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by Faye Rasmussen

20 Oct 2009

Since disbanding in 1998, Polvo, the math-rock band from North Carolina, find themselves in the midst of a comeback tour in support of their reunion album In Prism. The band is back in action with a new drummer in tow. Below is a performance of “Beggar’s Bowl” off their new album from back in September.

by L.B. Jeffries

20 Oct 2009

The techniques for telling stories in games has often been dictated by the graphics. Long paragraphs of text were relied on for text parsers and by their 8-bit brethren. As the graphics improved, less detail had to be explained and could simply be observed: at first a chest or save point would be a symbol like a spinning octagon, then as a clunky abstraction, then something that looked very much like a chest. Today, graphic improvements are not quite at photo-realistic, but they are easily recognized by someone unfamiliar with video games. When one considers how far the medium has come along, it’s interesting how the old techniques for delivering narrative are still retained. A game like Bioshock is content to let its setpieces be discovered and explored by the player, but there is also usually an audiobook to spell it out for us. This is the room of the mad plastic surgeon one tape explains, here is where he did something awful to a patient. In Fallout 3 there is always a dimly lit computer monitor, waiting to be hacked, that will provide a few journals explaining the fate of each abandoned Vault or factory. The essence of the text parser describing what the graphics are supposed to be remains, still explaining what we are looking at like a guided museum tour. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is a bold step forward in video game story-telling by simply letting the player observe the world for themselves.

You play a spider that has stumbled upon a curiously bug filled house. Bugs are caught by spinning webs, you make those with silk, which is replenished by eating bugs, and you have to kill a set amount of bugs to progress through the level. Occasionally a portion of a level can be interacted with: a light bulb can flicker on if you bash into it and switches can be flipped at key moments. That’s it. No one talks and there is hardly any legible text (besides names), only what you can observe as a spider. In describing how barebones the narrative of the game Michael Abbott writes, “No amnesiacs. No aliens. No supernatural events or save-the-world imperatives. Just a simple, but startlingly poignant family tragedy revealed via the game’s environments, photos, heirlooms, and small bits of evidence left behind.” This passive relationship with the plot is also made possible because nothing in the game can kill you. Silk is only consumed when spinning webs, you are otherwise free to wander about and look at things calmly. One of the developers, Randy Smith, has a column at EDGE magazine and he does a loose post-mortem on the game. He explains, “As a spider, your lack of interest and ability to affect the story is natural, and you fill the role your character would in real life: you leave the house covered in cobwebs. The story often flirts with this separation between the concerns of your character versus those you yourself would have if you were present, and we stuck to our guns when portraying that irony.”

What’s interesting about the details of the plot is that because there is no audiobook, no text parser moment, their ambiguity is always intact. Each level contains hints about the former occupants of the house and their exchanges, but you are never quite told how they connect. We see a bottle of liquor and an empty glass next to a woman’s photo, but who was drinking it? We see a wedding ring thrown down a sink, a locket dropped into a well, but who was the original owner? The Bryce Family consists of two brothers, the talented N. Bryce and his weaker brother R. Bryce. A photo on the wall shows R. Bryce marrying a young girl (known as L.S. from envelopes and pictures) yet a locket down a well shows her picture with N. Bryce’s. Scattered throughout the house is evidence that their father, C.K. Bryce, may have hidden a treasure in the mansion. X’s painted onto walls and curious holes in the floor and ceiling seem to indicate R. Bryce was hunting for the treasure. Bills tucked away in a corner make it seem even desperate. A shovel in the garden comes across as ominous given the Autumn season, which when connected with a pair of unused train tickets indicates possible foul play. A dead body and a scattering of pills concludes your exploration, the last level and credits are just you catching a lone fly while the sun sets on the mansion.

A discussion on the toucharcade forums will help one appreciate the power of these ambiguities on the player’s experience. After one user posts their theory about the mystery and how L.S. and N.B. eloped, leaving R.B. to misery and suicide, another counters that he thinks R.B. murdered and buried L.S. (ergo the shovel) and then killed himself out of grief. One could easily argue that no suicide is present here at all: the pills next to the body are tucked away in a cabinet, which seems odd for a suicide. What if N.B. and L.S. arranged to kill R.B., then bury him, but ran away at the last minute because they couldn’t find the treasure? There is a letter on a dresser that one user assumes is a “Dear John” goodbye letter, but the still unpacked suitcase in L.S.’s room seems to contradict that the parting was peaceful. Technically, you’re never even quite sure who the body is. R.B. may have poisoned N.B. and left him there. The only thing’s consistent in the various user’s interpretation of the story are the two brothers, one woman, and a treasure that drove them all apart.

Another user at toucharcade, praised the game while totally ignoring the story. He writes, “the differing base point values of the insects, the score multiplier, which increases up to 4X and stays there as long as one stays on one web or leaps to another, the usage of hornets to replenish silk, and the shepherding of mosquitos and butterflies towards the most interconnected parts of the web network” all make each level a unique puzzle for maximizing points. You can observe this word purely as a spider and engage with it without any concern for the plot. And yet beneath the surface of the spider’s goals there is a story whose mysteries are never quite fully explained with audiobooks or text. The ambiguity makes sense because keeping the narrative strictly from a spider’s perspective makes the lack of answers seem plausible, even natural. The things we notice and wonder about are not things our avatar would ever have any reason to care about. Randy Smith eventually dismissed the accomplishments of the game’s narrative in his EDGE column, calling it an ‘elegant dodge’ and writing, “Spider is a game that strives to have an elegant awareness of the interactive media but doesn’t try hard to open up its frontiers”. Which is fair enough, all of the things done in this game have been done before with more advanced set pieces and art. Perhaps then what makes the story so unique is what it doesn’t do.

by Faye Rasmussen

20 Oct 2009

The xx, from London, England, are amid a worldwide tour to promote their debut album, xx. This video is from their recent show in Brooklyn, playing their single “Basic Space”. If you didn’t get to see this performance live, there are still three more shows in New York City, followed by five more solid months of touring, with stops going from California to Europe and everywhere in between. 

by Eleanore Catolico

20 Oct 2009

Violens have delightfully mashed up the title track from the Very Best’s Warm Heart of Africa. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig sings on the track and sounds as giddy as can be.

The Very Best
Warm Heart of Africa (Violens Remix) [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

20 Oct 2009

Perhaps no one cared because it was the sixth installment in an already waning franchise. It could be that director Joe Chapelle and writer Daniel Farrands weren’t as noted (or notorious) as cock rock star Rob Zombie. Maybe the notion of revisiting or a remake was more contentious that simply dragging a cash cow out of the cinematic stable for one more mostly unnecessary milking. Whatever it was, it’s amazing that there wasn’t more press generated over the completely cuckoo version of the monster myth generated by Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Even today, few find fault with this avant-garde goof. Taking on all aspects of the origin story, from where “The Shape” got his urge to kill to the significantly surreal reasons behind the killings, we wind up with something more insane than anything everyone’s favorite fan whipping boy could come up with.

Of course, many genre lovers haven’t had the chance to see the alternative version of the film, otherwise known as “The Producers Cut”. An infamous bootleg among the scary movie faithful, it stands in significant contrast to the eventual edit, including a wholly different ending that would warp the mind of even the most objective Halloween buff. The film does try to bring the material full circle, giving us a pre-Apatow Paul Rudd as a grown-up (and slightly unhinged) Tommy Doyle - you know, the little boy who Laurie Strode was babysitting the night “he” came home - and the last in a long lineage of biological (and locational) relatives for Myers to pick off. There’s a final beat from the brilliant Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis, and a nice call back to the horrific house and town where it all started. 

But the movie really goes bonkers in its attempts to explain Michael’s mania. Just as Zombie got vilified for turning FBI profiler (and later, amateur psychiatrist) in uncovering the mechanics behind a standard serial murderer’s dementia, Chapelle and Farrands dove directly into the deep end when plowing the path to their terror’s psychosis. For the most recent editions of The Shape, familial abuse, bullying, and blood-drenched fatalistic fantasies turned a sad little boy into a fiend. Later, visions of his dead mother, accented by the occasional white horse, brought the drifting adult Michael his continued rage. But in Halloween 6, Myers was none of these things. Instead, he was a pawn picked out by the Celtic pagans known as the Thorn Cult. Their ambiguous aims, which revolve around power, the protection of same, and the use of small boys as a means of achieving their aims, offers human sacrifice, indirect incest, and 180 degree reevaluation of everything we know about the history in Halloween. And no one cared. 

For example, Smith’s Grove is no longer merely the place that housed Michael for all those years before his escape. It was Thorn Central. The Myers home was not only the scene of a horrific crime, but it becomes a central touchstone for both the coven and one of its senior members (who’s always scouting for a new ‘vessel’ to transform). Instead of a well-meaning man of science, Dr. Loomis comes across as a patsy, a blind and narrow-minded shrink who couldn’t see that the basement of the Sanatorium was being used for heretical ancient sacraments. And even worse, Michael himself is no longer the personification of pure evil, the brutish unstoppable fiend who finds purpose in killing. Instead, he is a supernatural sieve, brainwashed (so to speak) to do the cult’s bidding based on the use of runes and the magical manipulation of their various purposes. Toss in a few of the standard slice and dice murders that the slasher film expects, and you’ve got Zombie’s recent updates in an equally baffling nutshell.

So again, why no outcry? Why did fans fail to foam at the mouth when Chapelle and Farrand’s dumped all over the establish Myers mythos to move the series into a wholly weird and slightly wacked out area? After all, Rob Zombie kept things as realistic as possible when it came to death. His Halloween‘s are brutal in their believable, gore-drench fatality. The Curse of Michael Myers has many of its murders handled offscreen, MPAA guidelines demanding such a blood-less approach. And yet everyone dumps on the new films as being “untrue” and “blasphemous” to the original characters and creation. And the invocation of Celtic ritual, pagan symbols, and Rosemary’s Baby like bullspit aren’t? Imagine Jason Voorhees explained away as an extraterrestrial experiment gone awry, or Freddy Krueger as a military project forged to teach children respect. You get the idea.

In fact, one could argue that The Curse of Michael Myers is even worse than Zombie’s efforts when it comes to staying within the series well honed parameters. John Carpenter created the character as a manifestation of our darkest ‘70s fears, a suspense soaked horror that could come from anywhere and was almost impossible to stop. He carried that over into Halloween 2 before abandoning the idea for the thoroughly odd Season of the Witch. Though he didn’t direct the first two sequels, Carpenter proclaimed that he wanted the films to be reflective of the individuals behind the production. In essence, let the artist guide the gruesomeness. But when Part 3 was rejected outright by audiences, Michael was brought back and a whole new foundation was forged. After all, while still human, he was a villain who couldn’t be killed, who was shot, burned, hacked, slashed, entombed, and otherwise chopped up like mince meat. And yet he could always come back, sallow Shatner face intact. Then Part 6 came along and…huh?

It’s no surprise then that, just like Zombie and the recent announcement about Halloween 3D going forward without his participation, everything that The Curse of Michael Myers created was eventually cast aside. Three years later, Halloween H20: 20 Year Later brought things back to the family facets of the original, with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her star-making turn as Laurie Strode (John Carpenter was also going to direct, but bailed when longtime franchise head Moustapha Akkad refused his asking price). When Halloween II‘s Rick Rosenthal came along to ruin the original’s memory once and for all with his “reality show” take on the material, Zombie’s zoned out update should have been viewed a literal godsend. Argue all you want over its artistic or source material faithfulness, but nothing fudged with the franchise more than Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Even in a pimped out Producer’s Cut, this remains the installment that really turned the terror icon on his head. Why no one complained remains a macabre mystery that will probably never be solved.

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