Above the Sea of Fog: The New Romantic Era of Video Games

L.B. Jeffries
"Kratos Above the Sea of Fog"; Photoshop by Eric Schiller

To this next generation of consoles, a challenge has been declared: that the quality of graphics or sound are not gauges for the quality of a game, that they aspire to more than mere satisfaction of a few basic human desires.

"If this is the best of all possible worlds, I wonder what the others are like," wrote Voltaire. With this joke the movement that would ultimately come to be known as the Enlightenment was kicked off. Philosophers and scientists overthrew centuries of church-dominated doctrine and replaced it with reason, rationality, and science. Taking inspiration from Aristotle, art was declared to serve only as an imitation of life so that it may best inspire and uplift the human spirit to good deeds.

"Dude, you fucking suck at Mario Brothers. Let's play Duck Hunt," said my older brother. With these words (or something similar), our own generation cemented the relevance of another cultural movement: that of the video game age. Since the 1980s, designers and software companies have been hashing out new types of games, new methods of interaction, and new ways to best inspire and uplift the modern human spirit. In a recent issue of EGM (Issue 215), psychologist Scott Rigby explains that games can potentially satisfy three psychological needs: autonomy, mastery, and social interaction. Where we fail in our real lives, we are able to attain a certain degree of competence in our digital ones. To this end we seek out the games at which we excel, find a confirmation of ourselves, and find the confidence that we would seek in real life. But are those three senses of fulfillment all they can do? What other emotions and satisfactions could they inspire and provide?

In terms of the next-generation console wars, this question has not boiled down to a simple matter of improving the capacity for fulfillment via better graphics and sound, but to do as Western Civilization did centuries ago and question the very nature of that fulfillment. In response to the Enlightenment, there was Romanticism. The latter movement is difficult to define, but broadly, it is a celebration of art not as a topic or ideal, but rather as an expression of emotion; that poetry, for example, should not be confined to the perfect rhyme schemes of Alexander Pope or strictly PG-13 subject matter, but encompass any number of topics and written by whatever means best expresses the subject matter. Romanticists believed that even visual art could be used to induce an emotional reaction, whether it be horror, fascination, or simply wonder. And to this next generation of consoles, an equal challenge has been declared: that the quality of graphics or sound are not gauges for the quality of a game, that they aspire to more than mere satisfaction of a few basic human desires. That games, as the Romantics believed about art, are capable of much more.

The much-discussed Wii controller

At the forefront of this movement is the obvious contender that is the Wii console, which chose an innovative interface over graphics in its approach to "next-gen". Keep no illusions close; this has not been a perfect movement. The first-person shooter, using the Wii's Wiimote controller, becomes tedious as your hand stays constantly upright and lacks the precision of targeting that it only barely makes up for with the capacity for localized fire. Third-person titles retain some degree of functionality as long as the flicking of the remote remains confined to a simple replacement for a single button. God forbid you try to assign physical actions to the Wii-motions at any greater complexity. One quickly ends up twisting and waving one's arms in every direction trying to get the correct motion for a game. I could discuss the graphics, but every reviewer and his fan site has bemoaned this shortcoming. The Wii's graphics aren't as good as its competitors, period. And yet, despite these flaws, despite the Wii's inability to play or display Call of Duty 3 as your Xbox 360 can, the little box has done something none of these other systems have: it made golf games fun.

This is not to say that golf is all that it will do or that this is even its peak. This is just the first miracle I've seen the Wii perform. I realize there is some sycophantic golf-obsessed portion of the population that played these games before the Wii arrived, so this is, of course, referring to my own personal experience. I could not, before owning a Wii, have spared the time for two shits, much less one, over a round of video game golf. But from the moment I first fired up Wii Sports to this very day, I will play the golf portion ceaselessly. Even my club-toting friends with their PS2 versions of Tiger Woods PGA Tour, grimy from beer spills and finger sweat, will admit that it is simply more fun to play golf on a Wii. "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create," said Romanticism's poster boy William Blake. Say what you want about the Wii system, but they have indeed created a new means of fulfillment.

The Wii is not alone in this declaration that it will not be confined by the quality of graphics or other traditional values used to judge video games. The internet is rife with titles, fan-created and without massive corporate support, that are not only fun but more importantly different from the simple concepts of mainstream gaming. Shrapnel Games' Weird Worlds boasts the fascinating combination of space exploration with the time duration of a round of solitaire. Within 15 minutes, you have explored the Universe, conquered your foes, and beaten the game before your boss checks in on your cubicle.

Telltale's Sam & Max

For a more expansive experience, there is Telltale Games' launch of episodic Sam & Max adventures, each "episode" a brief and anecdotal session that plays more like a television show than one long epic game. And with the increasing prevalence of downloading games onto consoles, who is to say that this style of gaming release won't become as preferred to full-length games as today's epic TV series tend to be to the majority of films?

Nor should game length and method of control alone be our gauges. The very heroes we play are subject to change, as numerous games have already demonstrated. No longer do we indulge the easy narcissism of being the sole person capable of saving the world, as much as we play as characters with a rich variety of morals and motivation. The film noir ramblings of Max Payne allow us to connect with a character whose sanity is as questionable as his propensity for Sam Spade one-liners. Kratos, the protagonist of the God of War saga, parallels the tragic nature of Shakespeare's Coriolanus by giving us a character whose personal flaws fuel an unending cycle of violence. Both are just a few possibilities for the various characters we now play as and explore. Why not follow the route of the show Dexter and play as a serial killer? Or, perhaps, something with a religious theme, placing the characters of the Bible on a third person adventure platform? Video games will allow us to discover new and different protagonists whose stories explore our own nature in new and profound ways.

The chief ordeal of the Romantic artists was to challenge what could be considered appropriate subjects and methods of expression for art. To counter the Enlightenment philosophy of pure imitation and delightful imagery, the Romantics created scenes of terror and conflict. So too must this new generation of games challenge the view that superior graphics and sound are the ends of our gaming fulfillment, emphasizing that they are merely the means. I called Blake the poster boy of Romanticism, but it is only fair that I call up a visual painting that best sums up the movement as well: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. In it, the Wanderer has his back to us as he looks out over a landscape covered in fog. We do not know what lies beneath the clouds except for the barest hints of a wild world of jutting rocks and twisted trees. Lacking the defining standards of graphics, sounds, or typical heroes does potentially leave the average player in the dark about how to define or judge these new games. Yet, thanks to the release of the Wii and countless future gaming titles, there is some semblance of that Wanderer Friedrich depicted; despite the uncertainty ahead, there is a great world beneath that fog to be discovered by we who would willingly follow into the unknown.

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 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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