Games

Perfecting Loss in 'N+'

For as often as I died while playing N+, maybe the best compliment that I can pay it is that I didn’t mind a single time.

N+, like its free to play flash predecessor N, is a simple but elegant platformer. The purpose of the game is to get to the exit while collecting as much gold in the room as you like. Obstacles include mines, laser turrets, and heat seeking missiles which make escape more complicated. The ninja is a good abstract avatar that anyone can project on to, and all of your abilities will be familiar to anyone who has played a 2-D platformer. What’s impressive about the game is how much playtime it extracts, given that it is a game in which all you can really do is jump. It instead relies on only a handful of obstacles and shifting goals to make a game that you always want to play just one more time. For the purposes of this post, I played N+ on the DS, which unfortunately means I’m just discussing the levels included with the game in single player mode. They took the servers down a while back for DS owners.

The game is fast paced and you can easily die a dozen times per level. Difficulty is a uniquely layered system because the game challenges you in three ways. The first is the challenge that evry player must complete: get to the exit. The second is for OCD players who want to collect every gold piece on the level. The third is the clock, which keeps tabs on how quickly you can beat the level and will kill you if it runs out. Off the top of my head, I’d say the first 30 levels (there are 156 by my count) were easy in terms of completing all three goals. The next 30 made collecting all of the gold pieces a bit trickier. After 30 or so levels like that, getting to the exit is tougher. The final levels eventually introduce the clock itself as a barrier. These are levels in which you are hauling ass just to open a gate and get out. After extended play, you can usually spot which of the three challenges that a level is focusing on trying to engage you with. For example, maybe the exit will only require a little careful footwork and hiding behind cover, but the gold is right next to the laser turrets. Or the gold is generally all along your path to the exit, but there are dozens of robots blocking the exit. Or you just have one minute to win. The more challenging levels can take a lot of practice to beat because often you have to figure out the precise sequence of jumps and wall slides needed to win. It’s not unheard of to practice the tougher levels for an hour or two individually before beating them.

This is a perfect set up to avoid what Taekwan Kim describes as overly invalidating consequences. His idea is that whenever you play a game you are forming theories about how the design works. When you beat the game, doing so satisfies your ego because it validates your ideas. When you lose, it means that you don’t understand how to play just yet. This often feels insulting and will result in the player quitting the game, smashing their controller, or explaining how the game is a stupid piece of crap. Kim explains, “The longer that the player has avoided acknowledging invalidation, the more he has to lose when he finally does, thus the more he will refuse to give it up. Not only would admitting to error invalidate the player’s current position, but it would invalidate everything causing and preceding that position, from his time investment to his fundamental understanding of and skill in the game (and the totality and weight of this at this point will feel as heavy as the player’s worldview). The only recourse for many will then be to bludgeon onward and insist on one’s validity” ("Validation Theory", Gamasutra, 9 June 2010).

This is a really tough problem to fix in a game because you really can’t predict what weird crap people are going to do. N+ perfectly resolves the issue because you die too quickly to ever invest in a particular strategy. You know that you’re doing something right in a level if there aren’t little bits of ninja scattered everywhere. It’s what helps turn the game into something that you play repeatedly even if you die because you’re puzzling out the correct sequence of moves, making death an intrinsic part of play and also one that feels rewarding.

This experimentation process stays engaging for so many levels because of the diverse number of contexts in which the basic jump ability is applied. The three methods of challenging a player, along with the numerous ways that those challenges can be presented via the robots, make for a game that is about changing expectations. A great essay on defining game mechanics by Miguel Sicart describes a game mechanic as, “methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state” ("Defining Game Mechanics", Game Studies 8.2, December 2008). The article is pointing out that often when we’re talking about a game mechanic we’re really describing a strategy or rule system. Gears of War is prime example, and Sicart uses the cover system to explain his point. It’s not a rule in the sense that you MUST take cover, and it’s also not really correct to call it game design because taking cover is a strategy that’s possible within the design. The rules allow cover and it’s the primary way to play if you want to win. So a game mechanic is something that’s occurring between the two solid states of rule and design.

Sicart acknowledges that part of the problem with even discussing a mechanic is that they are often composed of dozens of sub-actions. Driving a car in Grand Theft Auto is a mechanic composed of braking, accelerating, steering, ramming objects, etc. Applying Sicart’s ideas to N+ is handy because his essay relies on popular but complicated games while N+ is fairly simple. You can jump in the game, and it only offers the ability to perform a few sub-actions. Hold down the jump button, and you’ll launch yourself into a long wide arc that can cross most of the level. Lightly tap it and you barely hop. Wall jumping requires pressing away from the wall while timing the jump button so that you’re still sliding. It’s one of the simplest game mechanics out there and N+ builds an entire game out of this one form of interaction. The myriad of robots, explosives, and other traps are always changing the application of the mechanic because they give a new context in relation to the basic challenges.

As Sicart explains, “The only variation would be the level of abstraction: for a player who is playing the game, a mechanic serves a specific set of purposes, while a player that is playing with or within the game, a game mechanic loses its formal game design origin and becomes an instrument for agency.” N+ exemplifies this idea with its three types of challenge: the clock, the gold, and the exit. What kinds of jumps and how difficult the level is changes depending on the player. The game never forces you to engage with any of them except in getting to the exit. In this way, the player is always exploring the challenges voluntarily, using death as a signifier, instead of as a signal of invalidation.

Each level feels more like doing a quick crossword puzzle than engaging in one long training and development process. You can see the entire level from the start and rapidly experiment with it by dying until you figure out how to escape. The game is so adept at presenting this process of trial and error to the player that clinical psychologists actually use the game to train kids with learning disabilities. The creators of the game posted an excerpt from an e-mail that they received from a doctor in the field, “The level design also allows me to teach patients with learning disabilities and attention deficits how to gather information from failure, identify new strategies, practice the execution of those strategies, and then, following additional failures, reassess their strategies or need for further skill acquisition. This training teaches them meta-awareness which helps them to develop frustration tolerance in real world academic and social environments in a way that talk therapy alone does not” ("Mailbag! N: Big Brain Academy", Metanet Software Inc., September 2009). For as often as I died while playing N+, maybe the best compliment that I can pay it is that I didn’t mind a single time.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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