Games

The Original First Person Walker: 'Dear Esther'

The audience, if they’re still watching (or playing), becomes hyper focused on the mundane details that in other works would be ignored or edited out.

Dear Esther seemed to have ushered in a new genre of game last year: the First Person Walker. In its wake followed other notable games like Thirty Flights of Loving, Proteus, and the upcoming HD release of The Stanley Parable. Also, are the entries of its sister genre the Third Person Walker with Journey and Bientot l’ete. Much has been written on whether or not it and its brethren are games or not, but not a lot on what the game actually accomplishes.

Dan Pinchbeck, Dear Esther’s creator and a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, set out to see what would happen if you stripped everything possible out of a game and left only the bare bones of interactivity behind. It was an experiment to explore the intersection and interrelation between gameplay and storytelling. The result is a game that strips out any ability to interact with the world other than observing it. Many have dismissed it by calling it a guided tour of an island, but really it is an apt description of, if not what it's about, the player’s behavior in the game.

Paradoxically, by doing less, the game immediately garners more of the player’s attention. In that way, it reminds me of Andy Warhol’s films. In particular Empire and Vinyl come to mind. Empire, the 8-hour static shot of the Empire State Building has prompted an entire critical essay devoted to the minute details, such as when they changed the real of film and when you could see the ghosts of people’s hands as they did so. Vinyl is a static shot of a crowded room as the “actors” perform an adaptation of the book A Clockwork Orange. The performers are half stoned and hung over, and Warhol leaves everything in, including the wrap party at the end until someone remembers that the camera is still rolling and turns it off. Here, because of the banality and the fact that the only cut in the entire film occurs as a result the finite amount of film stock that a single reel can hold, criticism around Vinyl has revolved around the tiniest of details in any hope to parse out meaning from that banality of the action.

Actually, the same could be said of nearly all of Warhol’s films. The point isn't the worthiness of the works themselves, but rather what the works do to those that watch them. The audience, if they’re still watching (or playing), becomes hyper focused on the mundane details that in other works would be ignored or edited out. Mistakes in Warhol films become lifelines to the critics that watch them.

In the same respect, the first thing that stripping out extraneous interaction accomplishes is that the player becomes far more focused on what they can do to a greater degree. What the player can do in Dear Esther is look and move. In any first person game, or rather in any game really, these are things that are a means to an end. Long time players don’t think about how they look around or how they move about. The very center of an entire genre of games is pushed aside in service to the other mechanics of the game they are in, mostly shooting. By removing any other abilities from the player, the game refocuses them on the very act of traveling as a centerpiece of the game.

The walking speed is better described as trudging. The player isn't a superhuman rushing about a complex. The character doesn't even seem capable of (or perhaps he is apathetic towards) running. To many, the slow speed is frustrating, even annoying, leaving them wishing that the avatar would get on with it -- as if they were stuck behind the slowest person in the world in a narrow office hallway. They become anxious, wishing they were already at the destination instead of focusing on the journey. I attribute this more to expectation than to what is inherently in the game. Up until now in most games, the player could only commit to such slow walking speeds on purpose -- either through a button press that toggled or maintained the slow movement or via the degree to which the player pushed forward on the controller’s right analog stick -- and only in cases where it would seem necessary to move slowly, such as in stealth sections. Unlike Dear Esther those moments in games had their own tension built up through the threats of the game and such things as the fear of being caught. Dear Esther removes all such threats against the player.

Once acclimated to the deliberate walking speed, the player finds a need to pay attention to where they are instead of where they are going. Without enemies shooting at them, the player isn't focusing only on the next safe cover spot from which to shoot from. In fact, there’s no need to narrow focus on a destination at all, which brings me to the other action that the player can take in Dear Esther: looking. The island then becomes a space for the most pure form of environmental storytelling in gaming. Previously, games would have to be super obvious if the player was going to pay attention to details to get the story from just the environment. Messages painted in blood on the walls, in-your-face ghostly hallucinations, overly dramatic and directly to the point overheard dialogue or dialogue activated by the player through audio logs and the like. Subtlety and nuance are lost in such an environment.

With regard to environmental storytelling, Bioshock and Dear Esther are not so different from one another. Both have messages and symbols scrawled on the walls. Both have ghostly figures scattered about. And both have audio diaries read aloud to the player. The difference is in the content and the degree of intensity regarding the delivery of their messages. Dear Esther’s writings on the walls are cryptic if not downright obtuse. Most of them aren't even words, but simply circuitry blueprints and neuron maps. The ghosts in Dear Esther are easily missed and often seen only in the distance. They fade and merge into the discolored background or are so hidden away that you could rush right past one without ever being the wiser. Nothing draws attention to them, and they are simply there. And then there are the audio diaries. They have to be the most picked apart element of the game. Entries are disconnected from one another as times and people merge or change identities, meaning that their significance is not obvious, nor is their purpose or even their origin. In Bioshock, an audio diary details who, what, when, where, and why within the first sentence or two and quickly delivers details about the world. They are straightforward, and there is no mistaking anything about them. Dear Esther is allowed far more latitude, thanks to the hyper-focus that the game creates.

There is little else to grasp, so the details become much more obvious and little tics or possible glitches are brought to the forefront of the player’s attention. More complexly delivered material is allowed to breathe and is absorbed more easily. More is added to the game by removing elements than could have been achieved by adding them.

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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