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Fill.

 

 

Standing in the parking lot at night.

I look up at the sign.

I can’t remember when.

I am a child.

We are between my parents’ separations.

A pleasant evening and I am happy.

I smell the warmth of the asphalt. We walk to the front entrance.

We are going to eat pie. I look at the sign again.

I smile at its brightness.

We step inside. The lounge is full.

It smells like smoke and baked carpet.

I hear the piano music. I run towards it.

I watch the piano play itself.

I try to read its scroll.

The piano is in a frenzy: Pedals and keys pumping like thighs and pistons.

Like an oil derrick throbbing alone in the hills.

I imagine the ghost at the machine.

A hollowness swallows my stomach. I step back.

It feels almost alive. It seems confident.

I imagine the thing filled with bones and gears.

I imagine little fingers wrenching the keys from the inside.

I love this piano.

I am horrified by it.

Our name is called. I run back.

We are escorted to our table.

My father orders a pot pie. My brother orders one also.

He doesn’t know what it is.

Our food comes. My brother hates it.

He thought it would be sweet.

We finish. We sit around awhile.

We get up.

I walk to the piano again. I watch it again.

I place a finger on a key and wait.

It collapses. I jump back.

My father takes my hand.

We walk out.

The door closes.

The piano dies.

The wind picks up.

We walk to the car in silence.

I think about the pot pie.

I think about the piano.

Why would someone make a pie that isn’t sweet?

Why would someone want a piano to play itself?

I stare out the window on the ride home.

I watch the street lights flare by.

Full and confused.

On a road outside LA.

I fall asleep.

 

Rest.

 

A lot of games passed by me.

I was blind to them.

The PlayStation pulled me back in.

My mother gave away our NES and SNES to a poor Palestinian family.

It was Need for Speed III and Final Fantasy VII that reframed my past.

It was where games were then that set me off to reexamine where they came from.

In high school I dove into emulation. I sought out what was necessary.

A friend mentions Ogre Battle.

I download it.

I am frustrated.

Expecting a battle system of total player control, I couldn’t understand the value of the game.

I couldn’t choose my character.

I couldn’t micromanage my army.

Watching my soldiers lose without my direct involvement was awful.

Strategic target prioritization was all I was allowed.

I couldn’t accept it.

I wanted what FFVII promised: Strategic action.

Complete control.

In 2006, my interest in games collapsed again.

I had a laptop, a PlayStation 2, a PSP.

I was caught up with games and I was bored.

Final Fantasy XII released.

I was uninterested. I ignored it.

I visit a friend’s house.

He loves it. He hates FFVII and VIII.

I ask him why he likes XII so much:

“Because it feels like real fantasy, not that weird science/technology stuff in those other games. . .Also, I maxed out my characters in a couple nights. . .”

“What? How?”

“The Gambit System. . .I set macros in the game and rubber-band the analog stick. The party runs around and fights and heals itself and I don’t really have to do anything.”

“What’s the point of that? Is it fun for you?”

“Better than me wasting my game time grinding. . .”

I am stunned.

I am flooded with implication:

The first time I think about a game playing itself.

The first time I see the emptiness behind the systems.

The first time I understand games as inconvenience.

 

Drip.

 

Xenoblade Chronicles asked a lot of me.

Christmas 2012 I bought myself a WiiU.

It was the first Nintendo home console I’d owned since the SNES.

The Wii’s library was stagnant.

Again, I sought out the necessary:

Xenoblade. The Last Story. Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom. Sin & Punishment.

Xenoblade Chronicles is difficult to digest.

The characters skim across the world.

No weight. No friction. No density.

The weapons are half-inflated balloons.

The battle system is auto-attacks and positioning.

It’s watching what your party is doing while controlling one character.

Xenoblade is the evolution of Ogre Battle translated for the MMO generation.

It is uncomfortable.

It’s a game in which the player is marginal.

It’s a game of strategic depth and tactical hollowness.

A beautiful game with no body.

A cavernous game with no bones.

It is the modern predecessor to the ‘game-that-plays-itself.’

Mountain. Dreeps. Neko Atsume.

Mountain: The player watches a procedurally-generated mountain form and float in space.

The player only controls the camera as text from the mountain types itself across the screen.

Dreeps: The player sets an alarm which determines when an android wakes to go on an adventure.

It gains experience and defeats bosses on its own.

Neko Atsume: The player sets out toys and food for cats. The player takes pictures of the cats.

The player cannot interact with the cats directly.

They are all mobile games.

They are all about convenience and voyeurism.

About watching and filling empty time with something a little less empty.

The convenience and horror of FFXII’s Gambit as a design philosophy.

As a genre.

The self-playing game is a multi-level perversion.

Fetishization. Voyeurism. Bondage. Power. Dissociation.

Cold and sexual:

A dying fish glistening in the sunlight.

Intriguing and quiet.

Reflective and Sorrowful.

The self-playing game rests in the chasm between my finger and the piano key.

It is the glass between ourselves and our spaces.

It is falling asleep in the ruins of a feeling.

It is endlessly witnessing the confusion of a rotting memory pushing itself into every experience a person has ever loved.

A hole inside a hole.

A new dawn.

A broken sky.

A sea of cameras.

A fury of nostalgia.

 

A graveyard of pixels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain.

 

 

Christmas. 1990. California.

I was seven.

I spent an entire year asking my parents for a Game Boy.

I didn’t think I’d get one.

Christmas morning and we opened our presents.

And there it was.

I ran out of the room.

I was confused about who bought it. I thought it was my uncle.

I ran into the living room. I tore into the box.

Popped in the batteries. Caressed the system.

I turned it over in my hands. I enjoyed the weight of it.

I enjoyed its thickness. I was in love with its density.

I grabbed the only cart I had: Tetris.

The label was beautiful. The cartridge had a fulfilling proportionality.

It felt more promising and better designed than NES carts had been.

NES game carts were too long and too thick.

There was too much space on them. They had no visual impact.

Their faces were empty.

The Tetris cart was beautiful: Thin. Asymmetrical.

A subtle rectangle.

I slid it into the back.

I turned the system on.

The sound was crisp.

I burned through the options.

I wanted the game.

After a few rounds I thought I understood what it was.

I started at 0 and cleared lines as fast as I could.

The Game Boy was my first portable video game system.

Tetris was my first portable game.

I didn’t understand any of its subtlety.

I didn’t care to seek out its language.

I didn’t see what was so enthralling about its design.

I dropped Tetris.

I chased after Super Mario Land. Kirby’s Dream Land. Ninja Turtles.

I needed environments I could relate to.

I needed an imagined narrative.

Tetris was cold.

It fell away and I moved on.

 

Doughnut.

 

Summer. 1997.

Lebanon and the village is dead.

I gave my cousins my first-gen Game Boy one year earlier.

I now have a Game Boy Pocket.

The electricity is out. The water’s off. The arcade closed.

We revisit Tetris Attack.

It’s the first time I engage with the ‘Tetris’ brand since 1990.

I play through the stages. I enjoy the characters and the dialogue.

Puzzle mode feels more genuine than the original’s ‘B-Type’.

Endless mode is a meditative training ground.

Tetris Attack is Tetris inverted.

The pieces climb up from the bottom.

The cursor can switch two adjacent pieces horizontally.

The game pieces were blocks with symbols on them.

The object isn’t line clears, but matching blocks.

It was a proto-Bejeweled with Yoshi characters.

Tetris Attack was small, but full.

Strategic, but not complicated.

It had the sticky touch of Intelligent Systems.

Tetris Attack wasn’t Tetris.

It released in Japan as Panel de Pon.

Nintendo wanted name recognition in the West.

They wanted the Tetris name. They settled on Tetris Attack.

The Tetris Company cleared it.

And regretted it.

Henk Rogers felt it diluted the brand.

But Tetris Attack was an alternative.

It was a solid, strange experience.

It presented unique tools to rethink the Tetris universe.

Like Majora’s Mask and Zelda: It planted the seeds for the series’ deconstruction.

It brought warmth to the series.

It brought a crooked heart.

 

Hall.

 

Winter. 2015.

I try to consolidate my games.

I look for my Game Boy carts. I find Tetris Attack again.

It holds up. It still has warmth and life in it.

I find Tetris again.

I slide it into my SP.

25 years later and I decide to give it another shot.

I start at level 7.

25 years later and it feels different.

Something clicks and my hands start buzzing.

I begin to see its elegance and the subtleties of its design.

It was never just about line clears.

It was about setups. It was about adapting to flaws.

It was about recovering.

I hear about the AGDQ Tetris run.

I learn about Tetris: The Grand Master.

Developed by Arika and the series only released in arcades.

I loved what they had achieved in the past: The PS2 version of DoDonPachi Daioujou.

I seek out and download the entire TGM series.

And TGM 3 is dark, fun, and beautiful.

TGM 3 is the Daioujou of the Tetris universe.

Its presentation is clean.

Its music is engaging.

It’s difficult, but it doesn’t push the player away.

It dredges up the will to do better.

TGM 3 presents four modes of play with two different rulesets.

Easy teaches the game.

Sakura is a variation on a previous release: Tetris with Cardcaptor Sakura Eternal Heart.

Master is Tetris with speeds that gradually increase over time.

Shirase is Tetris at blinding speeds coupled with odd challenges.

Classic rule maintains the rotation style of the two prior iterations of TGM.

World rule is a set pushed on Arika by The Tetris Company in order to unify newer Tetris games.

The multiple modes and rulesets give TGM 3 a depth not seen in the arcade puzzle genre.

It gives the player the freedom to decide what sort of game they would like to play.

TGM 3 is difficult and obtuse.

It doesn’t explain itself and it doesn’t care.

It only wants to pull the player in as fast as possible.

The entire game is a boss fight: It seems impossible.

In Shirase, you can’t see the pieces fall.

The higher levels in Master require instinctual reaction times.

But it’s these elements that make the game so enjoyable.

In most fighting games, the curve seems vertical.

Inexperienced players become frustrated and turn away.

Fighting games require study. They require a deconstruction of situational behaviors and habits.

They bloom and open as the player’s mind and technique does.

TGM 3 must be approached the same way. It requires study.

It requires the player to focus both on the game and themselves.

It’s no coincidence that the TGM series and fighting games were both born from the arcades.

They both ask that the player be efficient and aware.

The payoff in fighting games is convincing wins against human opponents.

In TGM 3 the payoff is watching yourself calculate, strategize, and play at speeds you never thought you’d ever be capable of.

In 1990 I had no idea what Tetris was.

I dismissed it for having no heart.

I misunderstood it.

2015 and I realize now how much I’ve missed in the last 25 years.

Sometimes you just need the right kind of eyes.

Sometimes the heart is so big that you only catch a small piece of it.

Ignorance has a slow, enduring momentum.

And time isn’t always enough to kill it.

You need something savage and raw to tear through the filters you’ve tied yourself in.

Tetris Attack. Eight years on: It’s joyful and enduring.

Tetris. 25 years later: I wake up.

 

Tetris The Grand Master 3. 2015: My hands tremble, my teeth rip, and my brain is pummeled into the sun.

 

 

 

 

sa

 

 

Grate.

 

 

There are moments I stop playing video games.

I can recall each moment because they are all defined by an exploration of something new.

Lost somewhere in the fog of high school, I walked away from games for the second time.

It was never clear what triggered this.

Freshman year I was playing Grand Theft Auto on the Game boy Color.

Sophomore year my brother and I pooled our money together for a Playstation 2.

Junior year and something shifted.

I turned to music.

I explored vinyl records.

I pulled my parents’ old Sanyo floor speakers from the basement.

I bought my first pair of Sony Stereophones.

Sound became important.

The first car I owned was a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.

Its stock stereo system had a visual equalizer.

I spent hours tweaking frequencies and audio presets.

When I came back to games I had developed an aural palate.

I knew what I wanted to hear.

I picked up my Game Boy Color and played Dragon Warrior for the first time since its NES release.

Its music stuck with me long after I had forgotten about it.

I asked a friend if he could copy specific songs off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.

I listened to it everyday driving home from school.

I began to pay attention to what I once considered passive elements.

Soundscape. Music. Sound Design. Lighting. Art.

My only focus had been on plot and mechanics.

I revisited games from my past.

Lion King. Aladdin. Super Mario 2. Guerrilla War. Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Contra. Jackal.

I experimented through them all.

I played with the fluid sprites of Aladdin.

I realized how deep Jackal’s music had dug into my past.

 

Coil.

 

When the original Playstation hit, it occupied a strange place in sound.

The PS1 rendered an insinuation of orchestra.

Everything from Final Fantasy VII to Metal Gear Solid to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had soundtracks that landed between what was and what was to come.

With better hardware, it was a matter of time before game music became orchestral and real.

I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Most film soundtracks use orchestral variation and most film soundtracks are forgettable.

With each consecutive hardware generation, games became less immune to being forgotten.

Designers dropped simple, tight, engaging melodies for large, sweeping waves of sound.

Final Fantasy X was my first exposure to this.

I cannot recall a single FFX theme.

When everything is drowned in realized, emotional music, it has no impact.

It has no force.

The most recognizable themes in games today are those that understand how to use boundary and limitation.

Halo and its haunting, simple, choral opening.

Crysis 2 and Hans Zimmer’s dissonant, driven theme.

Armored Core V and its awkward, shifting, stuttering soundscape.

Transistor and its somber, tense, contemplative anthem.

Game music succeeds when it does new things with mathematical elegance.

As games shift further away from their origins, as they become more complex, more rooted in an approximation of reality, they can only strengthen their identities by reexamining the technical boundaries of their past.

By trying to forge identity through deliberate misremembrance.

 

Sea.

 

Until 2011, the last piece of Nintendo hardware I owned was a first-generation Game Boy Advance.

I skipped the N64, GameCube, Wii, and DS.

The 3DS was the first Nintendo console I bought in ten years.

I was annoyed at myself for ignoring the DS in favor of the PSP.

I was interested in experimenting with the parallax display.

It took time to get reacquainted with Nintendo.

I disliked what they did with the Wii and the 3DS was their initial attempt to rediscover the ‘core’ gaming audience.

Super Mario 3D Land shocked me. Its music was simple and memorable.

It was the perfect evolution of sound.

The music was experienced and enhanced the game’s bright art.

Nearly every first-party game on the 3DS had a thorough, crafted approach to sound.

The 3DS was the first handheld console where I couldn’t just mute the games.

I needed to hear what was going on.

In 2013, I bought Animal Crossing: New Leaf to cope with my wife leaving for a month.

It was the first Animal Crossing game I played.

The wholeness of its soundscape was captivating.

The music was light, crisp, and warm.

The sound of the rain, the waterfalls, the shore was thick and meditative.

The sound of footsteps on sand, grass, cobblestone, wood was mesmerizing.

More than any other element, the sound design stuck.

Listening to New Leaf was just as much a pleasure as playing it.

I bought a Wii U not long after launch.

I waited for the first-party games. I waited for the extension of the 3DS’ promise.

Super Mario 3D World was just as beautiful and whole as 3D Land.

Mario Kart 8 infused pop and joy into nearly every track’s theme.

The thoroughness of Sonic’s sound design in Super Smash Bros. Wii U is nothing short of a loving tribute to a dying friend.

Nintendo is often attacked for being slow to adapt, to change.

Nintendo is often accused of thriving in their own bubble and calling it success.

While these criticisms are fair, it is important to examine what it is they get right.

They understand how to build games.

They understand that sound and music aren’t just aural skyboxes encompassing their worlds.

They consider and entwine sound into every step, every inch.

Nintendo’s approach to sound is simple and profound.

Soulful and considered.

 

Grinning and whispered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orpheus.

 

 

1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad

 

The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.

 

2) SNK Neo-Geo X

 

The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.

 

3) Xbox 360 Controller

 

The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.

 

4) Sony PlayStation Vita

 

While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.

 

5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP

 

The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deform.

 

 

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.

 

Contort.

 

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.

 

Arms.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flower.

 

 

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:

Joy.

 

River.

 

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.

 

Soil.

 

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.

 

Rustle.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dissolve.

 

 

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.

 

Pucks.

 

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.

 

Kevlar.

 

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.