The Crushing Banality of Everyday Life

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

Month: November, 2013

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.

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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.

Bioshock Infinite

I started playing Bioshock Infinite this weekend. I made my wife watch the opening sequence in an effort to get her to understand why I love games so much. It is a gorgeous and gorgeously realized game. The graphics are amazing, not because they are so photorealistic, but because they capture the look and feel of early 20th century art and architecture. I like it better than the original Bioshock because it is a little less claustrophobic, scary, and confusing. Not to knock Bioshock, but it creeped me out to no end, and I ended up getting sort of lost about halfway through. And then my save game got deleted and I haven’t restarted it.

 

Anyways, where Bioshock examined an underwater failed utopia built around Ayn Rand’s ideology, Infinite looks at a city in the sky based on ideas of religious and ethnic purity. There is a lot of racist imagery in the game as blacks and the Irish are treated like subhumans. sometimes this is a little too on the nose (signs advising black staff to respect their betters), but most of it is pretty much in keeping with a lot of the prevailing ideas of the time. Like many a bright-eyed young history major, I studied the Holocaust as a grad student, and I was shocked to learn that many of Hitler’s racist ideas came from the U.S. Phrenology and eugenics were popular ideas in the states around the turn of the century and well into the twenties. Plus, the racial politics of 1912 Columbia are still reflected in some of the right wing rhetoric of 2013 – lazy brown people and immigrants who are taking our jobs and expecting handouts.

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Some people have complained about the amount of violence in the game, the fact that the beautiful art direction and sophisticated story is but a mere backdrop to lots of head-bashing and killing. it’s true that Infinite is very violent, but then it is a first person shooter. I do think there is room to examine issues of racism and America’s uncomfortable history with it in a non-violent game, but Ken Levine’s thing has always been to make action games that also make you think. It’s the equivalent of an action movie that has deeper subtext going on. Yeah, you still have the explosions and car chases, but you also get to think a little while enjoying the visceral elements. Or in Infinite’s case, the viscera moments, cuz man is it gory. If Levine had a made a cerebral game examining racial politics, it may have been less jarring in its combination of gameplay and philosophy, but it also would have been played by a fraction of the people. As it is, he has a triple a title that is going to make people think about racism and its role in U.S. history. People who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of stuff. It’s hard to hate on that. The point isn’t that it is just a game, the point is that it IS a game, and by being a game that uses a very common and popular gameplay mechanic (ie shooting hoards of bad guys in the face), it is allowed to be a larger, more relevant cultural artifact than if it were made solely for those interested in a more intellectual or artistic endeavor.