Games

'Jazzpunk' Is a Collaborative, “Jack-in-the-Box” Comedy

The player isn't an audience for the comedy of Jazzpunk. The player instigates the laughs.

During the first mission in the surreal cyberpunk comedy-adventure game Jazzpunk, the player may run across a frog who is trying to hack into a Starbuck's internet service in order to use the company's WiFi. This “side quest” initiates a mini-game that essentially resembles the arcade classic Frogger, as the player takes on the role of the frog attempting to reach his interface device by hopping skillfully through oncoming traffic.

However, unlike in Frogger, in which the player is given three lives to successfully traverse the screen from its bottom to its top, following the player's first failed attempt, the game doesn't load up the next froggy life for the player to continue trying to get to the other side of the screen. Instead, the game switches back to the frog in the Jazzpunk world who now wears a cast on one of its legs and who asks, “Again?,” before the player can make another attempt. What follows is frogs being squished over and over again in the Frogger clone with an interim screen following each “death” that shows the Jazzpunk frog suffering more and more injury. By the fourth or fifth failure, the frog is nearly in a full body cast and crutches, and he simply pleads with the player, “Please, no more!”

Comedy of various sorts, be it clever one liners or slapstick bits, is nothing new in video games. Tim Schafer has built his company Double Fine Games on his reputation as a successful video game humorist, having created comedic games like Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, and Brutal Legend. However, what those games did, which frankly most humorous video games do, is build a game with characters who told funny jokes and did funny things in that game, not unlike a comedic movie or a novel that has characters who do likewise.

Jazzpunk feels different than Schafer's games. It isn't a game that solely tells jokes in cutscenes and through dialogue. It more often involves the player in the jokes and depends on the player to complete actions necessary to complete those jokes. It is a comedy that hinges on the fact that games are more interactive than other media. The comedy becomes a collaborative act between the game and its player.

In an interview, Jess Brouse, one of Jazzpunk's developers, described this kind of approach to comedy, using the metaphor of a jack-in-the-box: “There’s a bit of a jack-in-the-box feel to it, the user of the jack-in-the-box is the one who instigates [the punchline]” (”Necrophone Games on the Making of Jazzpunk, Virgin Media: The Future of Gaming).

The reason that the frog's constant abuse as a figure of slapstick pathos is funny is due to the player's own complicity in abusing the frog. Indeed, the punchline of the joke can be spoiled if the player is especially competent at playing the Frogger clone. If the player succeeds on the first attempt to get the frog across the road, that player will never even be made aware of this gag at the frog's (and at Frogger)'s expense at all.

The additional beauty of the comedy of this scene, though, is how familiar this particular “jack-in-the-box experience” is if that player has any familiarity with Frogger. As a game from the arcade era, an era in which games benefited from being excessively difficult in order to cause players to fail and in doing so would additionally cause the player to spend more quarters for the chance to succeed, the idea of a gamer abusing their frog avatar in a video game should be intensely familiar. I played a lot of Frogger in the 1980s, so when that Frogger clone appeared, my expectation was that I was going to get that poor froggy killed a lot. After all, that's Frogger. The fact that my actions and their consequences to the frog became more and more obvious and tangible as he appeared more beaten and bruised with each of my failures was met with a delighted recognition on my part. That my past interactions with Frogger had lacked such visual consequence had me grinning and laughing, as I recognized that the game “knew” who I was as a player, an abuser of video game frogs, who should have seen what horror I had wrought on video game froggies before now.

A classic comedic bit revised to work as this kind of “jack-in-the-box” comedy that appears later on in the game further illustrates this idea. The game's protagonist, a male espionage agent named Polyblank is asked to “gussy” himself up in the guise of a woman in order to switch attache cases with an opposing male spy. Witnessing a straight male's ineptitude at impersonating a woman has been played for laughs throughout cinematic and television history (Some Like It Hot and Bosom Buddies, for instance, immediately come to mind). What makes Jazzpunk's take on it fresh is that the player has to literally enact donning a blonde wig and then applying lipstick by “coloring in” their own lips in an outline on the screen. Since the game is played in first person mode, fringes of blonde hair appear on the edges of the screen after this makeover along with a shadow of less than expertly applied lipstick near where the protagonist's mouth should be. This masculine ineptitude at playing a feminine role is not then something merely witnessed. It is the players own bad coloring job that makes the situation ridiculous and farcical. It is the player's “own fault” that Polyblank looks the fool. Frankly, it is not merely Polyblank that is the fool. It is the players of the game themselves that are the fool in this gag.

It isn't that Jazzpunk doesn't do what so many comedic games have done before, tell us some jokes, introduce us to some funny characters. The game does do these same sorts of things that games like Schafer's have done in the past. The remarkable thing is how often Jazzpunk avoids simply using those more classic comedy techniques, though, to construct jokes and just how frequently it makes the player instigate the comedy and become a part of “telling the joke.”

In Jazzpunk, we don't laugh at the clown, so much as we laugh at our own clowning around.

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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