“I was doing those games at Electronic Arts when I was the design director for Army of Two. You get out of school and you get into the industry. And you love it. You go, ‘Oh wow, this is great.’ And you’re doing what you always dreamed of. And then you think that the industry will evolve.” 

– Vander Caballero, creator of Papa y Yo

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Music month: Katamari, forever

There are a few games I am terrified to write about, but none are as persistent as Majora’s Mask and the Katamari series. This is in large part due to my relationship with the games: I am much too involved for the critical distance allegedly required to analyze games and their functions. But it is also because I have a stake in the way they are perceived. As games about helping and interacting with other people, I want to share them with friends, family, loved ones. If I fail to write about them well, how could I hope to convince others of their utility?

In the beautiful article “Breaking out of a self-centered gamer mentality,” Richard Clark makes the point that video games have the ability to focus our attention intensely inwards while simultaneously asking us to empathize with others. For most games, the choice of which path to follow is up to the player. In games like Majora’s Mask, however, the pedagogical experience noted by Clark is placed at the forefront; framed by altruism, the game’s various texts constantly refer to characters beyond the avatar/player.

Similarly, the Katamari series’ most fundamental mechanic acts as a visual and physical representation of inclusiveness. Everything and everyone is available for the prince or his cousins to turn into a heavenly body, a horrific concept made brilliant by the games’ interaction with the player. In Katamari Damacy, fulfilling the role of a star is an almost religious source of joy and togetherness; in We Love Katamari, the players are celebrated by the King of All Cosmos himself. Animals, elders, and children are given voice, and the very intent of the game is to magnify happiness.

The best video game music does more than set the scene–ideally, the score should in some way mirror the themes of the larger text. The music in Katamari accomplishes this with surprising consistency and, despite appearances, clarity of focus.

If the Katamari series is about the open-armed accumulation of people and things (which it is), the various soundtracks released by Namco act as a microcosm of these experiences. Look no further than the various forms of “Katamari on the Rocks,” a clambering mission statement that adds new singers and sounds in each iteration. The a cappella version below forces players to sing along with the sheer immensity of its labyrinthine melodies, and the “Na na na” hook shatters language and age barriers alike. It’s as infectious as the best (and worst) earworms in pop, and was surely made with ambitions of universality in mind.

As with many of the songs in the Katamari catalog, categorizing “Katamari on the Rocks” is difficult; emulating the game’s conceit, Yū Miyake and his co-conspirators in joy seem to revel in writing across genres and styles. Any and every type of sound is fair game, as even a brief scan through the various soundtracks will attest. Katamari Damacy shows its foresight by including ambient works Sigur Rós would be jealous of, interspersed with ventures in fusion jazz, EDM (perhaps even IDM), and power pop. We Love Katamari and the soundtrack to Katamari Forever expand upon these sounds, spreading the standard of acceptability to include just about any genre imaginable. The later soundtracks even take the game’s advice, with remixes of earlier songs showing the beneficial evolution allowed by collaboration and understanding of others. The result is a stunning variety of music that pays tribute to the rollicking nature of the games themselves, held together by the common thread of experimentation and melody.

In addition to the grab bag approach to instrumentation pervading the soundtracks, Katamari‘s message is reinforced by the lyrics in a number of its songs. One of the few series to include appreciable text in its music, Katamari’s songs approach the game’s mechanics and overall conceit at face value. While some take various liberties with the concept of rolling, others identify with the process of building relationships and, in both a general and uncomfortably literal sense, coming together. Consider “The Moon and the Prince,” a piece with no small amount of significance that will be lost to many English speaking players.

A helpful translation of the lyrics, taken from the second verse:

Combine our power, and we can do it,/
everyone comes to accomplish one great thing./
Now we’re equal, we understand and admire each other/
more than any time before, the people around me have grown larger.

Even when the songs aren’t describing the game’s more overt goals, their message remains simple: bringing people together is a Herculean task. Whether it’s the exultant commands to persevere in the main theme or a lover’s lament in “Lonely Rolling Star,” the game asks players to internalize both the challenges and rewards of unity. The inherent difficulty of a game such as Majora’s Mask stages these obstacles in a mechanical manner, and the three day system teaches us that altruistic efforts can be overwhelming and self-defeating. Neither game ignores the challenges of changing the world for the better, but neither do they temper expectations because of potential difficulties. Instead, the games remind us of the urgency of such tasks as well as what to expect, and in the Katamari series, this reminder takes flight in music.

Writing about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Borges describes the poet’s work as a song of “mankind’s new faith.” In order to maximize the impact of his poem, Borges states, Whitman enacted his own trinity: the poem’s hero consists of Walt Whitman, the man “Whitman wanted to be and was not,” and “the reader, the changing and successive reader.” This plurality, this removal of division allows Whitman’s celebratory work to encompass everyone—everyone he came into contact with, everyone he wrote into the text, and every one of us that comes into contact with the poem. The result, like the theological trinity, is a paradox. Whitman follows the negation of self to the point of becoming a new self, an ideal that is informed by the presence of others. Katamari explores the physical proportions of this ideal, and, like Whitman, it possesses the genius to do so in song.

From “Lonely Rolling Star:”

Is absolutely/

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Music month: Audiosurf

When reading music and video game criticism, you’ll often come across the word “space.” For music, space is what exudes from the new Bats for Lashes album; it is the standard operating procedure of artists like Pantha du Prince. Space in video games is more ambiguous, though it can be used to denote the textual and mechanical repercussions of objects in a three-dimensional world. Audiosurf‘s greatest strength is its fusion of these forms–it is the only rhythm game that accurately places the player in a visual simulation of a song’s aural space.

The game consists of literal tracks, quickly constructed representatives of the player’s music library. Spatially, everything around the track is white noise: while colors explode according to the blocks you gather, the emphasis is on the song’s digital makeup. Far from static, the tracks rise, bob, and contort according to the pace and beat of the song–hence the waves implied by the title. Games like Beat Hazard attempt to introduce rising action to crescendos in order to provide a sense of progression, but the impact of such moments is drastically limited to specific genres and beats per minute. So far, only Audiosurf has been able to intuit the undulating rhythms of rap, the sporadic reaching-out of jazz, or even the careful, unwavering 4/4 of the best pop songs. Like the music you play, it has soul.

While similar games tend to focus on whatever instrument is higher in the mix, Audiosurf seems to take into account the many timbres that make up a song. The result can be overwhelming in faster, busier songs, as blocks of every color attack you en masse. Admittedly, close attention to these instances can diminish the thoroughness of the game’s puzzle element, and players can lose sight of the song’s relationship to the track they are playing. But more often than not, the blocks arrive in perfect timing with the accents of the pieces at play. Even more exciting is when the game introduces you to a small corner of a song you’ve never noticed before, no matter how many times you’ve listened to it. I’ve a pet theory when it comes to music appreciation, and it is devilishly simple: you can’t know a song until you’ve played it on Audiosurf.

Of course, words only go so far in explaining the benefits of a system that are best experienced personally. Rhythm games seem to lack dedicated criticism for this very reason, as the best arguments are internalized, however minutely, the moment the player begins in earnest. So I’ve decided to compile a short list of songs that, in my experience, best typify the various strengths traced above. Brendan Keogh and Mattie Brice have made similar lists–entire mixtapes, in fact!–so check those out before reading mine.

Robyn – “Dancing On My Own”

“Dancing On My Own” might as well be Audiosurf 101. In-game, the track is just as wobbly as the bass, and the blast of that inescapable snare inundates the player with the feeling of riding waves into oblivion. Few songs allow for such transparency in the game’s mechanics, and I would suggest naysayers to play “Dancing On My Own” before discounting Audiosurf‘s capabilities.

The song also makes a strong case for gaming as performance art: like the transcendental dancing of the lyrics, playing Audiosurf by your lonesome can distract from the pains of heartbreak. If you’re open to it, gliding into and around colored blocks can be a healing experience. The track builds upon the mounting energy of the song, sending the player down a steep cliff just as the song reaches its inimitable climax. There might be better Robyn songs, but “Dancing On My Own” is the perfect litmus test for the game’s ability to reinforce a song’s message and widen the emotional impact of pop.

The Joy Formidable – “Cradle”

Last month, Critical Distance asked bloggers if games were uniquely suited to instill fear in the player. I couldn’t think of a satisfactory answer, and I still waver from time to time in my judgment. I do, however, believe that beyond all else, video games are uniquely suited to promote and permeate unabashed joy. To discover this, look no further than the Joy Formidable.

Playing “Cradle” on Audiosurf is much like partaking in the song’s video: it’s quick, nauseating, and there is endless smiling. Exhilarating experiences abound in Audiosurf, causing many to compare the tracks to that of a rollercoaster, but this one in particular hits like a truck. Don’t worry, though–the song’s length makes sure you’ll be off the ride before you sick up.

65daysofstatic – “Crash Tactics”

gl hf

Kendrick Lamar – “Fuck Your Ethnicity”

Two things stand out about this song: 1) the way the game picks up the spoken intro, even the crackling fire in the background and 2) the piano hook that anchors the song in place. Rap is one of my favorite genres to play in Audiosurf, largely because repeated samples make for an interesting motif in-game, and also because of the way the game creates variety through syncopation. There are plenty of Kendrick Lamar songs that are challenging for the player both mechanically and mentally, and these can be contrasted with the laid back styles of play which the game enables through rappers such as, say, Curren$y. Plus, the lyrics are interesting and Kendrick’s constantly changing voice is hypnotizing, so you won’t get bored as you try over and over again to get the top score.

It was worth it.

Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down”

Like “Dancing On My Own,” Audiosurf treats the Dum Dum Girls’ “Coming Down” literally–for most of the song, the player will be spiraling downhill. What makes the experience memorable is the surprising tempo: rather than following the intentionally delayed beat set by the drums, the game’s speeding hurdles create an increasingly stressful atmosphere that mirrors the song’s refrain. The brief respites and valleys emphasize the weight of Dee Dee’s lyrics, always signalling a challenge ahead. For players and for the band, there is no peace until it’s over, leaving us to question whether we’ve performed admirably on our descent.

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Music month/textual intercourse: the originality of licensed music

There are some who view video games as existing in a vacuum. To them, escapism is the highest function of entertainment–free from worrisome dialogues about art, ontology, and the consequences of their onscreen actions, they perceive their hobby as beyond culture rather than a product of it. This is a perspective that absolves and diminishes in equal measure and, when set as the standard, squanders the potential of communication through games.

Whether we see it or not, the mirror is there.

For a while I’ve wanted to discuss the music in and around video games–hence, music month–and I figured there is no better place to start than with licensed music.  I’ve hinted at the utility of licensed music before, but here I’m going to briefly discuss how, as it does in other mediums, popular music in video games can create a dialogue between the virtual world and our own. Beyond acting as motivator, character trait, or stage setter, the following sequences remind us that intertextuality is another tool at the developer’s disposal; what follows is in some form a celebration of those who use it right.

Put on your red shoes – let’s dance.

Recently, the excellent Hotline Miami put the ubiquitous apparition of 80’s nostalgia to good use, sending chillwave to the grave shared by VHS and the color fuchsia. In Alpha Protocol, Obsidian went straight to the source by using hair metal band Autograph’s “Turn Up the Radio” in a battle best described as revelatory.* Even the least attentive player can infer the reasoning behind its inclusion: as Thorton sneaks and shoots through Brayko’s mansion, we witness the gaudiness of zebra-print carpets and Warhol inspired portraits, not to mention a heavily guarded collection of ancient arcade games. The lavish set-pieces effectively foreshadow Brayko’s character, who is first seen rising from a stage to the percussive stomp of the song’s introduction.

Like the signifiers before it, Obsidian’s use of “Turn Up the Radio” points towards the realization of a specific era. More than a referent to 80’s maximalism, however, the song is evidence of the detail Brayko put into manufacturing a specific vibe in his mansion, his ridiculous outfit, and his confrontations. The entire level is Brayko, and the song–which espouses the same levels of excess as the villain himself–is no different. The benefits are twofold: the developer’s level design mirrors the rather telling home decor, and players are able to perceive the reality of a character through power chords and disco balls. As a whole, Alpha Protocol‘s world building consists of shamelessly performing the best and worst traits of its respective genre; by forgoing an original song that would have missed out on Autograph’s cultural history, Obsidian allows Brayko to do the same.

As a bonus, it makes a great accompaniment to a fight.

I guess every superhero need his theme music.

As with Brayko’s character development, it is hard to imagine Saint’s Row: the Third existing without Kanye West’s “Power.” No one knows this quite as well as Volition, who used it in promotional videos, in-game radio stations, and as background music to an entire mission.** What’s striking about the song is its near-perfect encapsulation of the game’s themes of dominating celebrity, egomania, and, well, power. The parallels might not be there line-for-line, but to have an entire game influenced so heavily by a single song is a testament to culture’s effect on the creative process and our response to it as players.

In the particular context of the mission, the song is a perfect fit: the player is crashing a party while simultaneously taking over turf as part of a power grab. The contradictions of Kanye’s persona are there, and the rush you feel during that initial drop is real. It can be argued that Volition’s efforts don’t add anything new to the dialogues inherent to their musical choices, but the emphasis on the song shows how effective a narrative can be when applied to other stories, other mediums. In Saint’s Row: the Third, “Power” moves well beyond a simple reference–it channels a zeitgeist.

The above examples are hardly indicative of the whole of licensed music’s capability. Somewhere out there is a a close reading of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” which ties the song to Alan Wake‘s wavering reality, or a reader response showing how “Big Iron” made New Vegas possible. Games such as the Grand Theft Auto series deserve their own recognition for allowing the player to enjoy late night drives in San Andreas with the same music they’d hear in their own cars. Rather, these instances show how developers can use highly specific motifs and concepts from other mediums as a springboard for their own creations. They also give us hope for future games to be so packed with ideas that the developers couldn’t possibly have thought of them all.

Escapism is one way of channeling video games, though it is one of many. As for me, I am delighted when games bleed into my outer life–and just as excited when pieces of my world bleed into games.

*In a previous post I said that it was too good to ruin with possible spoilers. I suppose I’ve changed my mind.
**I can’t imagine this costing anything less than a fortune. It’s Kanye.

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Borderlands 2, torture, and the end of death

Rock, Paper Shotgun’s Jim Rossignol is right when he calls Borderlands 2 a “minor masterpiece.” The game accomplishes nearly everything it sets out to do, and as a result we are left with one great character in Handsome Jack* and the endlessly rewarding world of Pandora. But while Borderlands 2 could serve as a master class on active mechanics and level design, Gearbox prove unable to use their excellent world building capabilities to create a lengthy narrative that plays to the game’s strengths. The sequel is still all about the loot, but the perceivable shift towards traditional storytelling indicates an attempt to create stakes and engender anticipation beyond the next chest.

That was their first mistake.

In a piece that’s as much an apology as it as a review, Yannick LeJacq finds that Borderlands 2 lovingly treats its predecessors and in-game subjects with irony. LeJacq points out that the campy tenor of the game’s textual humor extends to its mechanics as well, turning the “manshooter” into a parody of itself as numbers fly and characters swoon. Although this type of disassociation serves Borderlands 2 well when applied to the familiar tropes of the genre, it comes undone when faced with what are supposed to be emotionally charged moments in the game’s narrative. As can be expected, these moments most often occur alongside the possibility of death.

A victim of classical verbal irony, death in Borderlands means something else entirely. For the world of Pandora, death is practically currency; for the player, death can be feedback, a mission goal, a punchline, and so forth. This is unsurprising given the tone set by the series, one in which even the enemies are allowed to respawn ad infinitum. But in Borderlands 2, Gearbox adds another meaning to death, one that is incongruous with its alternative purposes: death finally receives the power of ultimate negation.

When placed into context, this latter use of death is cheapened by its humorous counterparts. The inadvertent act of oversignification becomes clear in the game’s most uninspired moments, particularly the deaths of major characters–worse than the superficial plotholes they create, their murders lose nearly all of their expressive power due to the scale of death experienced constantly by the player. When Handsome Jack puts a bullet into Roland’s chest, we wonder more about the whereabouts of his shield and the nearest New-U station** than the impact his death will have on the story.

What’s even more interesting is that Gearbox seems aware of their own fluid definition of death, and throughout the game there is evidence of attempts to enhance the sense of jeopardy through other means. None is so blatant–or unsettling–than the game’s obsession with torture. From the beginning of the game, enemies use torture as a stand-in for death: many a boss insinuates that the player’s death will be quick and painless, while prolonged torture is the true punishment for failure. Of course, such threats fall flat when staged against the empowered player. When seen to fruition against NPCs, however, Gearbox’s message becomes confused altogether.

Out of the entire cast of Borderlands 2, the female characters come to know torture the closest. Tannis’ accounts of her time with Jack are meant to place her idiosyncrasies in a comical light, but they highlight the emerging darkness of the latter’s often jovial character. Lilith and, for different reasons, Angel, undergo horrific experiences so that Jack can charge the vault key. In the most surprising quest in the game, players aid a thirteen year old girl in enacting painful and humiliating revenge against the bandit that indirectly killed her parents. Death might be the end result, but it’s the emphasis on torture that provides a harrowing background for the denizens of Pandora. While Handsome Jack spews lines about torturing the entire population of Sanctuary, it’s the irony-free, heavily detailed cases listed above that turn isolated incidents into an insistent undertone. A certain player might respond to these motivations more than they would the aforementioned deaths; to others, they are similarly fruitless but more disquieting in their latent stage.

The failed attempt shows how little Borderlands 2 needs the emotional involvement or motive provided in other games by death. Rather than adding to the stakes, players are unsure of the intended relationship between the game’s allegedly ironic tone and its emphasis on torture. Nowhere is this more clear than in Borderland 2‘s most heavy handed scene, in which we are once again reminded that the villain’s motives are of much more importance than the player’s. After killing Roland and kidnapping Lilith, Handsome Jack says that he’s going to show us “just how much you have to lose.” Gearbox, and the industry at large, is still trying to figure that out.

*Two if Gearbox hadn’t completely forgotten about Tiny Tina.
**Apparently this was explained away with a few expository statements. I believe the point stands.

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Unpacking Alan Wake: Episode 2

We are afraid of something unnamed, of something, perhaps, in ourselves. In short, we turn on the light.

– Virginia Woolf

One of Alan Wake‘s most inspired creations is the in-game television show Night Springs. In a blatant homage to The Twilight Zone, human actors play out the various themes of the larger text; on the screens of sporadically placed television sets, the virtual Wake can watch a live action performance of his own exegesis. Now that we understand the significance of Cauldron Lake, players can never be sure of the cause and effect on continuous display: are the human Wake’s actions a subsequent reflection of our own, or are we–Wake and the player–actually dependent on them?

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Blogs of the Round Table: violence & the vacuous subject

Photorealism is a fanciful dream that always pales when compared to brave aesthetics. Although I look forward to the day that I can enjoy a virtual walk (or run, or ride) through a metropolis teeming with verisimilitude or a forest celebrating each and every leaf, I can content myself in the meantime with games that choose spectacular design over attempts at mere simulation. Advancements in graphics may expand upon current genres, but the still inchoate medium of video games is more likely to be freed by bursts of individual brilliance than an increase in draw distance. It’s a slow process, but it’s worth exploring where our priorities should lie when discussing and developing the next generation of games.

Fortunately, Critical Distance posted the following assignment:

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