Monday, August 22, 2011

I'm Tellin' Y'all It's Sabotage

What timing! Little did I know when I wrote my treatise defending Silent Hill 2's voice acting that days later, a sampling of the HD remaster's new voice work would be delivered for the gaming public to scrutinize. Here I was expecting to hold my head in my hand, frown, and begrudgingly admit that the new actors actually sound like professionals, despite the fact that they could never reclaim the soul of the original cast. Of course, reality often trumps imagination when it comes to weirdness.

 The new voice acting sounds leagues less professional than the original's, and feels like almost deliberately heretical sabotage. There were quite a few people who were saying, "Well, the original actors weren't the best, so I'll wait to hear the new guys." These people are now nearly as disgusted as I am. It's ridiculous, and honestly I think I'm glad it actually turned out so atrociously. I was planning on buying and playing through the remaster to appreciate the shiny audiovisual upgrade and see what I thought of the new performances; now I'm just going to ignore this suicidal turd, as are, I think, many people.

Oh, and they're also making a co-op Silent Hill action game. PCP, man. Konami's on the dust.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mucking with Masterpieces

It may be old news now, but Konami's recasting of voice talent in the Silent Hill HD Collection (which I alluded to in my Portal 2 review) has me more outraged than I've probably ever been when it comes to video games.

What's funny is that the voice acting in Silent Hill 2 and 3 is often (legitimately) considered amateurish, and for some it's an ugly seam in an otherwise well-woven pair of horror stories. Adding more professional voice work to an HD remaster makes just as much sense as bumping up the resolution. For some people. For me, however, this is not a matter of technical fidelity. It's not a new coat of paint. It's taking a hammer to Michelangelo's David and having enough warped assurance to claim that lopping off his genitals makes the work more palatable. Rape and destruction of this caliber is beyond even the powers of the infamous Pyramid Head. Congratulations, Konami. You've out-evil'd your own monster.

Perhaps I should explain why, without the aid of nostalgia, Silent Hill 2's awkward performances have established themselves as my favorite in any video game. Of course it helps that they're backed by a ludicrously great script, but the actors who breathe life into those words deserve to have their art investigated and celebrated. Let's begin with Monica Horgan's reading of Mary's posthumous letter to James, the motivation for his wandering through the foggy and memory-tortured streets of Silent Hill:
"In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again someday... but you never did. Well, I'm alone there now, in our special place, waiting for you..."
The word "promised" jumps ironically on a guilt-inducing hiccup of wistful half-laughter, and the ellipses that trail "someday" conjure an image of Mary smiling into space, reminiscing. Which makes the latter half of the sentence, with its squinting, sighing sadness, ambiguous as to whether it's forgiving or condemning, all the more acheful. The next sentence's kick-off "well" has Horgan exhaling right into the microphone, providing an as yet unrivaled sensation of intimacy. Her pronunciation of "special place" uses a strong "s" sound to heighten its seductive mystery, and her lifted-eyebrows whisper of "waiting for you" creates in James and the player a simultaneous feeling of hopeful arousal and stomach-churning apprehension. Such is the emotional nuance of this game's voice work.

Of course, the real star of Silent Hill 2 (save Pyramid Head) is its mild-mannered sad sack of a protagonist, James Sunderland, voiced with charm and pathos by the irreplaceable Guy Cihi. His delivery is often understated, sedate, somewhat absent, with deflated vowels and ringing consonants, a slight rumbling in the throat, clearly audible mouth movements, and a whistling quality that accentuate's the character's meekness and confusion. This makes James' more passionate outbursts all the more authentic and bloody, such as his desperate cry of "Leave her alone! Leave us both the hell alone!" which could have dipped into bathos were it not for his previous restraint. Cihi becomes James, taking on all his insecurity, pain, dorkiness, and spiritual destitution, and the result is a truly unique performance.

While Cihi may shine brightest, the whole production features stellar, thoughtful casting. For example, Angela Orosco, a 19-year-old girl, was played by Donna Burke, a middle-aged woman; the choice reflects the unnatural aging Angela suffered due to her father's abuse. Her manner is highly confused and disconcerting, bouncing between depression, fear, anger, and apology, all the while disposed towards a disgusting fatalism and self-blame. She also gets to deliver my all-time favorite video game quote: "You see it too? For me, it's always like this." For her ultimate line, Burke puts aside the strange pronunciations and not-quite-right pauses, announcing her character's tragic condition with chilling sobriety and resigned conviction. It's a fucking gut-punch.

As enigmatic temptress Maria, Monica Horgan asks sexually charged questions no game in the last decade has had the balls to echo. She puts James in the uncomfortable position of being her alpha male knight, yelling at him to protect her, teasing him about his lack of strength (that ring in the refrigerator scene has to be one of the most sly and mature in the medium), and almost explicitly requesting his sexual attention. Horgan not only had to manage Maria's balancing act of sympathy, sex, fear, promise, and manipulative evil, but she also had to play Mary, James' deceased wife. Her attacks are cringe-worthy, her resentment is palpable, and finally, in a brave reading of Mary's last letter, her loving forgiveness is at once divine and unbearably human.

This is what acting is. It's giving oneself up to the emotions requested by the fiction; to be good at it, one must have true courage and be willing to follow his inhabited ego into unpleasant depths. This is what Silent Hill 2 is. It shows us our darkness, and, as a video game, allows us to share in the performance, to artificially exercise the demons of a sad, lost man. Playing Silent Hill 2 requires bravery; it's a pretty harrowing experience. Its (to quote Nich Maragos) "expertly crafted abyss" is in large part a product of the actors who animate it. To replace them and still call the thing Silent Hill 2 is dishonest and cruel. I won't go into why it's happening or what Guy Cihi has to say about it here (needless to say, it's a case of the producer fucking the artist over), but I don't like it. 

The same goes for Silent Hill 3 of course; I thought Heather Morris' turn as Heather Mason was very authentic and emotionally naked. Apparently Konami is redoing the voices for the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection as well. Which is just madness, as nobody ever even asked for better voice acting from those games; and what's worse is that the VO from Sons of Liberty is actually nostalgic for me. All in all, fuck you, Konami. Here I was, excited to play some of my favorite PS2 games in bumpin' HD, and you had to piss all over the whole affair. As Mr. Sunderland might say, "Leave us both the hell alone!"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Portal 2 Review

I'm well aware of the tardiness of this review. Then again, I'm not a game reviewer and this isn't a traditional video game review: no effort to shy away from spoilers, no numerical score, no affirming or challenging of the game in question's value at $60. Not that I'm against scoring games with arbitrary abstracts as some people are, but for one, it's a bit too late for anybody to care what score I assign Portal 2, and also... Well, I'm rarely this uncertain about my own feelings toward a game.

Portal 2 is the sequel to 2007's captivating first-person puzzler, an inspiring success story in which a senior capstone project, Narbacular Drop, so impressed Half-Life developer Valve that the company hired the students to work on a small title to be released within their Orange Box compilation so as to minimize risk.

That game was Portal, and to everyone's surprise, it was a hit with 'hardcore' and 'casual' gamers alike. The concept is simple yet mind-expanding; players wield a gun that can fire two portals, one orange and one blue, on nearly any white surface. In the heel-springs of human lab rat Chell, players must use the portal device to navigate a series of increasingly sophisticated test chambers in the eerily desolate labs of Aperture Science, all the while being guided and taunted by a passive-aggressive computer AI named GLaDOS.

Portal 2 takes place hundreds of years after the events of its prequel, in an underground facility ravaged by nature and time. Early levels revisit the first Portal's test chambers, their enamel-white sterility now decayed and stained, choked with rugged flora and graffiti celebrating your earlier exploits; Valve have always been masters of telling a story through the environment, and now it seems they've mastered the nostalgia trip. Soon enough, however, the player is led to new environments that reveal the true depths of the facility and the boundless ambition of its eccentric founder, Cave Johnson (more on him later).

A sequel in the truest sense, Portal 2 expands on and refines the tenets of its predecessor rather than starting from scratch. While all of Portal's mechanics remain in place, Portal 2 wastes less time acclimating players to the basics, instead gently but efficiently easing them into the unique gameplay--a singular fusion of FPS and adventure game which requests sharp reflexes and sharper wits--before introducing a bevy of giddy new toys. From Aerial Faith Plates to laser Redirection Cubes to tractor beams of swirling asbestos, Portal 2 doesn't skimp on new elements and their thought-provoking, sometimes thrilling applications.

While chase sequences and slightly more organic exploration sections have been added to the mix, the meat of Portal 2 is still furthering the cause of science through a number of deliciously head-scratching test chambers. The new tools introduced in Portal 2 often make for a more dynamic and flavorful experience. I had a lot of fun with the Hard Light Bridges, especially during the first trial of Chapter 4, when I used a vertical Hard Light Bridge in conjunction with my portal gun as an impromptu mobile shield against turret fire. Laser redirection, while not as physically stimulating as momentum puzzles and the like, offers a return to the first Portal's oftentimes more ponderous, patient style. Excursion Funnels, Aerial Faith Plates, and Repulsion Gel lend the game a delightfully gravity-defying verticality.

What is Repulsion Gel, you ask? Why, only one-third of Portal 2's most impressive new gameplay feature: paint! Once again, the vigilant talent-harvesters at Valve absorbed a student team to work on the Portal series; this time it was the young wizards responsible for fellow first-person puzzler Tag: The Power of Paint, a game itself inspired by Portal in which players manipulate paints that affect the physical properties of the surfaces they are applied to. Their expertise produced Portal 2's Repulsion, Propulsion, and Conversion gels. Blue Repulsion Gel is for bouncing, orange Propulsion Gel for gaining speed, and white Conversion Gel for creating portals on previously inert surfaces. The Conversion gel puzzles are particularly gleeful, but nothing beats the intricate, kinetic harmony of those puzzles which task you with employing the three gels in concert.

The previously mentioned chase sequences and organic exploration sections serve to break what could have been the monotony of a series of compact, precise, walled-in test chambers (keep in mind that Portal 2, at about 9 hours, is three times the length of the original). The forward-charging immediacy of the chase sequences counters the methodical experimenting done in the trials composed by GLaDOS and Cave Johnson, while the slower-paced moments outside the test chambers allow players to stare deep into the bowels of Aperture Science and provide some memorable set-pieces (flying through the giant Aperture sign at the beginning of the Cave Johnson section was a blast).

Of course, perhaps the most widely lauded ingredient of the Portal concoction is its writing and acting. You already know that Portal 2 has one of the best scripts and some of the best performances in video games. Stephen Merchant's bumbling, neurotic naturalism as the moronic personality core Wheatley, Ellen McClain's subtle humanizing of a malevolent AI bitch, and J.K. Simmons' turn as increasingly frustrated Howard Hughes-type American innovator Cave Johnson; these three characters offer Portal 2 more personality than most entertainment properties could ever hope to muster. My friends, we have us a true video game comedy here.

Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, I can go into specifics on my overall thoughts and impressions (sans co-op) of what seems to be 2011's top candidate for Game of the Year. To start, I think Portal 2 is generally a superb game; Valve's almost freakish craftsmanship shines through in nearly every aspect of the production, from its smooth, propulsive energy to its satisfying, comfortable challenge to its appealing, almost Pixar-like presentation. In fact, Valve really does seem (to use one of those stupid "the ___ of ___" analogies) to be the Pixar of video games in many ways, and their latest effort all but confirms that. Their work is polished, charming, and just about peerless; everyone wants to work for them, but only the best get in.

Like I said though, it's not often that I find myself scratching my chin and pacing about the room trying to determine my own opinion of a game. You see, if Portal 2 has a problem, it's the original Portal. Prior to Portal 2's release, many, including myself, worried and wondered about how Valve could follow up a game as lean, novel, and just about perfect as Portal. If any game never needed a sequel, it was Portal. After reading Game Informer's cover story, my fears were assuaged; "Okay," I thought. "These guys know what they're doing. They're not reusing any jokes, it's a more robust production, and hey, it's Valve. They made Half-Life 2. I trust them." Upon release, critics were happy to claim that not only is Portal 2 a worthwhile sequel, but a better game in every respect; some even calling it, to quote Jim Sterling's Destructoid review, "one of the most fantastic experiences ever presented as a piece of software." High praise indeed, but it certainly helped get me excited to play Valve's latest offering. And now for the weird, surprising truth: I was disappointed.

I'd like to explore why that is, but to do so, Portal 2 must not be examined in a vacuum; it is crucial that we consider it alongside its predecessor. The original Portal was this faultless, crystalline short story packing a surprising comic punch; at four hours and with such limited assets, there was no flab, no flash, nothing but a singularly brilliant experience from start to finish, with all the charisma of a great debut. Furthermore, it is one of the few games, alongside the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, that is championed again and again as a work of art in which basically no "ludo-narrative dissonance" (meaning the clash and incompatibility of mechanics with story) occurs; nothing the player can do muddies or subtracts from the game's theme and narrative. Like many minimal artworks, the less is more approach allows what's there to be interpreted in a number of ways. The guiding non-player voice and the sterile, self-contained testing rooms could serve as commentary on the nature of linear game design; the 'game' half being at once malevolent and compelling, and the human player equated with a mute lab rat. Escaping the white rooms and ultimately killing GLaDOS, while still the only way to complete the game, satisfies the player's desire to break the rules and claim autonomy against the forces which would enslave him. There's the unreliable narrator trick ("This next test is impossible."), the thrill of peeking behind the curtain, the idea that the game is an allegory for breaking off a relationship with a manipulative, passive-aggressive girlfriend, and even a somewhat Freudian interpretation of the game as a satire of first-person shooters, with an all-female cast and a gun that shoots holes instead of projectiles.

Needless to say, Portal is cherished, and a $60 sequel of anything but the highest quality would likely have been met with venom. As good as Portal 2 is, though, it's not the endlessly stimulating, citation-worthy diamond that Portal is. It's certainly not as quotable, for better or worse. But as similar as the gameplay has remained between the two, I see them as very different games, and that's because of a key distinction: tone. The original Portal is at once creepy, hilarious, quiet, cold, and lovable. Allowing you but a brief glimpse into the red, graffiti-pockmarked guts of the facility, Portal suggests. Portal 2, constantly moving players through offices and catwalks and chasms, does not.

My favorite Portal 2 review comes from Eurogamer's Oli Welsh; every word rings true, but I'll try not to quote the whole thing. Welsh says, "You can't call Portal heartless, it's too funny a game for that, but it does have a heart of ice. It's so tight, so deliciously underplayed, that criticism passes through it like light refracted through a jewel. Very little of this is true of Portal 2. It would be impossible to expand that haiku of a game into a 10-hour blockbuster (with a separate co-operative campaign for two players) without muddying those crystal waters. Inevitably, it's more talkative, the humor is broader, it contains some ideas that don't work as reliably, and the fiction's delicate relationship with the Half-Life universe is disturbed." Portal 2, while less quotable, is certainly more talkative. There is no loneliness in this game. Wheatley, GLaDOS, and Cave Johnson are constantly blathering away, filling up the air with insecure mumbling, snide attacks on Chell's weight and adoption, and paranoid proclamations of impossible industriousness. But where Portal was a sparse short story with a stock of classic jokes, Portal 2 is a top-to-bottom bona fide comedy video game. It's not an escape tale with any video game-unique gags as playfully ingenious as incinerating the Companion Cube; it's just a humorous and at times touching story about power, corruption, science, and seeing two sides to people. As pointed out in the Eurogamer review, the difference in tone can be seen in each game's first room. Portal begins in a solemn glass box with a strange sci-fi bed, a toilet, and a radio. Portal 2's hilarious tutorial (the zoom function is taught by having you look at a painting on the wall in order to "feel mentally reinvigorated") takes place in a model of a tacky, not-so-swank hotel room.

Portal 2's comedy aesthetic does allow for some great moments, though. While GLaDOS's sarcasm in Chapters 3 and 4 felt weary and forced to me, she becomes much more enjoyable once trapped in the body of a potato battery, making her a bit more humble and sympathetic, not to mention funny. The malfunctioning turret who talks about Prometheus, the Cave Johnson "when life gives you lemons" speech, the turret-cube Frankensteins, and Wheatley's lazy test chamber are all great, but nothing beats the game's final interactive punchline: shooting a portal on the face of the moon. "Lunacy" is right. More than anything, though, Portal 2 makes me hopeful for the medium's future: here is a nonviolent, comedic first-person adventure game that is popular with critics and consumers alike. More things like this, please.

Going back to Eurogamer's fantastic review, I'd like to touch on their very interesting conclusion. They say, "Portal is perfect. Portal 2 is not. It's more than that. It's human: hot-blooded, silly, poignant, irreverent, base, ingenious, and loving. It's never less than a pure video game, but it's often more, and it will no doubt stand as one of the best entertainments in any medium at the end of the year. It's a masterpiece." Here's the thing: I'd take heart and soul over perfection any day of the week. I love Grand Theft Auto IV even though it is deeply, deeply flawed on a fundamental level, because I think it has soul. Final Fantasy VII is my favorite game, for chrissakes! And yet... I love Portal more than its sequel. Then again, I think both games have heart, from Portal's turret meekness to Portal 2's turret aria, "Still Alive" (soiled as it is) to Wheatley's strange apology. However, I think Portal has more soul, which is a bit harder to point out. I tend to think of "soul" as the little things, things like footsteps and ambient noise and color choices and little vocal phrasings and... I don't know, I guess the ambiguity of "soul" is what makes it so special. It's the subtle whistling tones, the audible mouth movements and notes that inflate and deflate, the inflections that balance quirky, half-intentional humor and devastating pathos, that make the performances in Silent Hill 2 my favorite ever (which are getting replaced in the HD collection fuckshitpissbitches!!). It's getting the call that Darko has arrived  in Liberty City while driving through Brooklyn in the rain as a man on the sidewalk says, "This cigarette is my lunch and dinner." It's the crackling of torches and crying of gulls in Ico. It's escorting Emma through the abandoned, twilit Big Shell after the personnel have boarded Arsenal Gear. I'm rambling, but do you see what I'm getting at? Portal 2 is too overeager, too loud and impatient to let the player savor those inconsequential details I look for.

Portal 2 is an undeniably great game, maybe even a modern classic, but to me, it's fascinating for other reasons. Comparing 2011's critical darling with its prequel is an extremely interesting exercise, and maybe in that context I can come to love it too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Apology, Explanation, Promise

So... It's been a while. This is a bit awkward. I was in the middle of a list of my 25 favorite albums, and then POOF I'm gone for nearly four months. I apologize for giving no forewarning of such a vast stretch of nothingness, especially when I was, like I said, not yet done with my current project. To be honest, I didn't know that I was going to be so negligent for so long. It's likely that this has lost the blog some readership, and that's a shame. However, if you have moved on to other, more dependable blogs, then you're probably not reading this right now, which means I could say nasty things behind your back... but I won't. One of the problems with writing a series of mini-essays on my favorite albums--aside from my overly lax work ethic--is the fact that oftentimes I'm just not in the mood to spend an hour or more listening to and writing about the next long-player on the list (a lame excuse, I know). To combat this, I will be interspersing the list more liberally with other posts, mostly about video games. One such feature, a belated review of Portal 2, shall be coming shortly, and it won't be too long after that before I follow up with a piece on my 13th favorite album. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Top 25 Albums #14. Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin

Think you're above Led Zeppelin? Think they belong to viking-wannabe metalheads, D&D nerds, Vans-wearing middle schoolers, mustachioed trailer trash, and shameless merchandise peddlers? Firstly, they do (though not exclusively). Secondly, get off your high horse. Just try to tell yourself, deep down in your heart groin, that you don't feel like a Norse god while listening to this, the burliest of all rock.

 Led Zeppelin were always shooting for a certain coherence to their music and image, one that mashed up The Lord of the Rings, celtic mysticism, British folk, and American blues, and then injected a large dose of testosterone. The pinnacle of that aim is Led Zeppelin IV, the pioneering quartet's finest long-player. IV doesn't fool around; it lets know right off the bat that you're in for a wild ride. Say what you want about Zeppelin, nobody can deny their beastly prowess as musicians.

On the opener, "Black Dog", the group plays with tension and release to great effect; Robert Plant sings a phrase a cappella before Page and Bonham come thundering in to fill up the empty space with their monstrous riffing. The appropriately named "Rock and Roll" approaches tension through the monotonous pounding of a single piano key. Instead of building a subtle sense of unease, as in The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog", this one-note assault simply adds to the atmosphere of lustful, liberated fury.

Things take a turn for the fantastical as we step onto the mandolin-swept fields of "The Battle of Evermore." The Tolkein continues on the legendary "Stairway to Heaven." Look, I know there are quite a few folks who never want to hear this thing again, but blame the DJs for the overkill; "Stairway" wasn't even released as a single. Look past the druid kitsch and radio overplay and you've got an exemplary exercise in pacing. The song fluidly transforms itself throughout, from the opening's flute and acoustic guitar to the finale's  triumphant, hard-rocking perfection. That guitar solo is still my all-time favorite: inspired, melodic, sensational, memorable, rewarding, utterly correct.

There may not be many deep themes on IV, but, if anything, it paints an honest picture of the early 70's, rampant with sex, drug use, liberalism, and "Misty Mountain Hop"'s "Crowds of people sitting on the grass with flowers in their hair." And, lest you think Led Zeppelin are all brawn and no heart, we have sentimental strummers like the wistful "Going to California" to prove you wrong.

Still, as nice as it is to get some relief from all the barnstorming, Zeppelin are at their best when they're bringing down the house. Nowhere is this more evident than on the re-appropriated blues closer, "When the Levee Breaks". Possibly the greatest song the band ever produced, "When the Levee Breaks", powered by John Bonham's impossibly titanic--and oft-sampled--beat (achieved by playing the kit at the bottom of a stairwell, with two microphones at the top) and Plant's backwards echo harmonica wail, stomps forward with all the might of the tempest it describes. There's a moment from about 2:25 to 2:50 where Jimmy Page's guitar surges upward heroically, Bonham's cymbals crash about, and Plant half-screams "Don't it make you feel bad when you're trying to find your way home, you don't know which way to go?!" It's awesome, and it does what rock & roll was always meant to do: make you feel alive.

Actually, that last sentence is pretty much this album in a nutshell. \m/

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Top 25 Albums #15. Exile on Main St. - The Rolling Stones

The creation of Exile on Main St. is legendary. On the run from British drug police and taxmen, the Rolling Stones holed up in a mansion that Keith Richards had been renting in the south of France and, in a haze of heroin, sex, and basement murk, produced their rough-edged masterpiece. There's really no need for me take pains in retelling this story, as it's already been thoroughly canonized. The atmosphere in which the album was recorded is important, though. Listening to Exile, one can see the blissed-out bodies slumped in the corner, smell the ash, booze, and sweat, taste the heavy basement air.

The rollicking affair wastes no time getting its "Rocks Off"; within seconds, the album's mission statement is articulated: have fun, no matter the cost. Forever the underrated lyricist, Mick Jagger combines sleaze with intelligence to produce such keepers as "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me." Mixed closer to the middle than the foreground, Jagger's scorched vocals are buried under the assault of Keith's riffing and Charlie Watts' swing. Add in boogie piano, horns, and saxophone, and you've got some of the purest, most vital rock-n-roll ever made.

The true Rolling Stones fan loves the filler as much as the hits, and where Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed had quality filler next to awesome hits, Exile--embracing the double-LP format--turns filler into art. There's no "Gimme Shelter" or "Sympathy for the Devil" here. Exile on Main St. is like a deep, dank mine loaded (loded?) with diamonds packed into its earthy walls. Look at the track list and you may say, "What's the big deal?', but listen to it and you'll know. The exotic percussion that lays down "Shake Your Hips"'s hiccuping rhythm, the aching country of "Sweet Virginia" (many people seem to forget what expert country players these Brits were) and its grin-inducing refrain of "Got to scrape that shit right off your shoe", the endearingly imperfect harmonies on "Torn and Frayed", the marimbas heard in "Sweet Black Angel"'s fade out (possibly my favorite moment on the album). After enough listens, nearly every minute of Exile is worthy of adoration.

And if you're looking for standouts, you've got "Tumbling Dice" and "Shine a Light". The former, with its seconds-long, melancholic guitar intro, bubbly bass, and gorgeous chorus, is one of the best songs in the band's repertoire. The latter trickles in with a few seconds of pillowy U2-like guitar before hammering down the resonant piano chords that properly introduce this soulful, gospel-tinged ballad; the album's true finale, nevermind that "Soul Survivor" is technically the last song.

Almost as remarkable as the songs themselves is their production. Loathed by Jagger and loved by Richards, Exile's sound is murky, muddy, and "poorly" mixed. Vocals find themselves not quite front-and-center, but rather in the middle, contending with the instrumental racket that's usually behind them. This serves to make Jagger's clever lyrics even harder to make out than usual, which is unfortunate, but I still wouldn't change a thing. The album's production contributes to its coherently grungy aesthetic and makes its untamed roots-rock feel even more authentic and alive.

Whatever you think of the Rolling Stones, you can't say that they don't love their blues, country, and R&B. Exile on Main St., rather than blazing new trails, chooses to amalgamate and perfect the music that came before it, and it succeeds wildly. All rock & roll musicians, professional or aspiring, should listen again to this manifesto and be reminded of the music's liberating lowbrow beauty.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Global Game Jam 2011

This past weekend, I attended the Global Game Jam for the first time. A Game Jam is basically 48 hours in which you and a few teammates develop a game (video game or board game) that adheres to a general guiding theme given to you at the start.

This year's theme was "extinction." I'm sure this was picked because, while unspecific, it inspires certain connotations that make it easy to fall into a creative trap. Here are a few examples of games developed at the Jam I attended: Dodo Island, Dino-soar, Top of the Food Chain, Agent of Extinction, etc. One of my teammates, as soon as he heard the theme announced, looked up "extinction" in the dictionary. One definition is the state of not existing. The fundamental idea behind the game I worked on (with two other guys) was making a game mechanic out of existing or not existing.

We decided to make a card/board game, which meant that we were able to playtest much earlier than the teams that were working on video games. Our first game, Quantum Cowboys, was a real-time card game whose cards read "exist," "non-exist," and "shoot." It was a reflex and timing-based shooting gallery (in card form, oddly enough) which rewarded only one strategy: "non-exist, exist, shoot, non-exist" (hence Quantum Cowboys). Playtesting our game only a few hours into the event, we realized that our design was fun, in a stupid way, but also massively flawed. We changed the rules after almost each game, sometimes in bits and pieces, sometimes in the form of large-scale revisions and redesigns.

This process of iteration and refining through playtesting led us to our final design, a board game called Nonexistent Pirates!, which pits three players as pirate ships racing against each other to escape the pull of a large whirlpool in the Bermuda Triangle. Each round, there's a chance that the whirlpool will pull you back from your goal, and funky Bermuda Triangle physics allow your ship to fade in and out of existence in order to avoid the whirlpool's suction as well as cannonballs that spiral outward. We won "Best Board Game," but since that award was added late, our certificates were appropriately nonexistent.

 What I take away from the experience is a newfound respect for playtesting; it's not last-minute polish on a design that's already been much-labored over, it's a long and critical process of iteration and revision in which an essential guiding idea is developed, through play, into a fun and working game.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Top 25 Albums #16. Is This It - The Strokes

The state of music in the late 90's did not bode well for rock & roll. Kurt Cobain had been dead for years, and the mild idiocy of grunge gave way to the full-out stupidity of Nu-Metal. Balancing Nu-Metal's aggressive sludge was the over-produced glitter of pop divas like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. It seemed like Radiohead were the world's only remaining hope.

Then at the dawn of the new century came the Garage Rock Revival, spearheaded by The Strokes and The White Stripes, and the music press exhaled a collective sigh of relief. Actually, that's inaccurate; the press used up all their breath hurling superlatives at these supposed rock saviors. Before their debut even landed, critics were singing the praises of the handsome young Strokes, who seemed both groomed for success (their attire and influences, which included The Velvet Underground and Television) and respectably dangerous ("Alone, Together" hints at cunnilingus). As hype goes, this was both a blessing and a curse. In 2001, nobody had more buzz than these sly Manhattanites. However, it wasn't long before the band was out of vogue.

Now that the 2000's are behind us, it's clear that Is This It is worthy of every single scrap of love it garnered. The idea that there could have been backlash for something so wonderful is silly and embarrassing. My favorite record of the last decade, Is This It captures everything good about the debut album: the promise, the innocence, the youthful vigor, the charisma and skill of a band that are still in the process of proving themselves to a judgmental world.

Things kick off with the title track, an unpretentious metropolitan ballad that introduces us to Julian Casablancas' plaintive cry, whose lo-fi crackle seems like it's coming through a payphone. The song also houses one of the most rubbery, bouncy, satisfying, and downright classic basslines I've ever heard. The second track, "The Modern Age", builds from a simple guitar-drum rhythm and exemplifies the band's spartan approach to music-making.

As if song titles like "Barely Legal" and "New York City Cops" didn't clue you in, Is This It may as well be called Sex and the City; it plainly and openly concerns itself with two things: coitus and Manhattan. Far from being pornographic boasts or seductive slow jams, the songs on Is This It detail all the buildup and fallout of young romance: the excitement, the visceral thrill, the disappointment, the lingering thoughts reflected in the album's title. The band was able to strike an inspiring balance between pop classicism and new-century innovation: the immediately appealing melody of a song like "Someday" is undeniable, but not without sonic nuance; for example, drummer Fabrizio Moretti deliberately tuned his kit to sound like an 80's drum machine.

As punishment for gifting us with something so gleefully perfect, The Strokes were doomed never to surpass or repeat the masterful garage-pop-rock of their debut. They should take comfort in the fact that nobody else has, either.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Top 25 Albums #17. Doolittle - Pixies

Chronologically the third member in what I consider to be alternative rock's trifecta of influential albums (the other two being Pet Sounds and The Velvet Underground & Nico), Doolittle is vital--and that's an understatement.

 Look, I like Nevermind: it's got good songs that are well sung; but as paradigm-shifting as it was culturally, musically it's kind of a rip-off. Following up the charming but rough debut that was Surfer Rosa, Black Francis and company took a simple gimmick--the loud vs. soft dynamic--and built an album around it that was so Olympian, it catalyzed the sea change in rock that would define a decade. Post punk but pre grunge, the Pixies of the late 80's were caught in an awkward time between mass socio-musical movements. The opportunity to be had in their case was artistic rather than commercial, and the band capitalized on it. A strange blend of surf rock, hardcore punk, and bubblegum pop, Doolittle is one of the most riveting musical concoctions I've yet tasted.

 The album kicks off with a few seconds of unenthusiastic bass before exploding into sheer mania on "Debaser." This first song, which references the early surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou, introduces the record's primary lyrical theme--mutilation ("Slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know")--as well as its skin-searing, hair-pulling, bed-jumping energy. The rhythm guitar may be life-affirming (the chord that "Debaser" ends on is just perfect), but to be honest, all of the sounds on Doolittle pale in comparison to Frank Black's psychotic whispers and screams. The second track, "Tame," epitomizes the group's influential approach to volume, with eerily restrained verses that are each followed by the pulverizing chorus in which Black Francis, in typical fashion, goes for broke in his vocal cord-wrecking repetition of the song's title. "Wave of Mutilation" is a surprisingly memorable slice of surf-rock sweetness. "Here Comes Your Man" is the band's brightest, most adored single. Unabashedly bubblegum, the song's joy transcends genre and exists simply as pop. By this point in in the album (if not earlier), the listener will likely have realized what a lovable, funny, and versatile singer Black Francis is, and will have developed a lasting fondness for him. 

From "Monkey Gone to Heaven"'s claim that "GOOOOD IS SEVEN!!" to the strained, perverse laughter that begins "Mr. Grieves" to the corny whistling in "La La Love You" to the ringing guitar build at the tail end of "No. 13 Baby" to the disarming sincerity in "Hey", Doolittle, as twisted and violent as it may seem, is really just one delight after another.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Top 25 Albums #18. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's sophomore release pulled off two incredible feats: it succinctly summed up the contemporary feelings of its nation's young people and changed everything. Dylan's eponymous debut contained only two original songs, but Freewheelin' is comprised pretty much entirely of new material, although its melodies are lifted from traditional folk ballads, blues, and spirituals. Its contents (along with its iconic cover image) transformed Dylan from a quirky Greenwhich Village hobo into a superstar singer-songwriter, the "Spokesman of a Generation." As much as he'd come to resent that title, it was true: Freewheelin's songs spoke to the fears and desires of America's youth.

The record begins about as perfectly as any record can. "Blowin' in the Wind" neatly encapsulates all human conflict and strife in a series of elegant questions, posed by a voice wise beyond its years. Each one grasps at the heart of our human weaknesses, from injustice to oppression to war, but Dylan's "answer" is utterly ambiguous; it may sound like a copout, but "Who the hell knows?" seems to me like the only correct response.

While many of Freewheelin's lyrics are ripped straight from the headlines, Dylan wisely included a number of love songs to keep the politics from getting too overbearing. These harmonica-tinged ballads, the first example of which is "Girl from the North Country," balance tenderness, bitterness, and humor masterfully, imbuing them with an endearing emotional realism. "Down the Highway," though a humble blues, is a showcase for the young Bob Dylan's guitar and vocal chops; he even sings some notes in falsetto! Of course, the gosh-darn greatest love song on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and one of the greatest in Dylan's long and fruitful career, is "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Finger-picking his acoustic guitar quickly but sweetly, Dylan explains his reasoning for leaving a girlfriend while returning to the title's refrain. Dylan positively nails the tone here, coming off partly as an asshole and partly as a lover who's genuinely fed up with pain and disappointment. He claims both that, "You just kind of wasted my precious time" and "I give her my heart, but she wanted my soul." This folksy little love song is timeless because of its emotional nuance and because said nuance is expressed in a simple and understandable way.

Along with the ballads and "protest songs" such as "Corrina, Corrina" and "Oxford Town," respectively, there are Dylan's forays into surreal humor, my favorite of which is the mostly improvised "Talking World War III Blues." The hilarious track tells the story of Dylan describing a dream to a shrink in which he wanders around a post-apocalyptic town. At the end of the recollection, the doctor tells Dylan that he's been having the same dream. The song is stuffed with memorable lines, one of which calls a Cadillac a "good car to drive after a war." Best of all, though, is the adorable conclusion: "Half of the people can be part right all of the time and some of the people can be all right part of the time, but all of the people can't be all right all of the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. I said that."

Proving Dylan's worth as a folk champion, an imaginative poet, and a chronicler of the times, Freewheelin' is the first great achievement in a string of great achievements and a definitive artifact of America's pre-assassination 60's.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year, New Etc.

I don't know about you, but I quite enjoyed 2010. Actually, I kind of loved it. My fondness for the past year, however, flies in the face of my natural inclination as a gamer to judge a given year based on its video games. 2010 wasn't a year in which I waited in line at the midnight launch for the hyped-up new blockbuster. It was a year in which I dusted off the PS2 and played some classic titles that I either hadn't played enough of or hadn't played at all. And to be honest, I didn't need to play any new games, because my slightly retro gaming experience this past year was practically revelatory. Once, when I was younger, I tried out Ico but I got bored (?!). I played it again this year and I nearly lost my marbles. I was literally moaning with pleasure while playing, exclaiming in long, drawn out breaths, "Ohhhhhh myyyyyy goooddd thatt'sss soooooooooo beautiful." Needless to say, it's been bumped up quite a few pegs on my list of favorite games, and I'll probably write a post eventually in which I try my hardest to sell it to you. As good as Ico is, no gaming experience this year could hope to compare to Silent Hill 2. For a long time after playing about halfway through Silent Hill 1 and 3, I daydreamed about what a perfect Silent Hill would be like, since I already loved the aesthetic and the music but saw unfulfilled potential. Then I played SH2. I think I'm not alone here when I say that it changed me, if only a little bit, as a person. 2010 wasn't even bad  for music: The Twelves' Twelfth Hour mix was my jubilant soundtrack for the summer, Cee-Lo Green's Motown-y "Fuck You" had me grinning from ear to ear, and releases from LCD Soundsystem, Kanye West, and others did little to disappoint. And movies? Toy Story 3. 'Nuff said. As good as 2010 was, it's over. Old news. Time to think about 2011, 'cause there's a lot to think about. In terms of video games, it's going to be impossibly huge. There's no way I'll be able to buy and play El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Journey, The Last Guardian, Portal 2, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Ni No Kuni, Silent Hill 8, Child of Eden, Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection, Metal Gear Solid: Rising, L.A. Noire, From Dust, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, The Last Story, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Shadows of the Damned, but I'll try my best. Speaking of trying my best, I know that I haven't been working too hard on my albums list lately; I've been working on college stuff. But now, coinciding with the onset of the new year, said college stuff is done and I can resume work on the list that I know all four of you are clamoring to read more of! So, in short, expect more blog posts this year. Thank you.