Games

'Anomaly', the Simple Start of a New Genre

What makes Anomaly interesting is that it's obviously an evolution of the tower-defense genre, even though it's clearly a new genre as well.

Video games are complicated. They didn’t start that way, the rules of Pong should be obvious just by watching, but that simplicity can’t last. People demand more. Compare Doom to Battlefield 3: in one you can’t even look up, the other has more commands than there are buttons on a controller. This demand for increasing complexity is something that affects all entertainment (just compare Die Hard to Live Free or Die Hard), but it’s particularly troubling for games because keeping up with that demand can limit the audience. This is something other people have written about, and I’ve got no interest in repeating their points here. Instead, I’m interested in where a gaming genre goes once it’s reached that tipping point of complexity.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth is a reverse-tower-defense game in that you play as the “creep” rather than as the “tower.” You control a little man who has to guide a convoy of military vehicles through a maze of streets populated with alien turrets. Along the way, you can place things like smoke bombs or decoy units that protect your convoy. It’s the first of its kind or at least the first to meet with any kind of critical and commercial success. What makes Anomaly really interesting is that it’s clearly an evolution of the tower-defense genre, even as it’s clearly a new genre as well.

It’s a combination of genre iteration and regression.

The basic idea is iterative. It advances the genre in such a way that introduces new gameplay possibilities. Everything else is regressive.

How the avatar is utilized: in early tower-defense games, your avatar was just a tool for placing turrets, but more recent tower-defense games have made the avatar an important part of your defense. In Toy Soldiers, you take direct control over turrets. In Orcs Must Die!, you can upgrade your own weapons and magic. The same applies to Trenched/Iron Brigade, and Monday Night Combat even has an entire multiplayer built around the avatars. In Anomaly, your little soldier is just a tool for placing “turrets,” i.e. the defensive actions that protect your convey.

The number of commands at your disposal: if your defensive commands are the equivalent of turrets, then Anomaly is an incredibly sparse game with only four commands. Most tower-defense games have dozens of turrets in addition to whatever abilities that your avatar has; throw in multiple towers to protect and various environmental hazards, and you’ve got a genre that’s evolved by adding system on top of system on top of system. Anomaly strips away all that to give us a simpler game.

This mechanical regression makes sense given the genre iteration -- Anomaly really does represent a new genre. For as much as it relates to a tower-defense game, it is not a tower-defense game.

Playing Anomaly is like watching a divergent species evolve. The same process of iteration that made tower-defense more and more complex also gave rise to something new, and because the new genre is forging new gameplay possibilities, it currently exists as something far more simplistic than its brethren. Reverse-tower-defense games are not going to replace tower-defense games, both can exist side-by-side. They are simply two genres with a common ancestry.

And I believe that this is the natural progression of any gaming genre. Tower-defense’s humble beginnings seem quaint now, so does a game like Doom. As first-person shooters grew more and more complex, we got games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal. While the first-person platformer hasn’t really taken off as a genre, the first-person puzzler certainly has with Q.U.B.E. on the PC, and Quantum Conundrum coming to XBLA.

Genres need this kind of iteration to grow and stretch their own boundaries, but the tricky thing about iteration is that it builds upon pre-existing knowledge. If you don’t already have that knowledge, you’re left behind. However, I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing because eventually that iteration results in entirely new genres that are simpler and easier to get into, then the cycle begins again. Simple beginnings leading to ever more complex games until someone comes up with a new twist that leads to a new genre.

Maybe in a few years reverse-tower-defense will be everywhere and everyone will be sick of them, and just when the genre seems to have reached a saturation point. someone will have an epiphany that will lead to something new and exciting. I don’t know what it will be, but I look forward to finding out.

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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