The Crushing Banality of Everyday Life

I should probably be reading a book or spending time with my kid.

Skyrim’d

I’ve been playing Skyrim regularly for about a month straight. It’s the only game I play, and it’s what I’ve been doing with the little bit of free time I have. I had reservations about getting into Skyrim because of how time-consuming and immersive it is, but it is actually a good game to play for my particular situation. I mostly play video games either at night before going to bed, or while I’m rocking my daughter to sleep in her Ergo carrier. This means that I need a game that a), I can play without sound since I often have a sleeping baby on me, b), that isn’t overly stressful or twitchy, since I need to be ramping down for the night, and c) that can be stopped and started at will and saved at any time. Despite the fact that Skyrim is a huge world where you can get lost for hours, its quest system is very conducive to short playing times. In the evenings I know I have about 45 minutes to play, so I’ll choose a quest or series of quests that fit into that time frame. It takes a certain amount of discipline to not fall into the “just one more quest” mindset, but I’ve made it work. I usually put on an album that is roughly 45 minutes, so that when it ends I know it is time to wrap it up.

A month in, I’m still really enjoying the game. I haven’t progressed too much on the main story, but I have completed many side quests and done a lot of exploring. I’ve started looking at new skills I can develop to keep leveling up, which will change my gameplay, forcing me to rely less on arrows and swords and more on magic. The one negative is that I have this stressfull long and unmanageable list of open quests, and sometimes it feels like work to cross them off. I’ll boot up the game thinking, “tonight I really have to get that amulet for so-and-so and explore that cave for that guy.” it can almost feel like work. And the longer I put off quests, the more underwhelming the results are. I end up with some underpowered weapons and a meager amount of money.

But I’m loving it, and I’m happy I’ve found a way to include it in my life without having it take over.

Skyrim

I finally started playing Skyrim. I put off buying until this winter because I knew it would hook me. Even after I bought it I put off playing it for months. I finally loaded it up over the holidays, and I have been steadily playing it ever since. Skyrim gets so many things right. For one thing, the leveling system is amazing. You level not by getting experience points for killing bad guys, but for using your various skills. This encourages you to explore the different skill trees in the game, and rewards you for playing the game. The exploration element is also amazing. When I load up the game I can sometimes just wander around a new area to see what’s there. It’s like playing a George R.R. Martin book. The quest system also insures that there is a ton for you to do so you never get bored or stuck on a single mission. And if you don’t feel like questing, you can collect things to use to make new armor or potions. I’ve spent a playing session just making armor to level up my smithing skill. It is a game you can totally fall into. 

All of these strengths come at some cost. For one thing, the story and characters aren’t great. With Dragon Age, I cared about finding out what was going on and getting to know the different characters. I don’t care in Skyrim. Like Dragon Age, there are frequent long loading times – usually between 15 to 20 seconds when entering a new room, and longer when entering a new area or fast traveling. It makes the game drag. The game is also glitchy. I played for about an hour before I realized I couldn’t save, and had to restart. I’ve gotten stuck in places, and there are numerous graphical glitches – characters appearing or disappearing, etc. Combat is a little clunky but still fun. 

I’m loving it, but I’m scared at how much time I’ll need to put into it. Considering that I play for 30-60 minutes 4-5 times a week, that means that a hundred hour came will take me half a year to finish at least. And that’s if I don’t get bored of it before then.

Favorite Rap Albums of the Year

My yearly list of favorite rap albums is up at RapReviews.  The albums are:

 

Danny Brown, “Old.” 

Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rap.” 

Juicy J, “Stay Trippy.” 

Ka, “Night’s Gambit.” 

Run the Jewels, “Run the Jewels.” 

Special Request, “Soul Music.” 

Earl Sweatshirt, “Doris.” 

TeeFlii “Annie RUO’Tay 2.” 

Tree, “Sunday School 2.” 

Zomby, “With Love.”

My Favorite Albums of the Year

Having a kid changed my listening habits this year. Most of the time I was listening to music with my daughter, often early in the morning. As a result, I listened to a lot of mellow music, old jazz, old Sabbath, and old soul. The other stuff was limited to my hour-long commute on Bart, which is incredibly noisy, with shitty headphones. Not a lot of room for subtlety or nuance. Here’s what I liked the most out of what came out this year. If I had to pick my favorite it would be the Colleen record. It is such a delicate, beautiful album and it made my 5 A.M. wake up times much more bearable. I would put it on, get a cup of coffee, and watch my daughter interact with the world in our living room while we waited for the sun to come up.

 

Cate Le Bon, Mug Museum.

Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap.

Colleen, The Weighing of the Heart.

The Field, Cupid’s Head

The Hunters S/T.

James Blake, Overgrown. J

Joanna Gruesome, Weird Sister

Ka, Night’s Gambit.

Low, The Invisible Way

Rhye, Woman

Run the Jewels

Savages, Silence Yourself

Special Request, Soul Music.

Superchunk, I Hate Music

Tee Flii Annie RUO’Tay 2

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common

Tree, Sunday School 2

Zomby, With Love.

Favorite Songs of 2013

Favorite songs of 2013

Savages, “Husbands”

Wavves, “Demon to Lean On.”

Danny Brown, “Dope Song”

Tree, “Devotion.”

Chance the Rapper, “Everybody’s Something”

The Hunters, “Nosebleed”

Superchunk, “Staying Home”

Run the Jewels, “36 Inch Chain”

Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”

Laura Mvula, “That’s Alright”

Rhye, “Open”

Low, “Plastic Cup”

 

TeeFlii with Nipsy Hustle, “F*n in the Function”

Earl Sweatshirt, “Chum”

Colleen, “Geometria del Universo”

Cate Le Bon, “No God”

Juicy J, “Stop It”

Joanna Gruesome “Wussy Void”

Special Request, “Ride VIP”

Zomby, “Soliloquy”

L.A. Noire

I finally beat L.A. Noire, two years after I bought it and after getting 2/3 through it and losing my save game. It’s an amazing game and there was a lot I loved about it. I loved how it recreated 1940s Los Angeles, particularly in the interiors. I loved the story, which combined elements of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. I loved how central returning G.I.s were to the story, and how the different characters were all woven together to form a larger story. I loved looking through homes for clues, not so much because it was super fun but because it gave me a chance to explore the carefully constructed world the designers had built.

I was less excited about the interrogation gameplay. I had a hard time figuring out the right answer, and often resorted to a walkthrough to guide me. The characters often had different tells, and it wasn’t always obvious who was lying and who wasn’t. Also, anytime you accused a character of lying they would say “you have no proof!” even though you had found proof in the room they were in minutes earlier. If you know you have damning evidence against you, why would you deny it or challenge the detective to prove it? 

I also disliked the fact that you never really got a chance to explore the world they built. You can theoretically go anywhere in the world, but in practice you are always going from one case to the next. The only side missions require you to be in a cop car, which makes the hidden cars sort of useless. What’s the point of finding cool old cars if driving them penalizes you with missed chances at side quests? 

I’m surprised that Rockstar never made an expansion on the L.A. Noire engine that was more GTA 1940s – one that took more advantage of the world they had already built for L.A. Noire. I would love a game where you got to find hidden jumps, help civilians, do wanted missions, and basically have a similar experience to Red Dead Redemption. 

 

The bottom line is that it is a great game, but one that misses some opportunities to be better. It is one of the few games I’ve actually finished, and that was just because I needed to see how the story ended.

Doris Review

I reviewed Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris on RapReviews a few weeks back. His delivery and the beats are too downbeat for me to get really excited about this, but he is an impressive lyricist and there are some good songs on this disc, including “Chum”:

 

Ms. Male

The latest in Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women” is up now at Feminist Frequency. She describes the Ms. Male character as:

A female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via their visual properties, their narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials. 

Rather than do a lengthy dissection of the parts of her argument that I disagree with, I want to highlight the important take-away I got from the video: in video games, and much of media, male is the default. She gives the example of adding female birds to “Angry Birds,” which had the effect of making all the other characters male. All too often in media, women are defined by their gender and drawn to conform to gender stereotypes. The problem isn’t so much with having girly girls in games or TV or movies, but in the fact that almost all girls are girly girls, and very few female characters get to be defined by anything but their gender. Sarkeesian illustrates that point very well, and it was eye-opening for me.

As always, however, I had issues with the tone of the video and the overly academic approach to games criticism. There’s very little in the video that puts the gender stereotypes in context of other media of the time.

A someone who recently had a baby girl, I was put off by Sarkeesian’s outrage at pink being a signifier for femininity.

“Now just to be clear, there’s no inherent problem with the color pink, makeup, bows or high heels as design elements on their own. And of course people of all genders may choose to wear any of them from time to time in the real world and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that either (emphasis mine).”

Pink, lipstick, bows and heels are almost universally feminine. There are very, very few instances of masculine use of lipstick, bows, and heels (at least since the 19th century). If you go to a drag show, you see a whole lot of lipstick and heels. Most of the male-to-female transgendered people I know wear some combination of the above because they know it reads as female. It is either disingenuous or out of touch to act like lipstick and heels are not feminine identifiers. I get that many women don’t wear any combination of the above, and that there is an issue with women in media always being identified as extremely feminine, but to knock video games for using identifiers that are universally accepted to read female seems unfair.

Hunters, Joana Gruesome, and Cate Le Bon

First off, I’ve decided to combine my music writing with my video game writing. I hope this doesn’t confuse anyone. If it does, I’m sorry. Yay for you for having so little else in your life to worry about.

I write about hip-hop for RapReviews, but I’ve been in a bit of a funk, hip-hop-wise as of late. Yesterday I spent a chunk of time listening to new releases by Tanya Morgan, Billy Woods, Rocky Rivera, and Freddie Gibbs. None of it did anything for me. I tend to go in cycles with music, and for the last few weeks I’ve had little interest in hip-hop. What I have been excited about is some of the poppy, punky indie rock I’ve been hearing.

The Hunters self-titled album got a harsh review in Pitchfork. There is obviously something personal going on between the reviewer and the band – maybe he hates the kind of music they make, maybe he’s seen one too many half-assed punk bands, maybe he heard too much hype about the band. Whatever the case, he was very ungenerous in his review, so much so that I had to hear how shitty this band was. And instead, I really love the record. It’s  led by a couple whose dual vocals add a lot to the band. They are loud but melodic not unlike Nirvana or Wavves, with occasional cheerleading barks like Sleigh Bells, and bouts of Sonic Youth-like noise. Are they the next big thing? Maybe not, but I really enjoy what they do.

I am also enjoying Joanna Gruesome’s debut. They are a poppy punk band from the UK who mix Lush-like female vocals with some angry punk. It sounds like something I would have loved in 1992.

Finally, I’m loving Welsh singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon’s latest album, Mug Museum. It’s sort of like a twisted take on sixties folk pop.

Progress and Experience

One of my favorite games this year has been the Tomb Raider reboot. Part of the reason that I loved it so much is that it completely nailed experience points. You get experience points by way of actual experience points and salvage points for not only killing enemies but exploring. The game invites you to explore, to find every last crate and GPS tracker, and does so by rewarding you with better weapons and abilities. It is one of the reasons why I  couldn’t stop playing it: I had to keep getting more salvage points to upgrade my weapons and more experience to upgrade my skills so that I could see how it played out in actual gameplay. Far Cry 3 does a similar thing where they encourage you to find all the artifacts and letters and free outposts as stealthily as possible in order to get experience points. These can be used to upgrade skills that can significantly affect how you play the game. 

Compare this to Bioshock Infinite. Infinite doesn’t have an experience system. Instead, you find vigors and weapons, and upgrade them by finding enough money to buy upgrades, and finding enough lock picks to open up rooms and safes that have money and equipment. Although you are basically swapping silver eagles for experience points, the process is much less satisfying. It’s not as much fun to search every crate to get five more dollars to go towards buying a $1,200 vigor upgrade. Buying a weapon upgrade feels less satisfying than building a better shotgun ala Tomb Raider or building better gear ala Far Cry 3. Instead of feeling like you’ve gained skills or actually earned anything, you feel like you just happened to have enough money. If there were a millionaire character, s/he could totally max out everything all at once without searching a single crate. It also makes killing enemies pointless beyond getting them out of the way. 

I love Bioshock Infinite, but I do wish the upgrading system had been done in a different way. As it is, it feels as mercenary and meritless as the false utopia of Columbia.

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