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.