Can Video Game Mechanics Be “Trashy”?

Speed is the pornography of video games. Like adding skin to a film, adding speed to a game isn't usually about making the game a more thoughtful experience. It is about exciting its audience's instincts on the most visceral level possible.

I read an interview with John Carmack, the creator of Doom, some time ago in which he was asked what was the most important element of the success of Doom, the game that essentially soldered down the centrality of the first person shooter to American video gaming culture. His response was simple: speed.

What Romero said that what he set out to do with Doom was to create the fastest gameplay experience that he possibly could, and anyone who has played the game should easily understand this explanation. The player's role in Doom is to essentially play as a roving gun platform, a really, really fast roving gun platform, that simply massacres monsters en masse and as fast as possible.

The speed of Doom is its central pleasure. The gameplay itself is simple. You can shoot monsters with a variety of weapons ranging from a pistol to a shotgun to an RPG, and that is pretty much the beginning and the end of it, a purely minimalistic experience. However, everything is executed at hyperspeed.

When developing a prototype of a Pac-Man knock off (what would eventually become Ms. Pac-Man after they approached Bally Midway with the game), what the folks over at General Computer Corporation did first was to double the speed of the original Pac-Man. And you know which game is the better of the two? The faster, more hyperkinetic Ms. Pac-Man, of course.

Speed is a thrill. In a sense, speed is the pornography of video games. Like adding skin to a film, adding speed to a game isn't usually about making the game a more thoughtful or profound experience, it is about exciting its audience's emotions and instincts on the most visceral level possible.

Paralleling speed in video games with the pornographic in visual media seems an appropriate parallel to make due to the nature of the earliest American first person shooters. From Castle Wolfenstein to Doom to Duke Nukem to Shadow Warrior, this form of game was initially paired with the pornographic -- the grotesque and the sexual.

From the obviously provocative and salacious decision to feature Hitler as a final boss in Wolfenstein 3D to the grotesque monstrosities that you shoot up in Doom to the gyrating cheerleaders and gross jokes of Duke Nukem and Shadow Warrior, the speedy gameplay of the first person shooter in the 1990s was wed to the themes and imagery of the B-movie and genres like exploitation cinema. But again, this may make sense since the goal of speeding a game up and featuring salacious imagery and concepts is essentially quite similar. The goal of both is to excite the audience at the most basic and banal of levels. These are crude methods used to evoke crude responses.

All of which might suggest that I am criticizing games like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D, but the truth is that I think that both games play very well. Indeed, they are very much a pleasure to play. And, after all, it is pleasure that is their goal.

The crudeness of their gameplay, their grotesqueness, and their humor delights me in ways that similarly crude media can as well. Everyone has their guilty pleasures, and a game like Doom is a reasonable guilty pleasure to seek out -- at least in my experience.

The reason that I am thinking about this connection at all, though, is due to a playthrough of the recently released on-rails shooter, Blue Estate. Despite being an on-rails shooter (so not exactly what is usually meant by a first person shooter, but close) when playing through the first level, my immediate thought was how much the game reminded me of Doom.

In part, it was the basic quality of the game's controls (The left mouse button shoots, the right mouse button reloads your weapon, or if double clicked, switches weapons, and a few onscreen context sensitive prompts require that the player swipe the mouse in one of four directions at times. That's it. There is no more to interfacing with the game's world than that.) that led me to think of Doom, but the other part of it was the velocity of the action as you just kill, kill, kill as fast as you possibly can.

The next game that I thought of as I played through that first level, which is set in a strip club and tasks the player with taking on the role of Tony Luciano, a member of the mob looking for his stripper girlfriend, was of Duke Nukem. If Duke Nukem is a crass send up of 1980s action films and action heroes (which it is by the way), then Blue Estate is a crass send up of 1990s and the early 2000s action films and heroes. Both John Woo and Michael Bay are referenced in various scenes in the game and appropriately so. Blue Estate's general vibe is generated through a similar type of crass sexual humor that can be found in Duke Nukem 3D and in Shadow Warrior, just frequently more cleverly written and executed in Blue Estate than in those earlier titles.

As a result, I've found my new guilty pleasure, this game full of mobsters and strippers, subtle jokes and mostly not so subtle jokes. Blue Estate mixes the pornography of crude humor and imagery with the pornography of speed, and I wouldn't have it any other way. This is trash art rocketed at you with terrible irreverence and terrible speed. It is also, I think, terribly good.


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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