Games

The Rise of and Risk of Multiplayer Gaming

Competitive muliplayer gaming has evolved a great deal over the last 30 or more years, but then again, it also hasn't really evolved that much. How many times can we play the Atari 2600's Combat?

Secret Ponchos had me at “Hello,” with “Hello” being the image above. I love Westerns (there just aren't enough of them in video games), I love super stylized art, and I love a skeletal figure in a sombrero.

I didn't really know what the game was about, but, boy, did I want to play it. For the uninitiated, Secret Ponchos is a multiplayer twin-stick shooter available on Steam and the Playstation 4 that is being developed by and has been published by Switchblade Monkeys (hell's bells, I even love the development company's name). Players take on the role of variously Western themed characters (there is a Billy the Kid type character, an army deserter, a skeletal figure in a sombrero, a female matador, etc.) and are dropped onto Western themed maps to shoot at each other and stuff. Well, there isn't a lot more to it than shooting at each other to be honest.

The music for the game is moody and appropriate, and while the above image is cutscene-style art for the game, it is a pretty fair representation of what the game actually looks like. The game features grotesque and beautifully designed characters battling it out in well realized, but highly stylized Western settings. However, while the game features three modes and a bounty system that allows characters to gain and lose notoriety and cash, these modes essentially amount to launching a game about running around a map and ganking as many people as you can a whole lot. There's a free-for-all mode, a team deathmatch mode, and a mode called domination in which you gain points for your team by scoring a kill and lose points by getting killed (eventually one team has to completely “dominate” the other in total points to win).

For those unfamiliar with twin-stick shooters, the controls take a bit of getting used to, as playing requires a different mindset in which your movement and aiming operate essentially independently of one another. But whatever novelty a twin-stick shooter multiplayer battle arena might offer, it's still essentially a place to go to shoot other players for awhile.

Now, to be fair to Secret Ponchos, while the game has been available to players since last summer, it is still in development. It is an early access game. Eventually there may be more to it than there is currently and all that. However, it does appear to me that the core mode of the game is essentially Atari's Combat with a very, very nice coat of paint. You remember Combat, right? It's that game where two tanks shoot at one another, scoring points for each hit, across a very simple maze-like arena or in which two airplanes (or a big fat airplane and three smaller airplanes) competed in similar 8-bit-style aerial combat. You know, a couple of players loaded up a cartridge on the Atari 2600 and shot at each other a lot.

Competitive multiplayer gaming has evolved a great deal over the last 30 or more years, but then again, it hasn't evolved that much. Shooters and combat games are still shooters and combat games, albeit with much slicker coats of paint, and as far as the more successful ones go (League of Legends, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty, etc.) with some additional layers added (be they more broadly defined objectives, capturing a flag or destroying a nexus, or more personal goals, leveling up a character, gaining better gear and load out possibilities for future matches, etc.). As far as success with multiplayer games goes, that success can be largely attributed to those two additional elements, making sure that the games looks compelling and that it has some kind of hook in addition to just scoring kills to define the experience overall, things that move these games away from the very “basic” quality of games like the original Combat.

Combat was originally packed in with the Atari 2600 unit when the system was first sold in the late 1970s. It served the purpose of providing consumers with a game that they could play right out of the box, but truth be told, what it often enough did was provide a reason for wanting to purchase some additional cartridges. I'm not saying that I didn't have some fun afternoons playing this game with my siblings or friends, but Combat is a serviceable game, nothing more. It proves that playing a game in your living room can be fun, but it also makes one ask, “What else?”

All of which brings me back to the lovely, but altogether merely serviceable game Secret Ponchos. It's okay, but given what other multiplayer competitive experiences offer in addition to the goal of shooting at someone else a lot, it makes me just shrug a bit and ask, “What else?”

It seems I am not alone in this experience, as it remains difficult at various times of the day to find other players to play with and against in the game. Once again, the game is in early access, so its player base may yet to be built, but it is discouraging to wait and wait for just a simple, mediocre experience that kind of conceptually resembles a game from 1977.

It's funny. There is often enough some hue and cry about the death of single player gaming and the ascendance of multiplayer gaming. However, games like Secret Ponchos leave me in doubt about such a phenomenon. Multiplayer gaming seems to me to be a most dangerous financial endeavor, equivalent in some way to the risky business of opening a restaurant. You open a restaurant (say, Titanfall), it's cool for a few months, then everybody goes looking for a new menu, a new experience. And no one wants to go to an empty restaurant on a Friday night.

Certainly, there are some independent restaurants that stay in business for years, becoming a mainstay of a city or community, but most others exist briefly before everyone looks for the new hotspot, which I guess could be said of single player gaming, too, except that the sale of older games on Steam and GOG.com make me think otherwise. The single player game has an advantage in staying power over the multiplayer game. You don't need everybody else to think it's cool at the same time that you do for it to continue to operate.

The apparent mainstays of multiplayer gaming, games that appear to have longevity like League of Legends, like Left 4 Dead, like Call of Duty, recognize that they have to offer something more than Combat did as an experience or that they need to regularly renovate the place to keep the franchise going. But for as many cool restaurants open, far fewer stay relevant for decades. Multiplayer gaming itself will persist, but since it isn't some monolithic force and so many of its various elements lock its components into a transient state, I distrust the idea that it is what video gaming will exclusively ever to become all about. Sometimes you want to eat out, but more often than not most of us are content to eat in.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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