Best of the year

Dark Magics – Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

The below write-up is stolen directly from the Top 40 tracks of 2017 countdown I’m currently doing with my boy Tim Maytom over on our new site, Tim + Alex dot com. I’d encourage you to read the whole list – I promise, most of the write-ups are much snappier than this – but I went a bit renegade on this entry and felt like it probably deserved its own space.

2014: Game of the Year

I’m stretching my usual definition of both ‘Game’ and ‘of 2014’ here, but this is undoubtedly the game I’ve played most of over the past 12 months, the one that’s given me the most pleasure, and the one that has most dominated my thoughts in idle moments. Kate ‘Mac’ McCaffrey had been building up her rig for weeks, feeling the hot glare of Jinteki’s spybots on the back of her neck the whole time. Working a several-levels-below-her-abilities data job to build up a stock of credits, surviving on cheap energy drinks while she built up a fearsome rig. Click, click, click, until… It was finally time. Welcome to Netrunner, a two-player card game set in a dystopian future of mega-corporations, hackers and elevators to the Moon. For anyone who has already taken Netrunner‘s red pill, the above won’t be too difficult to translate into a rough version of what’s going on at the table. Otherwise, I appreciate it’s probably impossible to visualise this as some cards on a table, so let’s try and lay it out: It’s early in the game, the fourth turn. The Runner player, who picked Mac from a broad roster of hackers, has spent the majority of her turns preparing for the moment we’re picking apart here. The most notable cards she has played thus far are the ‘Armitage Codebusting’ resource card, which sits on the table waiting to be tapped up for money, and a sturdy suite of three Icebreakers – we’ll get to those in a minute. This turn, she has used up three of the four ‘click’ actions she gets every turn to take six credits from Armitage Codebusting, and her prep is complete. It’s time to run. Mac rammed the cable into the port where her spine met her skull, tapped the ‘enter’ key, and she was in. All of Jinteki’s servers and defenses were neatly visualised, laid out before her. Without a moment’s hesitation, she went right for the company’s HQ. On their turns, meanwhile, the Corp player on the other side of the table (representing Jinteki, a Japanese mega-corporation best known for manufacturing clones) has been playing a very different game. While the Runner plays all of her cards openly, the Corp’s are kept face-down until revealed. This is what runs are for – hacks into the Corp’s servers, a risky foray into enemy territory to reveal their plans. There’s not just one game to master here, but two neatly interlocking ones. While the Runner player is constantly on the offence, the Corp plays defence. It’s not all they do, but the top priority is protecting every card they have from these hacks. And I mean every card: not just the ones they’ve decided to play into ‘Remote Servers’, but also their discard pile (aka Archives), the deck they’re drawing from (R&D), even their hand of cards (HQ). Jinteki’s defence systems stayed dark, letting Mac float right past. Suspicious, maybe, but no time to wonder why now: the files were in sight. Suddenly, there was a buzz down the line, that telltale sign of a rez command. BOOOOOM. The Corp protects their valuables with ‘Ice’ cards, stacked on top of each server – their hand or deck or a card ‘installed’ on the table – for the Runner to approach one by one. These can block entry, or charge a toll, or do some truly nasty things to intruders, and the Runner doesn’t have a clue which it will be until the card has been flipped over. Ice is played face-down too, and during runs the Corp has the option to ‘rez’ – activate the Ice’s defenses by paying a set cost – one at a time. In this case, our Jinteki player has three pieces of Ice in front of their HQ. They peek at the ice card nearest to the Runner, then consider the Runner’s line-up of Icebreakers – each of which can break through certain pieces of Ice at a cost, negating their effects but not damaging the Ice itself – and the state of their own finances. This gamble is Netrunner‘s heartbeat. For the Runner, hitting the wrong piece of Ice can be disastrous, but failing to run will eventually cost them the game. For the Corp, it can be tempting to rez a piece of Ice, but doing so will deplete their resources in a game where everything costs money, and give the Runner an extra piece of information. With all this in mind, the Jinteki player declines to rez their first and second pieces of Ice. When it comes to the final layer, with Mac getting dangerously close to the precious cards in their hand, they finally flip one over, revealing it to be a Data Mine. Back in the real world, a spot of blood dripped from Mac’s nose and splashed onto her console’, obscuring the loading bar that slowly filled on its vidscreen. She felt the metallic heat on her tongue as half-written programs combusted, and knew corners of her brain would never be the same again. Still, she’d managed to snatch a single file from Jinteki’s HQ – vital evidence. Normally at this point, the Runner could pay a couple of credits to stop the effects with one of their Icebreakers, depending on the type of Ice in question. If it’s is a Codegate, they’d need a Decoder; for a Barrier, a Fracter; for a Sentry, a Killer. But Trap cards like Data Mine are an exception, without a corresponding breaker type. There are ways, but they’re not common, and Mac doesn’t have any in her armoury – catching her out to the cost of one point of net damage. Netrunner isn’t a combative game, in any straightforward sense, but Runners can get hurt. The Corp can broadcast brain-damaging signals through the net, or just trace the Runner back to their poky flat and blow their entire building to smithereens. Reading the largely incomprehensible rulebook, this was the moment I fell […]

2014: Film of the Year

Happy New Year! Why not celebrate the start of 2015 by spending a bit more time looking back over 2015? I’ll be posting a Best Of thing every day for the next week or so, starting today with a spoiler-rich piece on…   My favourite film of 2014 was much easier to pick than my favourite game, album or any of the rest. Of all my selections, though, it was also the one which gave me the most pause. I’m aware of how few films I saw at the cinema this year, and how that affects my decision. I have no problem with naming a kids’ film as my favourite, but there is the fact that The Lego Movie is now the cornerstone of a big lumbering franchise about which I’m not too excited – and, you know, the whole argument that it’s a feature-length advert. I think at the time of The Lego Movie‘s release, people focused far too much on that last thing. The number of reviews which locked the film down into ‘good for what it is’ – meaning, good for a film produced as a piece of marketing, or good considering it had to negotiate the whims of a major corporation. It feels like a typically grown-up way of approaching something that’s so full of joy.   It’s hard to deny that this in the mix, and one of the many things that is interesting about The Lego Movie is how it puts that conflict at its core. After all, the film’s main villain is named ‘President Business’, whose nefarious plan involves drawing strict lines between each world, separating cowboy Lego from castles-&-knights Lego from Star Wars Lego – pretty much Lego’s business model over the past decade. People have accused Lego of stifling kids’ creativity as its sets become increasingly reliant on building a single thing, with instructions and exact quantities of serial-numbered pieces. That’s right there in the film too, with the contrast between the freedom of the Master Builders’ creations and main character Emmett’s inability to stray from the instructions. So, yeah, it’s kind of impressive that Lord & Miller managed to use Lego’s license to create a 90-minute review of the product that isn’t entirely positive. But if that’s as far as you get with The Lego Movie– either boo consumerism or yay sticking it to the man– I’d say you weren’t paying enough attention.Even if you insist with engaging with the film purely on that level, it’s not just the Lego corporation that is under examination here: it’s the users too. The whole film engages in this, showing three distinct ways of playing with Lego through the Master Builders, Emmett, and President Business, but by the time it switches to live-action, this isn’t even subtext any more. Let’s just grab some sample dialogue from the Lego-enthusiast dad (and Lord Business alter ego) played by Will Ferrell in these segments: “This isn’t a toy! … It’s a highly sophisticated inter-locking brick system! … The way I’m using it makes it an adult thing!” Yeah, it’s not exactly subtle, and at this point we could branch off into a rant about the insecurities of fans of games, comics and a thousand other niche nerdy pursuits, but again I think it would be missing what’s actually important about these scenes, namely the father-son interactions. Initially, the ‘real world’ is shot like a surreal horror film, but it slowly morphs into a low-key family drama which manages to be incredibly heart-warming given the short amount of time we spend with the characters. That it’s just a secondary strand of the narrative, which doesn’t undermine the reality of the animated Lego world and characters, is much more impressive to me than the biting-the-hand-that-feeds stuff. This third-act twist, if you can call it that, makes absolute sense. The entire film has the joyful energy of a child at play, constantly wanting to show you the latest thing it’s come up with, so it makes sense that it would turn out to be authored by an eight year old boy.   Here’s an amazing vista rendered in coloured plastic bricks! Oh, here are some police alligators! Hey, you might want to freeze-frame this bit to check out all the background jokes! Oh look, here’s Superman and Shakespeare and Gandalf and Milhouse from The Simpsons all just hanging out! Cool! This seems like an apt time to mention that the film is gorgeous. It uses deep focus in a way that’s reminiscent of photography, so that I had to check whether the animation was entirely computer-generated or if it used stop-motion models. It has endless fun with the restrictions of Lego, both for gags – characters pulling off their hair to put on a new hat, horses that leap around without moving their legs – and for spectacle – meticulously constructed fight scenes; handmade title cards; the way that the Lego sea moves. The Lego Movie is absolutely packed with these moments of unique spectacle, and if pressed, I’d probably identify spectacle as the single thing I want most from cinema. …No, wait, Batman! That’s the main thing I want from cinema. I’ve heard people point to Will Arnett’s Batman as the best depiction of the caped crusader ever seen on the big screen, and it’s kind of hard to argue with them. I love that the film’s Bruce Wayne is more Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho-businessdouche than Bale’s actual portrayal. Plus, the self-centred older boyfriend with his own car who writes songs about his tortured soul is an excellent unspooling of the ‘Batman should be grim ‘n’ gritty’ argument. (You can make your own connections back to the “The way I’m using it makes it an adult thing!” here, if you wish.) At the same time, though, The Lego Movie also shows what is great about Batman. It features probably the best-ever version of That Scene where the whole Justice League gets taken prisoner but Batman escapes to save the day later […]

2014: Track of the Year

Playing my Songs of 2014 mix in the family living room this Christmas holiday, I’ve come to realise: gosh, rather a lot of these songs are about sex. But arguably none more than my single favourite of the year. Before we get into it… I’m listening to this track on Spotify right now, and it’s marked EXPLICIT. We might as well go right ahead and say the same thing about the blog you’re about to read. So stop now if we’re related or something, okay? FKA Twigs – Two Weeks Enthusing about Two Weeks to friends this year, I’ve tended to call it the best pop song ever written about oral sex – a title for which, of course, there’s no shortage of competition. Honestly, in terms of what the song means to me, I could stop this blog right there – but why use forty words when you could use four hundred, eh? Besides, there are a lot of other things going on in Two Weeks which I feel like I should address. The song is a) a triumphant taunt after a break-up, b) a masterful kiss-off to a guy who’s with someone else anyway, c) an irresistible seduction because fuck that someone else, anyway. I genuinely do believe in all those readings, but frankly I don’t have much use for any of them. Anyway, whatever your take on the song, there’s an undeniable common thread: two people, one metric tonne of sexual tension. Because Two Weeks is a genuinely tense song. It begins with indistinct looped vocals that sound like a summoning chant played backwards. On top of that come these incursions of bass, and finally Twigs singing “I know it hurts” with a sense of forced restraint. It’s electrifyingly tense, and one that the song spends its running time breaking and then building back up. The end of the first verse is delivered in a series of staccato gasps, building to “that chaste mouth open like [extended vowel sound describing inexpressible pleasure]”. Suddenly, the music all floods in at once, the song blossoming into chorus. (There may be some subtext here. Speaking of, I love the way the song’s is literally buried under the main vocals, an obscured “I can treat you better than her” in the first verse switching to “I can fuck you better than her” by the second.) But even then, there’s never any sense of a true climax. Two Weeks is Tantric pop, if I can be that gross – the feeling of fingers tracing along skin, of toes bunching together, of involuntary shudders. Over the course of four minutes, precisely who we’re talking about here shifts. The song’s front end promises pleasure, the second half promises she’ll take it from you. Compare and contrast the “I’d quench that thirst” at 00:25 and “I’ll quench your thirst” at 03:17. I guess, basically, the thing I love about Two Weeks is that Twigs keeps telling you that she’ll put you first, but it’s so incredibly clear she actually doesn’t mean it. That applies equally to interpretations a, b, and c but, more importantly, to the other thing. “Get your mouth open,You know you’re mine.“ Oh, and before we go, a quick mention of the video, which is simultaneously: an incredibly confident introduction to an artist emerging fully-formed like Venus; a reaction to Kanye West’s Power video; a spectacular trompe-l’œil, 2014’s foremost incursion of The Wicked + The Divine’s pop-mythos into reality (excepting possibly the Kate Bush gigs); and a perfect encapsulation, in its teasingly slow zoom out, of what makes the song great.

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Invisible Inc, OlliOlli, Peggle

Our final bit of catch-up blogging on every game I’ve played this year. After the laser focus of the last two posts – on Friday I wrote about the multiplayer games I’ve most enjoyed while drinking with friends,on Sunday I talked about my unexpected love for the Wii U – there’s no real pattern connecting the remaining games I wanted to talk about. So, I proudly present: The Rest of What I’ve Been Playing Permadeath, hacking and cartoony visuals. Random generation, of levels and baddies. XCOM‘s turn-based strategy, mixed with Splinter Cell‘s stealth. These are a few of my favourite things. Actually, when it comes to games, these are pretty much my absolute favourite things. Invisible, Inc has them all, plus a moody soundtrack, cyberpunk-meets-Mission:Impossible style, and the impressive pedigree of developer Klei (also responsible for the excellent Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve). Stealth is traditionally the preserve of third-person and occasionally first-person games, like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid or Thief. Switching the perspective to the god’s eye view of something like XCOM is an unusual decision, which abstracts the experience slightly. Then again, with their light meters and vision cones, stealth games were hardly the most naturalistic to begin with. It also shifts the focus away from the moment-to-moment tension of being caught, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching from the shadows, towards careful planning. Information is still limited, but you’ve got much more to work with – I went back to Dishonored recently, and after playing Invisible Inc, the constant obfuscation of its first-person sneaking just felt wrong. With that extra information, and less concern about fiddly execution, it makes it easier to come up with an interesting idea – hey, if I distract this guard with a noise and lead him over here, I can sneak behind him, hack this panel, then switch the targeting on that turret so it takes him out. Without the potential for a fudged button press causing chaos, all that matters is that you have a sound plan. This gets even better when you consider that the game lets you control two agents simultaneously – or even three, if things go well. It allows for some great moments, as you close the patented ‘Clever Girl’ manoeuvre on an unsuspecting guard. Best of all, Invisible Inc is a work in progress. You can buy it on early access, with updates every couple of weeks – meaning the finished product could well make another appearance on these lists next year. My only encounter with a real physical skateboard ended with me running over my own arm, but as a kid with a chipped PlayStation in the early ’00s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is written deep into my gaming DNA. OlliOlli is a minimalist demake of those games, flattening its levels into a linear two dimensions, but keeping the sprawling objectives. These are often mutually exclusive, sometimes explicitly so: pull off this difficult grind; reach the end of the level without doing a single trick. It’s an encouragement to endlessly replay levels, bail after bail after painful bail, until the memory of every gap and rail is locked into your fingers. …Or something like that, anyway. Honestly, I find OlliOlli difficult to write about because the experience of every session washes away as soon as I close the lid of my laptop, but also because, while you’re in it, the game is so absolutely consuming. Any stressful thoughts you might be carry unspool in the face of hitting a grind just perfectly, that satisfying kiss of axel on rail, and the inevitable failure that follows it, your avatar’s face meeting pavement for the hundredth time in a row. OlliOlli is the most frustrating relaxation game you’ll ever play. After a years-long drought, 2014 was blessed with not one but two installments in the Peggle series. Peggle 2 is essentially a bigger, brighter remake of the original – itself a shinier version of pachinko or pinball, with a single aimed ball leading to all sorts of unintended consequences as it pings between pegs – with all the production values pushed up to next-gen levels. Peggle Blast, on mobile, pares back the Peggle formula so it fits into a free-to-play app. If pressed, I’d tell you Peggle Blast is the better game. The free-to-play model brings out the nastiest side of Popcap. The game gives you a limited number of lives that refill over the course of hours, it’s constantly pushing extra shots or power-ups in exchange for cash or watching an ad – but it also forces them to to be more inventive. Peggle 2‘s biggest trick is giving each of its five characters a different theme song. As your ball bounces around, it triggers a chime which gets higher and higher with each peg you hit, building up to the pay-off when the screen is finally cleared, rewarding you with fireworks and a climactic blast of soundtrack. Given how much Peggle has always been about disproportionate audio-visual feedback for its challenges, this certainly isn’t insignificant – especially as it manages to find songs as triumphant as the original’s Ode to Joy,and, in the case of Hall of The Mountain King, even more so. However, as Peggle Blast seeks to make the game harder and more addictive, in an attempt to pilfer pennies from players’ pockets, it has to keep finding new tricks. Secondary objectives; boss fights; pegs with different properties; colour-coded keys that unlock certain parts of the screen; even goo-spreading gnomes, for some reason. One of the original Peggle‘s charms was that it felt like no other videogame out there. Peggle Blast goes the other way, giving it the feel of an arcade game – and one that, for all my problems with in-app purchases, doesn’t actually require you to pop in a single quarter to have fun. So that’s everything I’ve played this year, pretty much – with one notable exception. We’ll be talking about that next week, though, when […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Wii U

Another installment from my attempt to document everything I’ve played this year. On Friday I wrote about the multiplayer PC games I’ve most enjoyed as an accompaniment to alcohol, today I’d like to focus on the small black box which started occupying a space beneath our TV this summer – and in my heart not long after. Me & The Wii U   The most common reaction from people when I told them I’d just bought a Wii U was: Why?. The implication being, I think: Why didn’t you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Or, depending on the person, and given that I was in the middle of buying my first home at the time: Why didn’t you just stick with the frankly ridiculous number of consoles you already have? The former is easy to answer. A larger quantity of pixels isn’t something I desperately crave, and the unique experiences on offer is only now starting to exceed what I could count on one hand. The latter… not so much. I’ll concede that the Wii U’s key selling point – that tablet-style controller – is slightly silly. Very few games have actually made good on its potential and, as even my 50-something parents (who have now inherited my original Wii, as hush money) pointed out, the chunky plastic controller looks rather ungainly and old fashioned in an era of iPad Airs. And yet, I can’t remember building such an emotional relationship with a piece of technology, not for a long, long time. Why is that? Well, it’s certainly not the selection of third-party games. I own two, ZombiU and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, both relics of Ubisoft’s early dalliances with the console. Black Flag is a wonderful opportunity for period tourism across a string of 18th Century Caribbean islands, hamstrung by the tedious day-to-day of Assassin’s Creed games. ZombiU actually uses the controller better than most Nintendo-crafted games, pulling your attention away from the main screen and towards the smaller one you’re holding in your hands to create tension, while you rummage through a bag as the undead shamble ever closer to your delicious, delicious brain. Combined with the wonderful specificity of its East London setting and the RTS-vs-FPS multiplayer, it’s a nice addition to the roster for the sub-fiver prices you’ll find it for, but far from the reason to recommend picking up a Wii U. Maybe my love for the Wii U is driven by nostalgia, then? Nintendo Land provides probably the best evidence for this argument. At launch, the game filled the same role for the Wii U as Wii Sports did for its predecessor – a bundled-in package of mini-games built to show off the unique capabilities of the new controller. This means squeezing in features like the controller’s built-in camera, used to display the player’s hilarious facial contortions on the big screen, or touchscreen, to draw a line between obstacles that you can only see on the TV, or its microphone, to …activate a fan by blowing. Some of these inclusions are more successful than others, but the best games take full advantage of the second screen to keep the player using that controller more clued in than their opponents on the Wiimotes. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (or ‘Cheeky Ghost’, as it’s known round our gaff) uses this to make one player the ghost, sneaking up unseen on four ghost hunters, armed only with a torch, and provoking some of the best jump scares I’ve ever seen in a multiplayer game. As in Wii Sports, each mini game in Nintendo Land – there are a dozen of variable quality, but with three stone-cold classics – is simple but surprisingly deep and satisfying, with the caveat that you need to be playing them with friends crowded round the TV. But, tellingly, where Wii Sports created a new setting – admittedly, a rather blank one – for its games, Nintendo Land dresses up each in the patchwork clothes of a familiar Nintendo franchise. There’s a Zelda-themed archery game, an F Zero X racer, a Metroid arena shooter, all of them using a sort of cargo-cult version of the series’ own aesthetic to fit the charmingly wonky house style, where everything is apparently handmade out of recycled cloth and clockwork and crayons. The effect is to make Nintendo Land a virtual museum of the company’s history. This is literalised by its setting, which frames each mini-game as an attraction in a theme park. You can explore this Nintendo Land on foot, littered with statues and familiar iconography and jukeboxes that bit of menu music you played as a kid, which are awarded to you for playing an old-school pachinko machine. It helps that (some of) the attractions contained within are so enjoyable, but somehow this isn’t anywhere near as awful as it sounds like it should be. I wouldn’t identify myself as a nostalgic Nintendo fan, despite the Gameboy and N64 being my first consoles as a kid, but it would be impossible to deny that the characters have built up a reserve of goodwill with me over the years, which Nintendo Land taps for everything it’s worth. Overall, though, the most honest answer to that Why? is simply this: Mario Kart 8. The Mario Kartgames have always been an indispensable part of life in the Spencer-Dale household, so buying the latest a new installment… well, there wasn’t really much question of us not buying it. Looked at one way, MK8 is just the latest in a long line of chunky, accessible racers. But looked at another… Who the hell doesn’t want that? MK8 is broader than any other Mario Kart game before it, and polished so much it practically glares. It still feels exactly right to tug the controller left and right to steer your kart around corners, the way most of us did anyway in the days before motion controls, tongues sticking out in concentration – and even the parts which sounded gimmicky in the […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Drinking Games

For a while this year, I was convinced I could blog about every single game I spent a decent amount of time with. Then I remembered how life works. Playing something in 10 minute sessions over the course of months, or multiplayer with friends, isn’t really conducive to writing about it. So, over this weekend, I’m planning to post three breakdowns of the remaining games I failed to write up, split into rough categories. Starting with… Drinking games Games and alcohol, eh? The two are a reliable cocktail, one I’ve mixed in various ways over the years. When I lived at home, games were a accompaniment to pre-drinks – Peggle, WWE Superstars, B.U.T.T.O.N. – with loose drinking rules draped over them. In our London flat, they were for the morning after – Worms, Spelunky, Mario Kart –  a roomful of people hiding their hangovers behind competitive multiplayer. This year, especially since moving out to a bungalow in the far reaches of London, I finally cracked the post-pub game. Simple thrills that don’t lean too hard on your brain functions, that keep you awake with bursts of laughter. I’ve written about Nidhogg before, and that has stayed in healthy rotation over the course of the year, but there are also some new challengers for the 3am gaming crown. Towerfall: Ascension is possibly the purest example of the form. Four players battling on a single screen, each armed with a bow and a limited number of arrows. A single hit means death. Kill or be killed. That’s an incredibly simple formula, but the little details manage to make it feel complex. Arrows embed themselves into the scenery, pin crumpled bodies to walls, waiting to picked up by someone who’s prematurely emptied their quiver (it happens to the best of us). While players scrabble towards this errant ammunition, they have one weapon left in their armoury: a simple Mario-style jump onto an opponent’s head, as fatal as an arrow through the chest. That’s not the only lift from Nintendo’s leading practiser of turtle-head parkour. As in the original Mario Bros, each arena loops infinitely, so that dropping off the bottom of the screen will, bamf, have you immediately reappearing at the top. All this gives Towerfall the feel of a deadly bouncy castle. A typical game moves moves in bursts. After an early exchange of arrows that’s likely to fell the first player or two, the survivors will cautiously circle each other for minutes. But when it’s time, Towerfall‘s action happens faster than your conscious brain can really track – just your bare muscle memory versus your opponent’s. And so the tension builds slowly, and is quickly released, which is where all the laughter comes from. This is the same basic mechanism behind most verbal jokes and it’s also, I reckon, the secret of Nidhogg and Broforce. Broforce is the cheap thrill of a Steven Seagal film in the early hours on Channel 5, or of a just-before-the-shop-closes box of fried chicken, in the form of a co-operative shoot ’em up for up to four players. At first glance, the game looks like a no-frills remake of Contra or Metal Slug. In tandem with its roster of knock-off ’80s action stars with dodgy pun names (Rambro, Brominator, B.A. Broracus), you might expect Broforce to rely on retro nostalgia. Being completely honest, it does lean on these pleasures – but vitally, the game is also packed with smart and fresh ideas. The levels you shoot your way through, for example, are entirely destructible. Over-zealous deployment of explosives can make it impossible to reach the end, meaning that your own weapons are as much of a threat as the thousands of balaclava wearers you’ll run into. The way that the game juggles its enormous playable cast of ‘bros’ is pretty remarkable, too. Getting your hands on each new character, they feel just right. A Will-Smith-in-Men-in-Black bro comes equipped with a kickback-heavy Noisy Cricket, plus a Neuralyzer for stunning enemies. The twin Boondock Bros move, shoot and die individually, like Smash Bros’ Ice Climbers. A bro version of Rose McGowan’s character from Planet Terror propels herself through the air using her gun leg. But what’s even more impressive is the way these characters are built into the game. Levels are peppered with cages, which can be broken open to rescue the bro inside. This gives you an extra life, but also switches you to a random bro. It turns something as simple as a 1-Up into an interesting decision: if you’re currently playing as your favourite, do you take the life and risk getting Indiana Brones (arguably the best action hero, but inarguably the worst bro)? (In the multiplayer, if a fellow player is currently dead – which, given the chaos that ensues when four people play together, they will be – it simply brings them back to life. This is less interesting, though much more helpful.) Meanwhile, the game acts as a broad parody of jingoistic action movies, pitched somewhere between Team America and Hot Shots Part Deux. Each level ends with you blasting a besuited Satan then hitching a ride on a chopper as the level explodes below you, all to the soundtrack of a screeching guitar solo. It’s just funny, basically, especially to a brain that’s spent the last six hours pickled in long island iced tea. These trappings certainly help but, again, it’s the play itself which is funniest. Broforce is the rare kind of game where enemies not only hugely outnumber the player, but actually take more shots to kill. A single bullet ends your life in a sudden splurt of red pixels, and that’s funny enough, but watching a friend single-handedly master the rest of the level with Indy, only to be crushed by a falling square of concrete right on the finish line? That’s hilarious. I wanted to talk about The Jackbox Party Pack here, too – a compendium of five quirky quiz games, played on the PC and […]

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – The Final

32 tracks entered. That got whittled down to 16, then four, and finally just two contenders to the title of my Song of the Year 2013. So here we are, finally, at the end of the line. In the pale blue trunks, The Juan Maclean’s Feel Like Movin’; in the red-of-an-unbidden-dawn trunks, Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle’s Gustavo. Only one can emerge triumphant. Who will it be?              Late last year, I found myself, at 4am, in a drained bathtub with Chris ‘Total Man Crush’ Sparrow, a gin & tonic and a single portable speaker. The bathroom was the only room in my flat not occupied by a sleeping girlfriend, and we sat for an hour or so, passing the cable back and forth and rattling through our favourite songs of the year. When we finally called it a night, and climbed out of the tub, I stuck on one last song: Feel Like Movin’. And we started to dance, a little self-consciously – we’re two awkward guys, directly facing each other in a tiny bathroom – but irresistibly, arms above our heads, hands describing endlessly complex tesseracts in the air. Feel Like Movin’is less the song’s title, and more a list of associated side effects. I’m listening to it as I type this, and tugging Corgiton, our rotund stuffed corgi, around by one paw to the music, always rising, pushing towards the sky, as Nancy Whang sings “good time’s going to take you to heaven”. And Corgiton is keeping perfect rhythm. *** Given that I’ll defend with my life the position that all culture – films, games and especially pop songs – are best when they’re short, it’s pretty odd that my two contenders for the year’s best song both clock in over the seven minute mark. With Gustavo, I barely feel it. It’s too easy to get caught up in Kozelek’s elliptical storytelling, an ear always tuned to what happens next, waiting for the next killer line (the bit that landed as I wrote this sentence: “My house ain’t done but it’s alright/Floors ain’t level, but I ain’t some suburban/Who cares about bathroom tiles/Straight lines and building codes and Chinese wind chimes.”) But Feel Like Movin’ wears its lengthy running time a lot more obviously, pretty much entirely because my enjoyment of the song is more physical. Jumping back to dancing in the bathroom: it was great, but by the sixth minute we’d started to burn out. The flesh is weak, after all, and suddenly Nancy Whang’s refrain of “Get your feet on the dancefloor/And show me what you’re made of” started to feel like a challenge. Apparently, what we were made wasn’t enough. (There is a radio edit, which shaves a minute and a half off, which is actually a full from-the-ground-up remix. Weirdly, though it’s not the version I first heard on the radio – Lauren Laverne’s 6Music show, specifically – and it messes with the delicate balance of the full song, which is structured with the intricacy of a Stewart Lee set. Once you’ve listened to it a few times, you realise it’s constantly builds up punchlines. The rest of the song teases, pulls away just as you think it’s delivering on the set-up and moves on. Then, just as you’re forgetting, all the punchlines are triggered at once.) *** The aforementione Chris Sparrow is also responsible for introducing me to Mark Kozelek. Sparrow’s the kind of person where the question “what are you listening to?” can fuel pub conversation for hours. He was off on a tear about the Perils from the Sea album, sharing wry lines with that uncanny accuracy of his, laying out the vague overarching story, explaining where it fit alongside Kozelek’s other work. I was ready to dismiss it as just more Chris Sparrow Music: old American men being seductively miserable, glass of whisky in hand, as the dust creeps in through the cracks. But then he mentioned Jimmy LaValle’s electronica-infused beats, and my ears pricked up. *** I still haven’t dipped into the rest of Kozelek’s output, the stuff without LaValle. Partly because there’s a fearsome amount of it – the guy released three albums in 2013 alone – and partly because… do you remember how in a previous post I mentioned how I was avoiding anything else by The Juan Maclean? It’s the same deal. These songs feel pure, untouched by anything else, and I worry that nothing else could live up to it. But honestly, I’m romanticising my stubbornness and ignorance. Tomorrow, once this is all behind me, and 2014 officially begins in my head, their respective back catalogues are going to be my first port of call. I already know I’m wrong about Kozelek, anyway: *** Jumping back again, a couple of hours before climbing into the bath: We’re in the living room, enjoying the full aural benefits of our soundsystem. Sparrow stuck on a demo of You Missed My Heart, a track which very nearly ended up representing Perils From The Sea in this tournament, but this version is an acoustic live thing. Just Kozelek’s voice and the occasional plucking of a guitar – exactly the kind of music I’d identify as having no interest in. The room goes silent. The song is stunning, in the literal pin-you-to-your-seat sense. The four of us just sit there for six minutes, listening. Maybe it’s the gin, but there’s a lump forming in my throat. The second it finishes, the girlfriends chide us for being so bloody intense, ask can we have something with a beat and words we can actually sing along to please? *** The other day, Kirsty ‘Esteemed Colleague’ Styles asked me what metric I could possibly use to pick the winning song in this ridiculous venture of mine. I shrugged the question off, but it kind of got to the heart of the idea behind the whole thing. End of year lists are silly. They pretend on some kind of objectivity, […]

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Semi-Finals

There’s a nice symmetry to how these semi-finalists are paired. The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is practically wordless, and given its lyrics’ nutritional value, Feel Like Movin’ might as well be. The pleasure is all in the sounds. In the case of their competition, however, while the beats are attractive and evocative, it’s the lyrics which are the real draw: Gustavo‘s sustained soliloquy, and Hood Party‘s polyglottal grab-the-mic rush. Words and music – that familiar theme again.       Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood PartyvsThe Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’  Partly for the reasons outlined above, there’s much more to grab hold of in Hood Party, at least at first glance. The song manages to cram three rappers with very distinct voices into four minutes: Fat Tony, setting the scene and putting gentrification firmly on the agenda, hostility and anger always bubbling just under the surface. Despot, who sounds like he’s straining, right at the edge of running out of breath, the whole time, and who takes home this this year’s Kanye West Award for Eye-watering Sexual Frankness with a couple of lines about fists, anal cavities, and washing his genitals with hand soap. Kool A.D., basically a grinning pop-culture trickster god shooting off lighter-than-air rhymes while a second head echoes each line in slurred agreement. Feel Like Movin’, meanwhile, is fairly minimalist in the way it lays out a small handful of ideas and sounds, and takes its time playing around with them. That’s something I love in dance music, and something I really enjoyed with Get Lucky – and when that finally started to fail me, under the weight of overexposure, it was Feel Like Movin’ that picked up the slack. The arrangement feels a lot looser and more complex than Get Lucky, though, so that listening to the song is like getting lost in deep horror-movie fog, passing familiar landmarks again and again, a snatch of vocal or a spike of synthesised brass, until you realise the only explanation that the scenery is shifting around you. The structure of Hood Party is a lot more rigid. The beat is a constant – the sound of a dozen stacked speakers being pushed way past their limit, an affront to neighbours and police – while each voice, neatly partitioned and contained, shines a different light on the central theme. The chorus’ wider view, the song crash-zooms to the people at the party, chatting about politics, money and conservative Drake lyrics. The problem is that Kool A.D.’s urgent charismatic ramble entirely steals the show. Concentrated in one place, it imbalances the whole song. Feel Like Movin’, though, maintains its woozy beauty throughout, perfectly simple until you stare hard enough and notice the complexity. A limited series of sounds, arranged in just the right order, that works on my body, brain and soul equally. It’s a great reminder of how true the old ‘music is magic’ mantra is – which, conveniently, is pretty much what the song itself seems to be about. Winner: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’       Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo  vs Ghostface Killah – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental) All four of these have an excellent sense of atmosphere, but this pairing especially are just dripping with it. Stick on a pair of decent headphones, and The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is a sumptuous treat, from the heavy percussive heartbeart that begins the song onward. There’s a physicality to the production that lets you hear not just the instruments being played, fingers tapping wood, but the recording equipment, the room it’s being played in – which makes it all the more remarkable when the music is cut up, folded around the few trademark  ‘Ghostface Killa-a-a-ahh’ yells that are left intact. The non-instrumental version is pretty great too, Ghostface’s calligraphic rhymes maintaining the vibe (“Tommy guns are irrelevant, I’m bulletproof now/I could fly through the air and duck your chick-a-pow”), as is the crackling Brown Tape version. But the best thing I can say about Younge is that he renders Ghostface pretty much surplus to requirements. On a similar note, for all I’ve talked about Gustavo‘s storytelling, it occurs to me now that I think I’d still love the song if it was in a foreign language. Not only that, I think I’d still get the gist of what was going on. That’s partly down to the texture of Kozelek’s voice, the way he contracts certain words, draws others out into a sigh, syllables slurred or croaked or popped, and partly down to LaValle’s expressive soundscapes, which stretch out to a distant horizon. Strings fall like steel raindrops, punctuated with obstruent clicks. Scenery is the only way I can think of this music. It’s background, yes, but think of There Will Be Blood, or a Coen Brothers film: We sit, studying in stark detail the cracked lines of the star’s face, the world behind him blurred into impressionism, before the depth of field shifts, pulling the landscape into clear focus, and we realise they’re the same damn thing. But I worry I make Gustavo sound too serious and glum, and here’s the thing: it’s catchy too. I often find myself humming or singing snatches of the song and the album it’s taken from. That’s what elevates it. That’s why I find myself opting, entirely against type, for its heightened realism over the pure fantasy of The Rise of the Ghostface Killah.Winner: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo 

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Rounds 2 & 3

Last year is starting to feel like a lifetime ago, isn’t it? Bugger. I’ll endeavour to post the final two rounds, which will see us naming a Best Song of 2013, as soon as possible, but today’s installment is the most ruthless of the lot. 16 songs become eight, and very quickly four. Let battle commence. As I warned last time around, Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party is off to a stomping start, crushing under foot all that lies before it. Kavinsky – Rampage is the first to go, despite being the perfect expression of a feeling we don’t have a word for: roughly, that sudden synchronicity where doing something mundane feels cinematic and you can practically feel the camera on you, close in over your shoulders, rapid cuts as you do up your shoelaces, a power-up for your soul. Meanwhile, Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroderand Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free make for an interesting pairing. Both are about exploring sounds, little aural doodles tied together by some semblance of structure. In Ego Free, it’s all tied together with Ashin crooning close to your ear, sounding truly alien but singing about stuff that’s totally, painfully human. Some people have picked out the ‘click on the track’ bit as Giorgio‘s big Moment, but I reckon it comes around the two minute mark, as Moroder finishes his story with “…but everybody calls me Giorgio”, which turns out to be just the nudge the song needed to push it over the top. And it all quietly explodes, these lazy fireworks of sound arcing off in a dozen directions that we follow for the next five minutes. It’s a narrow victory for Daft Punk, then, but it’s quickly felled byHood Party, the victory secured by Kool A.D.’s guest spot alone. The verse feels slightly detached from the rest of the song, zooming in from the bigger picture about gentrification and race relations to this one guy who’s actually at the party. A.D. sidles over and drops a non-sequitur by way of introduction, before firing off a series of conversational gambits ranging from Tom Hanks trivia to potshots at Drake. Without too much discussion, The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’ trumps Anamanaguchi – Prom Night, and Kanye West – Black Skinhead trumps Major Lazer – Jessica. From there, though, it starts to get painful. There’s a point on West’s previous album, as Runaway comes to a close, where the whole song starts to implode. This single piano note steers the listener through the last three minutes as the song around it folds noisily in on itself. It’s the sound of being pulled over an event horizon. Black Skinhead, and Yeezus as a whole, feels like the music that exists on the other side of that black hole, from that Beautiful People-referencing intro to the repeated shout of GOD!. The way the hook severs ties to the rest of the song, floating out of grasp for a few seconds. That heavy breathing and Kanye’s pauses – a constant awareness of dropping oxygen levels – emphasising physicality and creating a sense of danger. The song debuted with an SNL performance, which is even more industrial, rawer, out of control. That version would probably take Song of the Year hands-down, but the song that appears on the album is more chiselled down, more refined and – in spite of SNL editing out the cusses – somehow better behaved. As it is, the victory goes to Feel Like Movin‘. It’s a song which exists free of any context. I’d never heard of The Juan Maclean before, and haven’t felt the need to investigate, and the single cover – just red text on a silver disc – offers no further clues. There’s no fiction being built up here, no personality or history to grab hold of, and that feels appropriately pure. The lyrics are simple, a chant delivering instructions from higher beings on how to have the best possible time. Feel Like Movin’. You really should. One of the very first notes for these blog posts was simply ‘music vs lyrics’. Honestly, I’ve been frustrated at how much it has haunted my scribblings, but it’s an undeniable theme of the year. 2013 was the first year I could really look back on the music listener I was a decade ago, and weigh up how I’ve changed. And something I’d love to explain to that serious young man is how I don’t really care about the words anymore. I’d hand him the Kavinsky and Ghostface Killah albums and point out how they build worlds through the music alone, how they actually work better without vocals. And then, smart little bastard that he was, he’d probably point to Los Campesinos! – Glue Me and Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo. Okay, yeah. Like all grown-ups, I am of course a massive hypocrite. Like most of No Blues, Glue Me only truly clicked when the accompanying Heat Rash ‘zine arrived and I could pick out – and pick apart – the lyrics. I’m still not sure the “paint me like one of your fence, girls” line makes much sense, but I love the symmetry of the opening and closing verses, the way it’s as likely to be cracking a bad joke as it is torturing a metaphor, how much stuff – emotion and images and intertextuality and football references – the song is squeezed into the song. Gustavofeels sparse by comparison, but there’s actually even more on offer. The song never bothers with choruses, rarely repeats itself, just pushes on with the narrative. And that sparseness, I’d argue to my sneering younger counterpart, is down to the artfully light touch of LaValle’s backing. (It’s here that I know for sure that Gustavo is our winner.) The music conjures a ravaged wasteland, where we meet Kozelek at a crossroads, trading food and company for his tale. And he’d rightfully point back to the other bracket, which […]