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Monthly Archives: October 2014

 

 

 

Shamble.

 

 

Pop music is two things: Urgency and Moments.

Pop songs try to deliver their messages as direct as possible and try to make them stick.

The deeper the songs can drill into you, the more important the message becomes.

The louder it becomes.

Pop songs are all about mechanics. They are all about how to attack the heart of the listener.

They are strategic and tactical and hard.

 

 

The Ronettes‘ ‘Be My Baby’ is one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century.

The song embodies the genre and mirrors it to no end.

There is a sincere urgency in Veronica Bennett’s voice, there is a genuine pleading.

The instruments become time, caressing Bennett through each second.

Everything sticks and the song cascades moments.

The song grows so big that it becomes a world of its own.

 

 

Azealia Banks‘ ‘212’ follows the same methodology as ‘Be My Baby’.

Not only is there a frenetic urgency in the song, but it is always shifting, always creating newer, bigger moments.

Where ‘Be My Baby’ overwhelms with force of sound and honesty, ‘212’ floods the listener with intricacy and aggression.

The mirroring is more complex here.

Most would argue that ‘212’ isn’t pop, that it’s some kind of alternative genre mash-up.

But it adheres to the fundamentals of pop more so than anything else.

When I first heard ‘212’, I had to replay it multiple times to begin to understand everything that was happening.

There is no waste in it, everything has a purpose in its world and because of that honing it feels important.

‘212’ feels confident and fun and violent.

 

 

Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ has a lot of momentum.

Not only are Springsteen’s lyrics expressing the urgency of heartbreak, but the whole song is honest and transformative.

It is a pop song searching for better, stickier moments.

It is a song that understands its importance.

It never gets loud, its changes are subtle, but it is driven with a sense of purpose.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ sits in contrast to ‘212’ and ‘Be My Baby’: There is no overwhelming, global force to it.

The song resonates because it stays simple and earnest.

The song itself becomes the moment, it doesn’t try to be the world.

 

 

‘Pretty in Pink’ is similar in concept to ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

The song does away with momentum and world-building entirely.

It chases moments with a somber tone and that’s where the urgency lies.

While ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was about acknowledging darkness and trying to change it, ‘Pretty in Pink’ embraces it.

It uses a darker tone to drive urgency.

It cuts down deeper than ‘Dancing in the Dark’ vocally, while the music remains upbeat.

Bands like The Psychadelic Furs would end up informing an aesthetic that would bloom with groups like Interpol and The National: Pop beats echoing darkness.

 

 

Tiffany‘s rendition of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ is my favorite pop song.

The song never does anything outside of the immediate moment. It layers and repeats.

It’s both cyclical and unpredictable.

It is desperate and joyful. Bright and Curious.

It has a lot of physicality to it: The drums stick like in ‘Be My Baby’ and Tiffany’s voice expands and soars.

It shares some of the momentum of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and it shares some of its focus on the remembering of moments.

‘I think We’re Alone Now’ has the honesty of youth and the urgency of milliseconds.

 

Break.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song.

It is constructed both on and in the moment.

Every moment in an action game needs to express something and make whatever it is seem like the most important thing in that time and place.

Running/jumping in Mario. Shooting in Doom. Locking missiles in Ace Combat. Combos in Street Fighter.

A good action game needs to understand what it is trying to say.

It needs to understand what it is trying to do: Is it trying to build a world like ‘Be My Baby’ or ‘212’? Or is it trying to be small and deep like ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘Pretty in Pink’?

It needs to understand what makes it compelling.

Good pop songs tend to rapidly shift focus in moments without losing sight of the end, without losing sight of their urgency.

When an action game loses its urgency, it becomes slow and plodding.

For instance, when Castlevania made the shift to 3D with Legacy of Darkness in 1999.

The main series has stagnated since.

 

 

God Hand is considered by many to be a pinnacle of 3D action games.

God Hand is the equivalent of ‘I think We’re Alone Now’: It has a lot of physicality.

It is dense and cyclical, but it allows for a huge amount of intricate creativity.

It also never takes itself too seriously, but never loses sight of the immediate.

To grow in God Hand, the player needs a strange kind of patience, the kind normally reserved for fighting games.

And like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, it is a product of its time.

It could’ve only happened when and where it did.

 

 

Metal Slug 7 is a very smooth game.

It is meticulous and aggressive. It has the most-designed difficulty curve of any Metal Slug game.

Its intricacy lies in how the games stunning art feeds into the action.

While that is a staple of any Metal Slug, MS7 is the most holistic of the series.

Its message is pure like ‘Be My Baby’, but it has the clean production of ‘212’.

It requires an extreme amount of focus and the friction of its world is perfect for a 2D action game.

The way the bullets flow out of the heavy machine gun. The little bit of lag when firing the rocket launcher.

These details make the game feel bigger, they give the game more momentum and presence.

Metal Slug 7 succeeds because it achieves a balance between aesthetics and mechanics not many games do today.

 

 

Videoball is what made me care about games in a genuine way again.

While still unreleased, I had the opportunity to play it at PAX East 2014.

With its minimalist style, it’s difficult to understand just how thorough Videoball is.

It has very satisfying friction in terms of both movement and shooting.

Winning your first dogfight in Videoball ranks up there with other action game moments like pulling off your first complicated combo in a fighting game.

Every moment in Videoball will either make you feel elated or exasperated at your own skill.

It is a factory of moments.

Videoball shares the ‘Pretty in Pink’ aesthetic.

It is a small, focused game with bright colors that hide a darker, more aggressive undertone.

Like the pop beats/dark vocals duality, Videoball disguises its seriousness with a light-hearted facade.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song: Confident. Harmonious. Adaptable. Focused. Urgent.

No creative endeavors stand alone in this world and one of the problems with the world of games is that it is highly insulated.

This current state is to no one’s benefit, least of all to the players.

It’s this strange insulation from other cultural worlds that allows for mobs like ‘GamerGate’ to form.

In order for games to develop and grow, the thick walls of this community need to be torn down.

We need to stop treating games as objects in-and-of-themselves and look at them as cultural products that are a part of a wider culture of expression.

I believe games deserve that much at least.

For all that games have done for us, we have done too little for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supercar.

 

 

One day, they reorganized the last arcade I went to.

I went there every Friday. It was attached to a cinema.

The House of the Dead was my game: I had every high score on the list, even when the gun broke.

This arcade went through phases.

At first, it was driven by families and birthday parties. People thought of it as a ‘cooler’ Chuck E. Cheese’s.

When that business began to die off, they pivoted focus to bringing in bigger, stranger arcade cabinets.

Dance Dance Revolution. Guitar Freaks. MoCap Boxing. Flash Beats.

F355 Challenge.

Anytime one of the new cabinets came in, I dove into them.

I became most proficient in DDR and Flash Beats as secondary games.

I only played F355 Challenge once.

F355 was designed by Yu Suzuki and released in 1999.

It released in different cabinets, but the true nature of the game emerged purest in its largest iteration.

The game had three screens powered by four NAOMI units: one for each screen, one to link them.

The center screen was the windshield, the two outer screens were the side windows.

It had a realistic H-Shifter and three pedals.

It was considered by many to be the most accurate racing simulation possible at that time.

This arcade managed to pull in the large cabinet.

One day, I came in and everything was moved to make space for F355.

The owner made sure it was visible to everyone.

It was intimidating: Large. Complex. Dark.

It took $4.00 each play.

When I decided to jump in, I didn’t know if I would have fun with it or not.

Getting into the cab felt like you were attending some adult cocktail party full of glances and covered mouths.

The cab had curtains to keep other people away.

When it came time to drive, the formality didn’t dissipate.

This was a cold, raw simulation.

It was confusing and awkward.

In a place where you were primed for hot, fast action: F355 felt muted.

It felt empty. It was boring.

I only played F355 one time.

I moved on.

 

Litre.

 

Coming from Yu Suzuki, F355 was a disappointment.

Suzuki proved himself as an auteur of immersive action games throughout his career.

Super Hang-On. Out Run. After Burner. Space Harrier. Virtua Fighter. Shenmue.

F355 possessed none of the excitement his games typically exploded with.

F355 interpreted attention to detail as love.

This trend of equating detail and adoration began with Gran Turismo.

When the first game released in 1998 (one year before F355), the entire gaming community was floored.

It was a sign that we were now on the cusp of significant technologies, that the world had begun to blur.

Gran Turismo was a technological achievement.

Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital had made an affordable, pure racing simulation for the home on a piece of standardized hardware.

Gran Turismo was a crowning achievement for the racing genre then.

Gran Turismo was also the end.

Before GT and F355, the genre was dominated by arcade racers.

They mainly used cars and driving as filters of action and momentum.

A few months before GT, EA released Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit.

I played NFSIII for a year.

Hot Pursuit wasn’t about accuracy or simulation, it was about capturing the thrill of slamming on the accelerator.

It was about laughing at the police as you ram them into a guard rail.

It was about the daydreams people have while stuck in traffic or pulled over on the side of the road, glaring at the officer in the rear-view.

NFSIII was about rediscovering that time you rode your bike down the longest hill you had ever seen and wondering whether you trust yourself to hit the brakes at the right time.

It was wild and honest and young: The original face of racing.

The following year saw Namco‘s best entry in the genre: R4: Ridge Racer Type 4.

Where Hot Pursuit was about aggression and fantasy, where GT was about simulation, R4 was about finesse and exploration.

Vehicles in R4 fell under two general classes: Drift or Grip.

It came down to what you, as the player, wanted.

Drift cars were ‘loose’ and allowed you to powerslide with a slight tap to the brake.

Grip cars were tighter and powersliding was done by balancing brake and gas.

R4 was about style.

Everything from the car selection, to the tracks, to the driving, to the UI: It was all about style.

R4 was about Japan and its love of motorsport.

R4 was bosozoku and Kunimitsu Takahashi.

R4 was Keiichi Tsuchiya drifting every turn of the Tsukuba Circuit.

It asked: ‘What would you like to do? Who do you want to be?’ and let the player run free.

 

Metal.

 

This balance between racing games didn’t last.

Gran Turismo’s dominance in the racing genre went unchallenged for its next four iterations.

It wasn’t until Forza Motorsport appeared in 2005 that GT had any real competition in racing simulation.

Need For Speed kept pushing more aggression, especially after Burnout‘s success with its emphasis on heavy, hard crashes.

This led to Criterion being tasked with developing the latest entries into the NFS franchise, making the last few entries the most aggressive in the history of the series.

Ridge Racer became a parody of itself.

What was once a series defined by a Japanese love of motorsport and style is now flailing in a sea of strange experiments and half-finished ideas.

Ridge Racer’s latest entry, Ridge Racer Unbounded, was never even released in Japan.

It is in this environment that Driveclub released.

It is in this toxic mess the racing genre has become that Driveclub tries to reclaim the identity of the middle and the vast expanse of the margins.

Driveclub has not been well-received.

Most gaming media outlets share similar sentiments that Driveclub has no soul or passion or heat.

Driveclub is compared to Gran Turismo, Forza, NFS and is found to come up short.

And I have never seen the media so inept.

Gran Turismo destroyed the diversity of the racing landscape.

Like some hegemonic amoeba, it devoured the imagination.

It devoured subtlety.

To compete, racing games now either had to be pure math or pure rage.

Either a game competes in the same arena (Forza) or it rejects everything and creates a new paradigm (NFS).

Ridge Racer tried and failed to find some sort of synthesis and has lost its identity in the process.

There is no longer any proper lens through which Driveclub is accurately interpreted.

There is no longer a language for it.

Driveclub is a classic arcade racer.

It has inherited the best traits of R4, NFSIII, and GT.

Driveclub is about finessing through powerslides, healthy aggression, and maintaining driving lines.

Driveclub is about rediscovering the fun and beauty of driving.

The tracks are stunning and inspiring.

The races are exhilarating and frustrating.

Though Driveclub’s greatest success is that it gives the player the space to approach the game how they would like.

It has shown itself to be more malleable than any other racing game ever made.

It can be a simple simulation or an intricate arcade game.

How the player chooses to drive influences its tone.

Drifting on turns and the sheer force of momentum on straightaways is incredible and fricative.

Drafting, precision cornering, and avoiding collisions are fulfilling in ways that Gran Turismo and Forza never were.

It incorporates objective and points-based elements from Project Gotham Racing so that it isn’t just about winning races.

Driveclub is more than a racing game, it is a driving game.

Its focus isn’t just on competition and winning, it’s about appreciating the art of driving.

Driveclub is like sitting at the Musee d’Orsay in the early morning, drinking coffee, and letting your vision blur the steam and the painting in front of you.

It is a warm experience coalescing and exploring the mastery of the past.

It is a confident game.

It has none of the insecurity with which Gran Turismo protects its cars.

It feels no need to subvert the racing genre by making it more extreme.

While Driveclub is currently suffering from technical issues, it has more than enough potential to become one of the best racing games out right now.

Driveclub is what the gaming community and the racing genre needed: A step back. A reexamination and rediscovery of a love that has slipped further and further into schizophrenia.

I missed the world Driveclub emerged from.

I missed its warmth.

And it feels strange going back now, realizing how much has been forgotten.

But while remembrance can be embarrassing, it is liberating, even if its language has been lost…

 

Even if its value is ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner.

 

 

When I first tried to play The Last of Us, my PS3 couldn’t handle it.

I had the 2nd generation fat model and it couldn’t play newer games without blasting the internal fan.

It happened every time I put in Gran Turismo 6 as well.

I was frustrated not only because I couldn’t play the games I had, but this was near the release of Dark Souls II.

I was concerned the fan noise was going to destroy the ambiance the Souls series is known for.

I got rid of it and upgraded to the PS3 Slim.

Dark Souls II released and TLoU: Remastered was announced shortly after for the PS4 at a lower price.

Dark Souls II was a passable game overall, but by far the worst Souls game to date.

My excitement died and I passed my time waiting for The Last of Us: Remastered playing Guilty Gear.

When TLoU:R released, the difference was significant.

While the resolution stayed the same, it now ran at 60 fps instead of 30 and had a striking fidelity.

It was crisp and responsive. It felt different.

After having spent a few months analyzing everything that went wrong with Dark Souls II, The Last of Us was something I needed.

There were things about it that made me uncomfortable: Every person of color in the game is the target of some massive trauma, sometimes at the hands of the main character.

But TLoU was a narrative success.

The story was tight and engaging. The environments were dense.

The greatest success of The Last of Us is that the world both feels abandoned and lived in.

The cities and towns are painted and tragic.

Everywhere you look, there is something to look at: dripping water, a cracked brick, crawling vines, abandoned barriers, collapsed skylines.

The world is full and broken.

The Last of Us is Midgar Revisited.

Everything fits together in a complete, fluid way.

The world transitions into itself: stairs lead to halls leading to rooms with open windows and fire escapes and ledges and streets with more stairs.

If Destiny‘s success is its unique lens of verticality and space, The Last of Us succeeds in layering and texture:

In thickness and density.

 

Rotation.

 

A few weeks ago I applied to join the Bloodborne alpha.

I had no expectation of being accepted, but I felt compelled to try in order to know if this was going to be another disaster.

I completed both Demon’s and Dark Souls, owned DSII (for which I was invited to the beta), and purchased every iteration of Armored Core on the PSP/PS3.

I thought my credentials were solid enough with From Software that I had a better chance than others.

And they accepted me.

And Bloodborne is stunning.

While the lens through which the alpha takes place is limited, there is enough to understand what the game is.

It is not a Souls game.

It borrows elements from the series, but it is its own game mechanically and thematically.

The combat is much more fluid and responsive than any of the Souls games.

Bloodborne emphasizes movement and situational awareness. The combat is thorough and dynamic.

Gone is the dreamy, slow, dissociative quality of Souls interaction.

Bloodborne is more grounded.

The basic enemies remain difficult and have the potential to kill.

And From has maintained the asymmetrical multiplayer they pioneered in Demon’s Souls.

Bloodborne also marks the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki as Director.

After directing both Demon’s and Dark Souls, From removed him from the series and made him President of the company.

This led to Dark Souls II being made without his direction, ensuring the mess that From ended up releasing.

Miyazaki’s hand is so obvious in the design of Bloodborne that it makes Dark Souls II seem even worse.

Like The Last of Us, Bloodborne is a dense game.

It takes place in an enormous, sprawling gothic city (Yharnam) cloaked in a final darkness.

The city is in the midst of a plague that turns citizens into beasts.

Bloodborne, so far, seems like the most nihilistic game Miyazaki has made.

The city is full of death, hatred, anger, lament, emptiness.

Everywhere you turn there are ornate coffins, abandoned carriages, black chasms, tortured monstrosities.

Enemies scream, blaming the player character for their situation. Their voices full of rage and sorrow.

But Bloodborne, so far, seems like the best game Miyazaki has made.

One of the flaws Dark Souls II suffered from was a lack of compelling momentum.

It never makes the player ask or wonder.

There was nothing curious about the game’s world or construction. Everything was obvious and direct.

In Bloodborne, that is never the case.

 

Cascade.

 

Entry – 

 

The city is dark, but everything glistens.

I can see the blood on my clothes. I look up at the sky.

Why is that moon so bright? How did this place fall so far?

I walk toward a large coffin propped up in an alley.

I wonder why it’s chained shut.

 

Entry – 

 

I walk past some crates.

A man in the throes of this illness lunges at me.

He screams that it’s all my fault. He sounds sad and angry and terrified.

I kill him with my scythe.

I pull out my torch and stare at his body to decipher his features.

I wonder what it is he blames me for.

 

Entry

 

Standing on the stairs, I see civilians carrying torches.

It seems they are on some sort of patrol.

I follow them. I cross an abandoned carriage.

A man hiding in the shadows, he rises, and shoots me in the back.

I cut him down and climb the stairs he was sitting on.

I turn left at the top.

There is a half-beast corpse: crucified and burning in the dark.

 

Entry –

 

I walk down a side-path until I hit a locked gate.

A bell rings nearby.

I hear a loud groaning.

Something is trapped, slamming against a door.

I jump into the main road. I see the door shaking on my right.

I see another (larger) burning, crucified body on my left:

This one more beast than man.

 

Entry – 

 

I find a path into a graveyard.

All the trees are barren.

I wonder what season it is.

The moaning is louder now.

Something feels wrong here. I look at the ground.

The shadows are moving, flowing.

I look at the trees and there is stillness.

I trace the moonlight back. I look up at the sky.

There is an enormous spider-like abomination sitting on a tower, looming.

Tentacles from its mouth moving, flowing.

I stare at its hundred dead eyes in shock.

I wonder if this thing was once human as well.

 

Entry – 

 

I find the source of the groaning, the slamming.

A very large figure. He turns around to confront me.

I burn him down with Molotovs.

There is silence.

I wonder why he was trapped here.

I wonder why he was so large.

I walk to the back of the terrace.

I look down into the black abyss.

I look up at the nightmare in the moonlight.

And I know that this place is terrifying…

 

And that this place is beautiful.