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Monthly Archives: May 2014

 

 

 

Click.

 

 

Every summer, my options were limited.

Vacationing in the developing world, there are things you get used to: water stoppages, prolonged blackouts, looming violence, heat, etc.

Without reliable electricity, television was out, video games too for the most part.

Every summer until I was old enough to drive, my options were: read, write, draw, hunt, or play.

Most of the weight in my luggage was books. I brought so many books. I still do everywhere I go.

I had been writing poetry since I was 11. It was never enough to eat up significant amounts of time.

Poetry was all I was good at though.

I was a terrible artist and a terrible hunter. I had bad aim.

Bird hunting is the leisure sport of Lebanon. They are passionate about it. The Lebanese nearly drove every species of bird to extinction in the 90’s.

The government stepped in and banned hunting for a few years.

I was often mocked for being terrible at it. I wanted to be good, but I had no heart to watch the limited comprehension of grace fade out of this world second by second.

With birds, it is never a clean kill. They drop into the dirt, panting heavily, bleeding, fighting. I hated it.

We played war games. War is the other past-time.

One summer, my cousins, my brother, and I fashioned fake machine guns out of discarded wood. We pretended we were training for missions against the occupying force.

A few years before that, the four of us found some gasoline at the bottom of a rusted barrel outside my aunt’s old house. We decided to use that to make Molotov cocktail.

We found a glass bottle, filled it, stuffed some napkins in the top and left.

On the road a Lebanese army jeep was coming towards us. We hid in an alcove just off the street until they passed. When we made it back to my cousins’ house, we didn’t know what to do with it.

We tossed it, unlit, into a field. The next year I heard it started a small fire.

 

Prog.

 

In our village, there was a small arcade.

When the electricity was out, they ran on a diesel generator.

It had Foosball, Street Fighter II, and other no-name action games.

It was inside of an abandoned garage. All concrete, small windows, poor air circulation.

It always smelled of dust and oil.

Street Fighter II got the most play. We had no idea what we were doing. We understood the premise.

Zangief was a favorite. He was big and mean. He was Russian. The Middle East had respect for Russia, even during the USSR.

The USSR supported Gamal Abdel Nasser, a symbol of Arab dignity and pride to this day.

These small things mattered.

The last time I set foot in that arcade, I slammed the owner’s son into an arcade machine.

My brother and I had gone there one evening to pass the time before a big volleyball tournament. We played some games and left, following the traffic of people heading to the schoolyard as the sun was going down.

My brother kept spitting and making noises. I asked him what was wrong. He said the owner’s son had put some chalk dust in his mouth.

I stopped.

I went back. The owner’s son was sitting behind the desk. He stood up. I yelled at him, grabbed him, and slammed him into the nearest arcade machine. He understood.

The next summer the arcade had closed for good. They were selling roasted chickens. I bought one for my family.

It had a fly in it.

The small things matter.

 

Mount.

 

Counter-Strike became a big deal.

Someone opened an internet and gaming cafe in the heart of the village.

I had no idea how they managed to do it.

The telecom infrastructure in rural Lebanon was broken beyond comprehension.

Most villagers were getting their television through illegal satellite hook ups.

The cafe flourished. Kids were in there all the time, yelling.

Counter-Strike was the virtual extension of our war games. The virtual extension of the frustration of our violence.

My cousin went by the handle Sniper and had made a name for himself. I was terrible at it.

He used to go there every other day with his brother and mine. I would stay home and read. I knew I had nothing to contribute.

I mainly used the internet cafe for checking emails. The nice thing about the developing world is it grants everyone the ability to not exist.

Things happen and you don’t know and don’t care.

One time I decided to make the trek with my cousin, just the two of us.

We were placed on the same team.

During one game, I managed to stay alive longer than everyone on my team. There was only one person left on the other. My cousin yells: ‘Don’t mess up!’, I find the enemy, he shoots me.

I was a terrible hunter.

The internet cafe is now a Western Union.

 

Query.

 

The first time I watched a jet dropping flares, I was in awe.

I thought the flares were bombs. My father explained to me what they actually did.

Every time I came back to the U.S. after a few months overseas, I felt uncomfortable.

America is a strange place completely cleaved out of reality.

America is the syrupy hyperdream of some half-naked body builder standing on an ancient beach, staring at the stars.

Coming back into this place was always a jarring experience. It was a process, one that my parents could never understand.

In elementary school we were tasked with drawing pictures of something interesting that happened to us the previous summer. I drew the jet dropping flares and the army firing at it.

My mother was embarrassed. All the other kids were drawing pools and family trips, but that was my narrative: Aggression and spectacle.

Seeing the gears of a broken world turn, I couldn’t understand how my parents could just immigrate and forget.

From hunting, to fighting games, to discovering FPSes, we always found ways to birth aggression.

It always took me awhile to develop a knack for it. The U.S. doesn’t function on aggression in interpersonal relationships.

But America and Americans have their own kind of violence, a kind of violence that is heavily disassociated. Violence in film, games, music, media in general with no consequences. Fantasies.

 

Conch.

 

I never enjoyed the killing of things, but I knew it was necessary to experience in person.

Watching birds falter in the face of the earth embedded me with the morbid and sad truths of living.

I learned that when we go out, it’s all ugliness. There is no honor in it, just thrashing and dirt.

As children, we didn’t do the things we did out of fantasy, we reacted to the freedom of violence around us. We expressed it, thrived in the wild of it.

Gears inside of gears.

Does that subtle difference of interpretation affect the digestion of our engagement?

It made us more self-aware.

The experiences we have with media, and games specifically, are colored by the environment we exist in.

In America, I was curious and excited about whatever I engaged with.

In Lebanon, I wanted to flourish, I wanted to progress. More presence. More drive.

I haven’t left North America in two years and I feel no urgency of interpretation.

‘Real’ game violence rings hollow now.

I am looking for visions of experience:

 

The edge of being forever reborn into the crumbling sunset of the American dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fist.

 

 

The first time I saw The House of the Dead was in the summer of 1997: Zahle, Lebanon.

One of the main attractions for children and families in Zahle is a large outdoor arcade set deep in the valley.

Beneath the cool trees and flowing water, you can play anything from bumper cars to fighting games.

In ’97, we were there on a family trip, it was a stopping point. I remember having the distinct feeling of bored animosity.

Walking through the arcade, I couldn’t find anything that drew my attention long enough to warrant dropping coins. Then, out of nowhere a giant THotD cab loomed up, bigger than all the lights around it.

In the U.S., arcades still existed then, but they were few and hard to find.

I had been lucky in that everywhere I lived, there was at least one active arcade nearby, usually attached to a movie theater.

I still hung out a lot in arcades in the late 90’s. Every weekend when my parents would drag us to the mall, my brother and I would hit up the local mall arcade (Pocket Change) and burn through an afternoon.

Somehow, Pocket Change always managed to pull in new, expensive cabs at a time when other arcades were failing. I had no idea how they did it, but I was thankful.

They didn’t have what Zahle had though and the more I watched two kids burrow further into THotD, the more I hoped Pocket Change would catch up.

 

Spring.

 

I was never excited about light gun games in the arcades.

In spite of its popularity, I felt Time Crisis was a boring and hollow experience. I did not enjoy the novelty of its pedal/cover system and I did not enjoy having a timer ticking down through the whole game.

The game felt disconnected.

Time Crisis operated only as a sequence of separate shooting galleries, never as a whole game. It had no fluidity.

At first glance, TC seems interesting: 1) There is a timer counting down through the game in which time is only added by finishing ‘scenes.’ 2) In order to reload and/or avoid getting hit, the player must release the pedal to return to cover, thereby slowing the player down.

Combining these two mechanics (urgency of time and tactical judgment) the game is asking the player to make choices.

However, the mud thrown into this machine of micro-choice is the addition of time through the clearing of sections.

The game has no forward momentum: Time Crisis only jumps from section to section, making it a jarring, unnerving experience.

In 1996, Time Crisis had been out for a year and I was done trying to like it.

Walking away from the ‘House’ cab in Zahle, what stuck with me was how much forward momentum Sega built into the game. THotD’s urgency didn’t come from some cheap mechanic (time), it came from atmosphere, a constant drive forward, and quickness.

I wanted to play it more than any other arcade game of that time.

A month later I left Lebanon and came back to the U.S., I went back to Pocket Change.

They had The House of the Dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know how they did it, but there it was: the same massive cab I saw in Zahle, next to the doorway, and a line of people that ran through the food court.

A line of people that Time Crisis couldn’t bring in.

 

Span.

 

THotD was one of the most cohesive arcade products I had ever seen.

The story revolved around two AMS agents, Thomas Rogan and G., called to the mansion of a well-known and highly regarded scientist, Roy Curien, after an ominous call from Sophie, Rogan’s fiancée.

Upon arriving at the mansion, the agents are immediately thrown into a grisly, murderous scene where all of Curien’s horrific abominations have been let loose throughout the entire complex. It then becomes the agents’ job to rescue Sophie and find Curien.

THotD’s cohesive process begins with the title font and styling:

 

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

 

Not only is the font of the title chosen as a reflection of older pulp horror franchises (See anything made by Hammer Film Productions), there is also the addition of the decaying hand summoning/corrupting/reaching for the person who may either be Rogan, G., or a scientist.

The person represented in the title is covered with scratch marks, signifying both abandonment (cobwebs) and violence (the scratching-out).

The intro cutscene is about a minute and a half long. In that short time, it does an excellent job setting up the premise of hopelessness: Scientists running for their lives, monsters being unleashed everywhere, dead bodies.

All this is set to an ominous intro theme riddled with bells and synth organ:

 

 

After taking in all these passive elements, coins are dropped in. Each coin engages a loud howl, bellowing from the speakers, another homage to older horror films and a reinforcement of isolation.

From the second the game begins, it pushes forward into its world. The player is greeted with a cutscene showing Rogan and G. pulling up to the house at high-speed, running out of the car, and immediately engaging.

The game never loses that momentum.

The world of THotD is a dark one. All the grass and plant life in the mansion courtyard are dead, the sky is dark. The initial interaction in the world is shooting an undead creature trying to kill one of Curien’s assistants.

The mansion itself is in complete disarray as well.

The environment shows how far into his own mind Curien had fallen.

 

Stress.

 

THotD filtered urgency through its cohesiveness and the speed at which its camera moved.

Time Crisis was too disconnected and Virtua Cop was a glorified shooting gallery.

The first House of the Dead perfected the sensation of perpetual motion, a sensation that has since been a staple of the THotD series.

It was a fast, hot game then and it still is now. The way in which the camera twists and turns, the way it bends, is a thing of art. Movement in this game is the final cohesive link in Sega’s vision.

It is unfortunate that THotD is the best of the series. Its sequels consistently suffer from a lack of vision.

I was obsessed with The House of the Dead ever since I first saw it. I played that game any chance I could from 1997 on. Initially, it took me five dollars in quarters and 45 minutes to complete.

In 2012, I had all 20 of the top High Scores at another local arcade. I could beat the game on 25 cents and a little over 25 minutes.

The first time I saw and played THotD 2 was in Las Vegas, at the Luxor in 1999.

It was another of the massive cabs.

My parents dropped my brother and I off early at the arcade before heading to the Casino, around 10 AM.

After having played so much of the original, we couldn’t believe we now had access to the sequel.

It took us a little over an hour and around seven dollars in quarters to complete. The sequel was never as compelling as the original. Something about it was all wrong.

The difficulty was turned up, The action was slower, the camera did less.

There was no propulsion through that world, no urgency. It was lifeless.

The last major game Pocket Change bought before finally closing was THotD 3, which utilized giant plastic shotguns instead of the smaller, standard light gun pistols.

I played it once and walked away.

The shotguns were uncomfortable to hold, awkward to maneuver, and the series’ difficulty was turned up yet again.

With each iteration becoming slower, less dynamic, more difficult (cheap), and less cohesive: The series continually failed to achieve the promise of the original.

The most recent installment in the THotD series, The House of the Dead: Overkill, reworked the series’ aesthetic into comical pulp horror, the seriousness and dramatic effect of the previous games are completely erased.

The House of The Dead revolutionized light gun games. It was incomprehensibly cohesive and faster than any other game of its kind. It was one of the last true arcade games that challenged and engaged the player with seriousness and immersion.

Given the death of the arcade outside of Japan, we will most likely never see another game like it.

We will never have the kind of cohesive immersion THotD presented. An immersion rivaled only by Virtual-On: Oratorio Tangram.

The House of the Dead had charisma, it touched on something, attracted people to it.

Exactly what  its successors could never do. It was an excellent game with a strong identity, a strong sense of how it wanted to be.

Action games today can learn so much from studying what The House of the Dead presented: meticulous cohesion, immersion, and perspective.

Afterall, its only fitting that it be remembered in better games than the series it spawned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal.

 

 

Demon’s Souls defined the PS3 for me.

In 2009, it was becoming evident that the Playstation 3 had lost the ‘console wars’. Microsoft had the better digital store, better online play, better versions of cross-platform releases, and better exclusives.

Demon’s Souls brought something serious and innovative to the PS3.

It was explosive.

Demon’s Souls sold out everywhere shortly after release. The game tapped into a part of the collective gaming mind that was under-served.

Many often cite Call of Duty as having ruined games today.

After CoD became a phenomenon with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, many other game publishers and developers tried to follow suit by making linear, cinematic games with enormous budgets, little single player challenge, and customizable multiplayer.

What Demon’s Souls did was the exact opposite.

The game presented an alternative that had been forgotten.

Demon’s Souls was the antithesis to what CoD had accomplished: A third-person, dark fantasy game set in a world with a medieval European aesthetic. Little was explained to the player.

Everything from the plot to the leveling system to the global mechanics were left for the player to decipher. There was no exposition here, it expected you to puzzle everything out.

After playing DS for a while, I said to my brother, “Its like playing Dragon Warrior on Saturday afternoons as a kid.”, it captured that lack of noise, the volume of space, and the confusion of trying to figure out what an ‘RPG’ was.

DS was the first game in a long while to not treat the player like an idiot.

By all accounts, Demon’s Souls should not have been successful in a post-CoD market and if not for its asymmetrical multiplayer, I don’t believe it would have been noticed to the same extent.

For a little over a decade the developers of Demon’s Souls, From Software, mainly worked on polishing their flagship Armored Core series which only ever achieved a niche gaming audience.

Prior to Demon’s Souls, From Software also released King’s Field, often considered a spiritual predecessor to DS, which also never really captured a large gaming audience.

Demon’s Souls was arguably From Software’s first big success. A success achieved by filling the void left by Call of Duty.

DS is a game about dread. The player is never at peace with the quiet, at any point nearly any enemy could kill you.

The game expected you to just barely get by. The little help you were granted came in the form of small messages written on the ground left by other players. This was the most substantial interaction you had, this was one of the few and only ways players could communicate.

The writing only amplified the dread and loneliness of the world, the feeling of having just missed someone repeatedly was jarring.

DS also allowed you to view how other players in the area had died. It allowed you to witness their final moments, their final acts.

Demon’s Souls was a love letter to loss, forever being lost.

 

Other.

 

When my mother bought Dragon Warrior for me, she had to coach me through it as I had no conception of how to play that game. I had come off of Mario and Duck Hunt and I had no reference for what Dragon Warrior was.

I didn’t understand how to save, I inevitably replayed the first few hours over and over again. I would ask my grandmother for help when my mother was at work, but she didn’t know English.

I read an interview once with Hidetaka Miyazaki, creator of the Souls series, where he explained the influence behind Demon’s Souls.

As a child, he had attempted to read English fairy tales to the best of his ability. However, he was never able to understand everything that occurred and was forced to imagine what happened in the gaps of his understanding.

This experience was the fuel that drove the broken, dark fantasy narrative of Demon’s Souls.

He was forcing players to confront and explore the emptiness of understanding.

When Dark Souls released in 2011, it wasn’t as much a shock to the gaming landscape as Demon’s Souls was. At that point, the medium had two years to digest what Demon’s presented.

What Dark Souls did was hone further everything presented in Demon’s Souls: A larger environment, more weapons, more subtlety, a stronger plot, more NPCs, more interconnectedness.

Where Demon’s Souls was an exploration of dread, Dark Souls was an exploration of tragedy, morality, and sanity. It was an archaeology of what makes us human.

In Dark Souls, the world is progressing through its own Götterdämmerung. The power of the Gods is waning and because of this no one can die, they are constantly reborn as ‘hollow’ (undead). The more hollow one becomes, the more they lose all sense of self.

The end of Dark Souls presents a question to the player: Do you sacrifice yourself and prolong the rule of the Gods? Or do you turn your back and begin the age of darkness (the rule of man)?

The road to this final question is paved with tragedy: The killing of Sif, the story of Knight Artorias, the treachery and madness of Seath, the self-isolation of Priscilla, the downfall of Solaire.

Dark Souls isn’t just an archaeology of place, it is an archaeology of the self. Just as the player digs into the world of Lordran, Lordran forces the player to delve into the heart of the self.

Like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a quiet game set in an enormous world where anything can kill. The developer evened the odds by having more weapons and armor available to the player.

I often tell people that Dark Souls is the simpler game when compared to Demon’s Souls, but only because it presents things more cleanly while maintaining the narrative and mechanical darkness that made Demon’s Souls so enthralling.

Dark Souls is a literary epic that has been ripped apart. The player mainly gathers information while sifting through the world.

The short object descriptions are a fundamental part of the narrative: The more items you manage to find, the more of the story you understand.

Many often complain that the combat and movement in the Souls’ series is unsatisfying. The character movements are floppy and slow, but this only adds to the feeling of being dispossessed and lost in some decaying surreal spectacle: A lack of coordination.

Dark Souls was a proper evolution, everything that made Demon’s Souls great was expanded.

In Dark Souls II there is only back-tracking and contraction.

 

Young.

 

I spent two years playing Dark Souls, the game was that important.

Sometimes I would simply exist in the world without doing anything, just watching the clouds.

As the release date for Dark Souls II neared, I became excited. Dark Souls meant something to me.

From the second I put DSII in, everything felt off.

The character was quicker than in DSI, the game began with one of the most awful, poorly integrated tutorials I had ever experienced, and there was more plot exposition: exactly what I had feared.

There was controversy during Dark Souls II’s development. Miyazaki was moved to work on other projects in From, and the series was handed over to Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura.

The controversy mainly had to do with comments made from the Dark Souls II dev team about how to make the game more understandable and easier in order to increase accessibility.

These comments then set-off a chain reaction of anxiety from embedded Dark Souls fans. They became concerned that everything that made Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls grand and unique were going to be gutted.

The broken narrative of the first two Souls games is poetry. Poetry is a broken narrative of an experience or a thought. No one asks poets to make their poetry more understandable, I couldn’t see why anyone wanted to do that with a series that had proven itself twice.

In the first 30 minutes of playing, I could tell that Dark Souls II was not going to be as engrossing or as challenging, narratively or mechanically.

After managing to burn through the first five bosses, I had to take a break and think about what happened.

The item descriptions had become twice as long. The world was not layered at all, the different locations didn’t fit together in any compelling way, and the enemies were unbalanced.

One of Dark Souls II’s major problems is the difficulty does not scale properly. One minute the player will have control of an area only to be hit with a very difficult enemy type out of nowhere.

Dark Souls’ genius was that it was a constant uphill battle, but the challenge never felt ‘vertical’, it never threw up barriers out of nowhere, the difficulty ramped up meticulously: DSII had none of that subtlety.

The battle with the Ruin Sentinels was a poorly conceived pyramid scheme of fun.

This lack of subtlety in Dark Souls II’s design would not have been an issue had they allowed the player to grind for experience in the same manner as the previous two iterations. Now, the player could no longer go to areas with respawning, high-experience enemies and grind, after a certain amount of time, the enemies stop coming back, and when that happens not only is it frustrating for the player, but the area feels barren and boring.

Couple this ‘wasteland’ mechanic with the ability to travel between checkpoints outright at will, and you have a game that asks so much less of the player than its predecessors while hollowing out its own world.

It’s almost as if Dark Souls II deeply misunderstands everything that made the first two Souls games relevant. It is by far the worst entry in the series.

This is not to say that Dark Souls II itself is a bad game, it isn’t, it just isn’t the game it could have been.

Dark Souls II is a cheap experience that only tries to grasp at the mechanical and narrative shadows cast by its siblings.

What defined Demon’s Souls was its exploration of dread and triumph.

What defined Dark Souls was its exploration of tragedy and loss.

What defines Dark Souls II is cheapness and a failed attempt at ease.

From Software should not be proud of Dark Souls II, regardless of sales. Dark Souls II’s inevitable financial success will only be based on the high quality of its predecessors, not on its own merits. It offers nothing to the series while taking so much away.

From can do better than this and until we begin to see what the next installment in the Souls series holds, Dark Souls I is still the pinnacle of what they can accomplish.

 

Vivisect.

 

Demon’s Souls:

 

Dark Souls:

 

Dark Souls II:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melt.

 

 

I was born in Pomona, CA in Los Angeles County.

At that time, Pomona was considered lower-income, but stable.

My parents (both relatively new immigrants) had just moved from Cleveland to Pomona to attend CalPoly University. My father used to be a vice detective in Lebanon and upon arriving to America the only job he could land without knowing English was dishwashing at Bob’s Big Boy.

In Pomona, my parents were able to afford a small apartment off of one of the main drags. The parking was just below the bedroom window.

One night my father heard some noise coming out of the lot. He went down to check it out.

There was a man scanning his car for an alarm. The man tried to run away, but my father caught him, threw him to the ground and pummeled him until someone intervened.

When the police showed up, they found my father casually standing around. While inspecting the criminal, one officer took my father aside and asked him what happened, my father replied: “He fell.”

The policeman looked at him, “He fell, huh?”

“Yeah, I grabbed him when he started running and he tripped.”

The policeman laughed, “We’re going to have to get him serious medical treatment.”

My father agreed.

 

Particulate.

 

Southern California in the eighties and nineties is a place more than it is a time. It is a place that cannot be replicated or replaced in the world today. There lived a hot combination of innovation, crime, violence, style, decay, and spirit.

Los Angeles was the embodiment of urban schizophrenia.

1980’s and 1990’s LA was a place you could feel, a place you always knew.

The first time I saw Scarface, I could tell most of it was shot in Southern California, in and around LA. It was so obvious to me.

There are segments in the film where the environment felt too grimy for Miami, there was a familiarity there.

Miami as played by LA.

This didn’t really bother me, I enjoyed it. In spite of all its problems, Miami always seemed to me to be too clean for that kind of grit, it needed LA’s blood.

I believe that people who know LA and know Southern California understand the fundamental ugliness of the place.

Who doesn’t remember the 1997 North Hollywood shootout? That was a bloody, surreal event: The subconscious of the city bubbling up.

Movies like HeatCollateral, Pulp Fiction, The Terminator, and Drive are all set in LA.

The two men behind the North Hollywood shootout had studied Heat in order to better prepare themselves for engaging police.

Each of those films is an exploration of violence and dissociation. That’s what LA does and is.

Even films and books set in the future, like Blade Runner and Hard Boiled, depict Los Angeles as a dystopian heap of darkness and hopelessness.

Using that city as a filter for the world, every other place looks a little more real. In all its schizophrenia, LA tears at the facade of these other worlds with surgical precision.

 

Boar.

 

Grand Theft Auto V is set in a fictional representation of LA called ‘Los Santos’. In each iteration of the GTA series, the devs always seek to capture the essence of a place.

In the first four games, Rockstar did a great job manufacturing a New York City doppelganger called ‘Liberty City.’ In the non-numbered series’ (GTA: San Andreas, GTA: Vice City) they recreated California and Miami surprisingly well.

While Grand Theft Auto V represents downtown LA and the surrounding areas accurately, it misses the heart of the place.

Los Santos has none of the grime of its source, none of the alienation.

Their myth has no substance.

I’m not certain how Rockstar messed this up considering their near endless resources and past success in recreating places. I believe maybe they missed the history. They recreated LA as they see it today without knowing how it was and where we thought it was going.

However, newer films like Drive and Collateral managed to capture the heart of the city. Rockstar, maybe, was just deaf to it.

They didn’t see the world through LA’s eyes and that’s why they couldn’t get inside its head.

They couldn’t see the tearing.

 

Landfill.

 

When Hotline Miami released in 2012, I avoided it. Initially, it looked like another low-res, early GTA, indie knockoff and I was burnt out on the whole aesthetic.

I couldn’t just forget about it, though.

The promotional art would keep showing up on gaming sites and on Steam. Online, everyone kept talking about how strange and fluid its story was. The game was often called ‘disturbed.’

I bought it a few months after release.

What initially struck me was how much the game felt like Scarface. Hotline Miami is set in Miami in 1989, but felt like 1980’s LA.

In it, you play as a nameless hitman who is assigned missions only through telephone calls. The missions involve killing Russian mobsters in different locales around the city. Prior to each mission, the player can choose one mask to wear. Each mask is an animal which grants the player one ability.

The act of wearing the mask only amplifies the schizophrenic nature of the game.

Hotline Miami has the grime. It is Miami seen through LA eyes.

Everything from the ultra-violence to the quiet, dissociative environment captures the city.

The fascinating part is that Dennaton Games is comprised of two Swedes.

I couldn’t understand how they were able to synthesize Miami by way of LA without having lived in the United States for any prolonged period of time.

In an interview with Eurogamer, Soderstrom and Wedin discuss how the two major influences for Hotline were the films Drive and Cocaine Cowboys, a film about the rise of the drug trade and crime in Miami through the 70’s and 80’s.

Hotline Miami is a synthesis of the extremes of two cities: Miami drugs and LA violence.

That’s why the game exists so effortlessly, stuck between two worlds.

My father would sometimes take me to downtown LA to run errands.

Between the wholesale jewelry warehouse and the few looming towers LA has, there was a dark, hole-in-the-wall Lebanese diner. The place was dark even in the middle of the day, the lighting was poor, there was a CRT Television hanging in the corner and porn vendors outside.

Hotline Miami is the virtual embodiment of that place.

Hotline Miami is the CRT in the corner of that darkness.

In a lot of ways, Hotline hones the narrative presented in Scarface. Rather than the main character becoming increasingly disassociated and isolated like Tony Montana, the main character in Hotline has no attachments.

He is isolated from the beginning, isolated and constantly descending further into the violent subconscious of the urban.

At some point, he begins to hallucinate as he goes about town and the hallucinations gradually become more substantial.

The city becomes the graveyard of the mind.

I am still fascinated as to how a foreign independent developer managed to capture and synthesize an American city through the lens of another.

This reminds me in a lot of ways of how Australian Nick Cave can make American Rock music better than most American bands.

While the games industry is still waiting for its ‘Citizen Kane’ of video games, Hotline Miami is the Scarface of video games, only meaner, darker, and sharper.

It does away with all the narrative excess of the cinematic and distills everything down to its core.

As I said in the beginning, southern California in the eighties and nineties is a place more than it is a time. And while that cannot be replicated:

 

Hotline Miami understands that place and lives forever in that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Print.

 

 

Before I got an iPhone, I had a red LG flip phone.

I enjoyed that phone more than I probably should have because it’s UI felt more intuitive than all the Nokia and Sony cells I had before it. The buttons on the LG were a joy to press, low profile, but very ‘clicky’.

Nokia’s buttons were always very solid, but I felt they had no weight to them. The buttons felt floaty, like pressing on partially-burned marshmallows.

Sony’s problem was a combination of bad quality (the phone would constantly fall apart) and the buttons being too squishy. Sometimes the buttons were so soft that they wouldn’t register presses. The only thing Sony had going for it was a neon-blue backlight that made me feel like I was in the future.

Then I got an iPhone. It wasn’t a choice I made, I was still a skeptic on touchscreens. Someone in my mother’s family had bought one for me as a graduation present. I was more curious than excited.

As I spent time with the phone, I began to enjoy it. I enjoyed the simulation of swiping and the responsiveness of the touchscreen. I liked the idea of having access to apps that would increase the utility of the phone. I enjoyed the solid build quality. It had a nice density.

But I missed the buttons.

Occasionally, I went back to the LG and would just click around to remember the sensation of really great button presses. I was sad at the loss.

When I really dug into the world of the iPhone and Apple, I realized because my phone had been purchased by a relative in Lebanon, it was jailbroken and unlocked. This meant I had access to the Cydia marketplace.

Cydia is a black market app store that bypasses all of Apple’s strict standards. Anyone can put anything on Cydia and I used it to see what people on the margins of this ecosystem were doing.

A few months into this process I came across something called HapticPro. The app claimed that it would create haptic feedback when typing by generating small vibrations with each press of the virtual keyboard.

I downloaded it. I was excited: Maybe this would be just what the iPhone needed to feel right.

After using HapticPro for a while I noticed that my typing was more accurate and fulfilling. The phone had evolved.

Still, though something was missing from the experience: The iPhone lacked tactility, it lacked texture.

Nokia phones always had a wonderful feel. Whether the case was metal or plastic, you could run your finger along all the pits and grooves. The Sony phone I had was encased in a dense, white rubber, I loved its spongey friction. My LG did not have any compelling texture, but the click of the phone opening made up for that.

The iPhone was nothing but cold and slippery, lifeless.

I struck out into midwestern suburbia to solve this.

After searching around, I eventually settled on a thick, black rubber case with small grips on the sides.

Now I had something in my hands that felt alive. It buzzed when I touched it. Its skin was soft.

I have always admired Apple for their minimalist approach to design. However, in their quest for technological purity, their products have misunderstood the sense of touch.

A cell phone is a very personal thing. It needs warmth, warmth through texture.

The iPhone had no warmth.

No blood.

No friction.

 

Esoteric.

 

When The Elder Scrolls V was released in 2011, it was celebrated by both the games industry and media as a grand and amazing work, a shining example of what games can be. It won countless awards including multiple GOTY nominations and wins. It was a phenomenon.

It was also a bad game.

Prior to release, I had been very excited by the idea of a single-player open-world fantasy game that featured first-person hand-to-hand combat. I had just built a very powerful desktop then and I had been looking forward for just this sort of thing to release.

Once I was able to finally sit down with the game and run through the beginning, I realized how unsatisfying the game felt.

None of the characters (including the player) had any weight or density to them. Everything just felt as if it was hovering inches above the ground like a world of balloon animals.

The first-person melee was equally terrible. It all felt vapid and inconsequential, a self-important pillow fight simulator.

The first person to accurately describe how it felt was Tim Rogers.

I wish I could say that this problem is only limited to Skyrim and games like it, but this is actually a big problem for most games today.

Much like cell phones, games are very personal things. The player is trying to inhabit a space, making it their own by virtue of their own personal experiences, and expressing themselves through either strategic thinking or action.

People get lost in their phones, people get lost in their games.

Modern games lack density. They treat movement as a given rather than as a draw. It seems like every game today is built around the idea that no one will notice the lack of physicality.

No texture. No beating heart.

Compare Elder Scrolls V to Gungrave. Movement in Skyrim is light and airy, there is nothing of significance in it, there is no joy in it. In Gungrave, movement is important. Everything has weight, there is a loud, sharp pulse in everything Gungrave does from shooting to jumping to swinging.

I don’t just blame 3D games for this problem, Modern 2D games suffer also. I’ve made the argument over and over again in the Shoryuken forums that the reason Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is the least appealing in the series is due to its  lack of  ‘presence’  in the characters when compared to the previous entries. MvC1 had real weight. MvC2 had friction and texture.

It almost seems as if the games industry has been slowly withdrawing from the physicality of the arcades. Even the worst fighting games (for example) have some of the best density. Sengoku Basara X and Hokuto no Ken have wonderful frictions. The hits have powerful momentum.

But those are broken games.

Even games that are marketed as ‘arcade’-like today never seem to get the density right. In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Raiden’s hits never have any impact, any feedback. Every enemy in the game hits harder/is heavier than Raiden.

There are a few games in the mainstream that seem to occupy a very nice density. Games like Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, Tekken, Gears of War, and Killzone carry their weight well. However, the industry as a whole needs to put more time and thought into a game’s physical presence.

The indie scene is doing this by drawing inspiration from older games where movement and tactility were fine-tuned.

I’m not sure what it would take for the entire industry to follow-suit and change, to focus on the texture of their games, but I am getting tired of just floating around in places I barely occupy.

Fundamentally, the physicality of a game assists in immersion. Speed, force, momentum, velocity, density, friction: These are parts of the machine that absorb the player.

What good is world-building if every interaction with the world is lifeless?

What good is the scope of the game if in exploring it, the player never inhabits it?

In order to be immersed, the player has to feel that they occupy a space, that there is some warmth there.

This is not something that can ever be fixed by money, only heart can fix this.

 

Only pulse can drive this change.