Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: June 2014






When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.




Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.




Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.










In 2007, I came back to video games.

It has always been a dynamic relationship.

After the release of the SNES in 1991, I stopped following or caring about games until a friend of mine showed me the PlayStation in 1996.

My brother convinced my parents to get us a PS1 for his birthday. We stuck with Sony consoles through the PlayStation 2.

My interest in games waned again just before the generational switch (PS2 – PS3).

Having witnessed the July War in 2006, I was full of anger, resentment, rage.

I wrote a lot in that period. I read a lot. I listened to music and drove around the Midwestern back country alone.

I had no place for games then.

But I got tired. I burnt myself out.

I collapsed in and found nothing.

A friend of mine had managed to purchase a PlayStation 3 near launch in fall 2006.

I would go over to his place some nights and we would play Call of Duty 4 together.

It was strange to me even then that I could find some comfort in playing a war game considering I had just lived it.

But I was tired and it was fun.

I bought a PlayStation 3 in 2007.

The PS3 was more than just a console to me, it was a companion.

A friend to pull me back into myself.

I still had my PS2 and used it to play fighting games and old JRPGs, but the PS3 was about potential, it was about looking forward.

I chose PlayStation over Xbox because Microsoft was taking themselves too seriously at that time. It felt as though MS was trying to turn the 360 into a war simulator (Gears of War, Halo 3) and I couldn’t deal with it.

Assassin’s Creed was the first game I bought.

I bought it because it looked like Thief.

I bought it because the hero was an Arab. I needed that. I needed to see that.

After I completed AC, I bought CoD4. I loved the crispness of its action and the quick pacing.

It was a grand piano of a game.

I was back into games now. I was having a great time.

And in Christmas 2008 I discovered something I thought had died in the medium:





I still don’t understand what compelled me to consider buying Prince of Persia.

It was getting a lot of attention. The sentiments were mixed.

I had tried to enjoy the franchise before, somewhere in the Sands of Time trilogy on PS2.

I didn’t like it.

Coming off of God of War, PoP lacked the visceral, flashy combat I had become used to.

Prince of Persia was all about the fluidity of motion and in the mid-2000s, that wasn’t something I was looking for.

When the new PoP released in December of 2008, I had already begun to think about games differently.

I had begun to see them less as virtual gauntlets and more as products of interlocking systems. I made the switch from playing games to analyzing them.

As I looked through the screenshots of the new Prince of Persia, I fell in with the art.

The colors were vivid, bright. The lines were bold. It reminded me of Okami, but more fluid.

I bought the game based on art alone.

I went home for Christmas.

Sitting in my old bedroom in the middle of a heavy winter: I spent a lot of time in Prince of Persia’s world.

The movement was bubbly, the levels had charisma. It was a beautiful game.

Much of the talk around this new interpretation of the PoP series involved not being able to die.

Many in the gaming community felt that not being punished for failing a jump made the game too easy, too simplistic, and less rewarding.

They got this one wrong though.

The punishment in Prince of Persia is that you lose the fluidity of movement.

You lose the ability of fluid expression, of pure motion.

This subtlety was lost on many.

The amount of negative feedback has stalled the series.




Prior to the 3DS, the last Nintendo console I owned was the Game Boy Advance SP.

I never bought a DS.

When Nintendo announced the DS, they said it wasn’t meant to replace the Game Boy.

I held onto my SP waiting for a new Game Boy announcement. I loved and still love everything about the SP.

But that announcement never came.

I bought the 3DS out of frustration, out of having been tricked by Nintendo into waiting, into missing an entire portable generation of content.

I bought the 3DS when the media and the community at large was saying it was going to fail.

I always have a tendency to get involved at the ends of things and I believed them.

At one point, I hadn’t touched my 3DS for months. I thought it really was over.

Then I read Tim Rogers’ review about Super Mario 3D Land.

I bought the game immediately.

I loved it.

SM3DL was the first Mario Game I played since Super Mario World.

It had the same core, emotive design as PoP in 2008: A platforming game designed around joy, around really inhabiting and exploring a world of bright colors, excellent movement, and charismatic levels.

Super Mario 3D Land made me smile.

While critically acclaimed, again the game was considered too easy by many.

The point was missed again.

The player can still die in 3D Land. However, death isn’t the punishment for bad play.

The actual punishment is being kicked out of that world for a brief moment.

The punishment is the extraction from a joyous place.

Death is only the conveyor.




3D Land has stuck with me.

I go back and think about it.

Super Mario 3D World is also a good game, but it has more problems.

3D World lacks some of the joy, the lightness of 3D Land.

It takes itself a little more seriously.

3D World is a little more messy.

This probably has to do with it being a console game and therefore having to be full of content.

It’s no surprise then that the next joyous platformer would appear on the 3DS.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is the first Kirby game I have played since Kirby’s Dream Land in 1992.

Triple Deluxe is wonderful.

The game is always playing with and manipulating player expectations through clever level design.

It is bursting with joy.

It is the true companion to 3D Land.

The most impressive element in Triple Deluxe is the use of 3D.

Levels are two planes: Front and Rear.

The Front plane is where the player operates most of the time.

The player can still see what’s happening in the Rear.

The player is also transported in and out of the Rear plane throughout the levels.

With the player operating in one plane, while being able to see what’s happening in the other, Kirby: Triple Deluxe wastes nothing.

It is a tight game driven by Chekhov’s Gun and joy.

Triple Deluxe is stunningly beautiful.

Bright, thick, and layered: Triple Deluxe is a rainbow ice cream cake of art.

Dying in K:TD is difficult.

It sits somewhere between PoP and 3D Land, between not dying and dying as a conveyance.

This again has led many to suggest it is too simple.

And again, the subtlety is lost.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe doesn’t really want to punish the player. It encourages the player to inhabit the world as much as they want.

Where in PoP the player loses movement and momentum and in Mario the player’s time in the world is dictated, Kirby wants the player to lounge around in its world.

It wants the player to hang out and poke around.

This is very rare for a 2D platformer.

Kirby: Triple Deluxe is a game that should be sipped at, like Dark Souls.

The gaming media and community need to stop judging games simply by the merits of their difficulty.

Not every game is designed within the spectrum of ‘simple-difficult’.

The metrics of analysis must be greatly expanded.

The medium needs more games designed around joy, designed around the idea of wanting to inhabit a place.

Since 2008, I’ve played a lot of games and the only ones that have managed to stick with me are the ones that make me feel welcome:


The games with warmth in their bones.











The Christmas my mother bought me a Game Boy was the most exciting Christmas of my life.

I ran away to the living room, and unboxed the portable in a state of fury.

I plugged away at Tetris for hours.

It was new and phenomenal.

The original GB was fat, used four AA batteries, and had a small display that wasn’t true black and white.

This led to a significant re-design in 1996.

Nintendo expanded the display, slimmed down the hardware, and lowered the power requirements to two AAA batteries: The Game Boy Pocket.

When I got a GBP, I gave my original hardware to my cousins in Lebanon.

Gaming hardware in the Middle East is hard to come by. Either it isn’t available, available in extremely limited quantities, or priced so high that it is out of the reach of median income families.

That’s why the Middle East is full of knock-off systems and pirated software: It is an under-served market with no ‘local’ chains, the only reasonable access available through alternative channels.

One summer my mother bought two games to give to my cousins as gifts. I had to choose which game to give to who.

The two games were Mega Man IV and Tetris Attack.

To a cousin on my mother’s side, I gave Mega Man. To my cousins on my father’s side (the ones I had given the Game Boy to) I gave them Tetris Attack.

At first, it felt like a raw deal. I spent a lot more time with my paternal cousins during the summer, so along with them, I was stuck with Tetris Attack.

While I had spent hours playing Tetris that Christmas years before in Southern California, at this point I had  acquired a stronger sense of games.

Much like all the children around me, I was looking for the fastest, coolest, most action-driven games around.

Tetris Attack, in the face of Mega Man, seemed like the worse game.

We were sad about it.

We cried for awhile.

But TA snuck up on us. It was a slow burn.

At first, we played it for 10-15 minutes at a time, sometimes going weeks without touching it.

Then the sessions started getting longer and the intervals shorter.

Then discussions around the game started happening and it became a summer staple until the Game Boy broke.

When that happened, I brought Tetris Attack back home with me.




As portable hardware has developed so has the puzzle game.

Much like how Call of Duty borrowed RPG elements beginning with CoD 4, puzzles have become mashed into other genres.

In 2007, Infinite Interactive released Puzzle Quest for the Nintendo DS.

Puzzle Quest was a quest-based RPG in which battles were fought in a match-3, Bejeweled-style system. It was wildly successful and was subsequently ported to every system possible.

In 2008, Braid was released and was recognized for its ingenious combination of platforming and time-manipulation as a tool for puzzle solving.

2009 saw the release of Knights in the Nightmare on the DS. A mystery bag of puzzle, RPG, and STG mechanics.

Since the mid-late 2000’s, puzzle games have continued to evolve and much like how puzzle elements have appeared in other genres, puzzle games are beginning to expand by incorporating outside elements as well.

Hence, Gunhouse.




Necrosoft Games released Gunhouse in early 2014 on Playstation Mobile.

It is a game defined by mechanical complexity.

In Gunhouse, the player is tasked with defending a home of orphan children against different enemy types.

The house itself is the puzzle. The player is tasked with matching and combining different icons to create more powerful ‘blocks’.

The strategy element in the Gunhouse puzzle is threefold:

-While combining blocks, the player has to decide whether to try and create powerful blocks in the back of the house to be used as bombs or in the front of the house where they are used to create guns.

-At the top of the screen, there are bonus icons which indicate what weapon types receive bonus damage.

-The puzzle phase is timed.

Part of the genius in the puzzle design lies in that the player’s main control option is to choose how far to swipe a single row.

Each row is three blocks wide. The player has to decide how far to the right or left a row should be moved in order to drop blocks into specific places in order to combine.

Once the timer runs out on the puzzle phase, the gate on the house begins to come down.

This offers the player a last-chance opportunity to finish their combinations and set up their weapons for the attack phase.

In the attack phase, enemies swarm the house. The player has control over when the guns begin to fire and when to use bombs.

The objective is to stop the enemies from getting too close to the house and kidnapping the children.

Like the puzzle phase, the attack phase is timed.

Once the attack phase is finished, the game loops back to the next puzzle phase.

Visually, Gunhouse is an echo of the bright colors and animation of older arcade puzzle games.

The visual design is reminiscent of games like Mr. Driller and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.

Gunhouse is a beautiful game.

The art is clean and bold.

Because of its visual stylings and mechanical intricacy, it’s comparable to Knights in the Nightmare.

While KitN is a fun game, it is extremely complex.

Each system in that game influences other systems in ways that may not necessarily be obvious to the player.

It also lacks fluidity in the way its systems engage with each other.

The beauty in the mechanical design of Gunhouse is that all the systems engage with each other in obvious ways.

The player understands the consequences of not creating blocks in the front of the house or not utilizing the bonus weapon type.

The interaction between the two main phases of the game (puzzle/attack) influence the player’s strategy in either phase.

For instance, during an attack phase an enemy swarm might be loaded with flying-types. This then influences the player’s strategy in the puzzle phase by focusing on building more powerful guns near the top of the house (the house has three gun points: top, middle, bottom).

The game is constantly moving and shifting.

The strategic depth of Gunhouse is a product of reading feedback. This makes it a truly dynamic experience.

Puzzle games generally grow stale quickly due to their inability to challenge or engage the player after awhile.

Arcade puzzle games suffer from this less, but can also feel extremely unfair due to vertical difficulty spikes.

Gunhouse strikes the perfect balance of both strategic depth and aesthetic flair.

Gunhouse is an important game.

It is important because it brings together so many dynamic elements and plays them off of each other without any waste.

It borrows different systems from arcade STGs all the way to console RPGs, and it works wonderfully.

Gunhouse is an arcade puzzle game that knows what it is and what its doing.

There is no trying in Gunhouse.


It is effortless.











“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” – Immanuel Kant

Everything we, as humans, do is  imbued with our imperfections, our fears, our breaking, our errors.

Nothing ever comes out pure because we, ourselves, are never pure.

The extension of this view: All the things we manufacture are imperfect mirrors of us, the creators, and as reflections they bear our consequences.

Freud wrote about drives.

He especially focused on two: the Death Drive (Thanatos) and Sex Drive (Eros).

Freud distinguished drives from instincts. While both are deeply rooted in the functioning of a living system, drives are independent of the logic of the greater system.

Drives have no end goal, they seek only to complete their own logics, even if that logic runs counter to what is beneficial overall.

Thanatos is the drive towards ones own end. The drive to non-existence.

Eros is the drive toward sex, toward the affirmation of life.

The two drives operate in tandem, but independent of each other.

While humanity chases after love, we also chase after our end.

Drives are mostly inaccessible to us. Their consequences manifest only slightly as the hidden engines of the decisions we make.

If all things made are reflections of the creator, then all things made are imbued at the very least with the drives of their creators.

Buried deep in the hearts of things.

Freud and Lacan (a contemporary) also discussed the idea of partial drives, drives which are manifested as identity develops and only focuses on specific zones of the body:


Table of partial drives 

D Oral drive Lips Breast To suck
D Anal drive Anus Faeces To shit
d Scopic drive Eyes Gaze To see
d Invocatory drive Ears Voice To hear


Freud believed that partial drives inevitably connect and fuse when a person reaches sexual maturity.

Lacan disagreed with Frued’s assertion on the dualism of the two major drives: Death and sex. Lacan preferred to contextualize this dualism in terms of the imaginary and the symbolic.

He believed that human existence is structured by three orders: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.

The symbolic order: The exchange, governed by a set of laws, which reinforces and renews the social order, often involving a three-way relationship (i.e. mother, father, child).

The imaginary: The formation of the ego, the ability to self-identify and begin to see what is and is not a part of the self, a dual relationship.

Because of Lacan’s breakdown of Freud’s death/sex dualism, he believes all drives are sexual drives, that all drives are death drives because all drives are repetitive, excessive, and destructive.




In Ecrits, Lacan discusses Edgar Allan Poe’sThe Purloined Letter‘.

The story revolves around a stolen letter and its retrieval. The letter supposedly contains some incriminating evidence regarding a queen. The letter is stolen by a minister in front of the queen by swapping the incriminating letter with another.

The minister hides the letter in his apartment.

The king knows nothing of this letter. The police are dispatched to the minister’s residence while he is away to find the letter. Their attempts are fruitless after 3 months.

They then contact  Detective Auguste Dupin to help them. After understanding the police have searched every hiding place in the residence, Dupin looks for the letter out in the open. He finds the letter, slightly altered, sitting on the minister’s desk.

Lacan breaks down ‘The Purloined Letter’ into three gazes:

-The gaze that sees nothing (The king who knows nothing of the letter and the police who can’t find it).

-The gaze which sees that the first gaze has seen nothing and believes the letter to be hidden (The queen, the police).

-The gaze which sees that the other two gazes leave what ought to be hidden uncovered (The minister, the queen, Dupin).

This plays into Lacan’s conception of the symbolic order: A trio of gazes.

Looking back at the table above, there is the ‘Scopic Drive’: A partial drive which focuses on the eyes and its related partial object: The Gaze.

Much like partial drives, partial objects are areas of ‘focus’ for the partial drives.

Because man is a tenuously connected system of partial objects and partial drives…

Because all our drives are related to Thanatos and Eros…

Because social interaction is governed by a  symbolic order of exchange…

Because whatever man creates is a reflection of its creator…

Then all things created are governed by the same hidden, imperfect ‘not-logic’ of the drives and a similar symbolic order that governs our social world.




In the Sector 6 slums of Final Fantasy VII, sits the Honey Bee Inn.

The Inn is a love hotel.

The Inn is divided into different rooms which are themed according to sexual fetish/fantasy.

‘The Group Room’ (one of two rooms that can be entered) forces the main character (Cloud Strife) to bathe with a group of muscular men in a bathtub together:



‘The Queen Room’ (one of two rooms which cannot be entered, but can be spied upon) depicts a sexual fantasy scene regarding royalty.



‘The Lover’s Room’ (cannot be entered) is occupied by an awkward, uncomfortable elderly couple:



‘The &$#% Room’ is the second room which can be entered and involves Cloud having a breakdown  (Starts at 3:29):



The final accessible area of the Honey Bee Inn is the employee dressing room where Cloud can have makeup applied.

It is unusual to for games to deal with sex as openly as the Honey Bee Inn in Final Fantasy VII, especially in 1997.

As video games are a product of man, it is inevitable that they reflect on the minds of their creators.

The Inn is the only overtly sexual place in the game world, relegated to a slum of the city, Midgar.

Mimicking how most view their sexuality as inappropriate in the face of the world, in the social symbolic order.

The Inn not only deals with sex, but the fluidity of sex and gender roles, as well as the awkwardness of coming to terms with one’s  own sexuality.

While the game tries to push that Cloud is heterosexual (his potential romantic interests are mainly women), in the Honey Bee Inn most of Cloud’s direct interactions in the two rooms he can enter are with men. He isn’t exactly comfortable with them, but he engages with them nonetheless.

Often the narratives in video games reach a point where they entirely break down into garbled non-sense.

The second half of Xenogears, the later parts of Drakengard, The final boss of Wrath of the Black Manta.

The subconscious of the game.

Final Fantasy VII doesn’t really have that moment of narrative collapse, it’s subconscious lies in the Honey Bee Inn.

In the slums of our minds we are allowed to test and bend our sexuality without judgment. We are allowed to be voyeurs of ourselves.

Cloud spends a large portion of the game not realizing that he is living his life based on his friend’s, Zack’s, memories after his tragic death. In the trauma of that moment, he becomes Zack.

Perhaps the sexual fluidity with which Cloud engages in the Inn is a part of his original self. Maybe his heterosexual leanings are also adopted from his false sense of identity.

Drives operate independent in the depths of our selves, maybe Cloud’s resistant fluidity is a small expression of his original drives.

The cognitive dissonance between who Cloud thinks he is and who he actually is leads to the breakdown he suffers at the Inn after selecting ‘The &$#% Room’.

Cloud suffers many breakdowns throughout the game.

Later on he suffers a collapse so severe that his companion, Tifa, has to guide him back to himself by properly remembering the traumatic events of his life:



This sequence is structured in a similar manner to the Honey Bee Inn: Cloud has to choose to revisit certain memories and accurately relive them.

Like the memory segment, the Inn can only be visited once.

A snapshot of the subconscious: Sex and identity as a sequence of Gazes, as a sequence of partial objects.




The Honey Bee Inn contains more dummied content than anywhere else in the game.

Content  that is present in the game data, but that can only be accessed through alternative means.

The dummied data is slightly more illicit than what appears to the player and due to its incomplete nature, full of dead ends:



This data can be seen as an error of sorts, it is expressive of Lacan’s notion in ‘Ecrits’ that errors can transform into truth.

This inaccessible content is also indicative of the problems in expressing sexuality.

The Honey Bee Inn being home to a large amount of hidden, unused content describes the confusion with which man approaches sex and sexuality, not to mention the sex economy.

It also describes the destruction and excessiveness of the drives.

By being more illicit than the accessible content, the dummied data is inaccessible through standard means.

It is hidden. Erased. Thanatos.

The Honey Bee Inn is a significant place and event, not only in Final Fantasy VII, but for games overall.

It is a place that is not only a reflection of ourselves, but an exploration of gender, sexuality, and identity.

It is both a mask and a face.


A single, forgotten gunshot howling in the polluted slums of the cities within us.