Archive for April, 2014

Sedated & Strung Out in Heartbreaker Leggings

Posted on: April 23rd, 2014 by Arie Salih

It’s 2008. The plastic instrument craze is at an all time high; I’ve skipped out on the Spring trimester at the University to maybe drop out for good. My hair has gotten long enough to be doing the hippie dreadlock thing, and I’ve got a crew of four that I’ve known since early Highschool days jamming to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.”

We’re in my mother’s basement. Everyone seems to be gesturing wildly, trying to feel the vibe between our band on tour — the drumsticks are noisily clanging against rubber slip-mats, our lead singer is swinging the plastic microphone a bit too closely to my head. I hear the clickety clack racket of my own jaded run on bass. It’s hot down here in June, so the screen door is pried open to allow the echoes from the T.V. speaker to drift out into the darkness.

use this!

I stare hard at my own reflection through the television’s glare. There’s a string of blue and orange chords coming up, a bit more quickly than I’m anticipating. Between the fast paced colors and the  manufactured raucous energy, it almost looks like my bass girl is smugly laughing at us. She’s a Gothic Belladonna from London, and she’s bigger than everyone on stage. That almost sneering discontent peers back at me, her purple bouffant hairstyle bouncing in a drone-like rhythm along with the slightly off key Rivers Cuomo impersonation in the background.

I keep plucking away, without any earnest intent to be exceptional. The stage lights are alternating between wild neons and a black and white lo-fi effect as we hit our 4x groove. The plastic fret is strumming a bit loose, and reflects every missed note eagerly. Clack clack clack. The setlist in Boston was coming to a close, and nobody really wants to continue with Fall Out Boy’s “Dead on Arrival.” The four of us, in some sweaty faux rock communion, start packing up our “instruments.”

In the off hours between songs, I’d spent most of my time coming up with daring tattoo designs for my disaffected Belladonna. In some futile attempt to interject my own style into my character, we paraded around in Spikestress metal tops, zebra leggings, and Luchadore boots that screamed “FUCK OFF” as loudly as possible. The layered complexities of inked designs came only in black, and the dispirited bass performances were traded for wild punk rock sensibilities and creative wardrobe collaborations.

The band would meet up for plastic practice every couple of nights. Before the frenzied cacophony of our renditions of The Clash, I took pride in getting dressed for our performances. Feeling catatonic and aloof meant Melancholy Prom Goth garb, Marimbas on the feet, and Jackie O glasses. When it was time to yell, we wore Defiant leathers, Hip Huggers, and Devil’s Rope bracelets. The dress up game became more intriguing for me than the music — it was a chance for freedom of self expression, and for transgender exploration.

I got a cartilage piercing sometime later that summer in honor of my Rock Band Belladonna alter ego and her Punk 101 getup. My older sister called me “Avril” for the rest of the year.


Mind the MacGuffin

Posted on: April 15th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Mac·Guf·fin noun \mə-ˈgə-fən\ (coined by Alfred Hitchcock, circa 1939) – an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.

Attack of the Giant MacGuffin

By now, the disappointing conclusion to Mass Effect 3, the final (we assume) installment in Bioware’s popular space adventure/role playing series, has been discussed and dissected to death, then resurrected, then discussed and dissected some more (again, to death). We’ve heard and read everything from ingenuous fan theories, designed to attribute higher meaning to what was most likely the sad result of an eleventh hour all-nighter, to in depth analyses of its various failings, to impassioned pleas of “say it isn’t so” and “my Shepard wouldn’t do that.” With this much distance between us and the unfortunate event in question (oh, that moment when millions of fan-boys and fan-girls suddenly cried out), there isn’t much left to say about the ending itself. If I’m to avoid major spoilers (mostly for the sake of Arie, who has yet to play the damn thing), I oughtn’t really say anything at all.


I’m not concerned with the final outcome, in fact, but rather with what I believe to have been its primary cause. The sloppy finale was merely the effect, I would argue, of this larger and more pervasive narrative fault. The Mass Effect series has been lumbering along with this burden on its shoulders since its second iteration, and utterly collapsed under its weight in the very first scene of the third game. I am talking, of course, about the Reapers, those damnable space lobsters bent on galactic annihilation. The problem, simply enough, is that the Reapers are too damn big, too damn threatening, and too damn powerful to serve their purpose properly. They are well-enough designed, mildly interesting from far away, and appropriately menacing (also from far away), but a full on Reaper invasion is really just too much for Mass Effect’s plot to handle without serious, generally negative, consequences. Ultimately, a simple rewrite of the game’s concluding moments couldn’t have done the trick. The whole plot had become compromised at its very core as soon as the decision was made to have the third game revolve around what is essentially an apocalypse-in-progress. In short, Bioware’s writers failed to properly mind their biggest MacGuffin. They allowed it to grow too big. They got it wet and fed it after midnight. And it wasn’t long before this MacGuffin, instead of driving the narrative forward, consumed it, bones and all.

When Home Becomes a Strange Place

Posted on: April 11th, 2014 by Arie Salih

In times of transition, I often find myself relying on different video games to provide me with some semblance of the feeling of home. Perhaps “home” is an ever-fading concept, the idea of both comfort and familiarity kindled by memories of a place or a person. In an ongoing anecdotal analysis, I’d like to attempt to recount my own experiences with discovering home spaces in digital worlds.


In odd ways, my apprehension with the loss of a resolute place to call home has been projected into my own playing style. I spent most of my days with John Marston meandering with my horse in the snowy danger of Tall Trees. There isn’t a place to lay low in Tall Trees- the nearest location is the Manzanita Trading Post, and even there things felt much too busy for my own tastes. A shopkeeper making inquiries about goods to sell, people passing through the cabins, lumber workers milling about and making small talk while smoking- Marston and I enjoyed the quiet. So I’d ride on the fringe of the Aurora Basin, into the shady comfort of the forest and Nektoki rock. Picking Violet Snowdrops as the snowflakes fell softly, I figured that this was a reflection of how out of place I felt. It was a gritty, long winter in the City. I wandered far enough into the Lower East Side, until the glitter of the East Village lights compelled me to find my way back into the familiar warmth of a run down hookah spot and my tiny apartment. It felt akin to the serenity of the campfire lit in the middle of the snowy darkness of the mountains. Tall Trees was an area I’d come to visit when it was freezing outside, and when my own inabilities to adjust to facets of city life resulted in dissociating from skyscrapers and strangers. By the moonlight, the fire kept us both hidden.


The Painted World of Ariamis was a departure from Anor Londo, where the open expanse of towers drifted towards the clouds. After being transported into a picture of dense horror, the campfire wasn’t the security I wished for, like it had been in the rest of Lodran. It was an impetus to explore, away from the warmth and into the snowy depths of the unknown. Among the hollow and the toxic, my Wanderer’s hooded form sifted through the dilapidated interiors and dimly lit steps. I’d descend into the Union Square station, and see traces of other hardened faces lingering past midnight, and step onto the rickety Q train. This was the grind for exploration. Sometimes I’d ride it without realizing that the call for the last stop at Coney Island approached. It was a window into another world – one which I grew to know better as I became more familiar with navigating the unseen. After many loops from the broken tower steps to the Phalanx doors, it felt oddly comforting wandering into the snow. The invasions by others happened infrequently, a stare or a glare and then off at the next stop. By the time I met Priscilla, exhaustion had slowly crept in. “If thou hast misstepped into this world, plunge down from the plank and hurry home.” The words echoed hollowly. Maybe this wasn’t the home I sought, but merely a simple respite from the city I chose not to explore. When I finally found the courage to wreak havoc, it seemed oddly fitting that she was invisible.


By the time the winter finally subsided, I packed up all my belongings and drove south towards Maryland. My grandmother had passed away in the beginning of the summer, and I was having trouble reconciling my own cultural identity inadequacies without her. I ended up in a new home, somewhere by The Bridge in Journey. It was a place for quiet meditation – to mend the broken bridge between discovering my Kurdish identity and reveling in androgyny. Although The Bridge is early on in the adventure, this is where I drifted to the most. The passing encounters with strangers involved drawing symbols in the sand and twirling in flight, as our scarves danced in the wind. I imagined, perhaps, that this was how we’d reach out to one another. Estranged from my own cultural place in Iraq, I am all too familiar with crude attempts to communicate in gestures and by waving. The ancient glyph hidden between pillars of cascading sand felt more like a place for a peaceful hide and seek game with others, and the freedom of movement felt ineffable. So I’d linger there, and wonder if the tranquility was shared between us.

It’s difficult to cohesively describe the gaming experiences that allow a player to become entranced, and feel a sense of “home.” This is a phenomenon that has allowed me to revisit unique digital spaces that feel safe and integral to my own existence.

The Hype Train: Obduction

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

All Aboard

Before I start off on what will likely be an extremely emotional trip down memory lane, I must sing out, with an open heart and a brazen voice, in praise of the Gods of Crowdfunding, and of Kickstarter in particular. Kickstarter has served as a wild, wet, beautiful storm in the desert of the gaming industry; it had bid that desert bloom, bloom like never before. Without it, the world of games would be a much darker, sadder, uglier place. So much of what I’ve loved, or at the very least enjoyed, these past few years (Shadowrun Returns, Blackguards, Expeditions:Conquistador – yes, I’ve been on a serious tactical role playing kick lately) and what I look forward to enjoying in the near future (Dreamfall Chapters, Wasteland 2, Sunless Sea) can be directly attributed to crowdfunding. It is no secret that I am a big believer in the model, and in non-traditional methods of publishing and creating in general.


And now I can gladly add Obduction, currently in development by Washington based Cyan Worlds, to my “most anticipated” list. In fact, it pretty much takes the very top spot on said list. For me, there is simply no contest. This is, of course, a very subjective assessment, entirely based on subjective, and extremely personal experiences with Cyan’s former products. But that’s what the Hype Train is for: personal passions, unreasonable expectations, excitement, anticipation, hope.


Quiet Moments in Los Santos

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Arie Salih


I often find myself defending Grand Theft Auto V- despite it’s heavy-handed misogyny and restrictive narrative structure – as a grand wandering simulator. As the appeal of the “gangster” shtick slowly devolves into movie-inspired tropes, it’s the vastness of Los Santos, in both environmental variety and technical details, that makes it feel sentient.

Much of the critique of the GTA series as a whole revolves around it being an absurdist male power fantasy. As the years have gone by, however, I have heartily enjoyed the peaceful exploration of the meticulously crafted digitized cities Rockstar presents in stark contrast to the stories that are utilized to give the game world purpose. It’s been nearly seven months since the game came out. And after blazing through a typical tale of criminal male empowerment for 40 or so hours, I’ve spent all of my time in the game observing the smaller technical details of Los Santos.

In a third person open world game, there seems to be an increasing divide between how a player interacts with the game environment and how he or she plays through the confines of typical mission progression. The genre can’t seem to escape the trappings of minimap objective markers that initiate linear shoot-out setpieces or basic fetch quests in order to tell an overarching story. The introductory missions of every GTA game excite me the most- it’s here where my imagination runs wild with the unique possibilities of how to be immersed in the new environment. Slowly getting adjusted to the evolution of the Euphoria engine, the introduction to Franklin’s dog Chop, and a return to arcade-inspired driving controls felt both comforting and novel. The more responsive character movement, the shifting of weight from one foot to the other when walking, and the quicker turning radius is what I noticed immediately, especially after having spent so much time with GTA IV. Although movement is still slightly sluggish, the improvements allow for easier navigation when exploring.

And oh, it’s the places you’ll go in GTA! And it’s the little bits that mirror reality in unexpected ways that continue to surprise me. Pedestrians take shelter and cover their heads when it rains, the character you’re controlling looks in the rear view mirror as you press the button to look behind you in traffic, puddles are left over after a storm and campfire dance parties litter the beach at night. It’s the attention to detail that is absolutely astounding to me, and also slightly bewildering. Why do I take comfort in a videogame emulating reality in unexpected ways? The shattering of glass from stolen car windows left on the street, the heavy kickback of a pistol, enemies dragging one another into cover or writhing in pain when shot but not killed. I revel in the fact that the game attempts to recreate the most mundane aspects of city life along with the nasty realism of gun violence, but it’s not with the intention of playing the character roles Houser and Humphries have written.

This is precisely the reason Grand Theft Auto still entrances me. My version of Trevor is wearing a polka dot dress and has a lumberjack beard. We go hunting for animals occasionally, and spend most of our time flying in a Luxor mesmerized by the glimmering neon city lights reflected on the water. The importance of grand heists and sociopathic behavior seems utterly muted, and there’s a sweeping sense of isolation in my own interactions with both the character and the environment. Slowly ambling in the Chilliad Moutain State wilderness, pacing back and forth between the trees, feels completely serene. Each player’s interaction with Los Santos is inherently different- whether her or she plays a psychopathic serial killer with an affinity for assault rifles, or a reclusive mountain biker looking for a new trail away from the skyscrapers. The linear narrative presents completely different characterizations for these men I’m moonlighting as. But it’s of no bother to me in my peaceful wanderings of the Los Santos urban sprawl. Between intermittent sessions of tennis and psychological appointments, there’s a strange disconnect between my interaction and that which has been prescribed.

As the series continues to evolve, it’d be nice to see more complexity in both mission design structure and written character motivations. If anything, the creation of Los Santos is a stunning achievement and the willingness to explore and appreciate the quieter moments of the digitized world can be absolutely blissful. Although I’ve been clamoring for a new female protagonist in an “Episodes from Los Santos” chapter, perhaps we’ll save that for another discussion. I’m off to meander by Nowhere Road, among the wolves and the orange hues of dusk.