Thursday, 30 December 2010

ALEX: The State of Games in 2010

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Are Games Art (for Art’s Sake)?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened but here, at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, the reactionary hot issue of games for reactionary moral-panickers has changed. The ‘violent games are turning our kids into killers’ panic that accompanied the Grand Theft Autos of the last ten years has been dethroned.
But now it’s the World of Warcrafts that are pushing to the fore of the public consciousness re: gaming. Parents, politicians and Daily Mail readers are more likely to rally around the rather more mundane ‘game addiction is turning our kids into malnourished couch potatoes’. Which we’ve all heard, right? It’s a simple, common observation. Tie it to the terrible stories of Korean kids dying while they play MMOs, and you’ve got a controversy.
And, so the year’s previous hot topic for people who actually play games is starting to shift: from ‘Why Aren’t Games Art?’ (they are, get over it, we’re here now) to ‘Can Games Be Immoral?’. Because, really, it’s quite obvious to anyone who’s touched one that a videogame couldn’t be an addictive substance, but who hasn’t experienced someone shutting off to everything but this one game. Look at Farmville and its host of cheap tricks, or download pretty much any ‘casual’ iPhone game. There are some pretty dirty tactics going on.
And, then, on the other hand:
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."
That’s Oscar Wilde, there. (Yes, this is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) He’s a guy who knew a little something about controversy and moral panic. And I’ve always tended to agree: when the ‘games are too violent’ arguments surfaced, I shrugged and held that quotation close.
BLAM! POW!
The content of any artform cannot be immoral, really. Because that’s life, right? Things can be nasty, in a good way or a bad way. But the value judgement there isn’t that they are wrong, just handled well (to a good end, perhaps, or used cathartically) or handled badly. The infamous ‘No Russian’ level in Modern Warfare 2, where you played a terrorist shooting up an airport? That’s not evil, it’s just a bit of a clumsy attempt to deal with something out of that game’s depth.
(Unless you think that level was handled well/sensitively/entirely in keeping with the rest of Call of Duty, in which case, good on you. It’s all just opinions.)
But the thing with games is that it isn’t just about the content. It’s how about games play, what is built into their rules and mechanics. The addictive slow uptick of numbers that has helped along consumerist society for centuries, for example. Or a (potentially false) sense of reward and achievement.
The classic question is always: why is it okay for paintings/films/books to depict horrible atrocities/the Taliban/rape but not for games? And the answer that tends to be trotted out by the people who think that’s the case is because games are interactive. You’re directly involved in these horrors and, in their favourite examples, the one perpetrating them.
But it’s not about interactivity, as such. It’s about what interactivity means.
Because interactivity can take anything and lay an addictive method of play over it. Because that’s what you have to do, in a game. Where other artforms have carefully built a monument to beauty or elegance or the artist’s skill, ours is a towering Ozymandias-like colossus hailing the one true virtue: Fun.
Intensive Farmville
People will spend a difficult two hours with Schindler’s List or Irreversible. They’ll pick up The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or a Jodi Picoult about child abuse, and wince, and safely put it down. But why would anyone in their right mind want to play with something that isn’t fun?
Want to make a game about the Holocaust? Better add some Achievements. Maybe ‘YOU'RE ON FIRE (100G) – take the most efficient route to the ovens’. This is the power games have – to reduce anything to set of rules, and make them compelling – and their duty – to keep people playing. But to quote another great writer: with great power, comes etc etc.
This isn't true across the board. It's the reason people like me champion every 'pretentious' indie game that comes along doing something brave or intelligent or plain over-ambitious. What's more, you can use those mechanics and the traditions of competition and fun to communicate big ideas. Of which there is no better example than Brenda Brathwaite's aptly-named 'The Mechanic is The Message' series. Okay, they're boardgames rather than our electronic friends, but Brathwaite ditched videogame development to make games like Train.
Train
Train actually subverts the need-to-win that is trained into gamers. It encourages you to get as many small yellow pieces, which represent people, across the board to win. Except, when you do win, it's revealed that those pieces stands for Jews, who you've been trotting towards the concentration camp that lies on the other side of the board. It sounds inconsequential, maybe even implausible that people cried whilst playing Train. But that's exactly the power that simple rules and game mechanics have.
So, are games immoral? Of course not. They are merely well designed, or badly designed. It's just that a large fraction of blockbuster game developers want to be Michael Bay rather than Alan Pakula, and that few people seemed to have realised what the stakes are. But, hey, that'll probably be the hot topic of 2011.


About The Author: Alex
About the author:
Alex Spencer likes games. And
isn't that just so damn complicated?

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

ALEX: {7} Years of Manic Pixie Dream Girls

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Okay, folks, we’re going on a journey here. It’s not going to be quick and it’s not going to be easy. But this is probably one of the most in-depth, heartfelt things I’ve ever written for this site. Hey, you might even learn something! ...And if that doesn’t entice you, I promise you’ll get to see at least one of these lovely ladies’ crotches by the time we’re through.

A Zoo of Deschanels

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition.”

-Nathan Rabin, The Bataan Death March of Whimsy

{2010}
Ramona Flowers

M.E.W.

  • Ever-changing hair-colour
  • Funny name
  • Kickass fighting moves

Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of 2007, in relation to Kirsten Dunst’s character in a film made in 2005 (Elizabethtown). Like any phrase-coining, this was already a bit after the event: even by 2005, the M.P.D.G. had started to irreversibly infect 21st Century pop-culture.

So we begin, quirky as the Pixie Girl herself, at the end. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the most recently-released film I’ve seen in dialogue with the M.P.D.G.. Ramona Flowers is a Bad Girl With A Dark History And, like, Complex Emotions. But as many hair colours as the hipster rainbow. Ramona is Scott Pilgrim’s dream-girl, and she pulls him by the hand into a mysterious new world.

Subspace

In the interests of fairness, it has to be said that hanging the M.P.D.G. sandwich-board around her neck is to do some disservice to Edgar Wright’s film and, especially, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original comic version, which ran (from 2004 to 2010) alongside the development of this phenomenon, spends a lot of its later volumes unpicking these idealised notions. Any M.P.D.G.-ness is projected onto her by Scott’s skewed worldview. She emphatically doesn’t like the same music, and is hardly the ball of energy you’d expect from a straight-up example of the trope.

O’Malley’s Ramona is at least partly a deconstruction of the M.P.D.G.; Wright’s Ramona is a bit more of an embrace. The film follows the narrative arc of Rabin’s definition perfectly: movie-Scott has more Serious Brooding Young Man (S.B.Y.M. being the inevitable mirror-image and result of M.P.D.G.) about him, and in either version, Ramona leads to him discovering the wider world. With kung-fu!

Ramona is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that men decided was a Manic Pixie. The Girl they decided you’ve got to fight for to win. But those men were all Evil, right?

{2009}
Summer Finn

"I can see my fringe!"
  • Encyclopaedic knowledge of indie-rock
  • Dresses like she fell through a vintage shop
  • is played by Zooey Deschanel

Summer, meanwhile, is the kind of girl you lose by fighting.

{500} Days of Summer is by far at its weakest (and it is half-really-good and half-really-rubbish) as Summer ticks off the M.P.D.G. boxes. The magic begins when she says she likes The Smiths. The Smiths! And Belle & Sebastian. An unusual taste in Beatles records. She has, like, the quirkiest apartment! And before you know it, our hero is throwing himself into life with a new vigour...

At its best, the film makes a consistent argument for tearing the archetype apart. The key, best scene contrasts ‘Expectations’ and ‘Reality’, pitching the hopes of that brooding young man against reality. For a couple of minutes, it rails against the whole misguided fantasy of Tom and every other sensitive music-loving guy with a fringe he stands for. It’s one of the times the film rings really, really true, and it provides the only moment that drove that great big icicle into my heart.


…But most of the time it doesn’t do that thing. {500} Days of Summer warns you from the start that this isn’t your standard-issue love story, but its targets are too scattered to mean that the film approaches any convincing realism or scathing satire. Most of the time, it just attacks the classic Hollywood romcom. And that’s hardly new: right here we’ve got a history of alt-romcoms in the early 21st Century. Which have developed their own conventions and though the film makes occasional warning shots in this direction, it doesn’t have the conviction – or, to be fair, the time – to subvert these conventions. And so we get the most straight-down-the-line M.P.G.D. of recent years. And she is hateful.

Summer as she exists in this film – and it’s probably important to note that it is The Boy’s film – is pure Expectations. Maybe that’s all within the film’s intention: when those expectations are broken, hearts are too. But she’s also an absolute wank-fantasy of a girl.

And so, if you’re me, you spend a lot of time sighing and wondering if this is really the only female character this kind of lifestyle produces: you know, drunk karaoke, quirky traditions, indie records and good films. Is this the only kind of girl boys with a great collection of band t-shirts can fancy?

Oooh, pretty!

{2007}
Juno MacGuff

Sherlock.

  • Speaks in pop-culture references
  • Owns a hamburger-phone
  • Pregnant

…Because who doesn’t fancy Juno?

Okay, she’s not a true M.P.D.G. in that she doesn’t take her boy on a journey of infinite wonderful discovery. Which is mostly because: this isn’t Paulie Bleeker’s film, it’s Juno’s - clue’s in the title, dummy - and so she gets to control the viewpoint. It’s possible that an entirely hypothetical other film exists within this one, where we see it from Bleeker’s viewpoint and Juno is that girl.

But that doesn’t matter too much, because I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that as the trope has grown and seeped into reality, the cloud of traits around the M.P.D.G. begins to condense into solid totems, around which a generation of girls lay tribute. M.P.D.G. isn’t just a stock character anymore, it’s a series of tics and signifiers. It’s a lifestyle you can choose.

And if they’re doing that because it’s them, or they’re wearing an identity that works while they develop, cool. I mean, I’m an indie kid and I worship at the altar of Phonogram, how could I not be down with that?

It’s just … a lot of the time, it feels like ticking boxes.

(Film)stars & Stripes

And, at least as it seems from my own personal history, Juno was kind of the turning point. It an unexpected success, the quirky classy romcom come good. Of course, it didn’t take long for a backlash, featuring criticisms like people don’t really talk like that, or it’s too clever for it’s own good. Both of which are true, both of which miss the point. Characters in Juno – particularly Juno – act like real human beings. Admittedly, human beings who do things like put thousands of tic-tacs in each others’ mailboxes, but still.

Juno’s not “an all-or-nothing-proposition”, isn’t the kind of fantasy that exists only “in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors”. As far as Mark – Jason Bateman’s character – is convinced, Juno is a M.P.D.G. there to take him away from his boring, real life. But the film very clearly slams that idea shut on his fingers. But does she like the right bands? Yup. Is she a bit twee? Definitely. Is she quirky, and does she talk funny, and is she a bit weirdly sexy? Hell, yes.

What I’m talking about here starts to veer away from the M.P.D.G. as conceived by Nathan Rabin. Maybe we need a new definition. The things which were incidental - the clothes, the music, the quirky behaviour - have become The Thing itself. And Juno MacGuff is our Missing Link.

{2004 1/2}
Sam
AAAAAAH!

  • Loves the Shins
  • Compulsive liar
  • But no, seriously, really, loves the Shins.

“You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear.”

Sam is probably the single most mocked exampe of the M.P.D.G. archetype. She appears in our hero’s life and sweeps him away. Before you know it, the previously lithiumed-to-numbness Largeman (Zach Braff) is shouting unintelligible noises from the tops of burnt-out buses and basking in the glow of life. It’s a 100% straight-down the line portrayal of the M.P.D.G. and follows the Rabin definition precisely.

She’s a much less hateful character than Summer, but as I remember it (and I confess it’s been a while since I saw Garden State) she’s also less dimensioned. Sam is the perfect example of M.P.D.G. as a deus ex machina stock character, a collection of quirks and with a pretty face that pushes the character development of the male lead forward.

{2004}
Clementine Kruczynski

Wonder if she got the from the liberry?

  • Collection of potato-men
  • Funny name
  • Ever-changing hair colour

Sam pulls the boy forward into the world, she’s part of Zach Braff’s proposed ‘second puberty’. With Clementine, it’s nowhere near that simple. Eternal Sunshine, and the relationship it revolves around, is pulling in every direction at once.

I saw Garden State in a flurry of grabbing every film that loosely resembled Eternal Sunshine, after I fell deeply in love with it. For a brief, shining moment, my younger self felt like he’d discovered a whole new genre, the alternative romcom. This narrative begins, unequivocally, with Clementine Kruczynski.

Clementine works because she’s real. She is a Manic Pixie Girl, but she’s also a Woman. She’s bouncing off those all-important Expectations to create herself. There’s more to her than quirks and likes. She’s self-aware, and has a history, and a life outside of Carrey’s Joel. She’s contradictory, something underlined by the sharp cuts between distant timeframes. She is a person.

But no-one knows that better than Clementine:

“Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours.”

Thankyou for sticking with me. I realise it probably wasn’t easy, getting here, and for not bowing to the looming
spectre of tl;dr, I salute you. Hey, even if you’re just here for the crotch, thanks. Speaking of which…

More like Kate BUSH
Daddy don’t break no promises.


About The Author: Alex
About the author:
Alex Spencer likes girls. And
isn't that just so damn complicated?

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

ALEX's Best of ‘10: All Day

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Just/a/position: The Why of Girl Talk's All Day

All Day has gotten a lot of attention here at Alex-Spencer&Friends. Just yesterday, it received its own poem. We’ve looked at its finest moments. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the link is being passed around to those of our number who haven’t yet experienced it. (You can get it free, so there’s really no excuse.)


It’s a thousand parties given voice, on the run from the law. Right now, it’s possibly my favourite album of the year, despite actually only being actually one single song. Despite actually being two-thousand other songs. It’s the best pre-party record of all time...

So, it’s brilliant, okay? Miles has already dissected the highlights (just fyi, this post is going to be deeply in conversation with his, so I recommend going and checking it out if you haven’t already) and concluded that the appeal is “more simple than any ‘What is Girl Talk saying with this combination?’ nonsense”, which is fair enough. All Day is a hell of a feet-mover and hip-shaker, and that might be all you need to know.

However, as is my wont, I’m going to be contrary. Miles has done the how. I’m having a think about the why.

The mash-up form, as it appeared in the early ‘oos, is something I’ve never really ‘got’. They seem, to me, like a (post-)modern equivalent of novelty hits. Hearing two completely contradictory bands next to each other is played for laughs, right? It’s just novel to have Beyonce duetting with Kurt. It seems to encourage the idea of ‘real music’ over ‘guilty pleasures’. Isn’t it funny when the proper musicians stoop down to the level of popstars?

This is all personal preference/prejudice, remember. And I can see how it could maybe show a song through a new filter, maybe reveals some of the shared foundations and dirty tricks pop pulls across all of music. I’ve just never heard one that makes me feel that way.

...is how long you'll want to spend listening to this album

But then there was Girl Talk. All Day does seem to make an argument for a continuum of pop in which all genres are equal. First of all simply by the sheer mass of songs and types of songs it is made up of. This creates a universe within the album, a patchwork of hundreds of songs. But more key is how it uses them: that patchwork is an entity completely separated from most of the songs that comprise it. Songs are used more like samples in early 90s hip-hop, where they created a backdrop to the raps and squeezed fresh life out of long-dormant songs. Or like in DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing where an entire album is built out of (largely unrecognisable) scraps.

And it does all this as a celebration. There’s no sneer on the face of All Day. The secret origins and histories of its component parts occasionally inform the joy of listening to it, enhance or change your reading of it. Rude Boy is one of my favourite songs of 2010, but I’m not familiar with Waiting Room. So, the idea of Rihanna as the vocalist of Fugazi means little to me. Not so Miles.

But I like hearing Rude Boy, in any situation. All Day does the basic curation thing that sampling tends towards: this is good stuff, or interesting stuff, or the good bit of a song where the rest fails. The timeliness, I reckon, is a big factor in our obsession with this album. It dropped a scant month ago, right as we entered this period of reflectiveness. It’s as good as any way of gauging the music landscape right now, and squeezes absolutely everything you could need in an end-of-year roundup into less than an hour.

Sometimes I worry about myself...

Not that the majority of the samples are from the last year so much as it offers a history of everything it’s taken us to get to this point – from XXX to Willow Smith. And that history suggests a possible present. A musical world that could exist, right now. If only. A world where pop is equally informed by old-school hip hop and old pop music? That’s world I’d take, every time.

All Day does all the other stuff that mash-ups and samples can do, with added finesse. Occasionally, two songs running alongside one another offer a laugh – Dancing in the Dark riffs against All The Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom by N.E.R.D. is just funny. But it also makes Springsteen sound that little bit more epic. Or it puts a popular song through a new filter: putting Bad Romance against Aphex Twin brings out that dark side that I think a lot of casual Gagaites like myself want more of from the Lady herself. But that’s just hinted at in a momentary snatch that leaves anticipatory saliva on the lips.

And that’s just one aspect of it. On one level, it’s a joke. On another, maybe it’s a ironic self-aware dissection of pop, rap, and everything else it assimilates into its mass. On another, it’s about putting a 19 year-old Kylie fronting a heavy-metal band. But mostly importantly... another uninteresting thing about the traditional mash-up, one song playing against another, is that they tend to rely on you liking at least one of the songs. At its very best, Girl Talk takes songs you don’t like and somehow makes something great of them. That’s not a mash-up, that’s alchemy of the highest order.

Mash-up making meaning? That’s just a bonus. Great rap over your favourite songs. It’s magic. Get your damn hands up.


About The Author: Alex

About the author:
Alex Spencer's interests include: anything
which is ambitious/stupid enough to count
as heroic, if only to himself.
He is looking for
readers with a gsoh and who enjoy long
walks and pretentious music-journalism.

Monday, 27 December 2010

TIM: Best Album Haikus

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The Best Albums of 2010, in the Form of Haiku


SLEIGH BELLS – TREATS
Blow out your speakers
Speak in tongues and playground chants
God’s own beat moves feet
The City So Good They Put It On A Hat
JANELLE MONAE – THE ARCHANDROID
Future saviour brings
Swirl of sounds and mighty voice
Stands astride genres

LOS CAMPESINOS! – ROMANCE IS BORING
Strings, horns, distortion
Regret is our seaside town
New lows our new heights

TRENT REZNOR & ATTICUS ROSS – THE SOCIAL NETWORK SOUNDTRACK
Wintry obsession
Quiet hum of minds at work
Fear burns slow and long
Doesn't look very social...
GIRL TALK – ALL DAY
Mash-up makes meaning
Ten thousand parties find voice
Get your damn hands up
AboutAuthorTim
About the author:

Tim Maytom is a twisted genius of the type
this website can only respect and celebrate.
Society at large, meanwhile, shuns his dark
briliance. And so Tim pulls down his mask,
applies his goggles, and is forced into hiding
along with his genetically-engineered pet cat
and loyal workforce of faceless clones.
Regardless, he keeps up regular broadcast
from his volcano lair at trivia-lad.tumblr.com

Saturday, 25 December 2010

DAV's Tech 2010 Overview

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Merry Xmas, one and all of Alex’s festive (synonym: drunk) readers. While you are inevitably sipping on some form of alcoholic beverage, waiting for Doctor Who to come on and playing with your new aquistitions from some distant relative you’d forgotten exists (and to whom you're pretty sure you have no blood relation), I present to you my addition to this mighty blog.

My topic is that which the lucky (or unlucky) ones of you will have unwrapped this morning and are currently wrapping your head around. Technology. 2010 has been a very interesting year for new tech and I will discuss but two of the newcomers to the field here on this, the 200th birthday of Alexandros Rhizos Rhankaves, Greek poet and statesman (d. 1892). First, Evil Corp. USA (aka Apple)’s flagship product – the infamous iPad.

i-flippin'-Pad

iPad

With prices starting at a lovingly overpriced £429, the iPad is literally nothing more than an oversized iPod Touch. Boasting the same processor, memory, storage capacity and operating system as the only difference between the two devices other than the £250 disparity in price (£499 for 32GB iPad vs. £249 for 32GB iPod Touch) is the fact that the iPad is missing the camera. Oh, and the size.

Don’t listen to what people say: size does matter. It matters in the way that, for what is effectively a portable device, the iPad is extremely unportable. iPad users’ can often be found sitting on trains, cradling their love in one arm while trying to type website addresses on its non-haptic screen with one hand, or crouched over the table in front of them with the device laying flat. Contrary to what adverts may suggest, it is not a breeze to use but rather has the ergonomic ease of walking straight into a gale-force wind.

Of course, you could always buy the keyboard for the iPad, creating a perfect stand for your device and allowing you to type with two hands. It’s the obvious accessory to buy your iPad-endowed friend. But in the end, you’re left thinking... haven’t I seen this before?

You do have to hand it to Apple though; they have sparked a market for this kind of device. Not to be left behind, every electrical company under the planet (exaggeration) has produced their own emulation of the iPad. Nothing overly spectacular has come of this yet. This is still a product in its infancy, only time will tell if the campaign to get a tablet for every child will succeed or whether the skips of 2011 will be filled with Apple's legacy.

The Green Eye of Death
The Kinect
“A-ha!” thought the evil scientists at Sony, “Nintendo will cower in our shadow for we have created a superior controller! Gone are the days of people only being able to play motion-controlled tennis games on the Wii! Once again, we will control the market!”

“Oh shit” thought the evil scientists at Sony, when Microsoft announced Project Natal, which would later become the Kinect.

The Kinect is the coolest thing to come out of the gaming sector in a long time. Sure it’s a little laggy, but who cares when it’s doing effectively what would people would be burned for witchcraft for not 10 years ago. Sure there’s no games that I would buy for it, but that’s not the point. The Kinect is what it is, and what it is, is what butter was to sliced bread. Sliced bread was good, it was great, it was the best thing ever. But it needed something more, just a small addition to make it that perfect complete package that we all know and love.

Now, I’m not saying that the Xbox is sliced bread. Far from it. I’m saying computers are sliced bread (albeit sliced by a blind, dyspraxic hamster). The Kinect, thanks to the developers releasing a SDK for it, have given nerds everywhere a toy to play with. A toy which will help you, oh lowly user, do what you have dreamed of doing since 2002:

So that’s it. Merry xmas and peas on earth (as the card to my cousin, with an image of some peas on a mound of soil, states).


AboutAuthorTim
About the author:

David Inkpen is a man with serious brand
prejudices. Luckily, as far as this site is concerned,
they are the right prejudices. Like Sam Lewis, he
is a handsome member of The July Days. Unlike Mr.
Lewis, he has his own, sadly undernourished, blog.

Friday, 24 December 2010

TEAM &-FRIENDS!: The Christmas Question

Multiplayer!
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In which we set our brave contributors a question, and they attempt to give a semi-structured intelligible answer. And the question is...
What are your essential pieces of Christmas popculture?

Sam Lewis:
My favourite piece of Christmas pop culture has to be Die Hard.

Sure, it might not be directly be about Christmas. It wasn't released in time for Christmas (3 February 1988 if you want to be geeky), it's primarily about one man taking on a group of terrorists, and there isn't any holly or a single drummer-boy to be seen.
Ho Ho Ho
However, in many other ways it is exactly what Christmas is about. John McClane (Bruce Willis) has travelled to LA on Christmas Eve to be reunited with his estranged wife at her work Christmas party. Love is rekindled, everyone is drinking and being merry, and snow is falling. It sounds like a Christmas card, until it gets ruined by a group of terrorists mercilessly taking everyone hostage, executing members of the group and demanding $640 million in bearer bonds. The Christmas spirit is challenged by the selfish and the greedy. It's like the Grinch, but if he had an accent and an AK-47.

If you aren't convinced by this interpretation, know that it reminds me of Christmas for other reasons. Without sounding too old, Christmas TV today isn't what it used to be. I once spent hours poring over the bumper Christmas TV Guide with a pen organising a recording schedule, before telling my Dad how many VHS tapes he needed to add to the shopping list. Unbelievably, I still have the Die Hard VHS taped from ITV and it is one of my most watched. It's my favourite action film by quite a distance; a simple concept well done. Christmas simply wouldn't be Christmas without Die Hard.

Alex Spencer:
Remember when I opened the ...&-Friends! season with a piece on Christmas songs (and the attendant problems)? If you want to simulate the Alex-Spencer Christmas Experience (and why the hell wouldn't you?), that came with its own Spotify playlist. I think it's important that everyone listen to the Pokemon Christmas Bash album, however, which is both hugely, fittingly novel and surprisingly catchy.

Battling for the position of Most Prominent Festive Medium is the Christmas film. I'd obviously pick A Muppet Christmas Carol which, regardless of the Lovely Girlfriend's crippling Muppetophobia, I have already watched once this holiday, and aim to watch again before the Actual Big Day (which gives me, what, around 18 hours and counting...).

But being entirely truthful? As usual, it all comes down to a videogame.

Four Christmasses ago, a big box-shaped present lies under the tree. The idea of a second console had been much grumbled about. Enter the Wii Sports series.
The Quickest Way To Destroy Relationships Wii
That Christmas Day, a common narrative unfolded, as it did in thousands of other households. My parents got their hands on Wii Tennis, and that was it. Before you knew it, the whole extended family had Miis and were trading tips about bowling ("no, you've got to press right and then curve left"). It's one of the few times videogames have ever been allowed to dominate my family's living room space, and everytime I come home for Christmas, the Wii comes with me.

Nowadays, Christmas Eve is nothing without the post-curry competitive bouts of Golf between my dad and Dom. Family life is organised around a quick spot of Wii Tennis. We all spend the holidays honing our skills in a series of virtual sports, until the time comes to wave a teary goodbye to everyone's favourite little white box.

I think this is a pretty common experience. I think Wii Sports have received short shrift in the years since it first emerged. It was a thrilling novelty, to be sure, and it remains the one game a lot of the older generation will play. But I think people miss that there's more: the classic Nintendo design that permeates both games. Things unlock slowly and in the background, not signposted or driving the addicted playing, just there. Since Wii Sports Resort entered my life this time last year, I've grown a real fondness for its island setting. It probably seems insane to say but the Resort island is probably one of my favourite gaming spaces ever. Forget Liberty City and Hyrule. It's a hyper-compacted world which is only hinted at in the majority of the game, but which places the dozen activities in a real, logical space far removed from the world outside the frosty windows.

At the moment, my festive thrills are largely to be found in Resort's 'Island Flyover' mode, which puts a plane between your thumb and forefinger. It's a very slow plane, and it's not perfect to control. But exploring the Resort island, ticking off place markers one by one, and being rewarded with a quick two-line description (warmly, wittily simple, in the traditional Nintendo mould) is about the most relaxing gaming experience I've had. Pop on that Christmas playlist, melt into the sofa, and feel the Christmas spirit.
A land of dreams

Tim Mayton:
Coca-Cola holds too much sway over Christmas. They were responsible for changing Santa’s outfit from green to red, and nowadays thousands of people across the nation proclaim, “It’s not Christmas until the Coca-Cola advert has been on TV!”. Maybe if they were still using the advert I remember from my childhood, I’d be one of these people, but they keep tinkering with it for maximum saccharine impact, and it now just feels like a callous viral marketing trick, some kind of Pavlovian response we’ve been hoodwinked into.

No, for me, if you’re going to define the festive season with an advert, it’s Mr Frosty.

Mr Frosty is such fun! He makes treats for everyone! Or so the adverts would have us believe, in their 80s-tacular way. This twenty second slice of absolute cheese has remained the same for the entirety of my life, and can still occasionally be found on kids' channels near Christmas. Each year it becomes increasingly hard to track down, but it’ll be there somewhere. To me, it’s emblematic of the ultra-commercialisation of Christmas, when a 20-year-old toy can once again be wheeled out to squeeze a bit more profit from a new generation. It wasn’t that impressive when I was a kid, and it sure as hell isn’t now. Still, if I can stumble upon it on a December morning, I know that the festive season is truly upon us.

On a more positive note, to me there is only one true Christmas film – Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. Described by a critic as “money grabbing sequelitis at its most pathetic”, it nonetheless has a hold on the festive part of my brain. I watched it again recently, to get myself in the Christmassy mood before decorating our living room, and it still holds up. It’s the film that started my still-burning desire to visit New York; in Macaulay Culkin it has a child star far more palatable and charming than any of the Disney Channel legion of clones, and it features people being hit in the head and falling over. As I noted on my blog when looking at the Jackass 3D trailer, this is Never Not Funny.

AboutAuthorLewisAbout The Author: AlexAboutAuthorTim

Thursday, 23 December 2010

MILES: The Ten Best Moments on All Day, in Chronological Order

[You have selected: Miles Bradley]
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The Ten Best Moments on Girl Talk’s “All Day”, in Chronological Order
Girl Talk’s All Day [which can be gotten here for free] is better than Night Ripper but not as good as Feed the Animals, which is okay because Feed the Animals is the best party record of all time, making this the best pre-party record of all time. These are the ten best bits (cf: Tom Ewing being much smarter than me), in order of appearance, because while Girl Talk specifies that All Day is supposed to function as a single piece, it is (as with any of his ADD mash-up masterpieces) all about the little moments:

1. Jay Z’s Can I Get A... vs General Public’s Tenderness- You know, that song from the end of Clueless. Makes Jay’s complaints about gold-diggers sound more like a plea for genuine affection than a misogynistic rant against girls who’ll only give it up if you’re paying their bills. Essentially the climax coming out of the breakdown – “Where is your tenderness? Your tenderness? – Can I get a fuck you?”. That juxtaposition is very, very pleasing.
2. Beck’s Loser vs Wale’s Pretty Girls – on one level, a joke (Pitchfork’s review read it this way): Wale is not the biggest rapper in the world and is perhaps not in a position to be as openly obnoxious as this (“Ugly girls be quiet, pretty girls clap like this”) so “Loser” sets up his rap as some sort of ironic selfaware dissection or perhaps just Girl Talk calling him on his shit. On another level, it’s a good verse set to a great beat. There’s just something joyous about when that guitar loop drops in. SOY UN PEREDOOOOR.
3. Rihannah’s Rude Boy vs Fugazi’s Waiting Room – That bass line is powerful. Even if you’ve never heard “Waiting Room” you can’t help but think you recognise that bass line because it’s so damn good. Meanwhile Rihanna’s taking a sub lyric and giving it a dom vocal performance, so the whole thing is pleasingly sexy in a switchy way, especially when partnered with the aggroswagger of the music. Much like Paul Morely’s observation that the best thing about Can’t Get Blue Monday Out Of My Head is the idea of Kylie fronting New Order, the idea of Rihanna being the vocalist of Fugazi is pretty thrilling.
4. Beastie Boys vs Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life – Everyone partying all at once, while on the run from the law.
...is how long you'll want to spend listening to this album
5. Lil Wayne vs New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle The intro to Bizarre Love Triangle isn’t a million miles away from a sped-up and scratched take on the one-note bassline from A Milli. One of the best rappers going in over one of my favourite songs. Simple.
6. Twista vs U2 – Twista is not a fantastic rapper, U2 is not a great band. And yet somehow this is stirring, and anthemic and sets Twista’s promises to uh, you know, “make you wet” as a thing of world-saving life-altering importance. Bono should only ever sing wordless vocals.
7. Rye Rye vs Rage Against the Machine – In a choice between our world and one where Rage Against the Machine is fronted by a 19 year old woman who can actually rap, I’d take the other every time. Even if there was some weird catch, like, in the alternate world men had to sit down to pee. It’d be worth it.
8. N.E.R.D. vs Bruce Springsteen – I don’t even know. It just makes a lot of dumb sense.
9. Drake vs Flock of Seagulls – Stadium rap, meet stadium rock, I think the two of you are going to get along very, very well. I really like fast hip-hop and Drake (who I’m quite fond of) has too many too slow beats, so it’s nice to hear him over something quicker and easier to dance to.
10. Jay-Z’s Dirt Off Your Shoulder vs Modern English’s Melt With You - Isn’t this where we came in? Modern English soften things up and speed things up. That little breakdown is such a wonderfully odd moment with the ME gents gently cooing while Jay does the bit about how he’s internationally recognised but still true to his roots. But again, really, it’s more simple than any “What is Girl Talk saying with this combination?” nonsense – it’s a great rap run over a great instrumental. And you can dance to it.
We Were Your Friends (beforeyruntimelydemise)
Other micro-highlights include the deployment of Phoenix’s ever joyous 1901, two second snatches of Diva and Whip My Hair and the very beginning of The Rapture’s immortal House of Jealous lovers thrown around a similarly short snatch of Usher’s OMG. Girl Talk: Everything all of the time and always brilliant. Even when sampling Ke$ha.

AboutAuthorTim
About the author:

Miles Bradley is headed towards becoming, at least
in my head, the 21st Century's foremost man of letters.
The question/answer sessions on his Tumblr are almost
unnecessarily beautifully written and pretty consistently
insightful. The rest of his blog merely collects everything that's
important about the internet and packs it, Archivist-style, into
one convenient space. He is also my favourite ever dancer.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

COWLEY: Gifts for the Music Enthusiast/Talentless Scenester

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[
You have selected... huh, what this??]

Wild Cowley
...Sam Cowley appeared!

Gifts for the Music Enthusiast/Talentless Scenester

Like myself, you have probably spent the last few weeks either deliberating over potential Christmas presents or guiltily putting off thinking about what to get your loved ones. Other people are just far too hard to buy for. How to resist some form of scented soap for your mum, or bottle of whisky for your dad? Now if I was buying for myself or cared enough about any of my friends with similar taste, here are a few items I would snap up in a second.

The Ninja Tune XX Box Set

Ninja! Yo!

Ninja Tune is one of the coolest independent record labels that we can boast as a nation. They have a sprawling and magnificent back catalogue, which charts the fertile ground where electronic and bass music meet alternative Hip Hop.

At £100 their XX Box Set is definitely a gift for someone who bloody deserves it; but rest assured it is a solid investment, which will bring years of listening pleasure and serious music education.

All of the music in the package is 100% exclusive to the set and features: six CD compilations, six 7” singles, two 12” singles, membership to Ninja Tune VIP (which gives you access to a world of free music in the future), a hardback book and a Ninja Tune Family Tree poster and Artwork poster. Quite simply, it is an overwhelming amount of amazing music and paraphernalia. Maybe you could all club together and buy me it?

All the pretty discs

Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX ‘We’re New Here’ Limited Edition Box Set

Now this is quite an odd one: it is not actually available until early February, but hear me out. More and more in recent years I have been giving out presents that are either non-existent or unprepared for a number of months after Christmas (insufficiently infused Sloe Gin from last year and Vanilla Essence from this). IOU. presents if you will. While this certainly has more to do with my lack of foresight, I like to think that these are the gifts that keep on giving. When the recipient received the unfinished product or promise of future present, they will be almost as excited as if receiving the real thing (honest), they will have a few months of excited (not frustrated) anticipation and finally a glorious second Christmas once they are finally able to enjoy the finished/arrived present. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, to the boxset! If you missed out on Gil Scott-Heron’s powerful comeback album I’m New Here earlier this year, then what are you doing? Close this page [going via Sam Lewis’ fine post] and download/buy/beg/steal/borrow… now!

Right, hi there. Amazing isn’t it? Good. Now imagine that brooding, dark and minimal record remixed in its entirety by a master of brooding, dark minimalism. That would be sweet, no? Well imagine no longer. Jamie XX has had his way with the album and added a heck of a lot of stripped back dubstep and minimal electro. You can hear the first release, ‘New York is Killing Me’, here.

Gil

The Box Set itself includes: the CD album, a CD of instrumentals and beats from the album, two Heavy Weight Vinyl LPs in pink and green, and two Photographic Prints. If you pre-order the box set now you will also receive a free download of New York is Killing Me.

Some friends and I recently pre-ordered this for a friend’s birthday and he was so grateful it was quite frankly awkward. We didn’t know if he was going to cry, hug us or go to town on our genitals. You can recreate this flood of conflicting emotions by ordering the boxset here. Probably best not for family members though. It could get weird.

Novation Dicer Midi Controller

Button pressin'

My throbbing desire for this piece of kit can be best explained as the inverse of ‘a bad workman blames his tools’. I am not a good DJ, in fact I probably just straight up am not a DJ. But every fibre of my being wants these. If I had them I just know I would be releasing tracks on Ninja Tune by the time We’re New Here is released.

This is, of course, not the case. If I did own them, I would not have the first idea what to do with them, my ownership of them instantly sparking a serious depression as I realise the scale of my own talentlessness.

…But my word, how pretty. The idea is that you use them with other complicated technology that effectively turns vinyl turntables into a digital interface. They cue up samples loops etc. Now, I have a pretty shaky understanding of what I just said, but none the less I am very aroused.

So if you know someone who seems like they know their way around any form of DJ technology, they will probably weep tears of lust when presented with these. Sure they won't be able to do a thing with them, but that is most certainly not the point.

Tonium Pacemaker 60GB Handheld DJ Console

Gadget Porn

Now this gadget ticks many of the same boxes as the Dicers. I have included them because a) I feel like I might be able to achieve some basic level of competence with it (and if I can do it…) and b) it is gloriously scenestery. The Pacemaker is effectively the DJ’s iPod, allowing you to do everything from practice mixing MP3s on the bus, to actually performing live from the palm of your hand. It is essentially the coolest DJ gadget ever invented.

Now, this is important. Have you watched Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’ crushing satirical attack on modern culture, Nathan Barley? No? Well, you know the score. Off you go...

Pout

Right then. It’s just as relevant now as it was in 2005, it is basically dealing with the same phenomenon as the popular YouTube video ‘Being a dickhead’s cool’ and numerous recent articles attacking hipsters.

I invoke the “meaningless, strutting, cadaver-in-waiting” Nathan Barley for a reason. He was the proud owner of the Wasp T12 Speachtool which featured, amongst other things, twin MP3 decks with Scrubjockey Interface. However hard I try, I am unable to escape the spectre of Brooker and Morris’ satire. Even as I think ‘wow a handheld DJ console, that sounds amazing’, Barley’s rictus grin sears into my brain and I realise what a dreadful talentless hipster I truly am.

But come on, it looks well weapon.



AboutAuthorCowley
About the author:
Sam Cowley is the kind of man who attracts
questions. Is he a good person? Is he a hipster?
Are the two things mutually exclusive? And, most
importantly, why is he so damn' handsome? Like
any good man of mystery, he chooses not to answer
any of the questions, instead preferring to communicate
through the medium of tearing peoples' underpants off
with his bare hands. Also, on his newly-founded blog.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

ALEX’s Best Of 2010: A Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

[You have selected: Alex Spencer]

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Looking back at the end of a year, it’s always music that takes the lion’s share of attention. That’s because it’s easy to look back on a period soundtracked by a single album; it’s easy to hear a single so much it’s driven deep into your brain. (More or less the same way that books monopolise places: that beach where I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay. Train journeys and road trips easily become monuments to favourite reads, and re-reads... But that’s a story for another time.)
Point is: Films, and especially games, don’t get the same treatment. That’s a lot to do with their inherent nature (similar to my conclusions after a Summer With No Games). They are, respectively, a quick burst/an extended period of sitting in a dark room. There’s not much to hold onto, memory-wise.
The name of the game
Except: Solium Infernum was the soundtrack to my spring. For a good three months, it permeated the majority of my thoughts as I slipped off to sleep. It dominated living-room conversation (and so, like the album your neighbour constantly turns up to obnoxious volume, probably seeped into defining that period for the annoyed non-players in my house too).
There are a lot of reasons for this. To help explain them, I should probably lay out exactly what Solium Infernum is. A multiplayer board game, except with computers and mice instead of dice and sunshine-faded cardboard. To look over someone’s shoulder, the game appears completely harmless. Just some pieces, dragged across a map, and a lot of numbers. Except that it’s a game about politics and in-fighting, which makes it even more fitting for the time it defines, probably. It’s a game set in Hell.
Home, home on the raaaange
Solium Infernum gives you very little story. It gives you a beginning, one familiar to any player versed in our cultural past, from Milton's Paradise Lost to Dante’s L’Inferno; Gaiman's Sandman to... er, Sandler's Little Nicky. Over in Hell, Satan got bored, decided he was about due a holiday, and abdicated the throne. You’re cast as one of the many demon lords who’ve decided they'd like a piece of this pie for themselves.
From there, you have to make it up yourself. Which you do in turns, slowly gathering resources, moving units, and threatening your fellow demons in an attempt to gather as much prestige as possible. So you advance across empty wastelands, take fortresses and monuments by force and carve up the Unholy Land between yourselves.
It’s an incredibly slow game, especially when played with others. It relies on email, meaning the progress of a Solium Infernum game can be agonising. On a good day, you’ll get to play twenty evenly-spaced three-minute turns, in which you can perform two actions. More realistically, on a day where at least one player actually has a social life, it’s more like one turn the moment you wake up, fifty impatient checks of your email, and one in the early hours when the last player finally gets in and thinks to check their inbox.
This is literally as exciting as it gets
This can be absolutely agonising. It’s also the defining feature of the game. Because it undermines the rules of what a game is, in terms of time. Those twenty three-minute bursts replace one two-hour session. This moves it closer to the territory of pop music, the repetition that gets the listener hooked. And Solium Infernum is all hooks.
Because, ultimately, the game relies on one universally appealing thing: the opportunity to screw your friends over in increasingly torturous way. Everything is carefully placed so you have to be – at best – mean, or – more likely – incredibly sneaky to win.
This isn’t a game about battles: to get into a scrap with your neighbour, you have to initiate a Vendetta, either by provoking them with insults, or forcing them to provoke you by refusing your perfectly reasonable requests for half their resources. Which sounds very complex, and to certain extent it is.
But quickly the desire to succeed drives you into the rhythm of covert diplomacy, dodgy deals, and mind-games. Not success as in winning, but as in scoring another hit. The moment that, in the game, you pull out of a deal, leave your ‘ally’ suddenly alone with four other rivals, and run off with all the equipment they lent you. The moment that, at your computer, you laugh maniacally until you catch yourself and think, am I actually evil?
Victory!
Which is unique, as far as I can tell: Milton might have used the epic form to create sympathy for the devil, but Solium Infernum borrows from the tradition of Theme Hospital to really force you into that pantomime-villain role. I’ve never been one for role-playing games: it all feels too much like silly play-acting, whether you’ve got a controller in your hand or are sitting round a table in a cloak. Solium Infernum pushes role-playing into your life. The game doesn’t really exist in those three-minute bursts. The game lives in the moments between: the scheming emails and texts, guessing at plans over a drink and, best of all, seeing the friend that you completely irreversibly screwed over last night weeping into his breakfast cereal.
It’s not unreasonable to say that Solium Infernum made me a worse person for those three months. I’d suggest it gave me a harmless medium to enact my cruel pranks and be really hilariously mean to my friends. But, then again, that would imply Solium Infernum is totally harmless, wouldn’t it?
About The Author: Alex

About the author:
Alex Spencer isn't evil. Honest. Just ask his mom.
He may have punted a kitten off a
bridge that once,
but there were mitigating circumstances. He bears the
badge of being the least cool person writing for this
website right now not as a burden, but with pride.
...Ooh, shiny badge!

About Me

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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.