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by Jennifer Cooke

3 Nov 2009

In honor of the 15th anniversary of its release, Blur’s Parklife has gotten a lot of extra play on my iPod lately. 1990s Britpop comprises an alarming percentage of my life’s all-time hit parade, with the bulk of it emerging from smack in the middle of that decade—Oasis’s What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?; Supergrass’s I Should Coco; Bluetones’s Expecting to Fly; Seahorses’ Do It Yourself. And Parklife is noteworthy for the fact that it is the only Blur CD I love. In fact, it is the only Blur CD I like. If we’re really getting honest here, it is the only Blur CD that doesn’t put me to sleep.

I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, as Parklife remains the band’s best-selling release. It was my first introduction to the band, their two previous discs having somehow eluded me. Lots of people feel partial to their first taste of a favorite band—usually not to the complete exclusion of the rest of their catalogue, however. I really tried!  After Parklife grabbed me and took up permanent residence in my collection, I marched right out and got Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish. Later, I faithfully lined up when The Great Escape and all subsequent releases came out. They all ended up in the resale pile.

Modern Life Is Rubbish is the one that comes closest to Parklife‘s greatness. “Advert” is in the same vein as the exuberantly manic “Bank Holiday”, but just doesn’t take it far enough. Vocalist/lyricist Damon Albarn’s party trick, Songs About Guys with Funny Names, started with Rubbish‘s “Colin Zeal”, and continued on through later releases with “Ernold Same” and “Dan Abnormal”. But it is on Parklife, with “Jubilee” and “Tracy Jacks” (and even Bill Barrett from “Magic America”) that Albarn’s characters are the most fleshed out, the funniest, and the most tragic.

The bottom line is this: what Parklife has that none of Blur’s other records have is balls. I don’t know if the band let up on the weed-smoking or had a brief fling with amphetamines during its recording, but everything else these dudes ever made is a crashing bore to me. Sure, “Song 2” is a crowd-pleaser that will never fail to get me pumped up for the hockey game, but that’s about it. Parklife is like a dream date—it’s smart, it’s funny, it rocks, it’s tender, it gets your blood pumping, and when it’s over, you can’t wait to do it all over again.

by Andrew Martin

3 Nov 2009

This multi-talented beast of a producer offers up his latest project, ...Just Visiting Too, for free. It’s a collection of seven covers that include tracks from Stevie Wonder to Prince. Zo! gets some help from his cohorts in the Foreign Exchange crew, such as Phonte, Yahzarah, Carlitta Durand, and Darien Brockington. If you are looking for a smooth musical boost in the morning, this is just what you need.

by Rob Horning

3 Nov 2009

Lane Kenworthy linked to this NYT article by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (pioneer of the concept of “emotion work”—the often uncompensated labor of managing emotions to allow for social relations and market exchanges to transpire). The article offers an explanation of why Americans rank marriage’s importance so highly yet divorce more frequently than citizens of other nations.

Why are Americans on this marriage-go-round? Is it the “restless temper” Alexis de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago? It is true, Cherlin observes, that more than people elsewhere, we move from job to job, city to city, and even church to church. Could this be linked to a missing government safety net and ­family-protective policies? Cherlin gives little credence to this idea, but he leaves us with another useful notion — that more than we realize, we’ve become accustomed to a move-along life-go-round world.

That is of a piece with the theory that technology has made possible the marketing-driven acceleration of the pace of consumption at all levels of social life. Hochschild cites Juliet Schor who “shows in her research on ‘fast fashion’ that we consume and discard dresses, shoes, toys, furniture and cellphones at a quicker pace than we did in the past.“Spouses are just another product we are encourage to consume quickly and move on from—after all, think of all the associated consumption that is driven by courtship and wedding rituals. Why not cycle people through those as often as possible? It’s a win-win, right? Everyone enjoys the whirlwind of romance, being the center of their own drama that climaxes with a big party.

Hochschild supplies some context for that idea:

Could this “fast-fashion” culture be filtering into our ideas about human connection? On Internet sites and television shows, we watch potential partners searching “through the rack” of dozens of beauties or possible beaus. Some go on “speed dates”; others go to “eye-gazing parties” — two minutes per gaze, 15 gazes — to find that special someone. If advertisers first exploited the “restless spirit” by guiding consumers’ attention to the next new thing, a market spirit now guides our search for the next new love. The culprit is not the absence of family values, I believe, but a continual state of unconscious immersion in a market turnover culture.

It does seem that this is so, though the key idea here is that market turnover has become identity turnover, and that identity turnover proceeds whether or not it remains a market imperative. As I’ve been arguing in the past few posts, impersonal cash markets have given way to embedded markets in which subjects try to maximize their selfhood in a public forum, commanding resources to serve that end and turning attention, status, etc, into more explicit forms of currency.

The problem is that we have shifted retail consumption into the public sphere, when markets once were making it private. The cash economy democratized consumption, but social networking,etc. is resocializing it within a commercial matrix. Our self-publicized consumption is more susceptible to fast-fashion acceleration, as the signifying power of consumption gestures is relative to who else has made similar gestures and so on. The meaning in the gestures therefore have only brief shelf life. Identity needs more and different things to consume and display more rapidly—it needs more things to share. Yet the alibi of sharing hides how voracious the appetite for novelty has become.

by Samantha Leal

3 Nov 2009

At their October 31st show at the Louisville Palace, supergroup Monsters of Folk channeled the rock gods KISS, complete with chains and eight-inch heels. Check out the fan video below.

by L.B. Jeffries

3 Nov 2009

A while back I was lucky enough to be asked to talk about what had caught my interest in the 2009 crop of video games for a Brainy Gamer podcast. The thing that caught my eye at that point was the curious rejection of a particular brand of FPS that was prevalent on the Wii and DS. Due to the technical limitations of these platforms, a game like The Conduit mostly takes place in hallways and arena structures. You’re always in a never-ending bunker, sewer, or science lab in the game. Another example would be the FPS titles like C.O.R.E. or Dementium: The Ward, which are also mostly indoor experiences. What was curious was that all of these games are receiving average scores on metacritic. In my review of The Conduit I pointed out that it mostly played like a game from 2000 or so. The same could be said about the DS titles, their level design and gameplay immediately bring to mind the old FPS days of Quake or even Doom. The player runs about a maze-like space, fighting monsters as they go, and unlock doors and flip switches to progress. What’s odd is that in an industry whose love of nostalgia can drive sales and scores of games like Shadow Complex and Mega Man 9, why is that one particular game design of fighting through indoor mazes mostly rejected? In what way has the design of the FPS moved on in the past ten years?

From http://www.khaldea.com

From http://www.khaldea.com

The initial answer would just be a common sense one: spatially comprehending and navigating a maze is easier to do in 2-D (or 2.5?) than from the FPS perspective. A wide open space is much easier to process mentally and navigate than a series of hallways that you are meant to sequentially enter. An interesting example of a modern game that still relies on the old formula is the F.E.A.R. series. Relying on a complex AI to create a game that’s chiefly about strategic squad encounters, the game’s levels are almost Kafka-esque for how much time you spend wandering around endless government buildings. In a write-up on the level design in F.E.A.R. 2, Steve Gaynor comments that the game is too linear in the options it gives players. You just walk into a room full of enemies and they start shooting at you. He writes, “Conversely, the best space is arena-like and varied, with an emphasis on flanking opportunities. The closer any given encounter space drifts towards the hallway model, the less interesting the gameplay there is going to be.” He applies all of this to a map that orients itself around a central point which is the conflict. Instead of being a line that you plod through, it’s a circle with varying degrees of cover and methods of engagement. He writes, “The most useful cover should be placed in the arena’s mid-orbital, the dense ring between the outer edge and the central point of the encounter space. This encourages the player to move into the thick of the action instead of hanging on the periphery, and leaves the central dead zone as a no-man’s land that remains risky to advance through, encouraging circular navigation.”

What Gaynor is describing is essentially an emergent form of level design, a principle best explained by Jesper Juul in his book half-real. You create a series of rules that link together in terms of strengths of weaknesses (think rock, paper, scissors) and then continue to compound and expand those rules into an elaborate web. Not all game elements have a direct strength/weakness relationship, but they are interlinked by mutual ludic aspects. Once you start making the focus of your game be about choices instead of linear engagement after linear engagement, you have to adopt new techniques for communicating information. Look at a design doc from a 2003 retrospective on Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, the level is essentially a long corridor that twists back and forth. An emergent level instead operates by creating a large and easily navigable series of clusters. In these levels the player never goes from room to room, you instead create a central space and then outlying rooms to explore. Citing another post by Gaynor on Bioshock, he explains the new principle behind this kind of level, “Minor spaces are always closer to major spaces than they are to other minor spaces—the player always passes through the hub to get to another spoke. The player never proceeds directly from spoke to spoke, getting lost without an identifiable anchor space to reorient themselves by.” Like the conflict nexus and circular structure of a well-designed combat situation, an entire level mirrors this same principle.

From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra

From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra

This is not to say that the linear structure has been abandoned, just that it has evolved far beyond its hallway roots. A game like Call of Duty 4 uses what might be described as a theme park ride approach to level design. The player will usually move down a wide corridor with multiple setpieces that travel between more emergent encounters like the one Gaynor describes. A careful visual language, pioneered by Valve and earlier games, helps orient the player to what they should be looking at. In that post, Matthew Gallant explains how Valve will have a flock of birds take off from a key passage or item to catch the player’s eye. Ammo and health items are often also placed where they can seen to attract the player’s interest. The player is still inside a big artificial hallway, but it feels real because they can explore the stage while being guided by a trail of visual and ludic bread crumbs. Call of Duty games also accomplish this feat by imposing objectives (like put a sticky bomb on this tank) or just having endless enemies shoot at you until you hit cover. Although not quite a wheel & spoke level, these games are incorporating tiny moments of emergent gameplay.

What defines the modern FPS, as opposed to similar games from even a mere decade ago, is the ability to break outside a linear path. One of the best analogies I’ve read on this modern take is from Michael Licht’s  Star Wars: Bounty Hunter retrospective. He compares brief bursts of player choice to soloing in jazz music. Licht explains, “When a Jazz musician plays, he has to follow the song as it is written for the most part. This is called “staying in the groove” and it’s what gives identity to the piece. But during the song there are certain opportunities for that artist to express himself through solos. This allows for variation in the piece without a complete departure from the overall song and keeps things from getting too repetitive or predictable.” It’s the moments you cut the player loose that make the game meaningful in the long run.

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