Archive for the ‘Arie Salih’ Category

Summer Madness; The Lingering Effect

Posted on: July 3rd, 2014 by Arie Salih

It’s late out. I’m dressed in an old rustic brown striped coat, and I’m quietly staring at the Chicago skyline glittering from the abandoned rooftop of an old warehouse. I went up here to hack a ctOS server in order to get the power grid back on, and numerous activities have now surfaced on my map of the city. Most of these activities involve “Fixer” contracts to take down a criminal on a designated set path before they arrive to their destination, or “Gang” missions to clear out a large number of faceless goons, to help stabilize the city.

But none of the modes of engagement in Watch_Dogs feel more fascinating than taking a stroll around the city and enjoying the ambiance. I’ve been following BLANK, a fellow insomniac that’s drifting about in the late hours. Observing the pedestrian behavior of the random inhabitants in the city is a marvel in itself. On our walk around the block, I stop and am transfixed by the sight of a freestyle battle, complete with a boombox. Two rappers are flowing back and forth about guns and cars, while a group of onlookers move robotically in rhythm to the verses dropped in succession. Across the yard, I catch sight of a man juggling a soccer ball with great skill – awestruck by his endless energy in popping the ball up without letting it hit the ground.


I must’ve watched BLANK kick the ball for nearly five minutes, before realizing that the freestyle battle has been looping. The character behavior that can appear so wonderful, and completely immersive, is broken if you stick around too long. It’s the lingering effect – a rule in open world titles; it breaks credibility if you stare hard enough, or wait around to see if something dynamic will occur. Often times, following a unique individual halfway across Chicago results in nothing more than a beautiful walk as the day/night cycle marches on outside of scripted missions. I carefully nudge the soccer aficionado enough to stop the juggling, only to be met with an angry remark (“HEY WATCH OUT!”). I watch the man enter a walking animation as the ball drifts into the street, as if he and I both were pretending that he wasn’t Franck Ribéry’s spiritual successor in the World Cup.

The dynamic behavior of NPCs, and a player’s interaction with the world, can vary dramatically. And that’s a piece of the open world genre that is evolving, but very slowly. As I ambled about in Chicago, trailing the insomniac, I paused and witnessed two drivers get into a fender bender. The tires screeched as a car went slamming into the back of another. I stopped trailing to watch the drivers get out of their vehicles – each muttering some expression of their own disappointment. Neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence, and each were trapped in their own thoughts about being upset with the situation. After nearly a minute of yelling out loudly (not at each other, but to themselves), they both calmly walked away from the scene, carefree as their smashed cars lay deserted and smoking in the street.

And it’s precisely this – that even in the best roleplaying scenario, I’m invisible. Utterly, and completely. Outside of prescribed crimes to intervene in, or mini-map objective markers placed to engage in a chase or assassination, I’m Aiden Pearce – a blank slate of a man, willing to destroy and kill thousands to protect his sister and nephew. I can be a vigilante when the notification pops up, signaling that a crime is about to occur. I can hack into other’s phones, read text conversations or listen in on phone calls, but I can’t speak to anyone. I get yelled at occasionally for disrupting another person from incessantly continuing their animated activity – usually by mistakenly bumping into them. I start to forget that my character has a voice, until I fall from great heights to hear his howling, or him grunting from pain. I don’t utter words, or have meaningful interactions with anyone in the city. I’ve got a phone – a phone to be endlessly entertained by: live vicariously through the funny little messages of other people, or hear terse phone calls that occasionally end in a bit of surprise. I can use this phone to spy on the people walking around, or playing soccer for hours, or to go on scary digital trips. In one, aptly titled “Alone,” I’m being hunted by city dwellers (transformed into monstrous robots) in the darkness, and I’ve got to creep about in order to liberate sections of the city without getting attacked. It’s a silent nightmare.

It reminds me of Leigh Alexander’s critical piece concerning power fantasies and the lack of interaction in Grand Theft Auto V (Link !). She writes: “I drive my shiny car around Los Santos and I kind of wish I had a turn signal. Stranded in traffic, I honk the horn over and over again, and nobody moves. I am triangulated by some missions, none of which I really want to do, stuck in the city’s web of repetition.” It’s a similar situation – we’ve got guns, batons to beat down the bad guys, and this time around, a phone to manipulate the environment to kill more bad guys. At least in this iteration, there’s a new emphasis on stealth-killing all the “red ones,” in closed areas, if you so choose, even as the plot remains mired in family melodrama and superficial hacking psychosis. But there’s the rub – the story mission markers directly force you into closed areas to take out enemies. The more open, expansive backdrop of Chicago is there for you to peacefully enjoy how you see fit, silently. Just don’t linger too long.

Push It.

Posted on: May 5th, 2014 by Arie Salih

Hi, It’s ‘Pat’ from the club. We want you to DJ tonight. You’re free to play any kind of music you want. Beer is on the house! We’re on 212 ne 24th street. Dress to kill! See ya…”

We’re dressed to kill, alright. Entering the doors of North East 165th, the synth is blaring across the alternating neons of the dance floor and the rotating lights. It’s a bloody mess, and we’re playing quiet. “Dennis” they call it, and we’ve got a knife. The door swings open, and three goons chase us out. Swipes left and right, and we’re moving in synchrony with the beat.

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A knife gets thrown across the room, and red splatters on a couch as a dog races forward. Boom- the shotgun blast puts it down. The music is pushing me to go more quickly, more carelessly! Dance, Dennis, dance! In a frantic dash of melodies and hyperdub, a gun thrown embraces a quick bit of silence. A space bar taptaptap, and there are pieces of the guy’s head everywhere. We’re faceless, we’re moving – in rhythm to every strung out transition, every step.

Keep shuffling! There are speakers by the guy slumped at the end of the hallway. A disorganized collection of vinyls and turntables- are they static? It’s hard to tell, we’re going downstairs- the Wolf and I. A bullet ricochets off the glass, and it shatters to alert others to our uninvited presence. It’s a seemingly endless procession of baddies waving around rifles and such, and quick machete jabs picked up in the west corridor. Pop, pop – the allure of the confluence of the beat and trigger keeps us in harmony.

The black tiles and black sofas blur by, the music commands us to keep moving swiftly. We’re gliding now- the Wolf fades behind the blue. A quick turn to the right, shrrrrrrrk. Each shot piercing against a body, the blues of the carpet are slowly changing color. Ah- here we are. Spotlights! It’s our time to shine, we’ve got to sway my friend! A quick shift, so we can peer down the west end and the couch surfer is bleeding out in surprise. It’s the madness inspired by the amalgam of the masked rampaged fury and Miami Disco.

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“Chapter Clear” displays in jagged letters. We freeze entirely. The silent hum fills the void, and the lights keep spinning wildly in the quiet. The music is woven so seamlessly into the death-laden romp, it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between the end of the level and dynamic shift in tone. We’re slowly ambling now past the whispering hallways stained in blood, almost defeated.

And that’s the beauty of Hotline Miami, the willingness to approach each combat scenario with finesse in syncopation to the notes. Perturbator provides the perfect soundtrack to Devolver’s grisly adventure. Every click of the attack button matches the disco, in a murderous frenzy.

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.


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.

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.