Tuesday, 21 April 2009

It Feels So Empty..

Eminem's back, kids. Back again.
In case you forgot, and with a single like Break A Bottle noone'd blame you, Mathers is back up in yo' face with Made You. And it feels important to me: Eminem's been one of those artists who's interested me since I was young and though he's does a lot wrong since, stuff like Guilty Conscience and My Name Is? I love them, unreservedly. Where and when he worked, I reckon he was the last interesting rapper, after the Golden Age of Dre turned into ...whatever we're in now. To continue the comics analogy, I guess, the 90s: over-blown masculinity, bad storytelling... and too many pockets.

First, because it's the first thing I encountered: the video. It tells you everything you need to know about this song: it's one of those Eminem-in-various-costumes videos. Yup, another one of those. Hilariously enlarged arses, parodies of pop-culture icons, and a friendly helping of big-boobed ladies. It's shot in the exact same style as My Name Is, Without Me, and Just Lose It. Note the law of diminishing returns there.

This track hurts me. To paraphrase (and sanitise; this is a family friendly blog, kids) Marsellus Wallace's immortal words: Feel that sting? That's disappointment fudgin' wit ya. I was genuinely excited by all the rumours suggesting a return to roots, Dre-heavy album. "Return to roots"? That's the place you give up, I should know that. That's Oasis talk.

Crack A Bottle was bad enough, but somehow this is worse- where that was just generic '00s rap, a little too much hanging with Fiddy, this seems like a cynical cash-in on an Eminem Formula. And, credit where credit's due, it does that very slickly. There's so much of it that nearly works. Against my will, I've been humming it all day, which proves that the chorus and the hook underneath are good. The bit where the rap first kicks in is exciting. So...
What's missing?

It feels like the biggest crime, lyrically, is the already-dated celebrity references. But Eminem's always been doing this stuff, and back on, say, The Real Slim Shady it was exciting to hear him dropping names and messing with the pop culture around him. And, yeah, as with the video, a lot of the problem is that he's done it all before. But its difficult to understand exactly why that was better.

I think because now Eminem is, and has been for a long time, at least as a big an icon as any of the names he drops here. He's not the outsider anymore, the guy spitting in your onion rings, when he could be anyone. This has even been addressed in Eminem songs. He's not a rebel, he's just a guy doing his tired old act the same way everyone he mocks does. The chorus pivots around the phrase "Rock Star" which, obviously, he is not- I'd give the old Eminem benefit of the doubt that it's satire, of the increasingly stupid trend to sing about being a rockstar when you're not, but it seems just as likely he's jumping on that bandwagon.

Which is the problem with everything. For the second time now, the song references Without Me's "Guess Who's Back" opening. That's two comebacks since the first- which is an important touchstone, I reckon, as it feels like the last time Eminem actually got away with this stuff, just about. It was the first time you could see the Eminem Formula poking through, and every song that's used it since is clearly worse for it.

There're even blueprints for a new formula: Mr Mathers' new thing, apparently, is a shouted announcement with a heavy echo behind it. The thing is, We Made You is probably better than the singles he's been putting out since the 8 Mile period. Writing this has made me realise I don't hate it as much as I thought. But after years of the same, it's just so obviously nothing special.

Relapse, it seems, is a stunningly self-prophetic title.

(Obligatory confession: Two whole weeks since I wrote this (I'd better get my act together- this is supposed to be a twice-weekly thing, life/exams be damned!) and everytime I hear this song, I admit, my ears prick up. I'm interested in it, if only in a distanced way; and I'm beginning to think I hate the video much more than I hate the song.)

Monday, 13 April 2009

People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that...

It's amazing how quickly a game of Spelunky can go wrong. One minute you're looking at your dollars and health tick up as you rescue another dame and liberate another golden statue, modestly proud, and then a single mispressed key sends you falling onto those insta-death spikes. Sigh, press x, start again. And again. And again.

Generally speaking, when I tell people why I want to do this journalism thing as a life, I say its because I want to let people know about things that are important to me, and why. Oscar Wilde spoke about the Critic as Artist, which is what I aspire to, but also Critic as Your Mate With A Mix CD Of Stuff You Need To Hear. This is something of an exception- Spelunky is not a game I necessarily want to recommend- its addictive and, like any addictive substance, its damaging to your health. But what you've got to remember about addictions, to quote Renton from Trainspotting, "is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. After all, we're not fudging stupid. At least, we're not that fudging stupid." (Thanks, family-friendly-blog-censorship!)
And the pleasure of Spelunky is its unpredictability. You'll curse it as regularly as you praise it, but there's a real joy to its randomly generated ...everything. Even the opening story, told in three terse, pulpy lines, reveals new variations every time I play.

And this saves the game. Because Spelunky is unrelentingly difficult, something you'll discover in the first few minutes of play. Every level is packed with enemies and traps, which can be overcome easily - once you've learnt the patterns - but their sheer quantity leaves your tiny avatar outnumbered and outgunned. And you'll die, over and over. My current count, according to the Scores screen, is approaching 300 deaths. Below this there is a box announcing your total "wins". This is of course 0.

A lot of the stress is taken off by the fact that many of your deaths, especially early on, are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The first time your bouncing corpse kills three or four enemies, or is batted endlessly between two spike traps is as satisfying as any success you've had. And then you begin to discover, and that's what makes Spelunky so playable and, more importantly, joyfully replayable.

And death is necessary to your discovery- the first thing is realising how you can work the traps, even turn them against your enemies. Then you'll meet a new enemy, or pick up a new item, and it'll go wrong and you'll die, until you figure out just how they work. Even though its a world rendered in pixellated sprites, there's a amazingly genuine sense of discovery- the kind I haven't felt in a game since GTA: San Andreas (and the lack of which is GTA4's major failing).

It's a game of accidents, glorious accidents. The most beautiful of which, so far for me, involved setting off an Indiana-Jones-style rolling-boulder trap, dodging it and watching the boulder roll into the nearby shop, trapping the shopkeeper in. "Vandal!" he shouts, as I slowly pick up all of his goods. "Thief!" I'm laughing evilly to myself as I bounce through the level, omnipotent, with spring shoes, climbing gloves and a cape. I'm still chuckling as I reach the end of the next level, where he's waiting, with a shotgun. BLAM. And all that gold just becomes another high score, listed above the ever-increasing number of kills.(Confession: I wanted to make this a faux-feminist analysis of the game, wherein women are quite literally objects, listed alongside "loot" or "kills", depending. They're entirely helpless without you and need to be carried around, lest they run headlong, crying, into a trap. But I just couldn't help talking about how fun the game is- and also the power of their kisses heals you and they're near invincible. So that's the end of that argument.)

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fulfil Dreams.

It was a relationship that turned sour quickly. I'd looked at her from across the party, knew her reputation: fun but promiscuous, a quick fling. I'd heard the rumours of violence. A real femme fatale.
But dammit if I didn't want to dress up as Batman, so I rented her.

It all turned out exactly the way I'd imagined. Okay, the initial thrills were giddier than I'd ever really considered- laughing maniacally at the complete disdain for physics, that ridiculous 'hai-hai-hai' noise Liu Kang makes as he flying-kicks across the screen. Carried away into the night chatting about the crazy beautiful stupidity of superheroes and fighting games.When the lows came, they were deep and dark. I found myself alone, sinking unsatisfying hours into the 'Story' mode, grinding towards the one unlockable character I was interested in. But even now, having denounced MK vs DC, I can't forget the first few games together, where I got to play as Batman. I love Batman. All the gadgets and gruffness, pitched against the sci-fi-mentalist world he lives in. I love the childish escapism of it all, both for me and him. I love the Batcave, its giant penny and an unexplained T-Rex. I've never understood those particular parts of the Batman mythos, but damn if I don't love them.So obviously he was the first character I took for a spin. As I discovered each new move, I giggled with delight. I peered into the background of the Batcave level, murmuring approvingly at any recognisable details. I beat up my friends' assorted choices of fighter (seriously, who plays as a MK character when you've got a load of superheroes at your disposal?) and that was fun, but it wasn't till we were left alone that the thrill of Being Batman really clicked.

Looking back, at the way the gruff interior monologue filled my head and how satisfying each avenged punch felt, I worry about myself. I consider myself a (reasonably) balanced human being, never really been the type for role-playing of any type, yet here I was pretending to be Batman. It wasn't the game- MKvsDC's quite a mechanical affair, stiff, not the kind of fighter you'd ever forget you were playing a game with. It's just the strength of fantasy (and, I suppose, the simple iconography I was given to project on).

I remember being young and naive and dreaming about being able to finally do all the impossible acrobatics and kung-fu-moves I'd seen in The Matrix. Enter the Matrix arrived and, looking back, it was a disappointed. But at the time I consumed it hungrily, playing it over and over again and it fulfilled everything I wanted to do- running from unfightable Agents, backflipping off walls and watching bullet tear that wobbly path through air-turned-to-treacle.

It was the same with The Punisher game- although I'll still defend that game today, if only for the bit where you get to pop out of the coffin in the middle of a funeral and mow down half the mob with an M60. I was in the midst of Garth Ennis' classic work on the Punisher comic when I bought it and with the game being based on Ennis' Welcome Back, Frank, I was able to summon Frank's gritty caption-box voice as I tore through enemy after enemy. I felt no pleasure as I forced thugs' heads under saws, and threw them into woodchippers. It just needed to be done.

There are hundreds of other examples- I remember replaying the first Max Payne over and over, in the style of whatever action hero I'd seen that week- slow and steady like the Terminator, or dashing through the level without stopping or worrying about damage. Swinging around New York as Spider-man. (Which felt subtly different to swinging around as Ultimate Spider-man.) Downloading skins of my favourite characters for The Sims. They always seem to tend towards the geekier end of my interests- I've never felt the urge to play an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind game, or dress up as Kilgore Trout. I suppose its that simple iconography that the geeky-media tends to provide you with. It's easy to project on but, frankly, of course I'd want to be the man dressed as a bat, beating up clowns.

Surprise surprise, I cannot wait for the new Batman: Arkham Asylum game. I'm already piecing it together in my head, how I'll hide in the shadows, spooking out the criminals one by one, then pulling them into the darkness. Just like the start of the Tim Burton film, or Old Batman's comeback in Dark Knight Returns. I'll be that Batman, and file it alongside my time as the four-coloured square-jawed crusader, punching gods and spacemen in MKvsDC, and I'll already about fantasising about the next Batman I get to be.

(Confessions: I say I've quit MKvsDC forever, but the disc is still waiting to be sent back. And, inelegantly, more-or-less unwittingly, I stole the relationship metaphor from the always elegant chewingpixels.)

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

This Is A Blog

Sometimes you read something just at the right time. Y'know?

I've just finished the first trade of David Lapham's Young Liars. It's been a bit of a comedown week, so far. I made the bold claim, as Sunday turned into Monday, that I'd had "the perfect week". The comedown means a few days of feeling unfulfilled and apathetic and confused as to why - generally pretty darn emo. This is pretty common, I presume.

Young Liars is nasty. From the first couple of pages, there's a sense that the writer's voice is just a little off. I've never read Lapham before, so presumed it just wasn't very well-written. Finishing it, I'm not so sure. I never finished the first issue last time I tried to read it, and I thought I had the measure of the series- the standard Vertigo formula: scratchy indie art, a varied collection of quirky ne'er-do-wells, a splash of Ennis gross-out weirdness. And a lot of Music References.

And it stays that way, mostly, for the first and second issues. Normal people, weird circumstances, just on the edge of believability. The Vertigo trademark. But at some point around the second issue it takes a plunge into surreality, and deep deep unpleasantness.

It's an incredibly densely told story. There were a lot of double-take moments where I had to go back and reread a page. The narrative is constantly chopped up, disorientating, dropping chunks of explanation into holes made three issues back. Like I said, the narrator's voice is just...off. And honestly? It left me feeling sick. Looking back at the cover, I can't believe how misleading it is. I'm promised "a firecracker of a book", Sadie bursting out and asking me, am I ready for this? It's called Daydream Believer, for God's sake.On the other side of the book, most of the supporting cast remain merely a bunch of 2-dimensional pricks (with the exception of Big C who wins the prize for most Eye-Gougingly Sad Moment) but our central couple, Sadie and Danny, are master sadists. Any sympathy for either character goes totally unrewarded.

A Parental Advisory: Herein lies explicit content. There's sex and violence and, anytime you think about enjoying either, there's a steep plummet into guilt. There's a lot of usage of the phrase 'spreading her legs' until it becomes the most foul obscenity I've ever read.

The climactic scenes with the Pinkertons (no, I won't explain) killed me. Lapham makes some bold choices and all the pain comes together between the big moments. Somehow there's suddenly a lot riding on the lives of these characters you have absolutely no sympathy for. These scenes just hurt.

And, now, I don't feel any less weird and emo. The book was never cathartic. But just getting through it- surviving- felt like an achievement and I reckon when I wake up tomorrow, I'll be totally out of this comedown funk. And then it's All-Star Superman time.

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.