From Sochi to 'Spelunky'

Winter Games (Epyx, 1985)

Watching the Winter Olympics reminds me of exploring treacherous virtual mines.

Like much of the world, I’ve been watching this year’s Winter Olympics. I must admit that this marks the first time in approximately four years that sports like figure skating and the luge have taken up space in my brain, but I feel like I have plenty of company on this bandwagon. It’s probably a bit more unusual for people to connect the Olympics with video games, but that’s where my mind naturally goes. Seeing these athletes compete at such a high level and in such high-pressure situations helps explain the resurgence of high-stakes video games.

Olympic sports are full of harsh consequences. One false step at the start of the luge track and the next minute is an eternity of regret. A mistimed jump during the opening of your figure skating routine, and you find yourself completely out of contention. The feeling of that ski hitting a weird bump is also the feeling of four years of preparation slipping away. It stresses me out just thinking about this, but it’s also exhilarating to see just how thin the line between victory and defeat can be.

Video games are full of this sort of pressure, especially during this resurgence of roguelikes and competitive games. Spelunky, one of my favorites, is extremely unforgiving. Let your mind wander and you might find your run ended by a run of the mill snake, to say nothing of the even game’s more lethal terrors. Even if you don’t outright lose, failing to pick up items like the Udjat Eye will severely limit your ability to score compared to your competitors who succeeded to do so. These dynamics are spotlighted by the game’s ingenious Daily Challenge, in which all the players in the world get one shot at the same course and then get to compare their scores. Like the luge track, everyone competes on the same course and has to overcome personal challenges while keeping an eye on their rivals’ scores.

Partly a measurement of your own skill and partly a contest with an opponent, this high-risk environment is thriving in today’s video game landscape. This often takes the form of direct competition, as is the case in games like Divekick, Nighogg, and Samurai Gunn. While you don’t hold your fate in your own hands as you do in Spelunky, the one-hit-death dynamic means that even skilled players will succumb to mistakes or clever plays by newcomers. The potential for unexpected outcomes and the constant high tension lends dramatic tension to matches between high-level players and scrubs like Jorge and me.

The pressure inherent in these games hits on the intangible factor Olympic announcers often describe. Many of them are former Olympians and are well aware that the mental strain can have as much of an impact as the physical challenge. Performing in front of people can rattle the most talented athletes, and video games are starting to exhibit more ways to psych out players. The rise of streaming and game capture techniques mean anyone can have an audience. Trying to decide what to do is a challenge, but knowing that you’re also performing for people adds another narrative to your internal monologue: “What should I do?” is joined by “Who is watching and what are they thinking?” Of course, it’s not always a detriment, as a friendly crowd can elevate players. Expert Spelunky player Bananasaurus Rex’s legendary Solo Eggplant Run (yes, this sounds like nonsense, but it’s actually amazing) was helped along by friendly on-lookers.

Team sports like hockey make it harder to identify the inflection point between success and failure. Obviously there is always a winning goal or a crucial turnover, but a multitude of micro-victories and defeats set the stage for the pivotal moment. Games like League of Legends or Starcraft are similar. Team dynamics and host of factors can make the reasons behind winning and losing difficult to parse. Sports focused on perfect execution or a race against the clock distill competitive chaos into discrete moments. At the end of the competition, it’s clear if you lost the game for yourself or whether your opponent simply got the best of you.

Whether someone tumbles down the mountain or falls into a pit of virtual spikes, the line between triumph and catastrophe is painfully obvious.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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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 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.

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It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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