Games

ZA Critrique: Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

A breakdown of the passive storytelling techniques in Spider. Spoilers abound.

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.

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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