Mechanical Marrow: The Strength of Simple Games

The more basic a player’s interactions with a game, the more meaningful those interactions become. In a game distilled to just one or two kinds of interaction, everything has weight and significance.

Early this month, Ben Serviss wrote about the effective subtext in Particle Mace ("Particle Mace: The Space Game About Selflessness", Dash Jump, 9 January 2014). In his article, Serviss argues that in being simplified to a single mechanic (avoid environmental dangers), Particle Mace emphasizes an awareness of the game’s environment, not on the player’s avatar, and from that awareness emerges a “meditative focus of watching everything and nothing, being everywhere and nowhere, in order to align all of the disparate elements making demands on the player’s attention.”

Particle Mace and Serviss’s analysis of it point to an interesting phenomenon that occurs in games stripped down to their most basic parts. G. Christopher Williams and Nick Dinicola have discussed video game minimalism on PopMatters in the past ("The Moving Pixels Podcast Explores Minimalism in Video Games", PopMatters, 13 May 2013). The more basic a player’s interactions with a game, the more meaningful those interactions become. In a game distilled to just one or two kinds of interaction, everything has weight and significance.

In both Alpaca Run and A Mother in Festerwood, the player’s impact on the game is limited to the simplest kinds of control of their avatar’s movement. In Alpaca Run, Ingrid the Alpaca runs automatically, and the player can jump or not jump to avoid obstacles. Furthermore, unlike The Impossible Game, platforms are relatively easy to avoid and falling into a pit only causes Ingrid to fall from the sky back into place. There is no jarring interruption. Death (if it can be called that) is meaningless. The experience is just the player’s guided exploration through pretty pictures and a fun song.

Likewise, A Mother in Festerwood asks the player to guide their avatar -- a mother raising an RPG hero -- around a homestead while their child roams around their property getting older. The only interaction that the player has with the game is in making contact with the child to send them closer to home or in letting them roam on their own. The farther the player's character is from the child the more experience he’ll gain and the stronger he’ll become, but if he leaves too soon or heads off in the wrong direction, the more likely he’ll end up getting killed by the monsters roaming the forest.

Both of these games are able to create wildly different feelings based on very basic movement mechanics. Ingrid’s joyful romp through infinity is pleasant. Jumping up and down, collecting apples (or not) and avoiding pitfalls (or not) just feels fun. There’s a paradoxical freedom in being limited to a single possible mechanic. There’s no failure state, so play is not restricted to mastering skilled button pushes. Instead, the player can do whatever they want while Ingrid’s journey leads her to glorious outer space alpaca godhood. The single jumping mechanic ends up feeling empowering and pleasant when meshed with the cute music and images.

It is a game that harkens back to early console platformers that were based on the simple pleasure of traversing a colorful level. At the same time, though, Alpaca Run lifts the prohibitive difficulty curve and even the practice required to navigate most games like it. Listening to the lyrics, coupled with the abruptly changing colorful scenery, it’s clear that nothing can stop Ingrid on her journey across time and space. Motion is Ingrid’s goal, and the player is invited to participate in it. It’s fun to be welcomed on her journey, and it’s meaningful that the player can only help her.

Conversely, the restrictions placed on the player in A Mother in Festerwood create an opposite but equally powerful feeling. In the game, the player must watch the tiny sprite of their child roam around a cottage in Festerwood. As noted, if the player stays near the child, then he won’t be able to leave the property lines and enter the outer forest filled with monsters. However, the more space the player gives the tyke, the faster he’ll gain experience points and level up. The older the child gets, the farther he’ll wander and the faster he’ll go. Eventually, the player won’t be able to keep up with him, and he’ll end up leaving the player’s range of movement. At that point, all the player can do is hope that they’ve set him on the right path and prepared him enough to survive it.

Again, by limiting the player’s influence over the game to a single mechanic (move in the child’s way to protect him, move out of his way to let him get stronger), there’s no room for distraction. For most of the game the player’s input is totally meaningless: by the time the child has left the cottage, he very likely won’t return until he’s killed or he’s satisfied enough with his adventure to return at the age of 25. But every interaction that offset’s the child’s behavior is packed with significance. Furthermore, the game adopts a unique tension by the time the player’s role in it is finished. Studying the child’s adventure from too great a distance to be of any help retroactively forces the player to obsess over every prior decision and strategy.

Indeed, that’s the point of the game. As an allegory of parenthood set in a prototypical low-bit RPG, it compresses all of child rearing into a single constant decision: do I let my child grow on their own or do I protect them from the world? There isn’t a right answer, and at a point, all one can do is ruminate on their choices.

Games like Alpaca Run and A Mother in Festerwood are powerful because of their simplicity. There are no superfluous tasks to distract from the feelings they are trying to convey and the muted interactions that do exist reinforce their aesthetic. They illustrate the power of player experience not by giving them things to do, but by reducing their influence to a single act with limited impact on the game.

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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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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