, I had no idea what to do with mine. I opened it up, turned it on, updated it, and that’s it. For about the first week that I had it, I would just turn it on, mess around, turn it off.

As the days went by, as I did my research, I realized that because our laptops had dedicated Nvidia GPU’s, maybe I could go back and play all the cool PC games that I had missed out on.

My first two purchases were The Orange Box and Doom 3. They both ran amazingly. I was even more excited.

I began doing research into making my laptop run at max power and efficiency. I dove into the world of hacked third-party video drivers to boost my GPU’s performance and overclocking the CPU.

I would stay up until 6 am some nights, alone in my room, running benchmark after benchmark until I knew I could no longer push the thresholds without potentially damaging the computer.

It got to the point where I was able to push a mid-range business laptop to play Gears of War on high settings and Crysis on medium.

That Thinkpad was transformative to me, it opened me up to technology in a way cell phones and consoles couldn’t.

There are few things that could recreate that feeling of overclocking, optimizing, benchmarking late into the night, alone with a thermos of coffee and the sounds of trains and the songs of owls  barreling through the distance.

Whenever I broke through some prior threshold, it felt like I was really doing something dynamic and exciting.

I was living out some deep-rooted technoir fantasy in my loneliness.

Nothing ever captured that feeling for me again. I would always try to find some way of visualizing that experience. It was the sort of experience that not even poetry could capture.

Words fail often. Sometimes you need something more visceral.

That’s why I would’ve never believed that an iOS game would be able to bring back that feeling of loneliness and technological isolation.

 

 

Teeth.

 

868-HACK is a game by Michael Brough released late last year on iOS. The game is best described as a cyberpunk hacking roguelike. Its aesthetic is a lo-fi, low-res, glitch-driven dungeon.

It looks like something the crew in Alien would play on their ship’s monitors.

The music of the game suits the atmosphere. The game’s soundtrack features a low-pitched echoed electronic stumbling that does an excellent job of conveying a cold, digital world.

The music feels like the echo of an alley in some technoir world. A place shrouded in darkness, alienation, and glitch.

868-HACK operates like a cross between a board game and minesweeper. Fundamentally, it is a game about making choices in the unknown. The player controls a smiley icon which they have to navigate through a level to an end goal.

The point of the game is to reach the goal of each level without getting killed by viruses and glitches while collecting as many power-ups, dollars, and energy points as possible. The player can only take three hits before losing.

The game is designed in such a way that the player has to decide how they want to approach each level: Do they need health? Do they need Data Siphons? Do they need powerups? Should they head for the goal to heal quickly? Should they milk the level for points?

This is a game about turn-based, strategic decision-making. This is a game about understanding your environment before even making your first  move.

 

 

Coin.

 

In a recent episode of the Insert Credit Podcast, a question was raised to the panel regarding what the first mobile game they played was that felt like a real game. 868-HACK is that game for me.

It has a cold strategic depth wrapped in a simple, low-res art style and claustrophobic level design reminiscent of having your eyes locked on a screen in a dingy arcade. The color palette only reinforces this with its bright, glossy, flickering neon shapes.

This game combines so many aspects of the late 80’s to mid 90’s cyberpunk scene that it is both a celebration of an aesthetic and a signifier of the dynamic impulse toward technological isolation. Its a game you’re never quite comfortable being in, but happy to occupy.

It is my understanding that Michael Brough made this game as part of a seven-day roguelike challenge. The idea that he could create such a cohesive aesthetic in such a short amount of time is phenomenal. Add to that the fact that it is actually an enjoyable, ‘real’ game and it becomes unbelievable.

868 is a different kind of indie game. While many indies are either trying to capture the 8/16 bit aesthetic or arcade action, 868 uses the culture of the era to represent the PC. The game is both a roguelike and a hacking simulation.

868 is effortless and curious. It digs into the cultural  imagination of modern technology during its coming of age.

868 isn’t just the feeling of devouring the potential of technology in the summer night:

It is an eloquent memorial to the isolation of that act and the aesthetic of a stranger time.

 

 

 

 

 

Barren.

 

Recently, Vlambeer and Devolver released a game: Luftrausers.

The game is a monochromatic 2-D alternate WWII-era combat flying shooter. Unlike other shooters (DoDonPachi, Ikaruga, Ketsui, etc.), the screen does not scroll and there are no levels. As the pilot of a ‘Rauser’ you are tasked with destroying as much of the enemy as possible in one screen while under a ceaseless onslaught.

The game mainly takes place over an unidentified ocean. At the beginning of the game your plane launches from a ship and immediately enemy planes and ships begin their relentless attack.

The sky has a ceiling which the Rauser cannot cross (depicted in-game by thick cloud cover) while the ocean is the lower threshold which you can dip into briefly.

Rather than having your typical ‘choose 1 of 3 ships’ present in many Japanese STGs (I hate the term Shmup. STG: Shooting Game), Luftrausers allows you to customize your ship by letting you unlock and choose the different parts: Gun, Body, Engine. The variety across the various parts ensures that no two builds feel even close to being the same and each time you launch with a new build, its name briefly appears on the bottom of the screen. The music also changes depending on the build.

You have no health bar and this is not a one-hit kill game.

Your indicator of health is the density of smoke coming off of your plane.  The unique mechanic here is an extension of what we have all become used to in modern FPSes: Stop shooting to recover health.

Luftrausers forces the player to balance offense and defense by implementing a point scoring system similar to many action/arcade games. The more enemies you kill in succession, the more your score multiplier increases. The multiplier maxes out at ‘x20′ and will only last for as long as the player can kill enemies quickly.

The score multiplier is important for competition, but what drives the mechanical narrative of the game forward is not only how many enemies you kill, but also the completion of various missions.

Each of the three parts of your Rauser has a set of missions attached to it. One weapon might ask you to score more than a specific number of points in one game, while the body might suggest that you kill a number of enemies after death (it’s possible), and the engine might task you with taking down a particular kind or set of enemies.

Completing these missions allows the player to unlock newer parts which fundamentally change the way the Rauser operates allowing the player to grow as a pilot.

All of Luftrausers’ mechanical components act only to push the game forward in efficient and creative ways.

 

Ashura.

 

Vlambeer has not had an easy time of things the past year. Vlambeer nearly ceased to exist due to the extreme stress of fighting against a clone of their wildly successful mobile game: Ridiculous Fishing.

The anger and resentment at potentially losing everything had drilled down into their core. This sentiment came out recently when one of the people behind Vlambeer, Rami Ismail, published an article on Kotaku titled: ‘We Made This Game When We Were Angry.’

Rami discusses how he can no longer relate to the person he was when working on Luftrausers, the anger he felt just isn’t there anymore. At one point, he even declares that “Luftrausers is a game made by people who don’t exist anymore.”

The worst kinds of people are the kinds of people who never find growth after some hardship. The kinds of people who remain frozen in a single emotion, a single time that ends up slowly defining them over their lifetime.

It is especially important for game developers to allow themselves to feel and express a wide-range of emotion in what they do.

While I am happy that Rami and Vlambeer have grown past the anger and resentment that fueled Luftrausers, the game itself is a beautiful example of a game crafted from one emotion: Rage.

 

Fall.

 

Before Luftrausers, the game which encapsulated rage most viscerally was God of War III. In it the anti-hero, Kratos, seeks vengeance on the Gods that toyed with and betrayed him.

The game gained notoriety for some of the extreme violence that took place. One scene had Kratos gouging out the eyes of Apollo during a QTE near the end of the boss fight.

The God of War series has always had a few problems. The biggest of those problems is the conveyance of Kratos’ rage to the player. The player never feels the anger, hate, or betrayal that Kratos did.

After playing through GoWIII and not feeling the impact of Kratos’ desire for vengeance, I went back and played through every God of War game before that to try and track the narrative again. I wanted to trace how Kratos arrives where he does in the third chapter.

Even after doing that, I couldn’t find his rage.

Where the narrative in God of War falters is that Kratos is already angry from the beginning. Where do you go from the point of rage? More rage? That doesn’t work.

The developers themselves acknowledged in an interview that after GoWIII, they wanted to scale back Kratos’ aggression because he was becoming an unrelatable, one-dimensional jerk.

God of War’s expression of rage is something the player is shown, rather than made to feel: An enormous catharsis machine churning alone, surrounded by mannequins. There is no edge or relevance here.

God of War was designed as a conveyance of aggression and spectacle rather than being a product of aggression and rage. This is why Luftrausers is the better designed game: It was born whole-heartedly from a darker place.

 

Gotterdammerung.

 

Luftrausers is angry, almost nihilistic.

In casting the player as the only pilot gunning against the swarms of enemies, there is an insinuation that your ‘side’ has already lost whatever war you were fighting. That at this point winning doesn’t matter: Kill everything you can.

This starkness is further enforced by the monochromatic color scheme which only shows the silhouettes of your Rauser and the enemy, almost as if everything is being drowned in the light of some setting sun.

I’ve noticed when playing Luftrausers that I start every attempt with the usual strategic logic only to very quickly be driven by some primal desire to take out as many of the enemy as I can. The music itself is a militaristic dark electro theme that pulls the id out of the player.

When jets go down, they go down in an arching silhouette of flame, eventually crashing into the ocean. When large battleships go down, they explode in massive fireballs and sink in ruin. When you can’t hit the enemy with bullets, you ram them and rip them apart.

In the Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote:

” If one’s sword is broken, he will strike with his hands. If his hands are cut off he will press the enemy down with his shoulders. If his shoulders are cut away, he will bite through ten or fifteen enemy necks with his teeth. Courage is such a thing. ”

Luftrausers is courageous and asks you to be the same.

Luftrausers doesn’t show you what rage looks like, but it makes you feel it in your bones. Nearly every explosion has a weight that shakes the screen, as if every enemy killed is a minor victory.

There is a particular Rauser build that allows for a nuclear detonation upon death. The explosion is in the shape of a giant skull.

The only elegance and extravagance you are allowed in the game is the ability to maneuver. Different engines propel and turn your plane at different speeds with different effects. Movement is the only aspect in which the player can flourish and even then you can use movement to destroy enemies through momentum.

All of these features are present in Luftrausers normal game, but just as the games design unlocks the primal conciousness of the player, the game itself dives further into its own nightmare once the player unlocks ‘SFMT Mode’ which spawns enemies at a near impossible rate.

The music is replaced with air raid sirens.

In SFMT, Luftrausers does away with all mechanical and design courtesy, it is simply a beating of the heart in the void.

Luftrausers is a masterpiece of game design. I have never seen a game like this.

This game was built from the ground up to express a single emotion in a very compelling, engaging way. Everything from the game mechanics, to the music, to the art all work together effortlessly to drive rage deep into the bones of the player.

In my previous post on war, I stated that at some point in war you just stop caring who is winning and who is losing, you just become angry at everything.

Luftrausers isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about expressing yourself one last time. It’s about burrowing deep into the soul of the enemy and flourishing in the dread.

Vlambeer have done something amazing here, and while they may have moved on and grown past the milestone that Luftrausers represents, it will always be a testament to their resiliency and the strength of their self-reflection.

 

Muramasa.

 

ELEVATION

Above the valleys and the lakes : beyond
The woods, seas, clouds, and mountain-ranges : far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,

My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.

Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisit liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.

Beyond where cares and boredome hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:

Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeeze,
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.

-Charles Baudelaire (Trans. Roy Campbell)

 

 

I HAVE A RENDEZVOUS WITH DEATH

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

-Alan Seeger

 

 

 

 

LEBANON-CIVIL WAR-CAR BOMB BLAST-MOSLEM

 

Variations on an Abyss.

 

#1)

 When I was young, I had the opportunity to spend most of my summers in Lebanon. I am Lebanese. My parents would take my brother and I back to Lebanon to get to know the country they left and to develop closer ties with my family half a world away.

Most of my family live in a village in the mountains near the mid-south called Kfarhatta, about 20 minutes outside of Saida. My maternal grandmother lives in a house that overlooks the main road. On the other side of that road was a steep decline, and there was a soccer field at the bottom. It wasn’t actually a soccer field though, it was just dirt. It was a plot of land that a local man used to grow some plants occasionally, but when he wasn’t, it was our soccer field.

Surrounding the field was a thicket of trees. The field wasn’t large by any standard, but it was enough for the village children and I to play soccer.

During one particular game one summer (I was 9 or 10), I kicked the ball into the thicket and ran out to get it. Near where the ball had landed I found an unexploded grenade. I brought it back to the field with the ball.

I showed my friends what it was. I was really excited that I had found a relic of the war that plagued Lebanon for nearly 30 years. I wanted to keep it until an older village kid told me it was dangerous and could explode at anytime. He took the grenade and threw it into the valley below.

We continued our game.

 

#2)

 Most summers when my parents weren’t able to stay in Lebanon as long as my brother and I, we would stay with one of my paternal aunts.

My uncle designed and built his house himself with the help of his four sons. He was a master electrician with  a penchant for language and history. In his youth he had been an exceptional bodybuilder.

On the final day of our stay in Lebanon on this particular summer (I don’t remember how old I must have been), I was sitting with my aunt in the rear bedroom where my cousins and I all slept, helping my aunt pack my suitcase. I was mid-sentence in saying something when a sudden explosion went off.

It wasn’t really something you heard so much as something you felt in your stomach. Your insides shake as the ground shakes, it feels like you’ve been thrown into a jet engine.

We ran outside. I moved purely on instinct, I had no control.

Outside we ran to the side of the house. An artillery shell landed through the back wall of the house down the road. They were distant relatives of mine as well.

We continued to the side entrance of the above ground basement my uncle built into his house. We waited and listened in the dark. A second artillery shell slammed down further down the road, landing just behind the third house on our stretch of street.

I was angry and I knew I couldn’t do anything. The oldest of my four cousins was in the police force, he was with us in the basement, he had to tell me to shut up so that he could listen for an all-clear before heading out to a car that was picking us up.

When the car came we ran outside and I stubbed my toe on a cinderblock (I was barefoot) and when I looked down, the floor was covered with shrapnel. We made our escape to another house in the village.

At the second house, there were rumors of attack helicopters coming in, you could also here the fighters in the sky.

The sound of jet engines is the most horrifying noise in war.

On the way back to my aunt’s house (by car) to get our things and leave for Beirut we found one of our neighbor’s children just roaming the street far from the house and sobbing, confused. We pulled him into the car and asked him what happened. His mother had been pinned underneath the rubble of the rear wall that had collapsed on her. He had tried to pull the rubble off of her, but she just screamed at him to get out, so he did, he ran.

We got back to the house, checked it for physical damage. My brother and I got our things, my father showed up and we dashed for Beirut.

 

#3)

I stayed with my grandmother a lot when I was very young. I would go to sleep with the sound of machinegun fire in the distance. My grandmother would come in and try to explain that these were guerilla fighters attacking occupation forces. That never made me feel better.

There was always retaliation.

 

#4)

The way I understand it, my paternal uncle M. was something of a hero in my village.

My father (Then working as a vice detective in Beirut) bought him a .38 revolver (long barrel). M. loved that gun.

My uncle was tall, athletic, and generally respected. He had the reputation of being a tough guy.

Once there was a rabid dog that was attacking livestock in the village. It was savage and, even in its madness, an excellent hunter. It was hard to track.

After some time, some men in the village managed to track it to an unkempt field with long grass. They called my uncle.

He showed up with his .38. It was in the afternoon. He stepped into the field and slowly tried finding the dog. After sometime the dog came after him. He killed it with one shot.

M. was political (it was impossible not to be at that time), he was involved in the civil war that centered mainly in and around Beirut.

He was gunned down. Ambushed in the night, at a checkpoint just outside of Beirut. I’ve heard it told that he took down six of the people who ambushed him before dying.

This was the greatest tragedy in my father’s family.

 

#5)

In 2006, I went to Lebanon in the summer. One morning in July, there was a news report that certain guerillas had crossed the border into a neighboring country and taken two soldiers on patrol near the border hostage. The details were in dispute, but retaliation was quick.

That afternoon, I had gone with my cousins (who had just arrived in Lebanon the previous day) to eat at a restaurant 15 minutes outside of the village. The place was empty, we sat down and ordered our food. Before the food had come I was getting phone calls that things were getting serious. I ignored them.

I sat there until that sound came back, the engines. I looked up and saw a fighter dropping flares. One of the flares landed just below the restaurant on the mountainside. A fire started. We drove back to the village.

That night we stood on the balcony of my maternal aunt’s house, her home was elevated above other ones in the village. We watched the refugees in the nearby city firing red and green tracers at the planes flying overhead. They lit up the sky like Christmas.

My mother built a home in the village a few years earlier, it stood on the top of a mountain, isolated and exposed, we thought it was dangerous to stay there so we went and stayed with my grandmother in the village itself. As the days wore on, my brother was growing more anxious. The psychological impact of the engines was weighing on us all: Where would the bombs drop?

The airport was the first target, they bombed the runways and fuel storage tanks, the fuel leaked into the ocean. The act was condemned internationally. We couldn’t get out.

The decision was made after the guerillas managed to score an attack on an opposing battleship sitting in the Mediterranean to leave for Beirut and get out of the country.

We had to take a back road to the capital because they had bombed nearly every bridge and main road in the country. The only beautiful thing to come out of the trip was seeing where the Druze lived. Their land was high in the mountains, covered with a thick fog, streetlights glowing softly, it was a whole other world.

We made it to Beirut and stayed in a hotel for a few days. We were interviewed by someone from ABC News. I was frustrated. The American government had taken no action up to this point. Other nations had evacuated their citizens prior, in the first days. We felt abandoned.

The bombing in South Beirut (the guerillas stronghold) was ceaseless. You could hear it all the time from the hotel. I found irony in the fact that the opposing army was bombing Lebanon with munitions supplied by the United States.

This is what it is to be from two worlds. There I am the American. Here I am the Arab. There I was bombed on all the same. Here I am searched in airports most of the time.

War has a dumb, brutal logic that tears at any and all of a person’s identities.

Once it became evident that nothing was going to change, that the embassy was dragging its feet. We hired cabs and just headed for Syria. Eventually landing in Damascus. Two weeks later we bought our own tickets and flew back to the U.S.

The final irony being the inversion in circumstance: Now Lebanon is swarming with Syrian refugees escaping the nightmares of their own country.

A few days after I landed in the U.S., I heard a plane flying overhead. I was scared.

 

Crooked.

 

One of the major problems of realistic war games today, is the total inability to capture any of the fear, isolation, anxiety of actually being in an environment that is in the process of descending into total loss.

I recall reading an article once that discussed the devs behind Battlefield 3 and their reasoning for not having any civilians in any of the maps or city levels in their multiplayer. Their reasoning was that the player was to assume that the civilians had been evacuated and that had they included civilians (and in particular children) that people would do awful things to them.

I can understand the challenges (both financially and mechanically) of having a game with two opposing sides that players control try to navigate around a level with NPC civilians fleeing or hiding from the fighting. I could also understand the PR hell that would occur when mainstream media got hold of some footage on YouTube of a player only targeting civilians for a good laugh and hits to his YouTube channel.

Despite this, the image of war that is often depicted in games is too clean, too brazen, and gives players and consumers a hyper-sanitzed vision of what happens.

Jean Baudrillard once wrote a book titled ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place‘. In it, Baudrillard argued that in terms of the West, the Gulf War was not really a war, it was a massacre. Few casualties were reported on the coalition side, they avoided engaging the Iraqi army directly, and very little attention was payed to the Iraqi losses, both civilian and military. This asymmetrical, overbearing show of force was increasingly sanitized to present a clean, stoic narrative through the media to the American public. So while violence did take place, none of it was felt, none of it was presented.

Modern video games on war can be seen as an extension of this philosophy. The presentation of an ultra-slick, concise narrative (Call of Duty) with empty urban environments devoid of any civilian life (Battlefield) can be seen as an extension of the track that was firmly established in Gulf War 1.: Keep the audience engaged without showing them the costs.

It is also odd to me how games about war today often involve the opposing forces of nations that are viewed negatively in American and western media. Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, various Arab states have all been depicted as simply being ‘the enemy’. While I understand that a narrative requires an opposing force, an antagonist, the lack of creativity at play is evident.

It would be fine if this was simply a question of laziness and/or of what is financially feasible, however the danger behind not only removing civilians from the question of conflict and using modern states only in the context of ‘the enemy’ is the subtle propulsion of racism through the mind. The cementing of hostility.

Having played (and enjoyed!) most modern war games, it feels odd sometimes when I am tasked with killing people that I have a shared culture, language, and appearance with. This is the trouble of being caught in two worlds. Here I am the Arab. In games I am the American fighting for American dominance or the total other extreme of my shared identity: The terrorist.

In playing multiplayer, players are required to fill up the opposing roster on a team. However, does that really change anything? You aren’t given any insight or understanding into why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re just fighting, period. You’re digitally cosplaying as the enemy, nothing more. A virtual Marionette.

 

Churn.

 

A few weeks ago, I saw this. A new kind of war game. A game that is trying to show the rest of the world what being in a conflict is actually like.

This War of Mine‘ is a dark survival game being developed by 11 bit Studios  where you play as a group of civilians trying to stay alive in a city stumbling through the violence and misery of conflict. In this case, the opposing factions are in the background, they are the parameters, the fringes that can (and will) kill you.

While other games pushed out by large publishers like EA and Activision justify their lack of civilians as the removal of a financial, cultural, or mechanical burden, ‘This War of Mine’ allows room for both the conflict and the civilians.

Having lived (in parts and pieces) through war, I can attest to the realism of 11 bit’s approach. Being stuck in a large-scale conflict, you are not only full of dread and anxiety, but after a certain point you don’t care anymore who is right or wrong. You stop caring what side is winning or losing. None of it matters, you just want to try and live.

I watched this game being played at PAX East 2014. I watched someone having to make decisions about what to send out with survivors. Basically, since in the game you have to gather supplies to make sure everyone can stay alive, you need to choose to send certain people from your group out into the city to try to find some way of getting supplies to aid the group back at the home base. Sometimes people just don’t come back. Sometimes people are just gunned down.

While the game is mechanically interesting, it has a very strong aesthetic. The colors are dark, the survivors and their environments are broken.

There is no flourishing here either aesthetically or mechanically.

Some might be turned off by a game as dark as this, especially in the U.S. where we have become so used to winning (however you can define that) in the post-Vietnam era.

But this game is necessary.

It is necessary to an industry that has become an extension of the ‘America wins’ narrative and to all the gaming communities the world over to understand the horrible loss of identity and the shouldering of a dread that slowly consumes the heart. War is the excruciating process of being broken.

‘This War of Mine’ will hopefully get other devs to think of what’s possible, about the kinds of experience that people need to feel to understand.

“In war, not everyone is a soldier.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Geometry

 

Pythagoras.

 

Prior to PAX East 2014, I had not heard of Midnight City. I bought both Gone Home and Double Dragon Neon and I had never noticed Midnight City before.

Prior to PAX East 2014, I only heard discussion about Videoball on the Insert Credit Podcast. Tim Rogers (Creative Director of Action Button Entertainment and founder of ActionButton.net) would describe and discuss this game as he was building it. I never saw it.

I never watched the Twitch streams of Videoball either, it was a game I already knew I wanted to play, I didn’t need any convincing.

Action Button’s track record with games thus far has been inspiring. ZiGGURAt (iOS): A fantastic game that subverts tower-defense by forcing accuracy and timing with smooth touchscreen controls. TNNS (iOS): A fast-paced, colorful, arcade exploration of physics. Ten by Eight (Vita): A puzzle/matching game that is silkier and more filling than any of the Bejeweled games.

Each one of these games was published by Action Button themselves across the different platforms. I expected the same would be true for Videoball, until I saw Midnight City.

I had no idea what to expect from PAX this year.

In 2013, PAX was host to a barrage of huge games: Tomb Raider, Hitman, Hawken, Elder Scrolls Online, Hearthstone, Assassin’s Creed IV, Remember Me, Watch Dogs, a whole bunch of Capcom reboots, etc.

I had no idea what PAX 2014 would offer. I walked into it with no expectations and was filled with a kind of excited emptiness.

As I stepped into the convention center in Boston, I noticed Bethesda’s booth showing the same trailer for Elder Scrolls Online as they did the year before. I caught a bit of their Wolfenstein trailer, and I managed to feel actual excitement for The Evil Within.

Further in, I caught a glimpse of the massive boss statue from Evolve. I had heard good things about that game, but as with nearly all games at PAX, I had no interest in trying it. I simply moved past the crowd idling, snapping photos.

I wandered around the booths for a while, wondered what was the point of both Borderlands and their particular booth (It was a dome painted like a planet). That game is pretty, but mechanically dull.

At this point I had begun feeling as if this trip was useless. What was I doing in a place where I wasn’t really excited for anything being shown? What was the point of the whole thing?

In 2013, the indie games section of PAX was nothing really exciting or notable. The only game then that caught my eye was Mercenary Kings with its Metal Slug aesthetic and 2-D open world gameplay. I kept it in mind.

In 2014, with nothing else to do, I took a stab again at the indie games section where I finally caught the Midnight City booth.

 

Quine.

 

As I approached Midnight City, the first game that popped out was Krautscape (PC): A procedurally-generated racing game where you can cut through the winding, elevated track by flying from one turn to another provided you hit all required checkpoints. The game was attractive, covered in red with a touch of blue and bold, fuzzy lines that insinuated movement.

Krautscape was being played on two giant screens near the walkway by the booth, which made it nearly impossible to miss.

Even though I had little idea what Midnight City was, I already began to feel that I had stumbled into something significant and serious. It was only when I turned around to check out the other games that I found myself stunned to find Videoball.

I had heard Tim Rogers talking on the Insert Credit Podcast about attending PAX Prime and having mixed feelings about it due to the founders of Penny Arcade having dealt with certain controversies controversially. I got the sense that he probably would not be interested in supporting this event again so it was genuinely surprising to see both Tim Rogers and Videoball in this venue.

For the first time since arriving at PAX, I felt like I was somewhere I belonged.

I had never actually seen Tim Rogers in person before, I had only read his writing and listened to his voice. He was dressed as an extension of Videoball: Neon green and hues of purple. Taking that all in, it was time to finally see what this game was about.

Tim explained the rules quickly and with excitement as games went on:

1) Each team is two players and there are two goals.

2) The ball spawns in the middle of the field.

3) Move the ball by shooting it.

4) Don’t touch the ball. Don’t get shot. You will freeze.

5) Use the left analog stick to move, all the face buttons do the same thing: shoot.

6) Holding the face buttons for varying amounts of time changes your ‘shot’.

7) Level 1 Shot: Small shot.  Level 2 Shot: Persistent Shot.  Level 3 Shot: Heavy Shot.  Level 4 Shot: Blocks.

8) Use blocks to stop balls from being shot into your goal.

9) Double Touchdowns are amazing.

10) Moving and shooting makes your shot faster.

11) There are reversals.

First, I watched others play the game. Videoball is a shower of neon pastel and geometric shapes. The balls are circles, the ships (players) are triangles, the blocks are squares, and the shots are even bigger triangles:

 

 

Screenshot of Videoball from Midnight-City.com

Screenshot of Videoball from Midnight-City.com

 

Normally, I do not enjoy games with abstract or minimal interfaces. I enjoy games that have a fluidity of motion and dense color which is one reason I tend to migrate towards older platformers and fighting games like Hokuto no Ken, Cyberbots, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Guilty Gear.

What all those games have in common as well, what really sucks me in, is the densities of their friction. The hits feel heavy, the characters feel fast, and everything seems to stick. There is no ‘floatiness’ or ‘wobbliness’, just a hard kind of density. Videoball has that density.

The ships don’t just zip around on the screen effortlessly. The ships feel like lead bricks propelled by small boat engines skittering around on a cold, still lake. It takes some time to build momentum and it takes some time to lose it, but you never feel out of control. There is a friction that you understand implicitly after the first time you play. It feeds into a part of your brain that understands the golden ratio of motion.

Because of the thrill of moving in the game, the most frustrating thing that can happen to a player is being  frozen by either getting shot or by touching the ball. Shots from either your team or the opposing team will freeze your ship for a few seconds.

In Videoball the greatest punishment is the inability to move.

Movement in Videoball is the highest insight.

 

Downs.

 

Most of my time at PAX I spent hanging out at the Videoball booth. It wasn’t until late into the second day of PAX that I realized Midnight City was incentivizing people to try out all of their games by issuing trading cards. If a person was to collect all five cards representing all five games being shown at PAX, then they would receive a Midnight City t-shirt.

All of the Midnight City games (Krautscape, Videoball, Organic Panic, High Strangeness, and Super Avalanche) were really interesting. Each of their games proposed something different both from each other and to their respective genres.

But Videoball had the strongest hook that kept drawing me back: The opportunity to expand in a competitive environment.

In this sense Videoball is a modern fighting game. You can only ever have a general idea of what your opponent will do and the flowchart you design in your mind will only be applicable if you can recognize what your opponent is doing before he gets too far along his flowchart.

In the sense of its friction, Videoball is a grimy, sticky arcade fighting game from the 90’s: Heavy and Dense.

The metagame revolves around how good a player is at shooting other players and not shooting your teammate. ‘Dogfighting’ in this game requires an incredible amount of finesse and patience as shots are slow to build. Shots are the currency of this game.

The friction of the game resembles hockey, the shooting resembles sniping, and the strategic nature and metagame revolve around the same kind of decisions a player makes in a fighting game. Videoball forces a sense of persistent motion that  most resembles soccer.

Videoball takes the best high-level thinking across multiple real and e-sports and throws them together into one coherent, elegant whole.

 

Wittgenstein.

 

Tim Rogers and his friend/cohort Vito Gesualdi hustled hard for this game. Tim decked out in his neon embodiment of Videoball and Vito in his mustard yellow sports (announcer) coat pushed this game harder than any other game/company at PAX. Their passion and fury was all on display.

By Sunday, Tim’s voice was faltering. He spent nearly the entire time at PAX just discussing/yelling/informing about his game.

The presentation of Videoball is part of what made it so intriguing.

One thing I noticed at this year’s PAX were the ‘pre-order’ booths. Literally booths where they would ask you to pre-order whatever triple-A game was being touted at that particular location. This struck me as slightly underhanded and manipulative: to ask people for money in an environment where they have been primed to spend money by the giant displays of flash. I don’t recall this tactic being used at PAX 2013.

The Videoball booth (and by extension the Midnight City booth) felt honest. Not only were the games exploring their respective genres in new ways, but they were honest games. The whole presentation of Midnight City was concise, clean, and enthusiastic.

Midnight City made me care about being at PAX. Videoball pulled me out of my bored thinking about games. Videoball made me want to talk about games and design again with anyone who would listen.

So many of the subtle elements in Videoball are a product of thorough analysis and a fricative coherence both strategically and aesthetically.

I actually enjoyed my time more at PAX this year than last year. So much more, that I felt a little sad at having to say good-bye to Tim, Videoball, and Midnight City on Sunday afternoon.

The power of games lies in the interaction of experience. How a person views a game in a particular time has a lot to do with what they are feeling at that time vs. what the game will give them, it’s a two-way street.

I’m not sure what holes in my mind both Videoball and Midnight City filled for me. Maybe they managed to stave off the increasing cynicism I have about modern games i.e. the sheer lack of design and thought in games today.

I came to PAX 2014 expecting nothing. I came out of it with a desire to do so much more for games.

I came out of it with hope and a desire to do something great for games, for a medium that has so much potential.

Actionbutton and Videoball are a raw expression of that potential and Midnight City, the facilitators.

Frank Lloyd Wright was convinced that excellent architectural design could solve a majority of societies problems.

I would say that good game design can solve a lot of problems that don’t need to exist in interactive entertainment, Videoball is the best proof of this…and the loudest shot against an industry that has become bloated, dumb, and self-referential to the point of total inanity.