Art Style: Orbient

How does one evaluate the challenge of a game that features an entirely unique play style?

Publisher: Nintendo
Genres: Puzzle
Price: $6.00
Multimedia: Art Style: Orbient
Platforms: Wii
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Nintendo
US release date: 2008-09-29
Developer website

One of the intrinsic difficulties in objectively assessing the difficulty of a video game is that various players are at various levels of skill depending on the genre. If you've been playing nothing but first-person shooters for months, then you're probably going to rip through a game in that genre, while someone more inexperienced will have a tougher time. Someone who's been playing real-time strategy games will have the multi-tasking and reflexes that a different player does not. A new game on Nintendo's WiiWare, Art Style: Orbient, provides a unique opportunity to discuss challenge in games. It's a genuinely unique game design that relies on a series of challenges and skills that will be fresh for any player looking for a relaxing and minimalist game experience.

In Orbient, you play a small celestial body. On each level, you're the smallest size possible. The A button activates gravity, which attracts you to planets or blackholes. The B button activates anti-gravity, which repels you from these bodies. You then steer yourself around each level ramming into planets to increase your mass, which has respective effects on your ability to steer with gravity. Blue planets can be absorbed, red ones are too large and will crush you. You can lock yourself into orbit around the gravity of planets while you are able to collect moons and stars as you grow larger. And that's the gist of it.

Once you get to a certain size you have to lock yourself into a star's orbit, and then you beat the level. The more moons you collect, the higher your score and the more lives you have for the next level. This isn't of much concern since you can start any level at any time, but towards the end of the game having more lives can mean the difference between a difficult challenge and limping through a level. There is not, in my memory, any game design quite like this. As a consequence, we can talk about the puzzles in it without adhering to the huge variability that player input normally requires.

On some levels, Orbient plays like a cross between a puzzle game and a game of skill. The ability to slingshot around planetary orbits, know just when you need to slow your approach with anti-gravity, and how to correct your course are all skills one learns in the normal tradition of Ralph Koster's Theory of Fun. This skill learning shifts when the puzzle element appears; the game starts to introduce objects that gravity has no effect on. You can neither bounce off them nor correct course based on them. You then have to figure out the best position for the orbiting planets to be in for you to make your approach and rely on them to steer yourself into the blue planet that you need to progress.

The question that this brings up is whether or not to penalize a game's puzzles when you can get to a point where you've figured out what you're supposed to do, but because of the high skill barrier you still can't do it. It's a problem that comes up in a lot of games, such as many player's complaints about Braid, where one would figure out what had to be done but had to try dozens of times before they could get it right. Braid lightened the burden by giving the player the rewind ability, while Orbient lightens it by letting you stack up lives and make multiple errors. The reason this raises the issue of considering this a flawed game design is this: if you're not going to enforce the rules of the game world, then what is the point of having them? The only perk of allowing me to fudge through a skill barrier is to drag out play time, which may be a virtue to developers but is hardly something a critic should applaud.

To give an example: On Level 17, the blue planet you have to absorb is surrounded by space crystals that gravity won't affect. You have to angle yourself at just the right way to pass through the field without hitting anything or you'll bounce off and have to try again. After about five tries I realized the way to win was orbit around the large body, and then use the moon orbiting it as a way to correct my course after I launched myself. The level requires you to do this three times in a row. Each time you absorb a blue planet, you get bigger and your course has to be ever more perfect. By my argument, that's a flawed design because absorbing the first planet shows I understand the level's challenge. The demand that I pull off this feat of skill and luck twice more in ever harder circumstances is where the game's challenge has shifted from figuring out the level and into beating the level.

This is not to say challenge in games should not exist or that beating a game is a flawed reward. The indie gem I Wanna Be The Guy is an intentionally difficult experience where dying thousands of times is an intrinsic part of play. The same can be said of Mega Man 9 or Contra 4. Dying is a part of what the game is delivering and in all of those games you're readily informed from the beginning that death is going to be an active part of the experience. With the exception of Mega Man 9's shop system (which is something of an insult if you take the game's intended nostalgia seriously), all of those games establish a level of skill and expect you to meet it. They do not, however, feature anything that could be called problem solving. In most cases shooting at something is the solution, or failing that, exploring until you find a new approach. Challenge is derived from both dexterity and luck. What Orbient does is take a game that chiefly involves patience and planning and add environmental puzzles that require a high degree of skill. The introduction of non-gravitational bodies makes for interesting obstacles most of the time, but in several instances the game turns them into painful trials of luck and error. The clash of experience is both tangible and tedious when this happens, made all the more so because the levels guilty of it are very few while the majority are the slow and interesting experience that the majority of the game provides.

That slow and interesting experience is not to be underestimated nor underappreciated. Each level starts with a very minimal and dry background song. As you collect moons, each one adds a layer of music until you put together a grand song. An excellent nod to the Pythagorean "Music of the Spheres", it's an elegant demonstration of in-game rewards that do not bear immediate relevance to actual gameplay. Although you do gain an extra life with each moon, most levels feel so lonely and sad until you have snatched a few moons into your orbit that you'll catch yourself doing it purely to improve the experience. One of the bonus moons, a yellow crescent, is particularly fun to chase after because of the slow lilting toy piano tune it plays. These musical elements create an entire theme and personality that no text or plot could provide, a simple testament to the loneliness of outer space and the poetry of gathering company around you. As one friend noted while I showed him the game, you could play this for hours and just enjoy gathering moons. It is a unique sense of musical completion that I've never seen a video game provide in such a calm and passive manner.

Which is where the chief variation in opinion is going to occur with a game like Orbient. Those who enjoy the challenge of dexterity and reflexes will be intrigued by a few of the levels and bored with the slow and strategic challenges that make up the bulk of the game. Those who enjoy the music and relaxed pace will enjoy most of the game and get stuck at several points. Yet perhaps the sheer uniqueness of the game design and musical reward structure will be enough to overcome either prejudice. It is one of those games that highlight what a video game which is easy to learn but engaging to play should be: familiar rewards gained in new ways through a simple skill set. With a cost like six dollars, the game can certainly be credited with trying out more things than one would normally expect. For all my complaining about spending several days pushing through the trickier levels, I also played them until I won.


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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