Games

The Games of IndieCade: Part 3

Relativity (Willy Chyr, 2014)

I honestly believe there is something about IndieCade that leads one to think differently about games and that is quite a feat to accomplish given gaming's frequent commitment to conventionality.

When a developer is told to create a video game, the average mind will always drift to what has already been done. Given a blank canvas with which to work and the mind is assailed by the tyranny of possibility, creating nothing. The mind needs some structure and limitations to create, and often they are the limitations that creators impose on themselves. And often those self imposed limitations are the conventions of what has come before. It is a safety net that those steeped in a medium understand.

Conventionality in the arts leads to the exclusion of ideas that fall outside the norm, not by simply refusing to grant admittance to those outside the boundaries of what is accepted as a game, but through the subtle denial of new thought. Saying those limitations no longer apply in this instance is never enough. New limitations, specially crafted, are needed to break away from the old and into a new arena of possibility.

I have brought up the uniqueness of IndieCade as an event where play and imagination run free. This was not just idle chatter. I honestly believe there is something about the event that leads one to think differently about games and that is quite a feat to accomplish given gaming's frequent commitmnet to conventionality.

Relativity

I feel that in some future year this is going on my game of the year list. Antichamber might have broken your mind with its non-Euclidean world, and, well, Relativity seems set to do so within a Euclidean one. You can walk on any surface in Relativity. Walk to a wall, and it will change color and become the new floor. Gravity shifts accordingly. The former floor is now a wall, now colored gray. It's like walking on the inside of a cube, except the whole environment is really a maze of puzzle rooms. Maintaining an awareness of your relative orientation is key as the world changes appearance and stairs become walls and blocks become ceiling fixtures.

In terms of its narrative, the plan is to create six narrative threads that will indicate what happened in this world but that don't quite sync up. They are six different points of view on the same events Rashoman-style. That's if the developer does end up implementing one at all. It's not going to feature an explicit plot, but something along the lines of a thematic construction, like that in Antichamber.

I don't feel like I've adequately explained either aspect of the game, but I don't think I could do a better job. Relativity needs to be seen to be really understood. It's an impressive achievement that doesn't sound like it until you see it. "How could you possibly get lost, just because you can walk on the wall?," you say to yourself. Then you play it, and the disorienting effect of things not being where they should be hits you head on. I love this kind of weirdness and conceptual mind screwing. I can't wait to get my hands on a finished game. The game has been in development for 50 months so far and will probably take another year or so to finish. I wish Willy Chyr the best of luck in doing so.

Rollers of the Realm

Tired of playing an RPG, but grinding through all that combat? Tired of battles becoming repetitious fights full of barely distinguishable padding? Why not turn those fights into pinball tables? What, that wasn't the next logical step? I love independent game creators because not only could they make such a game, but the idea would occur to them in the first place is amazing. Who among you would think to turn a fantasy RPG into a series of pinball tables complete with enemies with hit points, balls representing different characters with different abilities, on board quests and boss fights?

The plan is for the game to span six chapters consisting of about 50-60 boards in total. You follow a ragtag band of adventures and misfits as they come together to fight an ancient evil that will be unearthed by a corrupt lord or some such thing. When you're stepping this far out of the box, it's okay to keep some basic reference points. I want to emphasize that this isn't a pinball game with a story and RPG elements, this is a full RPG that has exchanged traditional styles of combat for pinball boards.

Slam of the Arcade Age

This was a game made for a French punk festival. I don't think that I would have had the opportunity to play it anywhere except at an event like IndieCade. There is a screen that flashes various colors that if stared at too long might induce seizures. There are fours squares at one edge of the screen and a line on the other side. In front of the screen scattered about a small table are 11 different colored arcade buttons embedded in Styrofoam blocks spray painted to match those buttons, black, white, gray, green, yellow, blue, pink, orange, red, brown, and silver. Wires emerge from the bottom of each Styrofoam block all leading to a circuit board next to the screen. Every time that you hit one of the buttons, that square that corresponds to it will move forward a bit. Every few seconds all the squares change color. It is a mad race to the finish line.

Not every video game includes body checking as a nearly requisite part of play. You have to be able to tap fast to make it across the finish line and to be ready to change on the fly. You will lean across the table to reach another button. This is not a calm, nor a respectful affair. It is frantic, hyperactive, and comes with no rules. Cover someone's eyes, cover the button of the leader, or push and hold it down so that they can't get to it at all. I learned to grab the person's wrist and slam it up and down instead. I was almost sweating by the end of a few matches.

It's perfectly appropriate that it was made for a punk festival. Forget games with crude graphics or a subversive story. This is a punk video game.

What Hath God Wrought? (title subject to change)

This game required its own peripheral, and if you recognize the quote that gives the game its title, you'll have figured out what it is all about. "What hath God wrought" is the first phrase ever transmitted over a telegraph line back in 1844. The peripheral is a handmade Morse key wired up to an NES controllers B button. The game is Typing of the Dead for a telegraph operator. You have to type out a message on screen as accurately as possible in Morse code.

The developer got the idea when reading The Victorian Internet. Apparently the telegraph was the primogenitor of the internet. In their down time, operators would chat across the lines about their day or pass along jokes and speak in truncated coded speech. At some point, the game developer is thinking about adding in a Papers, Please-style narrative about building the world through messages that people bring in. He also says not to worry about speed as the game informed people they were typing at two to three words a minute. Apparently, the average back in the day of telegraph operators was only five words a minute.

He is going to create a smartphone version at some point, allowing for tapping on the screen instead of a key. But I think the game would lose something without the Morse key peripheral. There is some heft to the device, and it will resist. You have to really hit the key to get a tone. After all, you could play Guitar Hero with a controller, but it just wouldn't the same.

--

So concludes a look through 13 independent titles in total. All were and are in various stages of completion and represent different levels of ambition. Each game has something about it that in some small way caught my eye. That isn't to say that these 13 were all there was to see, though. For some reason the game that my mind drifts back to whenever I reflect back on the show was one made by two high school kids and that was little more than an tech demo for a game engine. The game deposited your figure on a green plane with some brown squares meant to be houses. A black square represented a door that when walked through lead to a gray plane meant to be an underground dungeon. All you could do was move that figure around. You couldn't interact with anything at all. And yet, these kids just wanted to show off what they had done. There was nothing to it, and no one said that it wasn't supposed to be there. I wish those two designers and all the other creators at IndieCade the best of luck.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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