Games

More is Less in 'Montague’s Mount'

Montague’s Mount has no faith in its audience -- and no faith in itself.

Some time ago, Leigh Alexander wrote an article for Edge about how “less is more” when it comes to storytelling and evoking emotional responses in games ("When it comes to storytelling and getting emotional responses from games sometimes less is more", Edge Online, 14 October 2013).

Her article was mainly about Gone Home, but as I read it, another game came to mind, the poorly received indie “thriller” (spoiler, it’s not actually thrilling) Montague’s Mount. That game proves Leigh right with one moment of subtle storytelling that’s actually effective, then proves her right again with several in-you-face attempts at emotional manipulation that fall painfully flat.

A quick summary: Montague’s Mount is about a man who wakes up on an island beach with amnesia. He decides to explore the island to find out what happened to him and who he is.

The effective moment is completely optional (which might be one of the reasons that it’s so effective). Early in your exploration, you’ll find a cabin with a television. It’s mostly static, but one channel plays a video of a little boy over and over again. The boy is young, his age likely still a single digit, and he’s riding a bike up and down an empty sidewalk in a grassy field. He looks quite happy, smiling and looking to the camera as he passes. His acknowledgement of the camera makes this feel like a home video, and we naturally imagine a person behind the lens watching the boy.

Next to the television is an old record player. If you’re dedicated in your exploration of the island, you might find an intact record in a drawer. Playing it reveals some kind of infomercial or self-help session about bettering yourself by “bettering your truth.”

By placing these two things next to each other, the game encourages us to make connections between them. I consider the happy boy in the video, the sad state of my current situation, the tempting but illogical invitation of “bettering my truth,” and I create a back story for my amnesic avatar: Is the video real, something from my past that I want to go back to, or is it something that I hope for, a hallucination or fantasy to make my life bearable? Did I try to better my truth and fail and that’s what led me to this dreary island, or is the record offering me a way out? The lack of details encourages me to play with the possibilities, and in playing with those possibilities, I become more invested in them. I’m not just interacting with the world but with the narrative as well. Through the simple placement of items, the game creates a mystery and invites me to play along with it.

However, the game doesn’t take any lessons from this moment. Later on, you find a cave that looks to be the home of a squatter. There’s a wooden board propped up on some chairs, covered with pictures of a young boy. When you enter the cave, the game takes control of the camera, slowly -- oh so painfully slowly -- zooming in on the board, then to a single picture, then it proceeds to pan across each picture until it reaches the bottom.

Clearly the game wants me to consider this board and the pictures on it, but this kind of forced emphasis has the opposite effect. When control is wrested away from me, I lose interest in the thing I’m seeing because I’m no longer solving a mystery, I’m being shown a mystery. I’ve lost the sense of personal involvement. To make it worse, the presentation of the mystery is repetitive and turns boring. The camera pans over multiple pictures of this boy, but the pictures don’t reveal or hint at any new information; they’re just close-ups of his face. The game thus takes control away from me in order to forcefully show me the same bit of information again and again.

Eventually the camera ends on a different picture, that of a man. There’s no explanation for the man’s presence on this board, again inviting us to make connections, but the problem with equating these two people (the boy and the man) is that the gulf of possibilities between them is too big to allow any interesting mysteries to arise. We don’t know anything about the boy or the man or even if they know each other since they never appear in a picture together. These two variables are so ill defined that when we consider their relationship we can only think in vague generalities: family or friend, protector or abuser, victim or villain?

The contrast between the television and the record player worked because those items suggested very specific ideas but offered no obvious connection between those ideas. The puzzle pieces in our hands contained vivid illustrations and that helped our imaginations fill in the blanks between. By comparison, the boy and man are mere doodles that begin and end as only individual puzzle pieces, but no picture ever forms from the. Still the game focuses on them as if they’re meant to reveal a grand and shocking truth.

The game ends on a low note with another slow pan across the same set of pictures at a different location, followed by expository narration explaining who the boy is and what happened to him. So not only does the game forcefully present me with what I already know, failing to make it interesting twice in a row, but then it gives up and just explains everything.

When the game tries to be mysterious, it tries too hard. It tries too hard to be vague and tries too hard to focus our attention. When it steps back and leaves the mental work to the player, it succeeds. That it doesn’t do this more often only shows that Montague’s Mount has no faith in its audience -- and no faith in itself.

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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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.

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