Games

Chell and Portal 2's Rat Man

Portal 2 is a marvel, and the Rat Man -- accompanied by Valve’s gorgeous comic -- only adds to the game's charm.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Portal 2 and its accompanying comic Lab Rat. I encourage you to read the comic, which you can find here before you continue reading.

Last week saw the release of Valve’s much anticipated Portal 2. Already, the game has earned a great deal of well deserved praise. (For an excellent assessment of the game, check out G. Christopher Williams's review of the game.). Put simply, the game is a joyful masterpiece, an absolute delight to play. Without veering far from the original game’s themes and system, Portal 2 adds several wonderfully implemented new puzzle elements, including laser beams, laser bridges, and a bunch of cool goop. Newcomer Stephen Merchent also voices a hilarious addition to the series in the form of Wheatley. While I adore the robotic British eyeball, I am also drawn to an even more tangential character, someone hidden away in the game itself behind wall panels and in secret rooms. Featured in the comic accompanying the game, and narratively playing a large role in the Portal canon, the Rat Man’s story and presence in Portal 2 enriches Chell and the play experience.

The vast majority of the Rat Man’s story is not actually in Portal 2 per se. Available online and in the “extras” feature of the game, the comic Portal 2: Lab Rat illustrates his contributions to the plot of both Portal and its sequel. Michael Oeming, creator of Powers and Mice Templar, was brought in to work on the comic in conjunction with Valve’s own team. Andrew Wicklund’s beautiful art graces the pages when depicting the Rat Man’s dappled mind and stands in wonderful contrast to Oeming’s illustrations of objective reality. Wicklund’s work also appears on several walls in Portal 2, her portrait of Chell most clearly highlighted during the first few stages of the game. Ted Kosmatka and the rest of Valve’s writing team worked on the Rat Man’s script itself. Unlike most comic tie-ins, Lab Rat is not outsourced. The developers lovingly shaped this story themselves, and it shows.

The comic itself is only 27 pages long, and it bridges the gap between Portal and Portal 2. Considering its availability, I would recommend everyone read it, whether or not they have finished Portal 2. To quickly summarize, Doug the mentally disturbed Aperture Science lab technician, having seen GLaDOS exterminate his co-workers, arranges to have Chelll pushed to the front of the testing queue, ushering in her victory in the first Portal. Seeing her dragged back into the facility at game’s end, Doug risks everything to save her, placing her in stasis until she can be awakened at the beginning of Portal 2.

In the Portal 2’s developer commentary, one game designer states the team contemplated including an additional human character in the game itself. They decided to scrap this idea fearing it may draw attention away from Chell and her relationship with GLaDOS and the facility itself -- and rightly so. The Rat Man’s presence in the game is ephemeral. Like the hidden “the cake is a lie” scrawlings in the first portal, the rat man’s rooms are tucked away behind grates and panels and only accessible through clever portal maneuvering. Only the remnants of bean cans and painted walls mark his quarters. His removed presence does not detract from Chell’s own persona. The player is still unerringly represented as Chell. She remains mute, and no matter how many secret rooms that you might find, never comments on the Rat Man’s existence.

Nevertheless, the sensations of confinement and freedom are heightened by the Rat Man. His cramped and poorly lit shelters mirror the relatively tight quarters of the test rooms, themselves starkly contrasted with the immensity of the Aperture Science facility. Although both Chell and Doug resist GLaDOS, they are her prisoners. On the other hand, Chell’s mobility clearly exceeds Doug’s. With the help of a portal gun, leg braces, and an assortment of devices, players fly through the air, leap across chasms, and cross great distances in just moments. Doug in Lab Rat, on the other hand, must scurry between walls and dive out of the way of turrets. When leaving one of the Rat Man’s rooms, players may feel a sense of both confinement and freedom. While the surface may be far from reach, at least Chell is more free than the man hiding in the walls.

Similarly, the Rat Man’s abandoned enclaves serve as a reminder of Chell’s solitude. The only skilled survivor of GLaDOS’s testing fanaticism is gone and only his artistic renderings of Chell remain. The Rat Man’s devotion to his hallucinatory talking companion cube is heartbreaking and endearing in Lab Rat. Although the cube is not really sentient, it's easy to feel a desire for the same sort of companionship. Chell must progress through the facility alone, save for the sterile pestering of deadly AI. This solitude is punctuated by the game’s final scene: Chell standing solitary amidst a vast and empty farm land. On sight of this open expanse, one might almost begin to miss the testing. Inside at least featured the ethereal presence of another.

Lab Rat also seems to speak to the player directly. As the embodiment of the player, Chell’s personal files revealed in the comic speak more of player behavior than character background. Noted on a graph, Chell was meant to be excluded from testing due to her overwhelming tenacity. Thinking back on puzzles solved, on the time spent experimenting with portal locations, trying to bend your mind according to the logic of portals, you certainly feel tenacious. Through the Rat Man’s relationship with Chell, Valve is praising and encouraging steadfast player behavior. The Rat Man trusts in you, the player, to never give up. While the story is tangential and optional, the motivation it provides is unique and valuable.

In one line of Lab Rat, the writers almost characterize Doug as a developer. He states, “There are moments when I can almost see the underlying grammar of this place. An impossibility, some mad architect’s opus -- a relic from an age that never could have been.” His own imagination has run rampant, painting the facility according to his addled mind. A testing chamber is depicted predominantly, composed of separate puzzle pieces that he is both running from and constructing. Comprehending the facility and the game itself in its entirety is an impossible task. Although tinged with ill meaning, his assessment of the complex as beautiful and probably immortal could ring true for the game itself. Portal 2 is a marvel, and the Rat Man -- accompanied by Valve’s gorgeous comic -- only adds to the game's charm.

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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