Games

Squirrels and Their Awful Lives

Conker's Bad Fur Day is one of the darkest comedies you could ever ask for, and it ends with a kick right in the teeth.

I was reminiscing the other day about my intense love for Conker's Bad Fur Day when a peculiar thought struck me: namely, that when you get down to it the end of the game is a real bummer. Sure, Conker saves the day, discovers a glitch in the game, and gets the programmers to solve his problems, rewriting the world in which he lives, but he completely forgets to bring back his girlfriend while he's at it. So despite the best efforts of the player, the main goal of the game (win back Conker's girlfriend) goes unfulfilled. Conker fails and sinks back into a deep depression. The game ends as it began, a drunken squirrel stumbling off into the night. No happy ending, just a failed attempt to get back home.

Watching the end of the game, I remember being surprised at its downright depressing conclusion--a group of my friends and I were playing at the time, and none of us realized what a vicious kick in the pants the ending of the game had in store for us. We sat through the credits in shock, quietly hoping that there would be something afterwards, such as a last sting where the game told us 'just kidding, she's actually okay, he's actually okay, happy endings all around,' but it never came. Conker had gotten distracted from his main quest (get home to Berri) and when the game had given him the chance to make everything right he'd forgotten to actually fix anything beyond the immediate problem of the xenomorph in front of him. It was one of those moments where a game actually felt mature, and not just because the characters swore and there were a bunch of jokes about tits (the measure of what was 'mature' and not to a teenager). Hiding behind the singing pile of feces was a black comedic sensibility, and while we all were more concerned with the tit jokes as kids, a second look at the game reveals a far more sophisticated plot than we'd given it credit for having.

The actual events of the game are bizarre, but they all have a sense to them--the developers even made the absolutely brilliant decision to go out of its way to explain both why Conker cannot die as well as why there are floating bits of chocolate appearing everywhere. It lays out the rules of the world in a way that allows the player to be cheerfully sucked into the world of the game without any of the nagging narrative questions that would otherwise arise for common game mechanics. Not only that, but as bizarre as the locations are, there is always a solid reason for Conker to be pulled into the proceedings beyond his mere desire to get the hell home. There's sympathy there for Conker, as he tends to be drafted into assisting the denizens of the land while he's really only concerned with either getting his hands on more cash or, when he remembers what he's doing, getting home to his girlfriend.

Oh, and did we mention that the game's main villain wants to make our fuzzy hero into a replacement table leg--itself a sort of commentary on characterization in many video games? After all, most game protagonists have a weakness in the characterization department--they're just there to fill that missing spot for the player in order to interact with the game world. To prop up the plot, like… a table leg on a table missing legs. A game doesn't work without some kind of stock protagonist, and the King's table isn't going to work without a squirrel for a leg. Conker is awfully annoyed about the fact that he's stuck in a video game situation when he just wants to get home. Some problems are of his own making, while others are merely things that just happen to get in his way--getting drafted into the army, for one, is the game-world intruding on Conker's trip home just so he can fight in a Saving Private Ryan-esque setting. Fortunately for the gamer, it's a lot of fun. Unfortunately for Conker, it only further delays his getting home.

The zombie level has a similar event, though it is possibly a result of Gregg the Grim Reaper's decision to allow Conker to keep coming back from the dead. There's a lot more in these levels--people keep asking Conker for favors and then failing entirely to pay him back in any way. At the end of the game, Conker is just as alone as he was in the beginning, because the favors he did for these people don't mean anything. They're just there to give Conker an excuse to run through the game worlds. The only thing is that the game seems aware of this, which is why Conker is so sick of having to do favors by the end of the game. The only reason that he even agrees to the final bank heist is because he finally gets to be together with Berri (and the promise of money, of course). When the game crashes, Conker's frustration at the ridiculousness of his situation--his anger at being stuck in a situation that nobody even bothered to beta test is both an almost prescient commentary on the bug-riddled releases which we seem to see these days as well as an honest expression of annoyance at having been forced to go through all of this crap only to have it break down before he even could finish.

In the end, Conker's Bad Fur Day winds up being far more sophisticated than it has any right to be. It's hilarious, sure, but the finale to the game makes it clear that more than anything else, Conker's Bad Fur Day is a tragedy. Conker loses everything he actually cares about and even realizes it, lamenting that the grass is always greener and you never know what you've got until it's gone. What I'm saying should not be news to anyone--the game is fantastic, and currently stands alone as a cartoonish 3D platformer with a sophisticated story that manages to have a singing pile of shit as well as one of the best sucker-punch endings any game has ever had. All the death and struggle of the game loops back around and all that's left for Conker is the bottom of the bottle. Brutal. If this were a review, I'd give it ten out of ten--because while it has its flaws, there has yet to be a game to follow in its footsteps and manage to pull off the same balancing act between horrific, tragic violence and balls-out (sometimes literally) comedy.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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