Games

Worshiping at the Altar of 'Smite'

At some point, League of Legends champions have become for me toys that are just displayed on a shelf, gathering dust, having never been played with. Smite asks me to tear open the packaging and actually get down on the floor to appreciate all the toys I have again.

I wrote last week about the completion of my two year quest to unlock every League of Legends champion without spending a single dime (”On Having Caught 'Em All”, PopMatters, 11 June 2014). In doing so, I raised some questions about some tendencies in myself as a gamer towards completing sets for the sake of completing sets. Indeed, I have written in the past about how video games play on a very human (or maybe a very modern) need in ourselves to complete tasks, checking off lists of minor goals to achieve “greater goals,” and how I sometimes love doing so and sometimes loathe doing so (“Post-It Note Gaming, or the White Collar Warriors of Skyrim, PopMatters, 8 January 2012).

Another thing that I noted on having completed my quest was that I had almost immediately taken up with playing another free-to-play MOBA that allows me to scratch my collector's itch by allowing me to not merely collect “champions,” but to now collect “gods” by playing matches of the game Smite and earning “favor” (the equivalent of League's influence points) in, perhaps, a new quest to catch 'em all. While it seems certain to me that I never got over the mania of action figure and comic book collecting that I did as a kid, playing Smite, though, and attempting to start a new collection from scratch has given me a few new thoughts on the sorts of reasons that motivate one to play the sorts of games that include playable collectibles.

As I noted, playing any given mode of Smite rewards the player with a kind of currency called “favor” that is very similar to the League of Legends currency called “influence points.” These points allow cheap ass gamers like myself to avoid spending actual currency on these games but to enjoy their content by “playing to pay” instead of paying to play. However, in addition to earning favor to buy new characters to play with in the game (the characters in Smite are based on ancient gods, like Zeus, Kali, or Sobek), a Smite match (whether you win or lose) also offers the player “worshipers.” You, of course earn more worshipers for a win and less for a loss, but I was honestly baffled at what this prize meant in terms of gameplay. The name of these “points” (since worshipers are merely recorded as numbers, like “+2 worshipers” or “+8 worshipers”) made sense in the context of a game about gods, but I didn't understand their value in the context of the game itself.

Investigating further, I discovered that worshipers are tied to another stat in Smite, a stat that keeps track of your “mastery” of a character. In essence, earning worshipers represents your relative experience with playing a character, as acquiring 50 worshipers marks your character profile as having a Level I mastery in whatever god you earned those worshipers with. Raise your worshipers to 155 and you will earn a second level of mastery with that god and so forth.

Now, of course, as a freakishly driven completionist, I was immediately motivated to raise the first goddess that I tried playing, Neith, to Level I. I didn't know why exactly, but it seemed an important task.

It wasn't until I had achieved Level I mastery of several more gods that I asked myself the question, “Why am I 'mastering' all of these characters at all?” Without considering directly the developers intentions in this regard yet, there are a few interesting results of the way that I responded to the “mastery system” that are probably worth noting (though I assume these responses do indicate indirectly some of the developers intentions, as I assume that they created this system with some motivational purpose in mind and that I am, of course, playing right into their hands).

First off, the obvious. By focusing my attention on collecting worshipers for Neith, I, indeed, began to master her. I got better at playing her, win or lose, with each match that I played as her by simple trial and error experiential learning. And honestly, I wasn't quite sure I felt comfortable with her immediately. She is essentially a ranged marksman, the equivalent of what is referred to as an AD Carry or ADC in League of Legends, which I have played a fair amount of in that other game. However, still I was mixed about my initial skills with her, but again, “mastering” her first has made her one of the most comfortable characters to play the game with for me so far.

Secondly, having mastered Neith, I immediately moved on to attempting to master another character. Having a Level I on one character only seemed kind of lame. Plus, mastering Neith to Level II would take twice as long, so why not get a sense of achievement again right away? Now, the player who registers to play Smite is given five free characters to get you started. Additionally, like League, several characters are available on some kind of weekly or biweekly rotation to try out for free. So, I decided to take advantage of the fact that Vamana was free the week that I started and that I could master him before actually owning him.

Vamana is a melee bruiser, a character that is probably the type that I play least in League of Legends, largely because I usually play them poorly. However, having been randomly assigned Vamana in one mode of the game, I found that by building him kind of tanky that I had a natural affinity for the character. Basically, the mastery system had encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and to practice with a type of character role that I usually avoid.

All of which brings me to the actual purpose of the mastery system in Smite. In order to play ranked games in Smite and again much like in League, the player is required to reach level 30 (this is a player level, separate from the mastery levels earned for individual gods). However, additionally a player must own and have at least a Level I mastery in 16 gods in order to play ranked as well. The long and short of it is that to play Smite at a more competitive level, the developers are requiring players to get some less than superficial play time in with individual gods, to likely get familiar with several different roles that are typical to MOBAs by playing a diversity of gods, and even to just get familiar enough with a good mix of gods to have some idea of what each one does. This latter element seems to me a particularly interesting one, as I honestly still don't have a good sense of some of the abilities of some of the 119 champions that I own in League of Legends because, while I collected them, I have never really played some of them much. Sure, I own Rumble, but when I face him on the battlefield, I sort of only vaguely realize what he is capable of. I've only played him like twice since unlocking him.

What I find interesting about Smite's mastery system is that at some point League of Legends champions had become for me toys that are just displayed on a shelf, gathering dust, having never been played with, appealing on some level only to the collector in me, not the player. Thus far, Smite is asking me to tear open the packaging and actually get down on the floor to appreciate all the toys I have. Maybe this is a small thing, but, you know what? I never wanted to be that ungrateful, spoiled kid down the block who has all of the toys but could care less about them. And honestly, I never was that kid because my parents didn't buy me every bauble that caught my eye. So, as a result, I'm kind of glad that Smite is teaching me to appreciate what I already have once again.

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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