L.B. Jeffries

The real joy of Audiosurf is picking a song, any song, and seeing it literally appear before you as you travel and listen along.

Publisher: Valve
Genres: Music/rhythm, Puzzle, Racing
Price: $9.99
Multimedia: Audiosurf
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Not Rated
Developer: Dylan Fitterer
US release date: 2008-02-11
Developer website

When you listen to music, what do you see? The music video? Yourself playing it on the stage? Your own private experience expressing the speed, joy, or sadness of each song? The artists themselves? Or just whatever is in front of your face? The idea of visualizing music, of giving an image to a separate sense of the body, is neither new nor implicitly necessary. Instead, it is something the listener does to take part in the song. Mosh pits, fan clubs, and all the other ways we participate with our favorite music are really just ways that we tailor and improve the experience to match our own feelings about it. What Independent Games Festival competition finalist Audiosurf adds to music is an entirely new way to experience it through video games.

The game scans music files on your computer and converts them into a roller coaster of obstacles that you ride on a spaceship. Each obstacle, each block on the track, syncs with the music. Each bump in the track matches the drum beat. If a song is slow, then the course goes uphill at a slow and synchronized pace. If it's fast, then it's all downhill as the course rushes by at pace with the song. The game provides two core game designs to go with this premise. There is the ninja mode, where you dodge grey blocks and accumulate colored ones. Then there is the colored Lumines-esque scenario of matching colored blocks on a grid as your ship collides with them. The designers go much more in depth with this style by allowing a variety of play styles like square shuffling, block shifting etc., and you'll quickly pick out your favorite method. The ninja mode is good for fast, heavy beat songs that will make twitch-fest players happy while the color coordinating modes are suitable for slower, more complex songs.

Technically, these are really just loose designs to give the player something to do while he listens to the song on the visualized track. You can't die in the game, nothing interrupts the song (unlike the squelches of Guitar Hero), and collecting high scores is almost always an afterthought. The real joy here is picking a song and seeing it literally appear before you as you travel and listen along.

What this will do to the way you experience a song is nothing short of amazing. I have literally blown all the digital dust off all my old music and started experimenting with it in the game. Don't let the game's techno appearance fool you, this program will work on every genre. Select Old Crow Medicine Show's "That'll Be a Better Day" and you'll be dodging banjo chords in no time. My live recordings of Ween's Bonnaroo 2004 version of "Voodoo Lady" worked perfectly. The game will put you through a triple loop while flying downhill to Dean Ween's expert solo skills. And the slower stuff is just as fun. Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches" or The Chemical Brothers "Sleep On" make for excellent ways to unwind while slowly putting together color puzzles. Bob Dylan's album Live at the Gaslight can be downright startling when you're experiencing it on a roller coaster where every single plucked note is a block you're dodging.

The best kinds of songs are ones with varied tempo and rhythm, ones that change up their experience as the song goes along. When I clicked on Wilco's "Misunderstood", a slow song with an epic last minute of fast pace, it was like hearing the song for the first time. For five or so minutes I slowly collected blocks, gained points, and in the back of my head I kept wondering about that finale, that incredible portion of the song where all that emotion comes bursting out. When you're playing the game, you can see ahead to where the song is going and sure enough, like a rollercoaster coming up to the plunge I could see where the track crested before the plunge. For one thrilling second you look out at nothing, and then that guitar explodes and you're on a vertical drop. Blocks fly at you, your eyes bulge, and you are truly hearing the song in a new way. Not many games can claim to do that.

I hate to stop my little gush-fest because I love this game. Unfortunately, it has one very, very serious problem that will affect some people. It does not play iTunes music files. If you're the kind of person who buys all their CDs, pirates all their music, or refuses to use mp3s in favor of larger high quality music files, then stop reading this review and go try the game's demo. Hell, as a slight caveat I'll note that it can even play iTunes tracks that were converted from a CD originally. And it can do every other type of music file with perfect skill. But the reality is that the game is seriously shooting itself in the foot by not working out some kind of deal with Apple. Now I'm no Apple fan boy, I'm not proposing that the makers of this game should've sold out to the man for cash or anything. What I'm saying is that the number one source of legal music downloads in the world that must be used with the top selling mp3 player in the world is not compatible with this game. Your only option is to burn your music into a CD and either convert it back into iTunes or scan it off the CD. That said, I'm currently looking at a stack of CD's that now serve exactly that purpose.

Although Audiosurf may have decided to forgo the vast music selection of iTunes compatibility, it opted to replace it with something entirely different: a user community. The game can only be accessed, downloaded, and paid for through Valve's Steam service. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it's basically an online service that lets you download mainstream games like Bioshock or Call of Duty 4 and play them online through their servers. It will also, if you're online while playing Audiosurf, upload your scores to an enormous Global Top Ten Network.

At first I was a little bit annoyed at the prospect of having legions of teens kick the shit out of me like they do in every other online game, but because the user customization part of this game is so intrinsic, with each song having its own top ten board, you'll often find yourself competing with only two or three people for a high score. Granted, this means if you're playing using mainstream music, you're shit outta luck -- be prepared to lose. However, more obscure songs will only have a few loyal fans who like experiencing them through the game. It can be a little refreshing to see other people who love the same music as you and compete with them. Personally, I'd like to chat with the player who keeps beating my score for "You! Me! Dancing!" by Los Campesinos. Maybe I'd cuss them out, but yeah, I'm glad they dig the song too.

Every time I download a new song, I can't wait to experience it as a crazed block-dodging rollercoaster when I get the time. When I hear songs on the radio now, the beats come alive, the vocals roar by, and my mind begins to see Audiosurf levels unfold. The fact that I get to pick each song is just icing on the cake; that it lets me experience songs in a new way is what makes Audiosurf so profound. It's tough to think of a metaphor for this game, but oddly enough, the film Crocodile Dundee keeps coming to mind. The next time someone pulls out a copy of Bejeweled or Lumines and claims that it is a casual game that appeals to everyone, I'll simply smile, nod, pull up Audiosurf, and say, "That's not a casual game for everyone. This is."


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.