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Tag Archives: Cyberpunk

 

 

Low.

 

 

“Rain woke him, a slow drizzle, his feet tangled in coils of discarded fiberoptics. The arcade’s sea of sound washed over him, receded, returned. Rolling over, he sat up and held his head.

Light from a service hatch at the rear of the arcade showed him broken lengths of damp chipboard and the dripping chassis of a gutted game console. Streamlined Japanese was stenciled across the side of the console in faded pinks and yellows.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer

 

Sub-I:

 

We were in a basement somewhere in Beirut. We were shooting pool.

Mid-90’s summer and there was no air conditioning. Slow fans and fluorescent lights.

The walls were covered in cracks and ripped up, yellowed flyers with pictures of dead men.

‘Martyrs’.

I become bored, I look around for something else to do.

A row of arcade cabinets in the distant corner. I put my cue down. I walk over.

I watch the demo looping bright neon animations.

A puzzle game. A friend comes over.

He watches the demo.

We stare at the flashing pictures of naked Asian women that pop up behind the solved puzzles.

He sits down at one cabinet. He drops in the coins. Tries to play.

He only manages to uncover a woman’s face locked in orgasmic fury.

As he gets up to leave, I lock eyes with one of the dead men hanging above the grimy arcade machine.

He looks determined. He looks ridiculous.

Either nationalism or religion killed him. Electric sex keeps his memory alive.

We step outside into the sticky night. We walk past a bombed out theater.

Lights reflect in the ruin.

It looks ridiculous.

It looks determined.

 

Sub-II:

 

We lived in southern California. 45 minutes outside of LA.

We drove to Vegas once a year for vacation.

90’s Vegas tried to market itself towards families.

Every hotel had massive, expensive arcades my brother and I would bury ourselves in.

A few years ago I went back there with my father for the first time in over a decade.

The arcades died there too: Vegas dropped the family act.

Walking down the strip at sunset, I realize how much I had forgotten about this place in the winter.

I notice how cool the air is, how dark the sky.

Standing at a crosswalk, I hold a cigar to my mouth and look down.

I laugh.

Cards with mostly naked men and women had been cast all over the corner.

I grind my foot into their polished, gutted faces.

So this is what Vegas wants to be now?

Must have lost money betting on the American family.

The 90’s lied to this city the same way it lied to all of us.

I crossed.

I watched the fountain go off in front of the Bellagio.

I felt like a ghost in its towering white light.

I felt like the dead man and his sex machine.

 

Sub-III:

 

 

Someone turned nostalgia into its own virtual world.

I was upset the first time I saw this.

It’s all lifeless.

The player touches everything and experiences nothing.

This isn’t an arcade: It is a funeral pyre.

In a world where digital media is highly consumable, we have forgotten how to act around things of value…

including our memory.

 

III.9: 

 

There was a line around the entire arcade.

Word was out they bought a VR machine.

$20.00 bought you five minutes.

I wait for the line to die down. It takes a few hours.

I walk up to the attendant. Give her the money.

She wraps the giant, plastic headpiece around my eyes.

I am anxious about becoming nauseous.

The game starts.

I look around the room. I am in a warehouse.

Everything is low-poly. Poor framerate.

Things shoot at me and I have no idea what to do.

My five minutes are up. I leave unimpressed.

More than a decade later Oculus Rift gains traction.

Sony announces Project Morpheus.

I download PolyFauna on my phone.

I put on headphones and stand in my living room.

I hold my phone close to my face and turn with it to navigate.

I am in two three-dimensional places at once and this realization shocks and thrills me.

I see a future defined by both cheap and expensive VR.

Bright colors. Dark spaces. Heat. Intimacy. Distance.

Eroticism.

VR’s arcade inheritance.

 

Sub-IV:

 

We were standing by the beach, watching the roaches skitter along the shore.

It was night. Everything was lit up by small shops and looming towers crowding Beirut’s shoreline.

I catch the lights of an enormous tanker parked in the sea.

I daydream about its machinery.

Coffee in hand, I turn to watch the taxis speed by.

A friend of my cousin walks up to us and pulls out his phone.

He asks us if we want to see something funny.

He cycles through the menus. Pulls up a video.

He holds the phone up to our faces.

It’s a video of a naked woman doing illicit things with a lit cigar.

I look up from the video.

I see gutted phones and computers in the window of a repair shop across the street.

I tell my cousin I’ll be right back.

I cross the boulevard.

I watch the guy work by his window.

I notice his limited selection of pirated games and vast quantities of Chinese knockoff consoles.

Lebanon has a strange relationship with technology: Everyone wants it, but only a few understand it.

Years later, the iPhone 4 would sell here for $1400.00 USD.

 

Sub-V:

 

At a bar just outside downtown Madison, WI.

Waiting for a live show to start at a venue down the street.

The bar has one arcade machine and one video poker machine.

I watch the poker demo.

I enjoy the crispness of the cards and their fluid animations.

I enjoy its bright glow.

It reminds me of all the machines in Vegas.

The rows and rows of digital and mechanical vice.

The UI flashes my mind with the basement and its dying porn games.

I never found gambling interesting.

But I enjoy the technology and aesthetics of seductive manipulation.

The running thread beneath it all is to focus the user, to isolate a person without giving them to the space to understand the illusion.

Arcade machines. Virtual Reality. Slot machines. Mobile phones.

My favorite types of mobile games are the ones that capture this illicitness.

Monster Strike. Terra Battle. TNNS. Dice Jockey. Zenonia.

They are inheritors of the arcade as filtered through Vegas.

They are products of and a celebration of vice.

Bright colors. Money. Chance. And the sensuality of being alone with others.

The modern drives as sold through slick, minimal UIs.

The modern drives as the bonfires of the synapse.

 

Pit.

 

“There was a place near an airport, Kowloon, when Hong Kong wasn’t China, but there had been a mistake, a long time ago, and that place, very small, many people, it still belonged to China. So there was no law there. An outlaw place. And more and more people crowded in; they built it up, higher. No rules, just building, just people living. Police wouldn’t go there. Drugs and whores and gambling. But people living, too. Factories, restaurants. A city. No laws.”

—William Gibson, Idoru

 

It is early.

We shamble out of the club.

I am shocked to see the sun.

Red Bull and vodka still coursing through us.

We make our way to the shore.

Beirut is an ugly city in the light of day.

It thrives through the night.

My cousin buys some coffee. He hands me a cup.

I watch the sun hovering just above the mountains.

I wonder about how we’re going to handle the hour-long trek back to the village.

We still had to drop off my cousin’s friends.

They meet up with us.

We walk over to the car and take off.

They both live in the hyper-religious slums of Beirut. Hezbollah territory.

We drop them off and I look around as my cousin says goodbye.

The buildings are close. The streets are narrow.

Sunlight blotted out by a thick, complex spiderweb of black cable.

I think about the infrastructure of access.

I see the faces of martyrs hung up on electrical poles.

I watch a man smoke a cigarette with an AK-47 slung around his back.

This is a place of violence. Of drugs. Of religion. Of money. Of power in the most classical sense.

My uncle once told me that in the city you have to pay for things that should be free for everyone: Access to sunlight and air.

I imagine who might live at the top of all these buildings.

What do they do with all their access?

I look at the cut sky through the dirt on the windshield.

I pull out my phone and check for messages.

Nothing.

I lean my head back. I close my eyes.

I think of Midgar. Of Kowloon. Of Neo-Tokyo.

I think of vice and violence.

And I smile.

And I bask in the mute, dark heat of our hearts.

 

And I drown in the polluted glands of this city.

 

 

 

 

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Gaze.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words fail often. Sometimes you need something more visceral.

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

 

 

Teeth.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Coin.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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