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Pass.

 

 

The living room is dark.

My mother sitting in her work clothes, staring at a paper.

My brother and I know we’re in trouble.

We don’t know why.

My mother looks up at us. I don’t look at her.

I keep my eyes on the slats of afternoon light beaming onto the carpet.

“Do you know…what this is?”

She shakes the paper.

We shake our heads.

An accelerating silence.

“This is a phone bill…”

I nod. I see where this is going.

“The phone company is charging me five hundred dollars…”

Mid-90’s. We just got the internet.

“What the hell have you guys been doing?!”

Dial-up was our only choice.

We lived in Appleton, WI.

We had to dial-in through Green Bay.

The connection was garbage.

We went through Madison instead.

It was further away. It was stable.

It was long-distance.

“I can’t believe this…”

My mother looks at the bill again.

“Can I know what it is you’re doing?”

I shrug.

“I don’t know…looking at stuff…”

She looks at me.

“What stuff, Wasim?…”

We just got a Playstation.

I was discovering games. Finding people.

Getting lost in the strange quiet.

She wouldn’t understand.

“Stuff! I don’t know…”

She starts shouting at us in Arabic.

My brother and I sit on the couch and cower.

In the end, my mother declares no more unsupervised internet time.

We nod.

I know she won’t follow through.

She has too many things on her mind.

I won’t connect through Madison anymore.

I’ll accept Green Bay’s instability.

I’ll pass through it.

And I’ll push deeper into this glowing wasteland:

Sifting through its silence.

Wondering alone.

 

Pipe.

 

Middle School.

We are the first class to have a computer course.

They teach us about the internet.

Our final project: Create our own website.

It can be anything.

I get weird.

I pack my site with Diablo and Doom GIFs.

Black and white pictures of deformed farm animals.

Dilbert comics I don’t understand.

I write a long, conspiratorial rant against the government.

It makes little sense.

This is the internet as I knew it.

Games. Pieces of games.

Lo-fi visual strangeness.

Underdeveloped ideology.

An opportunity to dissolve in front of anyone.

At home I jump between chatrooms.

I talk to people I don’t know.

I try to uncover who they are.

Men become women.

Women become men.

Children become adults.

Multiplayer, text-based, non-linear fantasy.

There is no precedent.

We talk games. Politics. Relationships.

I try to keep up.

I am a Communist. An Anarchist.

I help someone through Metal Gear.

A person claiming to be transgender assists me with fake relationship problems.

I am a Paleontologist.

A doctor.

A writer.

I am the grand experiment:

Watching the chat-streams collapse and break on the shores of sense and language.

Endless reams of text and symbols.

No homogeneity. No fluency.

A million insular, erotic, fluid worlds hovering over the largest stage mankind has ever constructed.

A million people cutting themselves into a million pieces.

A million deaf-mutes screaming through themselves in a place with no echo, in a world of alleys.

In a world devoured.

A world constructed.

A world hegemonized.

A world swallowed whole into a factory of suns.

 

Stick.

 

The quiet is over now.

The internet is a loud, unified place.

A tyrannical megalopolis with no dirt in the corners.

With no place to hide from the eyes and the noise.

Surveillance. Streaming video. Google. Podcasts. Internet radio. Social networks. Marketing algorithms.

A person must be what the world says they are.

I miss the old ways.

The old place.

I miss the curtains. The smoke. The masks.

I miss floating in the imaginations of the world.

I try to find that space again.

In college I meet a girl.

She is from Lebanon. A doctoral student in Comparative Literature.

I enjoy her company. I enjoy walking with her through the city at night.

She smells like the old country, like my childhood.

Like growing up in the mountains.

Our friendship doesn’t last.

We grow distant. We fall out.

She says I am not ‘pure’ Lebanese.

I feel more ‘American’ to her.

She claims my dislike of the Middle Eastern aesthetic and love of Medieval/Victorian/Gothic Europe is a form of ideological colonization.

I become silent.

I don’t expect that from someone who understands the fragile, flexible nature of identity.

It cuts deep. The sting lingers.

The world is a force of labels.

Technology is the disruptor and the accelerant.

As the internet unifies, I try to find holes in other fictions.

Books. Film. Music.

Games.

After the Playstation, games become a fixture of my life.

I try to find a space to relive that original quiet.

That original unsettling.

In 2009, From Software release Demon’s Souls.

It is medieval, slow, and archaic.

Its world is broken and shrouded in fog.

The player is tasked with exploring it. Uncovering it.

Eliminating the source of the horror consuming the land of Boletaria.

The characters residing in this fracturing are themselves broken.

They hide. Their identities change.

The Maiden in Black both assists the player through the game and is revealed later to be partially responsible for the land’s bleak state.

After being rescued by the player, Yurt, The Silent Chief begins killing other characters whenever he is left alone.

Online, Demon’s Souls allows others to leave messages anywhere in the world.

There is little direct interaction.

These messages can be encouraging, enlightening, deceitful.

Only with experience can the truth be known.

These mechanisms coupled with an inconsistent, shifting ‘World Tendency’ which fundamentally determines what the player experiences and Demon’s Souls is a game that plays the player.

It is complex. Genuine. Liquid.

A game about identity draped in a dynamic ruined world.

A place reminiscent of the early internet.

A broken place always in flux.

2009: My final year in college.

Bored. Lost. Confused.

No job lined up. No idea what I am doing.

I spend my nights exploring Demon’s Souls. Churning deep into Boletaria.

I find a remnant of the strange quiet the world left behind.

I find a place to disappear.

A space to revisit a dead era.

From Software continue to develop the Souls formula.

Dark Souls. Dark Souls II. Bloodborne.

Each iteration: A new exploration of silence.

New kinds of fluidity.

New layers of faces.

New branches of Miyazaki’s deliberate, crafted, mistranslation of Western literature.

The early internet is trampled.

Wiped clean.

But the Souls games capture most of what it was.

They are memorials to hiding, to the inconsistent self.

To that dead space where anyone could be anything:

 

Alone.

Together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cold.

 

 

I walk through Yharnam.

I try to filter the disease from the city.

I imagine what this place has been.

Bodies hanged and crucified.

Coffins chained shut.

Statues weeping.

What was Yharnam in its best days?

How did its economy function?

Was there ever joy here?

The city is dense.

The city is decadent.

It is unhinged Baudelairean ecstasy.

Blood. Beasts. Coffins. Ash.

A setting sun.

A dying religion.

A long night.

It’s quiet.

Everyone hides from the hunt.

All locked away:

They mock, weep, laugh like ghosts:

The chemical byproducts of this nightmare.

They torched Old Yharnam to stop the plague.

They let the heretics revel in their obsession.

It still burns.

And the plague accelerates.

Citizens in stages of sickness.

How many families have been torn apart?

How many times has the story of Gascoigne and Viola repeated?

They all blame me.

There is a profound loss in their noises.

I cannot forget the Vicar‘s howl.

I cannot forget how she held her pendant.

I cannot forget the deer-wolf she became in the empty bowels of the Grand Cathedral.

Soft and violent.

Faith has lost here:

A false whisper drowned in an ocean of moans and screams.

Of roars and tears.

Yharnam is being left to die.

To suffocate.

To purge itself.

Yharnam is being allowed to forget.

To be forgotten.

I am a part of its unraveling.

I am the fantasy of its sorrow.

I am the luxury of power.

 

Hair.

 

Yharnam is a rejection of the Open World.

It is the rich failure of Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto.

It values intricacy.

It values intimacy.

Tight roads. Closed alleys.

A stagnant darkness.

It deconstructs the promise of its origin:

Anor Londo given a world.

It is the hollow dread of Boletaria and Lordran made visceral.

Yharnam and Bloodborne are inseparable.

Intertwined. Fused.

The mechanics of the game are an extension of the city.

The combat is close.

Intimate.

Flourishes and theatrical complexity:

A death ritual.

Yharnam is the seething blood pulsing through the game.

Always present.

Miyazaki‘s Souls are dispossessive.

Slow. Foggy. Stilted. Surreal.

Lynchian.

Broken worlds in passive decay.

They are violently quiet.

The Souls are about being frozen in dream.

About the end of the fairy tale.

Bloodborne is a deconstruction of life, of what it is to be alive.

It is the most literary game Miyazaki has made.

It is the bleak loneliness of Poe.

The biological alienation of Rappaccini’s Daughter.

The aggression of Melville.

The cosmic indifference of Lovecraft.

It is the most human game Miyazaki has made.

It explores our institutions, our bodies, our fear through the loss of form and ego.

It explores the fragility of our perception.

Is the Hunter’s Dream real?

Is it mine?

Or is it the Platonic Dream of The Hunt?

Or is Yharnam the true dream of the hunter?

The barren desire of the killer.

Bloodborne is the humanist response to Arbo’s Wild Hunt:

One mortal hunting the many.

One body stalking the ruins alone.

 

Fantasy.

 

Kafka wrote The Castle near the end of his life.

About a land surveyor attempting to navigate the bureaucracy of a strange village.

The locals don’t understand their own system of governance, but consider it sacred nonetheless.

Each villager the surveyor speaks with has a different myth for what their government is.

There is no consensus.

The novel explores themes of alienation, blind ignorance, and the unquestioned nature of systems of power.

Kafka died of tuberculosis before The Castle was completed.

Eras later and Bloodborne is its conclusion.

It is the expansion of The Castle and Kafka’s illness.

It doesn’t just absorb The Castle’s themes of bureaucracy and institutional power in its examination of the Healing Church.

It is Kafka’s Social alienation. Political alienation. Biological alienation in a new medium.

Bloodborne is Kafka’s end and his final creative act wrapped around Killzone‘s synthetic verticality, filtered through Beksinski‘s quiet, organic abyss.

It is a machinery of themes.

A cohesive, living game.

Its systems, stories, environment inform each other.

There is no space between them.

They are perpetually linked:

The dendrites of Yharnam.

They twist and loom over each other.

Seep into each other.

Miyazaki and his team aren’t game makers.

They are craftsmen.

They have fashioned something thick, linear, vertical, complex, broken.

Something like a person built with poems.

Something like a doll drowned in calligraphy.

 

Something like Pinocchio discovering the horror of being human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stand.

 

 

Born to immigrants.

I understood nothing.

My parents came to the United States in the 70’s to escape the war.

They navigated American culture by way of the small Lebanese communities they found here.

They figured out some of it.

My mother loved 80’s pop music.

My father loved his .38 revolver with armor-piercing bullets.

But the ties didn’t loosen.

Driving around southern California:

Fairouz. Umm Kalthoum. Warda. Sabah.

I couldn’t understand their songs.

I could speak the gutter Arabic of the old country.

I couldn’t read or write it. I couldn’t decipher its classical form.

When I was old enough to have a Walkman, I stepped outside that world.

Michael Jackson. MC Hammer. Kriss Kross.

I felt the surface of America, but it never poured into my bones.

Something always felt off.

Something always felt lost.

1991: Not Without My Daughter released in theaters.

It bombed. Critics ripped it apart.

A story about an American woman going with her Iranian husband to Iran.

Once there, he becomes abusive and threatening.

He decides not to go back to the U.S.

It was Orientalist trash.

I made my parents rent it multiple times.

I didn’t understand the story.

I didn’t understand what the film was trying to say.

I didn’t understand the difference between Iran and the Arab worlds.

But I was happy watching it.

I saw people who looked like me. I saw a religion I recognized.

I saw symbols I could interpret.

It seemed important: Something that resembled a piece of my world coming out of Hollywood.

I felt a part of my identity was validated.

America saw that I existed.

The Middle East existed.

Not Without My Daughter was cultural dead space.

Linear and closed. The narrative didn’t matter.

The signifier mattered.

I celebrated the act of recognition.

In a racist propaganda film:

I celebrated my self.

 

Walk.

 

My grandmother came to California.

She left Lebanon to spend time with us.

We were close.

I didn’t view her understanding as separate from my parents’.

I assumed she knew how to work a television.

I assumed she knew how to help with my homework.

I assumed she could help me translate Dragon Warrior.

She couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp why.

The weekend my mother surprised me with the game we worked through the beginning together.

We made it out of town and stopped.

Everything was foreign.

World map. Items. Equipment. Towns. Plot. Text. Random battles. Quests. Saving.

Without my mother, I couldn’t make it out of the first town.

I’d ask my grandmother for help.

She didn’t understand any of it.

I called my mother at work. She guided me over the phone.

I could hear the pulp mill grinding in the background.

I replayed the opening sequence over and over again.

It wasn’t frustrating. I enjoyed it.

Dragon Warrior had a dense atmosphere.

It was confident.

The music felt harmonious and foreboding.

The box art glimmered with dread:

 

 

I obsessed over the art.

How was the knight going to defeat the dragon?

He had no ground left to stand on. The dragon was enormous.

I couldn’t see how the knight could win.

I imagined every possible strategy.

I admired his bravery.

I felt like a coward.

I viewed Dragon Warrior through the same lens as Not Without My Daughter:

I didn’t understand it as a whole.

I didn’t understand it as a narrative.

I understood it as a wasteland.

I understood it through the dark, closed monuments I crawled into:

The art outside the game and the music within.

Confronted with a game I couldn’t interpret, I sat with it.

I sat with my imagination.

Finding out who I was.

Studying my cowardice.

Dissecting my fear.

 

Crawl.

 

2003: Abu Ghraib leaks.

A nightmare told in photographs.

A decade later and all the rhetoric leads here.

I look through the photos.

The smiling doesn’t frighten me.

It’s the indifference:

 

 

Lynndie England’s indifferent face.

The nothingness of it.

The void heart of the universe opening.

It stuck.

Watching a culture watch itself go blind.

The proto-VR experience.

The knell of the anchors.

Abu Ghraib wasn’t a narrative.

It was a symbol of breaking.

It was a living dead space:

The chasm. The dragon.

The dread.

My broken understanding of Not Without My Daughter unspooled and stretched to face its own logic:

Anyone that looks like me is an animal and an enemy.

A diverse race seen as an extension of video game power fantasies and brutal consumerism.

Virtually real:

A race of screaming Amiibos.

 

Dissolve.

 

I don’t know where I’m supposed to land.

I never knew.

I am uncomfortable inside myself.

I am at peace in the margins.

Wandering the liminal space.

I don’t enjoy games as much as pieces of games.

Midgar’s Dense Linearity:

 

 

Out Run Pillars:

 

 

Altered Beast Cemetary:

 

 

The Painted World of Ariamis:

 

 

Shin Megami Tensei IV Screen:

 

 

Bloodborne Statues:

 

 

I find quiet in these places.

I imagine interacting with them.

I imagine their histories.

I identify with them.

I once told a professor I’m not certain where I belong.

In America, I’m the Arab.

In Lebanon, I’m the American.

She suggested I might need a third space.

Escape the duality.

I thought of Europe. I thought of vanishing in Asia.

I almost accepted a job teaching English in Japan.

But changing location didn’t feel like enough.

Priscilla carved her own world to be forgotten.

It wasn’t enough.

Still found. Murdered by millions.

Hiding can’t be enough.

I needed an internal physicality.

A spatial dialogue.

Pieces of games became my third space.

I found solace in the warmth of their parts.

 

Float.

 

After I escaped the 2006 war, I wrote a poem.

It wasn’t good, but it told the story.

I went to open mics at cafes anywhere I could and read.

The final reading, I went with a friend.

He was experimenting with grey market drugs.

2C-E was still legal.

I step outside after.

The sun setting. The sky going dark.

I lay back against the brick facade.

Some of the audience walk up to me.

They enjoyed it. Said I wrote like Kerouac.

I hate Kerouac.

I thank them.

I feel like a fraud.

I’ve reinforced my identity as an Arab.

Reinforced my otherness.

I fall into myself.

‘Hey…’

I look at my friend.

‘Yeah?’

‘Did you notice that spiderweb in the corner by the window?’

‘No.’

He nods.

‘It was really intricate…lots of shifting geometry…’

I listen to the traffic.

I look down at the sidewalk.

I see a small clover and moss growing between the concrete.

‘The way it caught the light…’

I don’t say anything.

I look across the road at the overgrown lot.

A warm wind.

I watch a tree scratch at the frozen sky.

I remember the indifference of the world.

I am terrified.

I remember pride. I feel like a fool.

I rip the poem up and throw it away.

I walk to my car.

I lean on it. I watch the air go black.

I was born in the wrong place.

The wrong time.

But here I am:

The post-modern dynasty.

The failure of multiculture at a loss for self.

 

But here I am:

Inheritor and occupier of pieces.

Drowning in mirrors and dead flags.

 

The garbage king on his throne of cracks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner.

 

 

When I first tried to play The Last of Us, my PS3 couldn’t handle it.

I had the 2nd generation fat model and it couldn’t play newer games without blasting the internal fan.

It happened every time I put in Gran Turismo 6 as well.

I was frustrated not only because I couldn’t play the games I had, but this was near the release of Dark Souls II.

I was concerned the fan noise was going to destroy the ambiance the Souls series is known for.

I got rid of it and upgraded to the PS3 Slim.

Dark Souls II released and TLoU: Remastered was announced shortly after for the PS4 at a lower price.

Dark Souls II was a passable game overall, but by far the worst Souls game to date.

My excitement died and I passed my time waiting for The Last of Us: Remastered playing Guilty Gear.

When TLoU:R released, the difference was significant.

While the resolution stayed the same, it now ran at 60 fps instead of 30 and had a striking fidelity.

It was crisp and responsive. It felt different.

After having spent a few months analyzing everything that went wrong with Dark Souls II, The Last of Us was something I needed.

There were things about it that made me uncomfortable: Every person of color in the game is the target of some massive trauma, sometimes at the hands of the main character.

But TLoU was a narrative success.

The story was tight and engaging. The environments were dense.

The greatest success of The Last of Us is that the world both feels abandoned and lived in.

The cities and towns are painted and tragic.

Everywhere you look, there is something to look at: dripping water, a cracked brick, crawling vines, abandoned barriers, collapsed skylines.

The world is full and broken.

The Last of Us is Midgar Revisited.

Everything fits together in a complete, fluid way.

The world transitions into itself: stairs lead to halls leading to rooms with open windows and fire escapes and ledges and streets with more stairs.

If Destiny‘s success is its unique lens of verticality and space, The Last of Us succeeds in layering and texture:

In thickness and density.

 

Rotation.

 

A few weeks ago I applied to join the Bloodborne alpha.

I had no expectation of being accepted, but I felt compelled to try in order to know if this was going to be another disaster.

I completed both Demon’s and Dark Souls, owned DSII (for which I was invited to the beta), and purchased every iteration of Armored Core on the PSP/PS3.

I thought my credentials were solid enough with From Software that I had a better chance than others.

And they accepted me.

And Bloodborne is stunning.

While the lens through which the alpha takes place is limited, there is enough to understand what the game is.

It is not a Souls game.

It borrows elements from the series, but it is its own game mechanically and thematically.

The combat is much more fluid and responsive than any of the Souls games.

Bloodborne emphasizes movement and situational awareness. The combat is thorough and dynamic.

Gone is the dreamy, slow, dissociative quality of Souls interaction.

Bloodborne is more grounded.

The basic enemies remain difficult and have the potential to kill.

And From has maintained the asymmetrical multiplayer they pioneered in Demon’s Souls.

Bloodborne also marks the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki as Director.

After directing both Demon’s and Dark Souls, From removed him from the series and made him President of the company.

This led to Dark Souls II being made without his direction, ensuring the mess that From ended up releasing.

Miyazaki’s hand is so obvious in the design of Bloodborne that it makes Dark Souls II seem even worse.

Like The Last of Us, Bloodborne is a dense game.

It takes place in an enormous, sprawling gothic city (Yharnam) cloaked in a final darkness.

The city is in the midst of a plague that turns citizens into beasts.

Bloodborne, so far, seems like the most nihilistic game Miyazaki has made.

The city is full of death, hatred, anger, lament, emptiness.

Everywhere you turn there are ornate coffins, abandoned carriages, black chasms, tortured monstrosities.

Enemies scream, blaming the player character for their situation. Their voices full of rage and sorrow.

But Bloodborne, so far, seems like the best game Miyazaki has made.

One of the flaws Dark Souls II suffered from was a lack of compelling momentum.

It never makes the player ask or wonder.

There was nothing curious about the game’s world or construction. Everything was obvious and direct.

In Bloodborne, that is never the case.

 

Cascade.

 

Entry – 

 

The city is dark, but everything glistens.

I can see the blood on my clothes. I look up at the sky.

Why is that moon so bright? How did this place fall so far?

I walk toward a large coffin propped up in an alley.

I wonder why it’s chained shut.

 

Entry – 

 

I walk past some crates.

A man in the throes of this illness lunges at me.

He screams that it’s all my fault. He sounds sad and angry and terrified.

I kill him with my scythe.

I pull out my torch and stare at his body to decipher his features.

I wonder what it is he blames me for.

 

Entry

 

Standing on the stairs, I see civilians carrying torches.

It seems they are on some sort of patrol.

I follow them. I cross an abandoned carriage.

A man hiding in the shadows, he rises, and shoots me in the back.

I cut him down and climb the stairs he was sitting on.

I turn left at the top.

There is a half-beast corpse: crucified and burning in the dark.

 

Entry –

 

I walk down a side-path until I hit a locked gate.

A bell rings nearby.

I hear a loud groaning.

Something is trapped, slamming against a door.

I jump into the main road. I see the door shaking on my right.

I see another (larger) burning, crucified body on my left:

This one more beast than man.

 

Entry – 

 

I find a path into a graveyard.

All the trees are barren.

I wonder what season it is.

The moaning is louder now.

Something feels wrong here. I look at the ground.

The shadows are moving, flowing.

I look at the trees and there is stillness.

I trace the moonlight back. I look up at the sky.

There is an enormous spider-like abomination sitting on a tower, looming.

Tentacles from its mouth moving, flowing.

I stare at its hundred dead eyes in shock.

I wonder if this thing was once human as well.

 

Entry – 

 

I find the source of the groaning, the slamming.

A very large figure. He turns around to confront me.

I burn him down with Molotovs.

There is silence.

I wonder why he was trapped here.

I wonder why he was so large.

I walk to the back of the terrace.

I look down into the black abyss.

I look up at the nightmare in the moonlight.

And I know that this place is terrifying…

 

And that this place is beautiful.