POSTS

Clifton Gachagua

eating cats

tamarinds, cayenne, blue mosques, all hues of white smoke. what is non-black? the blue that sips
under the tuareg’s skin, private tours of harems in underground marrakech. what’s a cat after all?
divinity? indifference? this is how to cook a cat in tunis: pray to sekhmet, bless it while it it still
alive, allow a quick lick and goodbye to only surviving kitten, skin it as you would a rabbit, blade
cruising between fur and tender muscle, bury the head and feet and tail in the backyard for
goodluck, you’ll need this in carthage, in marsala, in your duas and salahs remember those who
await drowning. brown the meat in butter, celery, bay leaf, red wine, sea salt, clovers. simmer for
two hours. mushrooms. a broth is an option. at this point thank those already dead, those that
await you.                                                          

 

The Poet in Port Harcourt

my grandmother’s head, wet with blood and incoherence, sits under my bead,
all this time, myself and some friends, waiting for maulidi, walking in black sand, saying, this is how
to love your people. me walking on any kind of bridge to get rid of her head,
the weight of it on my back, language time and fatality, a premonition, like a bag of wild
mangoes, or
the taste of snails in lime water, me saying this is the bridge we must walk over,
your head heavy, your kikuyu unreadable, your love for my mother unknowable,
the ocean too far for me to fling this thing, this head, the river black and unmoving.
and all my friends will see the thing I carry — your head in a backpack —
the quiet homage to a friend who says, ‘I love you’. what does medusa dream of?
how is it that after your body there’s a field of nightmares?
pissing all over your mother’s rhododendrons. what’s jujuu, and what’s
rhumba, what’s benga? what’s highlife? and the poet of the clinical blues telling
us all these things by the poolside, not reading to us. promenade.
what is a threat of drowning?
all for you, baby, all for you.
a short exchange of words — arrivals and departures,
you saying nothing, meaning everything. back to the smells of your house,
meatballs and pasta. me going on and on about zephyrion, god of the west wind, british
architecture, hydrangeas, nigerian efficiency, all these men
who’ve never known kindness, and, here’s B, talking about the brotherhood of man.
a woman at a nigerian airport — Lagos — is a disposable thing,
and will you give me all your money, for nothing?
I’ve had enemies who killed my cats, stepped on my water lilies,
I wish them nigerian citizenship.

 

Clifton Gachagua is the author of Madman at Kilifi and appears in a chapbook box set Seven New Generation African Poets. Gachagua is an editor at Down River Road. His work appears in Manchester Review, Saraba, Jalada, Kwani?, Poetry Foundation, The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories (Caine Prize Anthology), AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, Sunspot Jungle, Enkare, Africa39, PEN Foundation: New Voices, and Harvard Divinity Journal, among others.

 

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Sodïq Oyèkànmí

drowned haibun

it was a monsoon season. there was tears flood. & anywhere could be an entry point as long as there was a raft. the polyrhythmic sound of the rain could pass for music—say jùjú or sákárà. there was a cavity in our canoe—the exact size of my mouth when i saw màámi—neck-deep—in the water—ah! olúwa gbàmí. depending on how far the music have travelled in the body, flood tears could become the lyrics spilling out from the eyes. if reflected on water—the shadows of people screaming & tapping their feet for help could be mistaken for a dance. drowned chorus. drowned chords. drowned hearts canoes. omi ò lẹ́sẹ̀ omi ńgbégi lọ. i pulled her into the canoe & everyone was swimming to safety—even a dog backed a chick. i pulled them into the canoe. bẹ́ẹ̀ni, ọjọ́ burúkú èṣù gb’omimu ni. our village—filled with enough water that could dampen 7.9 kilometres of the sahara for the growth of wisterias. olúwa, we didn’t kill no albatross. why send a flood without warning—without an ark? everywhere could have been an exit point—as long as there’s dryness on the horizon, but there was a cavity in our canoe—our hearts. our prayers—bloated & unanswered

monsoon—
a praying mantis splits
                 open God’s eyes

 

Sodïq Oyèkànmí is a poet, dramaturg and librarian. A 2022/23 Poetry Translation Centre (UK) UNDERTOW Fellow. He holds a B.A in Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, he won the 2022 Lagos / London Poetry Competition. His works are published/ forthcoming in Agbowó, Lucent Dreaming, Longleaf Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, Poetry Wales, and Strange Horizons. He tweets @sodiqoyekan.

 

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Rachael Lin Wheeler

in response to being told me to take up more space

i am v suspicious  of the sky  /  as i am of many things / bc i hate feeling / as small as i really am / or think i am / which is why i first feel the impulse / to ask for forgiveness / & then hide anytime / i speak for more than 2 minutes straight / at a time

i’ve been trying to apologize / less after my friend scolded me / for apologizing / too much so i listened / to Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” / from 1982 for inspiration / it didn’t rlly work

she also scolded me / for thanking everyone / “an unnecessary amount of times” / though i fought back / on that bc i’m willing / to embarrass myself / if there’s any chance i can keep people / from believing they go unnoticed

though ya ig sometimes such noticing / is counterproductive / like when i noticed / that one white girl’s room freshener / made the rest of the apartment smell like a smoothie / shop in a mall / which tbh  /  could  have  been what she was  /  going for  /  at one  point she wanted  to buy  /  silver  disco balls to put next to her / unironic live laugh love sign / ngl she kinda scares me

personally my best / purchase all season / has been that $7.00 mug i found / at Target / it reads my favorite people  call  me  grandma  /  &  i  immediately  wanted  to share it / w an old friend / except i can’t / do that rn or maybe / for a long time bc we’re / not talking / so i  wallowed  /  in my  vanilla chamomile tea  /  & only sorta felt better

idk  how to keep  /  from hurting  the people i love or try  /  to love & or how to keep them  /  from leaving me / hurt / & ya ik i probably won’t / solve that any time soon / or ever / i’m sorry

ik ik sometimes u have to hide / bc there r no other options  /  but  there  r  /  times  when  u don’t  /  so maybe we can / find each other there

 

preliminary notes for an essay whose conclusion still feels out of reach

• [W/ WHOM AM I IN CONVERSATION]

after sifting through all these european philosophy books in the stacks, all i can really think abt is how i really want to learn french, but that’s only partly b/c of the tea between sartre & de beauvoir & mostly b/c of my need to watch portrait of a lady  on fire w/o the subtitles,

though i could probably already do that now given the number of times i’ve seen it (which, thus far, has always been at some strange & sleepless hour after midnight)—

• [W/ WHOM AM I NOT IN CONVERSATION]

movies i have never seen that i guess i’m supposed to have seen by now: titanic & grease & mamma mia & when harry met sally & pretty in pink & the notebook & say anything &

don’t worry, i’ve been berated for this already.   

• [DISSECTING THE TOPIC’S CONSTRAINTS]

i have too much of a god complex for that

someone i passed on a walkway said one friday night & tbh i was jealous.

the closest i’ve ever come to feeling anything near holy is whenever my body seems to flee from me & blur into the background, which is always everywhere around me anywhere i go.  

one time i heard my mother say goodnight, honey but it turns out she was talking to the cat & not me before closing her door 

& maybe that’s the reason my cat has a god complex & maybe i can learn from her?

• [THE QUESTION OF AUDIENCE

yes it was céline sciamma who brought me this close to taking a class on media until i remembered film bros exist, which was enough to make me change my mind. 

i don’t regret it. i don’t need cishet white boys

—who worship like, idk, the godfather (according to the google search “what do film bros like??”)—

to tell me the politics of why queer love stories always end in devastation. 

• [THERE ARE REASONS FOR MY OBSESSIONS

“The theory of disidentification that I am offering is meant to contribute to an understanding of the ways in which queers of color identify with ethnos or queerness despite the phobic charges in both fields,” writes josé muñoz. 

how to resist interrogating the philosophy of my desire and not my desire itself.  

• [PROCESS > PRODUCT? DARE I SAY, METHODOLOGY??

at cvs, i saw a box of goldfish with its motto, the snack that smiles back, & isn’t that kind of ominous 

& also maybe that gestures toward something wrong w/ society b/c the fish is smiling even though he’s abt to die 

& haven’t we all smiled when we didn’t want to, “we” here being, especially, people of color & gender-marginalized people & queer people 

& also the never-ending apocalypse (i.e. the world) is absurd & smiling, sometimes, is easier,

& long story short i didn’t buy the goldfish but i did realize how badly i needed to take a nap.

• [PURPOSE; OR, WHAT IS HAPPENING 
IN MY MIND’S CHAOS & DOES IT EVEN MATTER]

the longer the body is left illegible to others, the longer the body is rendered illegible to the self 

& it’s not exactly that i want my body to be legible but sometimes maybe it would be nice 

if to understand could mean something more than to define

tell me, someone, what it means to read the body &/or control how it is read using a method more adjacent to desire than desperation. tell me whether they are even different after all. 

• [CONCLUSION]

 

Rachael Lin Wheeler is a writer who works at the rupture points of genre and discipline. Currently a student at Brown University, their work appears or is forthcoming in Waxwing, The Journal, Southern Humanities Review, wildness, The West Review, Lantern Review, Foglifter, and Gigantic Sequins, among others. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, finalist for Tinderbox Poetry Journal’s Brett Elizabeth Jenkins and Majda Gama Editors’ Prizes, and recipient of the Howard Nemerov Writing Scholarship, RL is an editorial assistant and poetry reader for Split Lip Magazine. Find them on Twitter @rlwheeler_ or at rachaellinwheeler.com.

 

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Nathanial Torres

I Don’t Have Dreams Anymore, I Just Game

Sometimes the act of sleeping terrifies me. I know it’s necessary–in fact most days it’s the only thing I’m looking forward to. I enjoy the post-sleep feeling, waking up to a world that feels wholly new. Thoughts of yesterday and what’s to come not having made their way back into my brain. There’s a sense of freedom in those first few minutes where I can let myself forget about who I am or the world around me. I am the beginning and end of my universe. But, when I lay in bed and think about the action of ‘falling asleep’ I am filled with a sense of dread; The slow transition from consciousness to unconsciousness, the way I can feel my body start to become rigid and immobile, the numbness of limbs. It doesn’t feel natural to have this reaction to sleep, to be so extremely aware while my body begins to shut down for the night. Sleep is a natural bodily function, everyone does it, everyone needs it. I wish I didn’t need sleep, I wish I could just live and function and be conscious eternally. I wish I didn’t have to die.

“Look at us–a bunch of deathless freaks, meeting like this” – Die-Hardman, Death Stranding

In 2019, a video game called Death Stranding was released for PS4. This game would forever change my life and by that I mean ever since I played it, I’ve been obsessed with it in a way that borders on unhealthy. If you’ve seen pictures of Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen covered in oil it was probably a screenshot of this game. Emphasis on probably, I have no idea what happens in The Walking Dead & Hannibal fandom circles. In Death Stranding the protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, is something that’s known as a “repatriate”. It’s a term that essentially means ‘immortal’. Sam’s connection to the world of the dead was severed at some point and as a result he cannot die. His soul can leave his body when he succumbs to severe injury but it gets stopped before he can fully cross over. When Sam “dies” his soul arrives at a beach, a metaphysical shoreline that acts as a border between life and death. The natural order of things would dictate that he is at his end, all living beings arrive at this beach eventually, they all make their way from sand to water. Step-by-step as they make their final pilgrimage to somewhere unknown, somewhere they belong. Sam would join them, a look of awe on his face as he wades his way through these same waters. He could finally be free from his burden, reunited with those he’s lost, but he can never join them. He’s lost something vital, something integral and that makes him different. This endless sea where all souls drift and coalesce into a single mass rejects him. The sand beneath his feet giving way as he is suddenly thrust back into his body, back into the world he wishes he could escape from. He is alone, a deathless freak. I can understand his struggle, being rejected by that which should come naturally. I am a sleepless freak trying to place myself in the shoes of a deathless freak. If I can follow him on his journey, become him, maybe I can understand my own. Closing my eyes as I let myself meet with Sam on the beach, blurring the lines between my reality and his. Wading through the waters and sinking into his body. Becoming one.

“Sam Porter Bridges. The Man Who Delivers” – Fragile, Death Stranding

I’m awake in my private room. Lifting myself out of bed is as easy as the press of a button. It’s quiet and solitary in this space I’ve created. Everything I could need to sustain myself is right here. I almost don’t want to leave. But a journey west must be made. I am a porter. I can’t stay here isolated all day. Soon, I’m going to have to be a person. I make my way into the world outside, tools fastened to my back ready for use whenever I might need them. I breathe in the fresh air from a world that is born again after every rainfall. Night never comes here. The rivers are fresh and unpolluted. It’s freeing and it’s new. It’s not a world that encourages traversal over long stretches. I travel the distance I’m supposed to, I make the deliveries as I’m told and at the end of the day I return to my private room. Back in my own bed, staring at the ceiling above me as I let myself drift away from today into the next. Inescapable thoughts that filled my head, existential dread over what’s to come. Sleep is simple here. I’m isolated even in my isolation. This is what I look forward to most days. Sitting here staring at this screen, through the eyes of another.

“I haven’t been outside in a long time. It’s just too much to take in all at once” – Mama, Death Stranding

A new day, feeling like a new existence. I enjoy this moment of conscious tranquility as long as I am able before I remember the inescapable truth: I have to be a person. Yet that truth seems almost harsher today, as if the universe is punishing me for enjoying myself for too long. Today’s journey is somehow even more taxing. My distance traveled, my deliveries made, injuries sustained. All were within the normal range. I should be capable of more here and yet it’s as if the strain is exponential. Everything is constantly moving. I can barely keep up. My eyes red as they strain to keep focus. A tinning sound enters and leaves my ear. Sweat drips from my furrowed brow as I lift my hand from the controller to wipe my face. I can feel it again. This world is necrotizing beneath my feet. The strain of degradation is evident on everything I see and touch. I can feel my cells dying one by one. How can I live here, how can anything live here? Just merely existing is enough for this tax to be levied against you. Why does this world have to erode too? I can’t be a part of it anymore. I won’t. I must remove myself from this world within this world. I need to go back to sleep. All the noise of the world outside of here can be repelled. I’m safe. I’m alone here in this bunker. My stamina won’t be drained.

“Living is no different than being dead if you’re all alone” – Amelie, Death Stranding

It’s difficult to know how much time has passed since I’ve confined myself to this room. Sitting in this same spot, staring at this screen. Everything can fade and degrade but as long as my eyes can remain transfixed nothing needs to change. I can be alone, not truly alive but not really dead. I can be at peace here. However the world I once knew refuses to be so easily forgotten. Rumbles manifest not from my controller but from outside my door. Feet hitting the floor as my youngest sibling runs around the house. The roars of a garbage truck outside my window. Daylight breaks its way through my black-out curtains. My private room is being breached, the walls of isolation I’ve built are beginning to crumble. I’m not ready to leave yet, I refuse. The word outside does nothing but drain. My heart begins to race as I remember the pains of what sent me here in the first place. The senseless noise and light that demand my attention begin to coalesce into one tinning sound.

*DIE* *DIE* *DIE* *click* *click* *click* *DIE* *DIE* *DIE* *click* *click* *click*

Alarms going off demanding that I reckon with their source. I look towards my bed and see my phone lighting up and buzzing. Missed calls, unanswered texts, emails that need to be delivered. A whole life that is going unlived. All that ties that keep me suspended in this isolation begin to unravel in a single moment as I am plunged back into the reality I’ve been avoiding. The world in which I belong. A sleepless freak and a deathless freak still have to reckon with the world around them.

“See the sun set. The day is ending. Let that yawn out. There’s no pretending” – Cliff Unger, Death Stranding

The world demands I must be my own person. Channeling my struggles through Sam Porter Bridges makes the truth all the more evident. We’re always going to have to step outside. The blood this world demands of me must be spilled. It’s a ritual I must perform daily in order to live in a world where I don’t belong. The knife plunging into the skin gouging out hours at a time so that we may have another day of lucidity. That is what sleep is. The slow transition from night to day as the sun creeps over the horizon beginning the cycle anew again. We are all living things. So know that while the choice to step outside may always be inevitable it will always be uniquely yours.

 

Nathanial Torres is a Latinx writer and a life-long gamer born and raised in Southern California. They are at times a poet, a performer, and a comedian. As a writer they seek to engage with all creative formats that inspire them. They hope to continue to pursue their creative endeavors while also finding the time to game.

 

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Marlin M. Jenkins

Limitations at Play

Part of the magic of childhood is that the world is not yet familiar. With that lack of orientation, of acculturation, there comes a relationship to questions we’re scarcely able to hold onto. A relative lack of time spent in the world means that there’s so much to ask about, to learn, to discover, but equally important is what you don’t question.

The nature of the questions I had as a kid about my hodgepodge of hand-me-down toys wasn’t based in skepticism at the lack of cohesion or a need to reconcile with sense; the questions were based in possibility, in what I might try—and, generally, in process over product. What would happen if Batman fought a Power Ranger? How might dinosaurs and fighter jets coexist? The question isn’t: Why would a lego man in a go kart be able to fly alongside an A-Wing spacecraft from Star Wars? It’s: Why wouldn’t they?

Before we get good at self-censoring and unpracticed in being sparked by wonder, we are driven into experience by imagination and curiosity. We take whatever ingredients we have and cook up something new whenever we can, something wonderful that holds our presence and attention even before we discover the otherwise un-withstandable world, the world from which we’ll inevitably need things to take us away.

Of course, there are limits. The toys you have, perhaps—though especially time, space, health, and so on. Even a game you’ve invented is tied to its premise or rules, even if those rules are always changing. Even the game of Calvinball from the iconic comic strip Calvin & Hobbes—a game whose only real rule is that you make up new rules each time you play as you go—always includes some type of ball and is tied to whatever equipment Calvin happens to have on hand at the time.

But that tension between limitation and possibility, that discovery of the infinite within the constrained, is part of what drives us to play. Take any board game: there’s the win condition, but how you arrive at it is—generally—flexible. You have to strategize, determine a route around the rules of the game and the other players.

You can play—or even just watch—a sport for decades and still be surprised. Athlete’s push the limitations of physics and bodies; the result is endlessly-generated creativity and innovation within rules and structure.

This creativity begets an alchemy, a magic, what Graeme Kilpatrick, scholar of media arts and digital cultures, refers to when he says, “Play is what enables us to conjure something out of nothing.” And what we conjure populates worlds that widen the edges of this one.

In my youngest memories playing video games, it was the limited-tech era of the 8- and 16-bit—Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Gameboy—just before the launch of the Nintendo 64. Regardless of generation, video games from any era can still feel infinite, and my experience of playing them then and now aligns with Mario- and Zelda-creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s idea that playing video games is to have “a whole drawer-full of playgrounds,” to have “places you’re attached to and go back to again and again.”

On those real-life playgrounds, when someone told you there was a hidden boss if you could scale a certain hill outside of Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64, or that you could unlock Sonic the Hedgehog or Ash Ketchum from the Pokémon anime in Super Smash Bros. (long before Sonic or Pokémon Trainer did in fact become playable characters in the series), or that you could find the legendary Pokémon Mew under a truck near the cruise ship the S.S. Anne, even when you doubted you wanted it to be true, went home and experimented with what possibility still lies behind the walls of a world you’ve already spent dozens of hours in. Sometimes the effort would be rewarded with verifying the truth that you can—for example—talk to Yoshi if you make it to the roof of Peach’s castle, but sometimes the push itself was reward enough.

There’s always more to push toward. As many times as I’ve played 1994’s Donkey Kong Country I still don’t think I’ve discovered all the bonus areas and other secrets. One of the things I love about FromSoft games like Dark Souls, Elden Ring, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is how they provide impossible-seeming challenges to prove the player’s ever-growing ability to improve and overcome: to face a mysterious king riding a wyvern; an undefeated goddess of rot; a legendary swordsman who also wields a spear, a gun, and lightning, and to (after many attempts) stand victorious, achieving what felt certainly unachievable.

Whether you’re taking on the challenge of incredibly difficult games, or practicing speedrunning—which often involves not only completing a game as fast as possible but finding ways to glitch and break the game to do so—or just playing with the hope of as much fun as you can have, there’s always a higher score, a faster time, a way to be better at it than your friends, or simply more enjoyment waiting for you—something to push and discover and remind you of possibility beyond your initial understanding of limits. As possibility pushes those limits, so are we pushed, expanded, adding experiences as if amassing exp. points toward leveling up.

We might call play and the possibility therein a type of “escape” because it is a form of inhabiting a somewhere or something beyond the confines of our immediate environments, but I love that this kind of escape is not a disengagement: it’s a process that forms linkages between worlds, that better equips us for what internal and external worlds we must face otherwise

I think often of a comment from poet Ray McDaniel—author of Special Powers and Abilities, a collection of poems inhabiting a world of superheroes—who said, “There’s something true and valuable about the psychological or emotional impulse to escape [but] I resist really flat characterizations of any kind of genre as escapist … What is being escaped to is almost always an editorial commentary on what is being escaped from.”

Relatedly, the protagonist of John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, Paul, posits “The imagination is not our escape . On the contrary, the imagination is the space we are all trying to get to.” He adds that imagination should be “our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world—this world we share” and is “God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”

In her essay “Barbie Taught Me the Power of Play” in Harper’s Bazaar, Airea D. Matthews says about her childhood that to play with Barbie was to be “where time and space curved to create a different existence,” to be “in a place where money was no big deal, where glamour and ecstasy were facts of life, and you could be in Malibu one day and space the next.” Her times of play “afforded [her] an elsewhere.”

But even within this framing of play as escape, she adds that Barbie and the gang “were the kind of friends who let me work out my fears and desires through a story” and that “Barbie … unveiled the underlying impulse of play: to create an extension of the self, to articulate one’s will and to bend the body of limits. … She reminds me of the imaginative intensity that children take on to push past time and space, or, perhaps, refine the ways in which they understand even their own capabilities.”

By pulling us into the possibility of other worlds, games push us closer to understanding our possible selves; and the pushable structures of games can remind us of our ability to push the “rules” of our world. Laws of physics and the like are one thing, but so much of what we accept as real and true is constructed, is more akin to the physics of games: manmade, bendable; some structures and limits we may never fully transcend, but we can reshape them, redefine them, recontextualize them, rethink them, and maybe break them like a player finding a way to glitch through a wall.

It’s that same magic of bending toward possibility that draws me now, as an adult and a writer, to poetry—one of the primary places I turn for cultivating the practice of play. (“[C]ontemporary poetry is a playground of possibility, an opening to other ways of existing,” says Sarah Nielson in the intro of BOMB Magazine’s “Why We Should Read Poetry.”)

The pursuit of the limitless within the limited is one of poetry’s central endeavors. Language itself is just a series of socially-constructed shortcuts to give shape to the abstract and communicate in lieu of telepathy. In poetry, you can become hyper-aware of how language limits our understanding through how it filters meaning, through how it can shape and obfuscate and redirect, through how it is a tool which can never be wielded with complete mastery.

But just as language comes with limits, so does it unlock possibility. A poem might impart a previously unimagined image, might defamiliarize the familiar or vice versa. Poems reach their blistered fingertips toward the ineffable until the blisters rupture—the blood finding shape in the grooves of fingerprints.

Poetry in the English language tradition has lived openly into the opportunity of free verse for fewer than 200 years. But even in free verse, there are structures: lines, stanzas, repeating sounds, patterns of images, and so on.

And the opportunity to transcend the limit of fixed forms afforded to us by the lineage of Walt Whitman can still by contrast make the idea of writing in pre-determined forms enticing, even enchanting.

How might I fit a poem’s vastness into a sonnet’s 14 lines? How might I use rhyme to create rhythm and pattern without the poem feeling predictable or antiquated? How might I honor or subvert the tradition of the haiku or sestina or villanelle, while also pushing the boundaries and making it my own?

According to T.S. Eliot, “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas.” Amorak Huey and W. Todd Kaneko add, in their book Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology, “We often do our best work when we’re pushing against something, fighting with the difficult or uncomfortable part of a writing challenge.”

We see this, too, in video games, though generally less because of self-imposed constraint and instead because of technological ones: in some cases, creative decisions weren’t just made despite the limitations, but because of them. Mario’s iconic mustache was added so Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t have to animate a mouth in such limited pixels. Little Mac from Punch Out! needed to be small so he didn’t block too much of the screen given that the player’s perspective is fixed just behind him, but this size constraint feeds into both his name and his character context as an underdog.

There’s a version of this essay that adds these parts toward a conclusion of being thankful for barriers, for struggles, for hardship—that praises the hurdle because its presence sweetens the air above it as your soaring knee clears the metal. That is not the version of this essay I’m interested in.

Rather: I want the world in which I retained that sense of self I had before schema, before memory, as a small child when I didn’t question putting barrettes in my hair, just as I didn’t ask questions about what my toys couldn’t do or who would or wouldn’t coexist in a world together.

I want the world in which the students I mentor don’t have to confide in me their queerness because there is no need to emerge, no need to escape the harshness of their fear, no need to be protected as they prepare.

I want the world in which I am not afraid, in which my conflicts are intrapersonal and interpersonal but not pushing against power, in which the coding of our platform is not embedded with statistics and new stories and studies and lore of our deaths, our disadvantage, our worries and sorrows.

I want the world in which I can spend more time than not in the final line of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Encounter”: “I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.”

I will praise the incandescent sun over Anor Londo, how its flames model a hope beyond the dark and downtrodden world of Dark Souls, fallen from glory—will praise the sunlight piercing the window in the ceiling of Princess Peach’s castle knowing that looking through it will grant me wings to fly above.

But I do not want the takeaway to be that limitations are inherently good, though of course they in context can be; I can praise my strength and resilience without praising the struggle through which I built it. Still, having safe, controlled environments in which to play, to lean toward a fullness of imagination and discovery gives us space to practice, gives us structure so we don’t lose ourselves as we do our best to progress. Gives us a sandbox in which to practice building as we learn to move away from internalizing the barriers of the world around us and into Barbie’s desire at the end of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie: “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.”

During a panel discussion in which poet Franny Choi was asked about their poem “Field Trip to the Museum of American History,” they discuss how the poem arose from advocating for the kind of world the poem describes—a world in which police violence is an unfamiliar, near-forgotten past—but, despite that advocacy, having trouble believing that world was possible because they hadn’t seen it; the poem then became “a brief teleportation” into living something beyond our present.

That’s what I aim to praise here: the teleportation, the inhabiting of worlds that give us what we need to make this one better, the cultivated balance of agency and openness that strengthens our bonds with ourselves and with others.

And so I keep pushing toward where we might go, through games—where, according to Shigeru Miyamoto, “indeterminacy, knowing that something might happen, is the most fun”—through writing—which is, in the words of Alexander Chee, “to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it”—and in my day-to-day even when I’m not engaged in those activities.

Returning always to play in its various forms doesn’t let me forget: the questions we have filled with skepticism and pessimism and doubt are not the only questions, and there’s no limit to the number of better questions we might imagine and ask—and maybe answer.

 

Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit. The author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020) and a graduate of University of Michigan’s MFA program, they currently live and teach in Minnesota.

 

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Lyn Rafil

“Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”: A Walkthrough


“The game starts by asking you if you’re a boy or girl.”1


You’re sitting in the back of the car en route to the outlet malls a few towns over. In front of you is a GameBoy Color with a Pokemon Crystal cartridge inside. You’re five years old – going on six soon – and admittedly too young in the eyes of many to be comfortable reading, much less well-versed in playing video games. That doesn’t stop you.

> turn on the game
The game starts and a prompt appears.

“Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”

> read it again. carefully 
“Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”

(It’s a rhetorical question)
(It’s an accusation)
(It’s just some stupid dialogue from the Professor)

A selection screen appears.

“Boy”
“Girl”

> hide the screen
You curl up in the seat, obscuring the screen from view. 

MOM and DAD won’t notice. They can’t. They’re in the front seat, preoccupied with a conversation you barely understand.

> eavesdrop
Some tito, a friend/your uncle/someone at work, who’s not doing well. They pray for his family. They’re always praying.

> pray
You don’t know how. But you try.

Nothing happens.

The screen hasn’t changed. 

> make a choice
You must make a selection. 

> make a choice
You must make a selection.

> boy
It feels like lying. It feels like the truth, or at least closer to it. 

> hide.
The game continues, asking questions about the day and time. Mundane. Objective. Easy.

> move on


“As this is a role-playing game, there is more to roles than just the role you play in combat.  You also will have a role in society to play, and that will mostly be determined by things such as your race, gender and background.” 2


You start the game by waking up in your room. Get ready for the day by going left to the bathroom and look in the mirror.

(It’s you!)

Go downstairs where your DAD is waiting to take you to school.

In the cutscene, your friend SILVER is talking with a gang of grunts. His best friend is GRUNT LEADER. They don’t want to play with you because you’re a girl and supposedly don’t know anything about Pokemon. 

SILVER laughs, not because it’s true (he knows it’s not) but because he’s a boy, like them. Prepare for a fight. 

> Attack
“I’ve played all the games! I probably know more than you!”

                  Miss!

GRUNT hurls an insult.
“We don’t care. Go dig your family out of the dirt. I hope they’re dead.”

(It’s typhoon season in the Philippines. Flash floods and mudslides have made international headlines. Your immediate family isn’t affected, at least not physically. It doesn’t matter.)

                  Critical!

You can’t use any items, defend yourself, or flee. You cannot win this encounter. You’re not supposed to.

SILVER doesn’t laugh. (He’s brown like you. He hurts like you. You both aren’t boys like them, and you never will be. But you wish you were and there are parts of yourselves you are willing to betray to get there). He doesn’t interfere.

Move on. Play Pokemon and Fire Emblem and Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Play as boys and girls (and girly boys and boyish girls). Build up your party again and again. Save scum so you never lose a fight.

[Spoiler: You and SILVER aren’t friends anymore.]

You’re back in the Philippines for your uncle’s wedding. You’re supposed to be a flower girl. MOM and your LOLA are in the room preparing.

Speak to your LOLA. She will ask how you want your haircut.

Option 1
“Just a little bit.”
> MOM approves.

Option 2
“Short.”
> MOM disapproves. 

Option 3
“Short, like a boy.”
> MOM disapproves and yells at you for half an hour.

It ultimately doesn’t matter. LOLA approves either way but will do as MOM demands. Change for the wedding and look in the mirror. It’s you, but uncomfortable. The dress you wear is itchy, your tights are too tight, and your shoes are too stiff. Your LOLA hugs you when you cry, promising it’s only for a little while. 

She hugs you the first time you come out as queer.


Fall in love with wearing the words “BUTCH” and “DYKE.” 

[Spoiler: it’ll take longer to love the words “FEMME” and “FAGGOT,” but you’ll wear them just the same]

Spend hours in character creators making alternate versions of yourself. There’s always something missing

                  gender < – – >
                  height < – – – – – >
                  weight < – – – – – >
                  skin < – – – – – >
                  eyes < – – – – – >

and you can never get it right.


In your room late at night, check the door of your room to find a towel shoved into the crack, hiding the light from your parents. You’ll need to do this every time you decide to stay up. After a bit of downtime, you’ll get a text from a friend to hop onto Gaia.

Log on to see your sprite appear: some kind of goth wizard/ninja in a bandit mask. You’re happy with the laser sword and angel wings, but games like this don’t carry your skin tone. Regardless, you’re approached by several equally ornamented (and pale) avatars.

LocalDemon: Haiiii
Uniquorn: :3
XoXStina: Its u!!

RP holding hands and making out and being in love. You don’t know their real names. You don’t know what they look like. Wish that it was this easy.


“The differences between genders in this game are fairly limited. A few NPCs will address you differently, depending on your gender, and there are more opportunities to get laid if you’re male (although the sequel really makes up for it in favor of the ladies). It’s ultimately not a big deal” 3


=============
ROMANCE GUIDE
=============

ABIGAIL
Likes: Candy, Anime, Emoticons, MMOs with dressup mechanics, Men, Women
Dislikes: Unavailability

SHANE
Likes: Grilled meat, Horror movies, Practical jokes, Smash Bros., Other Asians, Men(?), Women
Dislikes: Being alone

PENNY
Likes: Iced coffee, Acoustic guitar, Band merch, Left4Dead, Other Filipinos, Men, Women(?)
Dislikes: Commitment
=============

Your friend JACKNIFE goes on and on about how Mirror’s Edge combines his favorite things: parkour and badass Asian women. He tells you how hard he is. Choose however you want to react, it doesn’t affect the outcome. 

Later he asks you what it’s like to be bisexual. 

(It’s a rhetorical question)
(It’s an accusation)
(It’s a prayer)

=============
ALEX
Likes: Energy drinks, Heavy metal, Skateboards, First person shooters, Men(?), Women
Dislikes: Questioning his masculinity

HALEY
Likes: Instant ramen, Adult cartoons, Crystals, Racing games, Men, Women
Dislikes: Questioning your masculinity

SEBASTIAN
Likes: Chewy candy, classic films, dandelions, Skyrim, Other Asians, Men(?), Women(?)
Dislikes: Questions
=============

Turning off your PC, inspect your reflection in the blank screen, blurry in the dark. Pull your hair back, then take it down. Picture what it’s like to be a woman. Picture what it’s like to be a man. Picture being wanted as either. Squint at what you see. It’s you.

You buy Mirror’s Edge but can’t play more than twenty minutes before feeling sick.


Leave your hometown to go to the Big City several states away. Everyone introduces themselves, including their pronouns (how nice!), and you really want to 

> make a good impression 
> reinvent yourself
> make a different choice

Say “you can call me whatever you’d like, just don’t call me a lady,” to boost your approval and unlock new abilities.


[Spoiler: you’re the first and only asian she dates]
[Spoiler: you’re the last asian he dates]
[Spoiler: she only dates other asians]
[Spoiler: he only dates asians in general]
[Spoiler: she fucks a filipino guy right after you.]
[Spoiler: he fucks a filipino guy right before you.]

It’s a coincidence.


Your partner’s friends (white like them) don’t like you and don’t want you dating them. Their other friends (brown like you) put together the pieces. They’re the ones that intervene.

It’s not about incompatible personalities. It doesn’t matter if you’re queer like them, trans like them, nonbinary like them. You’ll never be like them, but they expect you to want to.


You get called every possible slur in chat even if your mic isn’t on. Sometimes it feels good. It feels closer to the truth. 

[Spoiler: You can be seen for you are, or you can be desired.]

How many endings are there? 4
How do I get the true ending? 5


The week before your LOLA dies back in the Philippines, choose to make pancit for Friendsgiving. 

She speaks Taglish over Facetime. You’re so beautiful and pretty and handsome. She likes your hair. She calls you gwapo and pogi and she’s proud of you for cooking more. She says she wishes she could hug you. Play Pokemon Shield the whole flight to her wake. 

You never get to come out to her a second time. You never learn enough Tagalog to do so. You know you could have done it in English.


Schedule your shots, work out a bit more. 

Dyke nights stop feeling like home, especially when you forget to shave the patchy goatee. 

Circuit parties also don’t cut it. You end up too short to be read as a man in most cases. You don’t want to get top surgery but you don’t like the way you stick out. You will stick out.

You always get clocked and even though it’s not necessarily wrong, it’s also not right. 

You stay in more, blaming the 40+ hour campaigns in your RPGs you want to finish. Keep buying them. Never finish.


Look in the mirror. It really is you. 


Make a queer Discord server. Join a queer Minecraft realm. Fall in love.

She brings you to your testosterone injections and to farmer’s markets, and you get her the Stardew Valley soundtrack on vinyl.


You’re sitting in the back of the car en route to some mountains a few hours away from DAD’s hometown. Scroll through Discord while your younger cousins also tap away at their phones. They ask if they can be your friends.

> add them
Added. You immediately are sent a DM.

> read
SilverBullet: Can I show you some stuff I drew? It has to be a secret though.

> yes
SilverBullet: cool

You receive a few illustrations – Genshin Impact fanart, Among Us memes, and a self-portrait of your cousin wrapped in a trans pride flag. 

> it’s you!
SilverBullet: it is 🙂 


1 Pokemon Crystal Version – Guide and Walkthrough (GBC) by Rolent_X 2002).
2 Dragon Age: Origins – Guide and Walkthrough (X360) by scopius2 2009.
3 Fallout – Character Creation Guide (PC) by Haeravon 2014.
4 Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360) Q&A by Reemption626 2010.
5 Persona 4 Golden (PlayStation Vita) Q&A by GEB123 2013.

 

Lyn Rafil (they/them) is a queer nonbinary filipino-american first, an unabashed nerd second, and everything else third. They have a B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University; and they work commercially as a researcher, strategist, and writer specializing in cultural and media analysis of games and gaming communities. You can get in touch with them at lrafil.com.

 

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JS Wu

Untitled

JS Wu (she/they) is an artist and scholar of animation and comics based in Philly. They are currently completing a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania where they are the Kelly Writers House Poetic Practice Fellow. Their research explores matters of race and gender through new media technologies. Their graphic essays can be found in The Believer and ASAP/J and their academic writing has been published in Animation Studies. Currently, the main video game they play is Pokemon Sleep.

 

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Harriette Chan

Graphics Can’t Be Outdated and I Mean That

Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 2 (1998) and in Resident Evil 2 (2019).

Video games as a medium are intertwined with technology, and technology is always striving towards a predestined ‘future’. “The future of gaming” isn’t just a marketing tool, it’s the mantra of every AAA studio. Everybody wants to be first in the technological gaming race, the games with the best ray tracing and the most rendered pores on photorealistic characters, often at the expense of our poor CPUs. For example, my PC starts coughing and wheezing after rendering each individual sweat drop on my beautiful Baldur’s Gate 3 party members (worth it). 

Because of this, games are often treated more like tech demos than pieces of art–or even just entertainment–to be engaged with. So of course when it comes to older games, the consensus for a lot of gamers is that their graphics are outdated and ugly. This mindset of course sacrifices style in favor of hard realism. Forget chunky 3D models or pixel art, the future of gaming is going to be so much more than that; there’s going to be photorealistic dragons and Keanu Reeves.  

This isn’t the first time non-realistic art movements were deemed “ugly” in favor of realism. The early Impressionist movements in Europe were labeled amateur by art critics that favored Neoclassicism. The term ‘Impressionism’ was actually termed by one of those critics who called the artwork unfinished, a simple impression of reality. What’s unique about gaming’s problem is the fact that games are so technology-focused, thus obsessed with ‘progress’. That is what pushes the idea that graphics can be outdated. We don’t call oil paintings outdated because of the invention of photography, but for some reason with gaming, there’s an expiration date for style.

And it’s coming to a head because just like television and movies, we’re in the remake era now. 

These days it seems like gaming’s biggest hits are all getting the remake treatment from Resident Evil 4 to (my favorite childhood game) Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door. The Last of Us and Life is Strange, games that were released in 2013 and 2015 mind you, have both been remastered with updated graphics, if you wanted to see just how fast the graphics game is moving. In the case of RE4, it gave us most of the same great Resident Evil gameplay and story, with updated graphics so we can see Leon Kennedy’s pecs in 4K. I would never complain about spending the game looking at Kennedy’s muscular back, but I’m not so quick to dismiss the original game just because of the fancy new version. 

We should also consider how updated graphics’ can conflict with games preservation. Many people would default to calling these remakes as the definitive versions of games with their updated graphics and gameplay. It throws the original games to the wayside simply because the graphics are considered outdated. But I think, for both preservationist historical reasons and artistic reasons, that old games and their limited graphics should be celebrated as opposed to forgotten.

We can consider a case where I believe a remake with updated graphics actually made the game worse: Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. I first played Chain of Memories as a part of a pack that includes six KH games (this happens to be the best and easiest way to play through the series). Instead of the original GBA version of the game with pixel graphics, they remade the game using 3D graphics for the pack. I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see all the pixel art, but figured the game would be mostly the same. But it turns out the updated graphics just made the game worse. 

The charming and whimsical worlds of Kingdom Hearts immediately fell flat and dead in Chain of Memories. While there was a story reason for the worlds to be empty, I think the charm of seeing these 3D worlds in pixel art form would have been enough of a treat to keep the game from looking boring. The gameplay also didn’t translate well into a 3D environment, making it frustrating to manage the movement of the character and your deck at the same time, something that might have been easier to do in a 2D space. “Updating” the graphics, in this case, made the game worse. Now, the only pixel art entry in the series isn’t widely available, like all the other, older Kingdom Hearts games..

But I would argue there’s merits to old graphics that go beyond just preservation. Even artists working in other mediums take inspiration from old game graphics. Let’s take Gao Hang as an example. When I first saw Hang’s art I was struck by how he made a traditional painting look exactly like old game models. The polygonal structuring and airbrush coloring masterfully create portraits that would have been right at home in The Sims. According to his bio in the Anya Tisch gallery, he was classically trained in photorealistic painting but more recently took to this more abstract style. 

Gao Hang, This Made Perfect Sense, 2023.

Another artist who works traditionally with video game imagery, Jade Anthony (@groupcritpowerdynamics on Twitter and Instagram), has been making paintings of animals pixelized to look like Nintendogs. Anthony shared some process photos on social media, showing how they use masking tape to create the pixel effect with traditional materials. Clearly people are attracted to this old game aesthetic even when it isn’t readily convenient to accomplish. Perhaps this shows that there’s an appeal to these blocky and pixelated graphics that goes beyond being nostalgic, but instead a style that can be timeless in its own way. 

Jade Anthony, A Thing Like You and Me, chalk on pastel and paper, 2023.

I believe that the future of gaming isn’t hyper realism. Games at their core are an artform, a medium to tell stories. The ray tracing, rendering, and realistic water physics are all just bells and whistles to what games can really offer. Old, low-polygon models and pixels aren’t just placeholder graphics waiting for a 4k facelift, but intentional stylistic decisions that speak both to the tools and the stylistic trends of the time. Video games have made a lot of progress over the years, but progress doesn’t mean we need to toss and replace old games like iPhones.

 

Harri is a freelance writer, art exhibit employee, doodler, and social media manager for MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo). Harri’s work has appeared in TechRadar, Polygon, PomeMag, and more! You can follow them and their wacky adventures on Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr @heyriette.

 

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Stephanie Dinsae

i am marked an enemy perfect for collapse: Sapphic Joy and Black Death in The Last of Us Part 2

CN: This essay contains graphic depictions of violence and it also contains light spoilers to TLOU2, so proceed with caution. No spoilers too drastic to the main storyline, though.

The corners and the walls are adorned in what looks to be fleshy, fungal growth. The growth takes up entire parts of the buildings sometimes, with its muted, faded blood reds and organ pinks protruding, with its rotten greens and questionable dim, dark, greys. The world appears quiet and abandoned except for the blatantly infected beings, some of whose bodies are buried under thick layers of fungus. Their overbearing presence decorates my field of vision– groaning and clicking and edging along the bounds of where their vessels allow them to go, ironically lively, as fungi tend to be. Alive? Certainly. Sentient? Who knows. Yet they are all so attuned, sensitive to any sudden movements, any sudden noises, glass shattering, bricks hitting walls, my sneakers running across the ground. If they catch sight of me, it’s over. If I don’t make it out of there safely, my head will be bashed in or my throat will be ripped out or they might emit their noxious gasses from their burdened bodies onto mine. The choice of how I will die does not belong to me, but the choice of how they do does: in stealth or in the dangerous open. We must murder the infected before they murder us, and we must also murder the two factions of humans we’re up against. We, being me (playing as Ellie) and her supportive, bold, badass girlfriend, Dina. The zombie apocalypse is its own hell, but at least I have a girlfriend to join me for the devastating ride.

I played The Last of Us Part 2 during the initial quarantine of 2020, my mind scattered, uneasy, uncertain, unsure of what would come next. The apocalyptic devastation of the game quieted my mind from the real world, which I could only escape through engaging with the creations of others. I’ll say that I only played a glimpse of The Last of Us before jumping into this second game about a year and some change later. I also watched a bit of the playthrough when I realized I would not be brave enough to finish it. I was frightened of the infected and the seemingly high stakes of the Listening/Stealth Mode, which the apocalyptic zombie environment of the game heavily relied on. Somehow, despite that first hesitance, I immersed myself into the second part, due to a proposition from my younger brother that we split the cost of the newly-released game, fear be damned. As I mentioned, I was adamant to escape my own grim reality, but I think I was also enthralled by the queer love that unfolded on my television screen. It was surreal to see hotheaded, smart-mouthed Ellie from the first game grow up, even more surreal to see her be so unapologetically lesbian. What I also noticed of Ellie as I played her and observed her through cut scenes is how reserved, pensive, quiet she had become. There was a lot she was not saying or that she may have felt too awkward to say. Upon meeting Dina, as a player entering into the game in medias res, it was clear to me why Ellie liked her. Dina was forward, playful, supportive, and charmingly comfortable in her own skin. 

Fast forward to Ellie and Dina locking themselves in an abandoned library while on patrol during a chaotic blizzard. The two find a downstairs weed den, grown and curated by Eugene, one of their late townmates. As Ellie, I interact with a few artifacts of the den, including an iconic gas mask bong. I then interact with a glass jar of at least seven joints, which seems to be sealed shut, considering the fact that neither I nor Dina can open it properly. After struggling for just a few seconds, Dina slams the jar onto the ground. As Ellie, I am surprised by her reckless resolve to get things done, probably also a bit amused and intrigued. We are trying to figure out if the weed is still smokable and Dina, joint already in between her lips, having flicked open her lighter in two smooth swoops, sits down to light it. I am in awe at this cut scene, which yes, I have watched/played through at least three times because it is so heartwarming to see how gay it is. From the eye contact Dina gives Ellie, the knowing smile on her face, to the ease into the unspoken tension of what they are wondering about the other, especially after sharing a kiss on the dance floor at their town celebration a day before.

We do not get to see the kiss until the game’s very end, but the moment was so joyful and their passion so intense that another of their townmates, homophobic and bitter, hurled an anti-lesbian slur at them. They are now in the den, just the two of them, sharing a joint full of “home”-grown weed. Sly Dina utters “Can I ask you a question?” “How would you rate our kiss from last night?” I am hesitant as Ellie, a bit nervous to address what I believe to be the unspeakable. I feel the tension growing, I am tuned in, controller in hand, as I watch their body language, how Dina turns towards Ellie and how Ellie leans in, so that she and Dina’s faces are only a few inches apart. Ellie is shy and dodges the question with an “I don’t know”, scared to reveal that she enjoyed the kiss. The soft guitar music begins, Ellie licks her lips, they engage in flirtatious banter, ripe with tension, making comments like “You’re infuriating”, “Have you met you?”, “You make me wanna go back outside into that blizzard”, “No one is stopping you.” The guitar continues as they slowly close the distance between them with a passionate kiss, which crescendos into passionate making out, their breaths exasperated, their lips excited to meet again. The scene goes to black as we catch a last sight of Ellie now on top of Dina, kissing her deeply once more. During this part of the game, I recall pausing the cut scene many times to squeal, laugh, smirk, grow flustered. I even took photos of the paused television with my phone, excited to be feeling so seen in a mainstream game franchise. I was captivated by how accurately the scene depicted sapphic angst, captivated that I could play as a lesbian who was fearless in killing zombies and people, if need be, but was still so bashful and nervous when interacting with the girl she liked. Very sapphic behavior indeed. 

As a sapphic gamer, how could I not have been reeled into the game? Sneaking through Seattle (where most of the game takes place), taking out the infected while on the perpetual edge of my seat was worth it if I could just get to see Ellie and Dina smile at each other again, hug each other tightly, share a sweet kiss. And while we navigated Seattle on our quest, which was filled with infected, we also came across and killed many people from both the factions of the Western Liberation Front (WLF) and the Seraphites. Two human groups who hated each other’s guts and hated trespassers even more. Later, I learned that the story of these two human groups served as an allegory for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Please see Emanuel Maiberg’s article, which provides an in-depth exploration uncovering the Israeli politics sewn into the game’s world.  As I tried to keep Ellie alive through our fair share of murder and stealth, I noticed that many of the automated enemies from the factions were often Black people or other people of color, reminiscent of people who looked like me and my loved ones. And we murdered them in countless ways, with trap mines, Molotov cocktails, knives, axes, silenced guns, flaming arrows, and the list continues. As I played from start to finish, I learned that grief is complex and doesn’t always allow us to see clearly and make the best decisions, especially in a landscape where everyone is fighting for their survival. I also learned that while it might be simple to acknowledge that The Last of Us Part 2, a game in which vengeance is an incessant cycle, brings death to many, it is eye-opening to me what sort of deaths were given to whom. I’d like to highlight a moment in which I, as the player, once again had very little choice in how a certain death came about, as it was clear it had been embedded by design. 

This moment comes much later than the weed den scene. Ellie, saddened and furious, is looking to spill blood. We sneak onto WLF grounds, specifically their hospital base and its surrounding areas. Ellie and I are looking for someone named Nora, a medic, who will have more information about someone else we are feeling particularly bloodthirsty about. Nora is Black and the graphics make her melanin look vibrant and warm, perfect for death, against the cold grey backdrop of the Seattle setting. In the midst of playing, I find out that she is voiced by Chelsea Tavares, an actor I love from All American, another show I am watching at the time. To get to Nora, I, as Ellie, must start off killing the countless WLF soldiers in the surrounding bases of the hospital. This part of the gameplay proves to be stressful for me as I maneuver myself to avoid being seen. The WLF soldiers are everywhere, though I am able to snuff out a few of them in secret.  I sneak into the hospital and eventually the lifeless bodies tip them off that there is an intruder and they bring out their dogs used for sniffing out enemies. At this point, I pick up a nearby brick and throw it at a wall to deter the dogs. My heart is beating and unlike certain parts, I am not confident I will make it out of there with stealth alone. Soldiers close in on my hiding spot and once they see me, they yell to alert the others. They shoot at me, some swing their weapons. I shoot back, run, attempt to dodge melee attacks, sometimes to no avail. I die again and again, struggling to fight them all off. After being shot to death or mauled by dogs enough times, I finally reach the floor where Nora is and I do not want Ellie to get to her. Nevertheless, I understand why Ellie is adamant and I have no choice if I want to continue the game. At a critical point of what becomes Ellie chasing Nora, Nora quickly rushes away from Ellie, running into a locked section of the lower level of the hospital. 

After we enter through a door where we hear distant coughing that we know to be Nora’s, Ellie, in cut scene, takes a chair in the space and uses it to jam the door from opening. It is clear that this is personal for her. In red lighting, towards the farthest door is Nora, on the ground, veins emerged all over her body, including in her forehead and arms. The spores, fungi that can infiltrate the brain through inhalation and kill the host in a matter of days if one is not wearing a mask, have moved quickly and it is clear she is a goner. We approach her and she feebly attempts to swing a loose pipe at us. Ellie pulls it away from her and returns the favor, swinging full force at the arm of an already weakened Nora. The medic, who has helped so many of her soldiers heal from injury, is now helpless against Ellie. Ellie then asks Nora what she has come all this way to ask: the whereabouts of the main particular somebody she is bloodthirsty about. To which Nora responds “I’m fucking dead anyway, why would I tell you anything?” Ellie, with malice tucked deep in her face, says “Because I can make it quick. Or I can make it so much worse.” 

At this point, the cut scene cuts back into gameplay and Ellie looks sinister, menacing in the red light. I cannot see Nora’s face and for that, I am semi-thankful, because a small square prompt appears near Ellie’s hair and I really do not want to press it. I try to stall, but once again, I cannot if I want to continue the game. I am nervous because I know the weapon Ellie holds in her hands and how hard she has already swung it at Nora. She is dying, her voice still lovely to my ear, but strained, struggling. I give in, press the square ever so slightly and Ellie swings the pipe with all her might. Blood materializes onto her shirt, my controller vibrates. I am supposed to be having fun, adrenaline pumped, yet all I feel is the distance between me and Ellie. How close I felt with her as a fellow sapphic, how distant I now feel remembering that she is white and I am not. How easy it is for Ellie to see blood, especially when there is a Black person barring her from the true object of her rage. I am wishing it is over and yet another square appears. I reluctantly tap it again and she swings with the same blunt force, more blood droplets now mingling with the older ones on her shirt. Nora whimpers and I grimace. I cannot imagine what the pain must feel like against the spores already taking shelter in her body. Yet another square appears and I’m wondering why this specific interrogation feels so drawn out. I press one last square, silent, mad that I had to sit there and Ellie swings again and the screen goes black.

It is striking to me how poetically violent the choices of that scene are: the red lighting that fills the room feels reminiscent of the rage that Ellie is fuming with. The music builds during this scene, it is an ominous, pulsating sound. The cut scene after is devastating: Ellie returns to the theater, shaken up by her own violence, bloodied, frightened. After she gets what she wants, it appears she is afraid of who she is becoming. I grapple with feeling stuck, feeling reminded of the vicious murder that always follows Black people at the hands of those who aren’t, whether it be in the game world or the real world. I played, hoping for solace and escape, and I only received it in fragments. My queerness and Blackness served up as direct antithesis to each other in this game. In the same breath with which I squealed at and lauded the sapphic representation, I shuddered at the roles Black people were assigned in the game. They were rendered immediate enemies, difficult and relentlessly killed by Ellie’s hands, by way of me. Yet, with all I witnessed in my playthrough, I returned to play the game or certain parts of it again and again. It is clear its hold on me, despite the anti-Black choices embedded into its design. How apt for a game of the apocalyptic genre to give me such sweet queer love and then quickly pull the rug from under my feet, never failing to let me know that it is far too unrealistic to envision that someone like me can escape into a new world, complex of its own accord, and find my complete self. Untouched, melanin warm and vibrant, perfect for living and even attempting to thrive.

 

Shakespearean Sonnet for Ellie and Dina

i am your devotion blizzard undone
in your hands snow-melted to the shy touch
your kisses soften me like silenced gun
flick your lighter on the denim i blush

with you i am fearless body language
charmingly comfortable smooth swoops
blood and banter built from recent anguish
sneaking through the city just to find you

we crescendo into passion amidst
grimly dim dark grey scape of our world
i will love you in any apocalypse
forever honored to be your girl

we started off ripe with deep deep tension
now we are infected with affection

 

Petrarchan Sonnet for Nora

i am marked an enemy perfect for collapse  
though i give life and suture the fragments  
of my soldiers who dwelled in time well spent
in murder and weapons caught in sly traps  
i patch the stark gash wounds within maps   
curated for exclusion well meant 
for somebody with a warmer pigment  
like mine, unable to escape the wrath: 

red lighting and mostly misdirected 
rage in the dangerous open air      
where blood materializes in specks 
at the sight of my skin split bare     
a blank space used as heinous object  
from eyes so sinister, menacing stare

 

A poet and Black Classicist from the Bronx, Stephanie Dinsae is a 2019 Smith College graduate and has received an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Stephanie often writes poetry about myth as it relates to Blackness and her own life, friendship, video games, and the flexibility/fallibility of memory. Her favorite things to do are dance around to music and obsess over astrology. In case you were wondering, Stephanie has major Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius placements. You can find more of her work on Instagram @writesumdinsightful.

 

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Gyasi Hall

The Earth Dies Twice: Death and Difficulty in The End is Nigh

The End is Nigh is a precision platformer in which you play as an adorable tumor named Ash. Despite being the last intelligent creature on earth, he spends his time streaming video games and talking to an empty chat. When his favorite game breaks (a Atari-style precision platformer called The End is Nigh in which you play as an adorable tumor trying to avoid spikes), Ash decides to brave the twisted post-apocalypse in order to gather the necessary pieces to stitch together a friend: a head on a far-away airship, a body burning in the depths of torment, a heart lost somewhere in a lumbering machine. 

This is how The End is Nigh wants to talk about growth, about challenge, about skill: you are always playing at life but never living. Change is not merely psychological, but physical too, a new body built out of rotting pieces of the old one. 

The game is in the business of eulogy. The visuals are equal parts cutesy and horrifying, edgy sensibilities used to craft something more somber, melancholy, mature. Design-wise, its simplicity crafts an intimacy with the player. The game is ridiculously difficult, but it’s a difficulty that’s organic, unmarred by flashy extra content. Each level is the length of a single screen. You need to get from one side to the other. You touch anything hazardous, you die. You can jump various distances at various speeds, and you can hang off corners and other special notches in the architecture, but that’s it. Despite the acrobatics inherent to the genre, The End is Nigh controls with a heaviness, a deliberate groundedness, that reflects its no-frills design. There’s no double jump, no wall jump, no running, no upgrades, no stat lines, no builds, no super moves, no items, no combat, no speech checks, no broken combos. There is only jumping and timing and death. 

It flirts with deconstruction: a tough-as-nail platformer that’s interested in stripping the genre down to its barest mechanical state in order to fully explore the ramifications of its central interactions. What happens when the controls aren’t just smooth, but smooth enough to effectively remove reaction time, to make split-second decisions that live in the body? What happens when the game’s not just hard, but hard enough for stress, the monitoring and nursing and releasing of stress, to become a core element of gameplay, a system with its own native logistics, like health or stamina or mana? 

I first encountered The End is Nigh during my first semester of grad school. My egg had been cracked for a while, though I was still trying to find use for the heftier shards I had kept (decorative wall art, a bowl for cereal, a sled for the otherwise bleak winters I had just signed up for). I wore slacks and cosplayed as an English instructor so my students wouldn’t realize we were the same age. Iowa City’s abysmal food scene exacerbated my binging and my fasting. I was, as always, studying white people’s smiles, relearning which were permission slips, which came with a certificate of authenticity, which were born of frothing insecurity like Venus from seafoam. I was writing, and I was making friends, but I couldn’t escape the reality of what I was, whether I was playing the game or not: an unperson, a prop, a thing playing at living, playing at the playing of living. The embers of a real someone stuck inside a brain stuck inside a body stuck inside a country. 

Between the PC and Playstation versions, I have put nearly two hundred hours into The End is Nigh. This isn’t an epic open-world fantasy or a cozy management sim or some multiplayer thing where dozens of hours of practice are required for high-level play. This is a game where, if you know the proper techniques and don’t fuck up, entire worlds can be beaten in a few minutes. The game’s sense of time is exclusive to this breed of elegant difficulty, shrinking and distending as old levels are beaten and new plateaus are hit. The End is Nigh respects the mirror shine of its moment-to-moment twitch gameplay while creating a headspace where the scope of what it would take to beat the game, what it would mean, is omnipresent but not overbearing, clear but never corrosive. It’s a game that believes in salvation on the other side of frustration. It’s a game where dying over and over and over again can make the impossible possible, can turn you into a different person, a person who can do what they once could not. The game keeps score: I have died well over fifty thousand times. 

The End is Nigh sports all the foundational elements of extreme difficulty made tolerable (near-instantaneous respawn times, brutal but ultimately fair level design), but the key to the game’s perfectly balanced difficulty curve is more philosophical. The game remembers what so many others forget: that how something feels to play is not only a central part of a game’s artistic experience, but the base unit of measurement used to reflect on said experience as well. It’s the context for the encounter, the reality and the reflection, the setup that allows for pathos, for immersion. A game’s difficulty curve and a player’s reaction to its contours, then, is a function of time, and thus, necessarily, a function of empathy. Difficulty is one of the medium’s most foundational lingua franca. By crafting such an expertly balanced series of escalating challenges, the player is invited into a real, dynamic relationship not just with the game’s world, but with the spiritual process of exploring that world as an interactive art object. 

The End is Nigh wants to build something with you. It wants you to meet it halfway in discovering what kind of person you could become. It wants the processing of the playing to be an integral part of the process of playing. Because it is a game centered around the satisfaction of reflection, the catharsis of navigating obstacles you couldn’t dream of figuring out a handful of hours ago, The End is Nigh reveals itself to be, when wrestled with enough, about the death of the person you were, about what is sacrificed to “git gud”. The End is Nigh charts the anatomy of death, and thus of change, and thus of a kind of frenzied living. In this way, the game is about grief because it is about evolution, and it is about evolution because its mechanics are ultimately about Hope.

Of course, I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to this stuff (this was the same semester where a student walked in on me playing a status-moves-only run of Pokémon Pearl during office hours), but the way The End is Nigh requires a player to engage with it seems remarkably singular. Even other games praised for their difficulty only manage to hint at the broader implications of their own designs. Cuphead’s emphasis is more on figuring out which power-ups and alternate weapons are suitable for each boss, the moment-to-moment speed of Celeste and Super Meat Boy doesn’t give players much time to properly sit with more complex emotions. Fromsoft games are generally masterful examples of using a difficulty curve as a way to map empathy, but the scope of the games ensure that the same linguistic techniques are being used to drastically different effect. The End is Nigh is a flawless verse on a rap song, the souls games are engrossing novels. 

There is much about The End is Nigh that feels elegiac. After Ash has built his new friend, the world ends a second time, his confused cry of “How the fuck does the earth die twice??” ushering in a new set of levels with names like “Anguish” and “Blight” and “Ruin”. Each successive icon depicts Ash in a further state of decay. The old levels are referred to as The Past, while the new levels are called The Future. Of course, they are much, much harder. There’s a lack of subtlety that pairs well with the games punishing difficulty. One of the Atari-style worlds you can unlock is The Tower of Ascension, a collection of sub-worlds named after the five stages of grief. You have to beat all 32 levels back-to-back: every time you die, you start back at the very beginning of Denial. 

Obsession as a default mode of artistic engagement is somewhat understandable, though I often wonder what this does to grief. Obsession is, after all, the only mode of being remotely capable of keeping up with the infinite slurry of content western culture’s social psyche hinges on. But obsession assumes verve, and most of us understand it more as a passive sacrament. Our focus isn’t on the process, but the result, not the doing, but the feeling of having done. Binging a TV show is not the same as dying four hundred times on a single level until muscle memory stitches a way forward into your hands. Failing isn’t a failure state if it’s what you’re supposed to do. Success must be earned because relationships are, after all, a two-way street.

At a cafe with too few outlets and too much milk in the chai lattes, I chat with a friend about audience. They say googling is part of reading now, and that it’s beautiful: not just a way for you to interact with the text, but for the text to interact with you, for the work of the work to spill out into your real life. It’s more edifying for everyone if you make the audience work for it. The key isn’t necessarily confidence or clarity of vision, but the elegant math of taste and type. The End is Nigh acts as a proof: you are thrilled by a genuine challenge, so others will be too.

It feels stupid to say that learning to walk away was the final lesson the game taught me, since, in many ways, the game isn’t interested in education. It’s a mirror, a conduit, a way of negotiating with your own internal systems of anxiety, a space where everything wrong with you stems from nothing more than the soft tilt of an analog stick, the slight inhale between button taps. But I have done virtually everything in the game. I’ve found all its collectables, beaten all its levels, uncovered all its secrets. The only thing left is the one-hundred-level-long Super Mega Cart. I’ve beaten it, beaten it again with less than 10 deaths, and beaten it a third time while collecting over five hundred rings, but I haven’t managed to beat it while collecting all one thousand. There is always more to do, more ways to beat the already beaten levels that inch closer and closer to an ever-shifting flawlessness, an impossible idea of perfection. Like its limited arsenal of gameplay mechanics, The End is Nigh knows what it has always known from the beginning: that because everything lives, everything dies. To play the game, then, is to mourn, to confront the limits of who you thought you were, to become. 

 

Gyasi Hall is a writer and critic from Columbus, Ohio. Their essays “Alas, Poor Fhoul” and “Eminem Drop-Kicked Me in This Dream I Had” were both nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and their debut poetry chapbook, Flight of the Mothman: An Autobiography, was published by The Operating System in Spring 2019. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in Longreads, Guernica, Lit Hub, The Iowa Review, and The Black Warrior Review, among others. They received their MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, and they are currently working on a book about Black people and comics.

 

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