Games

'Silent Hill 2': A Test of Age

There is no element of Silent Hill that would pass muster nowadays and that hasn’t been infinitely improved upon in the ensuing decade plus since the game's release. And yet, were this game to come out today, instead of twelve years ago, I’d want it to be exactly same as it is.

Silent Hill 2 is one of those games that has entered the gaming canon as not only one of the scariest games ever made, not only one of the best games ever made, but also with the distinction of being one of the most aesthetically resonant games ever made. This last accomplishment is quite an achievement, especially for a game released nearly a decade before a sizable amount of gamers even cared about such things.

Twelve years later, games at all levels of the industry are created with an eye towards art, the discourse surrounding games has advanced quite a bit, and the craftsmanship of virtual game design has likewise advanced. The unspoken question in light of such advances is: "Has Silent Hill 2 held up over time?" Has it held up for newcomers to the title with over a decade of expectations to contend with? Is it only a product of its time and has it therefore aged poorly?

I didn’t get to finish or even get that far into Silent Hill 2 last year thanks to a certain hurricane knocking out our power for a few weeks. It returned to the pile of shame, the save file taunting me. Taunted me harder than most of my other shiny new games still in the shrink-wrap. The thing to remember is that Silent Hill 2 wasn’t just hailed as a great horror game, but as a masterwork in its medium, period. I’m not sure that I want to contend with that assertion quite yet. No accolade or condemnation should be thrown about lightly, but high praise like "masterwork" even less so. I’m not ready for that internal debate. Yet.

Instead, I’ll answer the previous questions. I have never played a Silent Hill game before. I knew the premise of the series, some of its more famous monsters, and even some of the memes that have spawned from it through sheer osmosis. But for one reason or another, despite owning copies for years now of both Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2, I’ve never played them. For all intents and purposes, I’m coming into Silent Hill 2 completely clean.

The first thing one notices after seven years of experiencing the high fidelity titles of the current generation is the wonkiness of this game's graphics. They consist of those blocky character constructions that are indicative of the PS2 era, offering the best attempt at realistic fidelity possible at the time. The environments look better, but they are comprised of high textures mounted on narrow spatial geometry. The notorious problem of draw distance, hidden by the infamous fog surrounding Silent Hill, obscures this problem in outdoor sequences and the darkness in looming corridors masks the problem in the game's interiors.

The controls are likewise wonky. Walking can be real pain if you intend to do more than move in a straight line. Combat is sticky, as James Sunderland seems unwilling or unable to grasp the concept of “hurry, man, monsters are about to kill you” when attempting to use any of the game's weapons. In fact, despite being in a town full of horrors and people that are all kinds of off kilter, James seems very content on working at a very methodical pace.

And despite everything wanting to kill you once you stop being aggressive, it is super easy to avoid dangers and survive. Few, if any things, are an actual threat. Even Pyramid Head for all the bluster and hype surrounding him is super easy to avoid and beat. The other challenges of the game, the riddles, are more time wasters and delaying tactics than any serious challenge. The game arbitrarily locks doors requiring circuitous routes or the gathering of items to proceed.

There is no element that would pass muster nowadays (save the sound design -- here’s a lot that modern games could learn from its implementation) and that hasn’t been infinitely improved upon in the ensuing decade plus. And yet, were this game to come out today, instead of twelve years ago, I’d want it to be exactly same as it is.

It’s true not a single element is all that great and barely functions, but as a whole, everything fits neatly into the greater objectives of the game. Challenge isn’t the name of the game. For Silent Hill 2, it’s the creation of a sense of uneasiness. It doesn’t matter that you can run around the enemies and never take a swing at one. The game couldn’t care less if you did or not. They’re just there. They serve no purpose other than as metaphors for James’s fractured and guilt ridden psyche. They are obstacles meant to slow him down.

Likewise, the puzzles and locked doors. They are delaying tactics meant to stretch out the running time of the game and that force you through the entirety of buildings over and over. Doing so creates a sense of place and continually forces the uneasy atmosphere of the world upon you. As frustrating as it is to backtrack through the same corridors searching for some obscure item to allow progress, something fundamental would be lost in the process by the straightening out of the line.

But most of all, what works is the look of the game and the behavior of the automatons in it that we call characters. Both the monsters and the main cast benefit from the low-grade textures and poly counts. The patients wouldn’t be halfway as unnerving as they are without the clockwork-like skittering of a few frames repeating themselves as one of these creatures moves across the floor, or the jagged, diagonal motions of the nurses be halfway as threatening as an enemy that was more direct and fluid in its advance towards James. The fact that you can walk right by them as they ready their attack or give you the time to respond in James’s own time creates tension. It’s the same relative timing of any other combat game. The animations are just slowed down, so we as players can’t wait to know the result of our actions.

The cast itself, despite being only as closely analogous to humans as the game can muster become, likewise, even more unnerving in how close they seem to be to human, but still fall short. They fall into the uncanny valley, a quirk of early video game CGI, but Silent Hill 2 works it. Maria’s mouth is just a little too wide and every time that she smiles I get the feeling that she is about to go for my throat. Seriously, it’s Joker wide. Eddie’s skin seems made of plastic, and he is seemingly not really comfortable with his arms. Angela doesn't seem to have in between faces that her muscles move through when she switches from one emotion to another. And James’s unemotionally blank face and calm expression seem a little out of place given what’s happening around him.

There’s a scene right at the beginning of the game when James is washing his face. He rubs some water on his cheek, but his hand stays in that cupped position and doesn’t quite seem to come in contact with his skin. Skin depresses and molds around whatever is touching it, but the CGI can’t seem to get the movement right no matter how detailed the textures get. What we get instead is an action figure's hand rubbing on the face of one of those modern Japanese robots.

However, during the game, you’re not thinking all these detailed thoughts concerning why these quirks seem off putting in the moment. They are just off putting. Nevertheless, these oddities don’t wreck the experience of the game, in which the experience should be all about being as off putting as possible.

So has it aged badly? It really depends on your metrics. If you think of games as belonging on some absolute scale where advancement is always a positive, then, yes, quite badly. But if you determine the worth of a work from the actual conduct of the elements such as art direction and graphical fidelity, then I think it might have gotten better over time.

Back in 2001 all games looked something like Silent Hill 2. Any game that strived to be as realistic as possible in their drive towards fidelity was going to look and act something like this game. However, unlike other games of the era (many of which have faded from our memory and our assessment), Silent Hill 2 put its unusual looks to work. It knew what it was from its surface polish to its very core. It has only become more apparent over time and in contrast to modern standards that its age is a benefit and not a detriment to the experience it wishes to evoke.

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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