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.
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.
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.
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.
The main series has stagnated since.
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.
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.