Games

Consequence Without Morality

Consequences are better represented through story than karma systems.

The opening scene in Indigo Prophecy is one of the most memorable moments in gaming for anyone that’s played it. The main character, Lucas, goes into a trance and kills a man in the bathroom of a small restaurant. Play it once and it seems fairly unremarkable: You clean up the murder scene and flee out the back door. Not much happens. But on a second try, when the player realizes the wealth of options available, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of wonder. Clean up the murder? Hide the murder weapon? Wash your hands? Pay your bill? Call someone? The vast number of small choices is impressive, but the real accomplishment of this scene is that all these choice are presented to the player without any moral implications. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” options. Cleaning up the murder doesn’t make you a bad person, and paying your bill doesn’t make you a good person. The game presents the player choice without morality.

Unfortunately the rest of the game failed to live up to that level of ingenuity. The story of Indigo Prophecy was split into several scenes, and while each scene has its own variety of choices, their consequences had little effect on the next scene. The game was structured like a series of sandboxes, giving players a false sense of control when really we were being pulled along a traditional linear narrative. For all the choices we had to make, the consequences ultimately didn’t matter.

A karma system would have fixed this dilemma by putting our actions in a larger context. Even though players would essentially be leveling up their character with arbitrary points, we would at least know that our actions were contributing to something greater than our current situation. A karma system lets us know where our actions stand in the grand scheme of things. If game doesn’t use arbitrary points to give our actions consequence, than that consequence must come through in the story: The consequences of any decision must directly affect the story for the player to feel like their input genuinely matters. If we can see the results of our actions on the plot or the characters, than there’s no need for a system of points.

The flash game Storyteller by Daniel Benmergui takes this approach to consequence in games. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: Told in just three panels, it distils the classic adventure story into three pivotal scenes and three pivotal choices. It revolves around three characters, and depending on how the player rearranges them within each scene, the outcome of the story changes. Does the knight kill the wizard or does the wizard kill the knight? Does the prince save the princess or does the princess save the prince? We could make a story with no conflict and a happy ending, or one in which all the heroes die. There’s no need for a karma system because we can immediately see the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions on the lives of these characters. The downside to this is that there’s not much of a story to tell. The characters have no names and there’s no plot, the only real story is the one we make up and it can be as complex or as thin as our imaginations let it be. Bernmergui is giving up authorial control in order to let us experience the full breadth of choice and consequence.

So consequences free from morality must affect the story, but giving the player too many choices can dilute the story. A middle ground can be found in Mass Effect, which strikes a nearly perfect balance between these two options. We don’t have nearly as much control over the story as we do in Storyteller; Mass Effect, like Indigo Prophecy, is very linear. When we’re finally able to explore the solar system, we can only choose the order of which story-progressing missions we accept, but we still have to complete all of them before we can advance. We can change how the story is told, but not the story itself. To make up for this we’re given choices at key moments with dire consequences, such as the possible deaths of central characters. Since death is a real possibility, the tangible consequence of our actions can be felt in the main story. There are also several short stories within the game whose endings are entirely dependant on our actions. There’s the mourning man who wants the military to give him his wife’s dead body, the gambler who wants us to test a device that will help him cheat, or the waitress worried about her sister working as an undercover agent. By giving the player choices within these short stories, and consequences that play out with these minor characters and sub-plots, we don’t notice how little we actually affect the main story.

But there’s no ignoring the fact that Mass Effect does have a karma system. Every choice we make gives us either Paragon points or Renegade points, and for most gamers these easily translate into “good” and “evil.” Such associations are unfortunate because the Renegade options are hardly evil. Some actions may make Shepard act cold, but never truly evil. The game does a commendable job giving us a range of emotions in our choices without making those choices blatantly good or bad, but the presence of the karma system undermines everything the game does right by separating all the consequences into only two categories. Sometimes the Renegade option is the best choice, but it may be difficult to convince a player trying to play through the game as a good character to go with that option simply because of its unwarranted assumption of being “evil.”

The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is. Yet it’s become an established feature of open ended games, sometimes to the detriment of the game. Even though it’s a relatively new mechanic (at least in its more comprehensive forms) it’s already outdated as games like Storyteller and Mass Effect prove it’s possible to represent consequence without the morality.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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