Games

'Neuromancer' and The Beauty of Sad Endings

Sometimes, the most satisfying ending is a depressing one.

This post contains spoilers for Neuromancer, Halo: Reach, Braid, and Red Dead Redemption.

Recently, I've been slacking on some projects I'm working on, but I have a good excuse. Well, at least my editor might think it's a good excuse: I got caught up reading William Gibson's novel, Neuromancer. It's a foundational work in modern science fiction, one I'm proud to now check off of my long list of shamefully neglected cultural blind spots. There's a lot to like about Neuromancer, but one of my favorite aspects is the ending -- specifically, how depressing it is. This isn't to say that it's bad or flawed, just that it's not a particularly sunny resolution. It's the kind of ending that also appears in some of my favorite video games.

For those who haven't read it, Neuromancer's protagonist, Case, starts and ends the story as a drug addict. After an amazing journey, one that sees him accomplish things that no human has ever done, one that reveals deep insights into his own life, one that quite possibly alters the very definition of life in the universe, he takes his heist money, buys a new pancreas, and settles back into being a lowlife. The possibility of starting a new life with Molly (a mercenary with whom he has grown increasingly intimate) is dashed when she decides to take off. The book's final line, "He never saw Molly again," signals that his brush with exceptionalism is over with a note of depressing banality. [It's also very hard-boiled --ed.]

The biggest downer is being able to see how things could have gone differently. Case's ordeal put him in contact with an AI called Neuromancer, whose programming allowed it to copy Case's consciousness in a way that enabled independent development. In this alternate virtual reality, Case is removed from his life of degeneracy and able to spend eternity with the woman that he loves. Case catches a glimpse of this life during one of his travels in cyberspace. Although it was used as a prison earlier in the story to deter Case from completing his mission, it now looks more like a paradise. Regardless, it's now just an echo.

Few video games end on such a melancholy note, especially mainstream ones. We still find ourselves reliving the "save the princess" plot over and over again, and we almost always get to be the triumphant hero. There are exceptions though.

There's no lack of heroism in Halo: Reach, but the end of Noble team's journey isn't exactly happy. The entire game is a suicide mission and every team member ultimately gets to live up to their moniker. The fact that the game is a prequel and that everyone knows the sacrifices are worth it softens the blow, but the fact remains that "victory" in Halo: Reach is a sad one. Your very last action in the game is fighting an unwinnable battle against a never-ending horde. The question is not if, but when, you'll fall. Once you do, that is the last time that you interact with the game. The last thing you do in the game is get to die, a fate that adds a mechanical punch to a sad story. At least, you still get to be the hero.

Braid creates an unexpected role-reversal by revealing Tim as the game's villain in its final moments. As you rewind time in the last level, you find that the game was lost before it began. The princess has and is gone, and you've been trudging through a collection of sad memories. You may have also created the atomic bomb but that is a bit unclear. In any case, the final narrative push of Braid is about coming to terms with mistakes and letting go of the hope that you can either prevent or mitigate them. In a way, this softens the ending; once you know the truth, it seems preordained and inflexible. Without the hope of an alternative, the pain of a melancholy ending becomes a dull throb rather than a sharp sting.

Perhaps the game that elicited the most similar feeling to the one that I felt after Neuromancer was Red Dead Redemption. Knowing Rockstar, I should have known better than to trust that that the titular "Redemption" would manifest in the game in any straightforward way. John Marston's quest for salvation is largely a failure, one that has implications for his family and maybe even for humanity as a whole.

What does a peaceful life look like for the Marston family? The game actually lets us experience this for a brief segment in which we play as John the rancher instead of as John the gunman. Herding cattle takes the place of train robberies. Hunting game takes the place of murdering bandits. In some alternate reality, John could have lived out his days quietly, but John Marston never manages to outrun his bloody past. Eventually, he willingly embraces the violence that defined his life, sacrificing himself so that his family might find peace.

Unfortunately, this peace is never realized. John's son, Jack, takes up arms to avenge his father's death. He kills the man responsible and in doing so spurns the chance for a different life. At this point, the game opens up again, and you get to reenact the old violent patterns with a new generation of outlaw. Like Case, you've switched out your organs in order to maintain a destructive addiction, not to chemicals but to a lifestyle. After a fleeting glimpse of a hopeful transition, you fall back into a terminal struggle: lawlessness versus the inevitable taming of the wild west. Romantic as it may be, there's only one outcome for this kind of story, and it's not a happy one.

Just like Case in Neuromancer, Red Dead Redemption is about an antihero's journey. The protagonists grow over the course of the story, they see how life could be different, but they ultimately retreat into old habits. They aren't paragons but flawed people who find comfort in familiar patterns. At the end of Neuromancer, I was sad to see case go back to a life of hacking and drug binges, but I knew why he did it -- the same reason why I (as Jack Marston) chose to continue the terminal life of a gunslinger: old habits die hard, people only change so much, and sometimes sad endings are the best kind.

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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