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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The PC And The Re-Rise Of The Shoot’em Up.

 

 

RPS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Evolution And Development Of Mech Games.

 

 

RPS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shamble.

 

 

Pop music is two things: Urgency and Moments.

Pop songs try to deliver their messages as direct as possible and try to make them stick.

The deeper the songs can drill into you, the more important the message becomes.

The louder it becomes.

Pop songs are all about mechanics. They are all about how to attack the heart of the listener.

They are strategic and tactical and hard.

 

 

The Ronettes‘ ‘Be My Baby’ is one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century.

The song embodies the genre and mirrors it to no end.

There is a sincere urgency in Veronica Bennett’s voice, there is a genuine pleading.

The instruments become time, caressing Bennett through each second.

Everything sticks and the song cascades moments.

The song grows so big that it becomes a world of its own.

 

 

Azealia Banks‘ ‘212’ follows the same methodology as ‘Be My Baby’.

Not only is there a frenetic urgency in the song, but it is always shifting, always creating newer, bigger moments.

Where ‘Be My Baby’ overwhelms with force of sound and honesty, ‘212’ floods the listener with intricacy and aggression.

The mirroring is more complex here.

Most would argue that ‘212’ isn’t pop, that it’s some kind of alternative genre mash-up.

But it adheres to the fundamentals of pop more so than anything else.

When I first heard ‘212’, I had to replay it multiple times to begin to understand everything that was happening.

There is no waste in it, everything has a purpose in its world and because of that honing it feels important.

‘212’ feels confident and fun and violent.

 

 

Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ has a lot of momentum.

Not only are Springsteen’s lyrics expressing the urgency of heartbreak, but the whole song is honest and transformative.

It is a pop song searching for better, stickier moments.

It is a song that understands its importance.

It never gets loud, its changes are subtle, but it is driven with a sense of purpose.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ sits in contrast to ‘212’ and ‘Be My Baby’: There is no overwhelming, global force to it.

The song resonates because it stays simple and earnest.

The song itself becomes the moment, it doesn’t try to be the world.

 

 

‘Pretty in Pink’ is similar in concept to ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

The song does away with momentum and world-building entirely.

It chases moments with a somber tone and that’s where the urgency lies.

While ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was about acknowledging darkness and trying to change it, ‘Pretty in Pink’ embraces it.

It uses a darker tone to drive urgency.

It cuts down deeper than ‘Dancing in the Dark’ vocally, while the music remains upbeat.

Bands like The Psychadelic Furs would end up informing an aesthetic that would bloom with groups like Interpol and The National: Pop beats echoing darkness.

 

 

Tiffany‘s rendition of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ is my favorite pop song.

The song never does anything outside of the immediate moment. It layers and repeats.

It’s both cyclical and unpredictable.

It is desperate and joyful. Bright and Curious.

It has a lot of physicality to it: The drums stick like in ‘Be My Baby’ and Tiffany’s voice expands and soars.

It shares some of the momentum of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and it shares some of its focus on the remembering of moments.

‘I think We’re Alone Now’ has the honesty of youth and the urgency of milliseconds.

 

Break.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song.

It is constructed both on and in the moment.

Every moment in an action game needs to express something and make whatever it is seem like the most important thing in that time and place.

Running/jumping in Mario. Shooting in Doom. Locking missiles in Ace Combat. Combos in Street Fighter.

A good action game needs to understand what it is trying to say.

It needs to understand what it is trying to do: Is it trying to build a world like ‘Be My Baby’ or ‘212’? Or is it trying to be small and deep like ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘Pretty in Pink’?

It needs to understand what makes it compelling.

Good pop songs tend to rapidly shift focus in moments without losing sight of the end, without losing sight of their urgency.

When an action game loses its urgency, it becomes slow and plodding.

For instance, when Castlevania made the shift to 3D with Legacy of Darkness in 1999.

The main series has stagnated since.

 

 

God Hand is considered by many to be a pinnacle of 3D action games.

God Hand is the equivalent of ‘I think We’re Alone Now’: It has a lot of physicality.

It is dense and cyclical, but it allows for a huge amount of intricate creativity.

It also never takes itself too seriously, but never loses sight of the immediate.

To grow in God Hand, the player needs a strange kind of patience, the kind normally reserved for fighting games.

And like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, it is a product of its time.

It could’ve only happened when and where it did.

 

 

Metal Slug 7 is a very smooth game.

It is meticulous and aggressive. It has the most-designed difficulty curve of any Metal Slug game.

Its intricacy lies in how the games stunning art feeds into the action.

While that is a staple of any Metal Slug, MS7 is the most holistic of the series.

Its message is pure like ‘Be My Baby’, but it has the clean production of ‘212’.

It requires an extreme amount of focus and the friction of its world is perfect for a 2D action game.

The way the bullets flow out of the heavy machine gun. The little bit of lag when firing the rocket launcher.

These details make the game feel bigger, they give the game more momentum and presence.

Metal Slug 7 succeeds because it achieves a balance between aesthetics and mechanics not many games do today.

 

 

Videoball is what made me care about games in a genuine way again.

While still unreleased, I had the opportunity to play it at PAX East 2014.

With its minimalist style, it’s difficult to understand just how thorough Videoball is.

It has very satisfying friction in terms of both movement and shooting.

Winning your first dogfight in Videoball ranks up there with other action game moments like pulling off your first complicated combo in a fighting game.

Every moment in Videoball will either make you feel elated or exasperated at your own skill.

It is a factory of moments.

Videoball shares the ‘Pretty in Pink’ aesthetic.

It is a small, focused game with bright colors that hide a darker, more aggressive undertone.

Like the pop beats/dark vocals duality, Videoball disguises its seriousness with a light-hearted facade.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song: Confident. Harmonious. Adaptable. Focused. Urgent.

No creative endeavors stand alone in this world and one of the problems with the world of games is that it is highly insulated.

This current state is to no one’s benefit, least of all to the players.

It’s this strange insulation from other cultural worlds that allows for mobs like ‘GamerGate’ to form.

In order for games to develop and grow, the thick walls of this community need to be torn down.

We need to stop treating games as objects in-and-of-themselves and look at them as cultural products that are a part of a wider culture of expression.

I believe games deserve that much at least.

For all that games have done for us, we have done too little for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Construct.

 

 

“We are more free than ever before to look around in all directions; nowhere, do we perceive any limits. We have the advantage of feeling an immense space around us – but also an immense void.” – Nietzsche

 

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I remember Destiny.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

Mario is desolate: Why is the Kingdom so empty? Where did everyone go? Whose footsteps wrap around the mountains?

Where were they going? And why did they leave?

Games suggest so much more than they are, but the space always cracks and no amount of environmental density can cover the silent, screaming vacuum behind their blind walls.

There are those that celebrate this wasteland: the Souls series, but their understanding never lasts.

Art emerges from the medium and implies texture and flesh. Warmth and dirt. But this is never translatable.

The system loses the context and renders an approximation of an open heart: trash tumbling in the light of a cold wind.

A problem of translation of place.

In Dark Souls, the player enters a painting: The Painted World of Ariamis. The painting hangs in a large cathedral in the middle of the domain of dead Gods.

The painted world was more tangible than the game’s reality. It distilled the lingering misery, focused it.

Warmth made of glass.

I look up at the orange sky. I stare at the vapor trails of passing planes. I wonder about the people. I wonder about their fear.

Games are barren. They wrap space around emptiness and call it ‘World.’

And what of the actual World?

It is also wrapped in an incomprehensible emptiness.

Is all our art and culture just a means to focus our anxieties of the void? To manufacture space and meaning?

To focus our misery?

The world as an engine of art and anxiety.

I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare one year after being stuck in a war zone.

The ‘attack helicopter’ killstreak gave me nightmares.

Games are somewhere between our subjective real and waking dream.

They have an influence of vision, they manufacture questions of perception and alter the gaze.

I lay down on the grass. I watch the light drip through the shaking silhouette of leaves. I think of Crysis.

The bigger a game tries to pretend to be, the less interesting it is.

The bigger a game tries to be, the more brittle the walls and the vacuum becomes intolerable and loud.

Open-world games try to keep their promise. Worlds where the player can mold their own narrative: An assumed simulation of living.

But this world itself is not open, none of us can go where we want.

We are stuck with our anxieties, our hate, our love, our need.

We are rooted and our imagination is crumbling.

What made FFVII so successful is that it understood the minute scale on which a world operates. It understood the sequence of place and the fragility of people.

And similar to Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, every character was colored by the tragedy of existing in that world.

Square never captured that feeling again. No one has.

In college, I would experiment with noise. I listened to a lot of Merzbow, Bomb 20, and MITB.

Other genres of music, when pushed to their natural ends, often failed to capture the absurd notion of creating meaning in a life of constant fear and a notion of the inevitable end of all things.

Eazy-E almost got it.

He wrangled his own understanding out of the bowels of cosmic indifference and died.

 

Bearing.

 

“Why do you like games so much?”

We were sitting at a Mediterranean cafe downtown. The light was dim. There was a lot of noise.

It was raining outside. We were drinking mint tea.

I looked at her.

I shrug.

I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t.

And I don’t think anyone does.

I barrel through the darkness. I listen to Chipzel. I feel remorse.

Her music emerges from the ancient dead. It isn’t about reminiscing, it’s about digging through potential.

Games are barren. They wrap their creators’ hands in dust and bone and call it love.

An existential war between iterations of conflict and empty memorial: This is the current state of things.

“Why do you like games so much?”

Maybe because I like the promise of their parts: Games as reverse-Gestalt objects.

The parts are more than the whole.

Engines of art, music, philosophy, narratives, experience. Everything that emerges from that space is more exhilarating than the space itself.

Factories.

I sit on a hill. I stare through the heart of the city. I watch the sunset. I listen.

How many times has the world cracked open to bear itself to the distant, dying stars?

How many times have we accepted the mess we are and the mess we are in?

Are games attractive because they give us a controlled space to act? But the finality is there and the player is actively driving that world to its own end.

No matter where we go, we devour worlds and drink space.

Always running from ourselves and into each other.

I was watching G4. It was a live broadcast of E3. They asked for viewer feedback about a game with ‘choice.’

They aired the response of a stereotype.

An obese, white male discussing how he always makes the ‘moral’ choices. That mattered to him.

He wanted to be the classic hero.

I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for how much pain he must be in to imagine that his choices and his feedback mattered.

The greatest fraud: That the worlds of games care about what we think or feel.

It’s all fish eyes and limbs. Gasping and clawing. Remembrance and money.

 

Dancing.

 

We made MMOs because we couldn’t handle the end.

We decided we needed persistence. We needed more time in the wasteland between dream and abyss.

A wasteland with no virtual end: A depraved mimicry of our reflections.

I look up at the sun. I remember the canvas, the page, the brick, breathing, waking.

Games are barren. They are made and call themselves ‘World.’

And we run into them with a love and expectation that is always broken.

Why do you like games so much?

I stayed up all night and read ‘I, The Divine‘ once.

A novel written by a man from the perspective of a Lebanese woman trying to write her life story.

A novel of first chapters.

Where do our lives begin?

I walked to the lake at 4 am. I sat by the shore.

It was snowing. I lit a cigar.

I stared into the black.

And I accepted in that moment, there was no one to embrace.

And I accepted, once and for all, that I have no answers.

 

I am become boredom, the cancer of worlds.

 

“…It can only persist…as long as it’s possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.” – Noam Chomsky

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today.

 

 

Last month, I took my wife to Niagara Falls for the first time.

She had been living in the U.S. since February 2013, but we never had the time to make the trip.

She contacted a friend she had known in Lebanon (now married and living in Toronto) to see if her and her husband would want to meet us there.

They did and we agreed on a Saturday.

In making the 1.5 hour drive from Rochester, NY to Niagara Falls, we stopped off at a small gas station in Buffalo.

The attendant happened to be Lebanese as well and we discussed the old country and continued to the border.

The United States’ side of Niagara Falls is underdeveloped, industrial, and claustrophobic.

It is a place stuck in fading.

The American side of the falls, however, is beautiful.

But I enjoy the Canadian side more.

It doesn’t carry the smell of a stale and silent narrative.

It is dynamic.

On going through the border into Canada, the border guard asked me what I was there for, how long I was staying, where I lived, whose car I was driving.

After answering, he let us through.

We spent the day walking around, taking pictures of the falls, talking about the politics of Toronto.

My wife was happy to see her friend.

Around 3 pm, we all decided to say good-bye and head back home.

I was anxious.

I was anxious at reentering the United States.

I hated the American border guards. I hated their tactics of intimidation, their passive insistence of guilt.

Car parked in line to cross, my gut all wrapped up.

My turn came and I pulled up:

Me: “Hi…”
BG: “Passport and identification please.”

I hand my passport and wife’s green card.

BG: “How long were you in Canada?”
Me: “Just for the day.”
BG: “What were you doing?”
Me: “Just visiting the falls.”
BG: “What is your relation to her?”

She points to my wife.

Me: “She is my wife.”
BG: “Where were you born?” (addressing wife)
Wife: “Cote d’Ivoire.”
BG: “Where do you live?”
Me: “Rochester, New York.”
BG: “Whose car is this? Why does it have Wisconsin plates?”
Me: “My brother’s, he lives in Wisconsin.”
BG: “Where’s your brother?”
Me: “Lebanon.”
BG: “Why are you driving his car?”
Me: “He’s letting me borrow it.”
BG: “Why is he in Lebanon?”
Me: “Visiting family.”
BG: “With all the stuff that’s going on?!”
Me: “It’s actually not that dangerous there.”
BG: “Let me see the registration for the vehicle.”

Here I shrug, I don’t know where the registration is. I check the glove box and hand her the first paper I find.

BG: “Uh, this is the insurance, but it does have your name on it.”

I look again. I hand her the next paper. She looks it over.

BG: “Turn off the car and open the trunk.”

She steps out of her booth and walks to the back of the car, opens the trunk, checks, comes back around.

BG: “So what were you doing in Canada?”
Me: “Just visiting the falls.”
BG: “You mean to tell me that you drove all this way just to visit the falls for one day and come back?”
Me: “It’s not that far, just a little over an hour.”
BG: “You couldn’t find anything to do locally?”

At this point I’m stunned at the absurd level this is reaching.

I shrug and look at my wife. The border guard has a sarcastic smile.

Me: “I mean, she has never seen the falls before, I was just taking her to see the falls.”
BG:  “But why today? Why today of all days?”

I sigh and shrug again.

Me: “My wife had off of work and we just decided to come out.”
BG: “OK.”

She hands me back our papers and lets us pass.

I was frustrated and angry.

My wife and I talked about what happened. She said that she wanted to mention her friends, but thought better of it.

I’m sure if we had mentioned them, they would have pulled us over and held us for hours.

I was depressed for weeks after.

I was born in California. I had never been arrested. I work for a federal contractor.

I could not digest what had happened. I still can’t.

But one thing stuck with me:

Why today?

Why today?

 

Flag.

 

America has a fear problem.

Conservatives fear the decay of religious morality and fervor.

Liberals fear a surveillance state being built without anyone’s consent.

The rich fear and deride the poor, no matter what political affiliation.

The poor fear the rich passively and actively killing them.

The middle class fears everyone.

The police fear civilians.

Civilians fear the police.

The world fears ISIS.

The U.S., for the first time in a century, has no idea what it’s doing.

Fear is infectious and polluting.

It drips all the way to the bottom, always seeking the lowest point, and festers there in the dark.

In an environment of fear, everything becomes a battle. Everything becomes difficult.

Everything becomes covered in fog.

And now that fog has settled on the games world.

This past week saw the loss of some very clear, relevant voices in games.

Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have quit due to an overwhelming level of harassment.

Their removal and silencing is the product of the ‘GamerGate’ controversy.

The ideas GG presents are nothing new.

There have always been concerns, legitimate and imagined, regarding the proximity between gaming media and developers/publishers.

So why now?

Why today?

Because the gaming community has hit a critical mass of fear.

Self-identified ‘gamers’ are afraid their hobby and their core identities are under attack.

Without taking the time to understand, the gaming community was driven into a blind fury over Leigh Alexander’s piece on Gamasutra suggesting that ‘Gamers’ are over.

Fury burning fear as fuel.

It’s tempting to demonize en masse those active in GamerGate, considering the vile, toxic things they have done and said.

Supposing it all comes from fear, supposing at the core sits a hive anxiety about a lack of transparency in something they have emotionally invested in, then what is the right approach?

For myself, this is a difficult consideration.

I cannot approach them even-handedly after the damage they have caused.

After the misogyny, threats, targeting of women in games, elimination of diverse voices in games, too many lines have been crossed.

Their actions have made the gaming community smaller, staler, and more irrelevant to the larger world.

I cannot forgive that.

For anyone who can stomach it, the only way to fight fear is with engagement.

Cameron Kunzelman tried to engage with an actor in the GG hashtag on Twitter and managed to get to the center of that individual’s anxiety and misunderstanding of what’s going on.

It seems like the hashtag has become a repository for any and all anxieties and frustrations for many in the gaming community.

And not every fear and anxiety can be addressed.

At what point does an individual become responsible for his own fear and hostility?

At what point is it no longer the responsibility of others to have to reassure or explain themselves to the individual?

I believe that point is reached when it begins to ruin innocent people’s lives, which is exactly what GamerGate has done and will continue to do.

GG has become like that overzealous American border guard.

They only let pass with ease those who pose no threat to their imagined world and anyone else who might propose something different is interrogated, asked to prove themselves, and, while perhaps not being denied entry, are left feeling intimidated, afraid, ashamed, and guilty of something unknowable.

They pass their fear on.

It drips to the bottom.

And leaves everyone miserable and wondering:

Why now?

 

Why today?

 

 

 

 

Artillery.

 

 

When I started playing fighting games seriously, there were things people would tell me.

There were things I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand the difference between a link system and a chain combo system.

I didn’t understand what DP meant.

I didn’t understand what spacing was.

Someone would always insist that spacing in a fighting game, especially Street Fighter, was important.

It was an ethereal concept to me: What does that mean? What do I do with it?

Because I was usually the most inexperienced person in whatever FGC (Fighting Game Community) I was a part of, I focused on more obvious points.

I practiced combos in training modes. I worked on my blocking technique. I tried to pry open different fighting games’ design philosophies.

I couldn’t understand spacing, so I avoided it. I convinced myself I would get to it later.

It wasn’t obvious.

Capcom keeps their systems hidden. This is part of what led to Capcom’s ascension in the United States over SNK.

Capcom leaves guidance and discovery up to the community. They depend on the FGC to figure things out.

Because of it’s difficulty, Street Fighter mastery is considered one of the pinnacles of success in the FG genre.

SNK, though, enforces the subtle. SNK transforms the subtle into a lesson.

I believe this is why SNK has found success everywhere else in the world.

SNK fighters are lessons.

Every SNK fighting game has a shakiness to it.

From Fatal Fury to The Last Blade to King of Fighters, SNK games tend to either be mechanically broken or make viable only a handful of characters.

But SNK does something that Capcom does not: Force the player to pay attention.

Starting with Fatal Fury 2, SNK implemented an at-will two-plane system, the first of its kind in the genre. This allowed players to jump between the foreground/background of a stage.

With a two-plane system, the player had to be aware of which plane their opponent was on, the best way to move to that plane, and to avoid level hazards.

The Last Blade series had a deflect button. If the player pressed the deflect button just as an opponent attacked, the attack would be parried, leaving them open for a counterattack.

This forces the player to watch their opponent carefully, to read frames carefully. The Last Blade drills players’ focus faster than any other fighter I’ve seen.

Capcom tried to do something similar in Street Fighter III with the introduction of the parry mechanic: The player taps forward when an opponent’s attack connects and the attack is neutralized with no damage taken.

The parry mechanic along with a flood of other innovations led to SFIII becoming one of the most highly regarded fighting games ever made.

But because SFIII was tailored with immense precision, it garnered vast critical approval, but nowhere near the financial success of its predecessor.

When SFIII: Third Strike came around, the game was dead in the United States.

Even the ‘Daigo Parry‘ couldn’t save it.

Capcom tried to out-SNK SNK.

By building a solid, tactical, mechanically coherent fighting game with polish and little brokenness, Capcom suffered.

People didn’t expect that from them. They just wanted another SFII.

It would take Capcom 10 years before they would release another game in the Street Fighter franchise and Street Fighter IV was an exercise in back-tracking.

(Here is the best review of SFIII: Third Strike you will read).

 

Clack.

 

At the same time Capcom released their most complex and technical iteration of Street Fighter, SNK put out its last iteration of the Fatal Fury series: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.

Garou and 3S are often considered companion games.

Both are beautiful. Both innovate on their established franchises. Both are technical.

Garou pushed the limits of what was capable on SNK’s Neo Geo system.

Even though Neo Geo was incapable of semi-transparency and 3D effects, SNK was able to simulate them using complex 2D techniques.

Like SFIII, Garou was a reset.

SNK even altered the signature look of Terry Bogard, the series mascot.

They also eliminated the two-plane system Fatal Fury had introduced and become known for.

With Garou, SNK pruned away all the excess a decade of half-finished ideas left them with.

Fighting games are usually loud. They scream. They affirm their place in the arcades.

In the mid-90’s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade anywhere in the world without being pummeled with SFII audio.

Garou is a quiet game.

Garou is serene.

The introduction shows nothing but Geese Howard‘s death and a small montage of Terry Bogard raising Geese’s son, Rock Howard.

Garou’s music is comprised of low-key, modern jazz and dance tracks. The music keeps the atmosphere light and reinforces the game’s growth.

No loud guitar music. No pop music with nonsense lyrics.

Keeping with this minimal style, SNK also paired back the roster of playable characters from the previous iteration by almost half.

Garou only has 14 characters.

There is a sense of intimacy in Garou’s world. There is a sense that the characters and places are all familiar to each other.

Because of the limited roster, each character has personality. Each character feels important.

The game does a profound job relating both characters and players to places in the world.

Garou’s greatest innovation is the stage introductions.

Before each fight, the stages are presented in short, animated clips.

There is no music. There is only ambient sound from the stage itself.

They are so well-done, so elegant, so subtle: They could be meditation objects.

Garou is a cohesive game.

All the aesthetic innovations are matched by the mechanical.

It introduces the ‘Tactical Offensive Position’ (T.O.P.). TOP is a customizable comeback mechanic.

After selecting a character, the game asks the player to choose a portion of the character’s lifebar (roughly one-third).

The player can choose the beginning, middle, or end.

During the fight, if that portion of the character’s lifebar is reached, they will begin flashing, indicating that TOP has engaged.

TOP grants the player access to a move that isn’t normally available, some health regeneration, and increased damage output.

TOP is a proto-X-Factor over a decade before Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

SNK also introduced a ‘Just Defend’ mechanic similar to the SFIII parry. If the player blocks just before an attack connects, they recover more quickly from block.

All of Garou’s mechanical developments lead to an encouragement of offense.

Many of SNK’s fighting franchises are defensive and tactical.

Garou is a massive divergence from SNK’s traditional formula.

Lifebars disintegrate as fast as they did in SFII and the game’s offense functions on how well a player can use their normal attacks.

With its speed and small levels, Garou reinforces the importance of spacing.

It is a perfect exercise in learning what spacing is.

There is nowhere to run and attacking without thinking is easily punished here.

Garou wants the player to be offensive, but not stupid.

It wants the player to not only think about what attack to use, but about the potential space of that attack.

With Street Fighter III, Capcom sought to slow the game down. They wanted players to take their time and think. They wanted each hit to count.

Defensive players flourished in SFIII’s space.

Garou taught players how to attack. It was the antibody to a generation of SFII button-mashing.

It is by no means a perfect game, but an important one.

It is a game I would encourage anybody to play.

Garou is important as a whole work.

It reinforces FG basics in a soft, clear, beautiful way.

Brandon Sheffield once referred to Garou as being ‘holistic’.

And it is.

This is a game designed with clarity.

This is a game that balances light and seriousness with grace and perspective.

The gaming world has never been as toxic or as melodramatic as it is today.

 

And Garou’s softness, humor, and expectation are both reaffirming and cleansing, 15 years on.