Games

Back to Basics

In the midst of mashups and kitchen-sink design, it's refreshing to play games that return to their mechanical and philosophical roots.

Without meaning to, I've recently played a string of games that all embrace some sort of "back to basics" philosophy. Some approach it from a visual perspective, others pare down their systems, yet they all distill certain essential qualities of their respective genres. I often feel like many of the games that I play these days are of the "'X' meets 'Y' meets 'Z'" variety. Mash-ups and complex systems definitely have their place, but I find stripping away the accoutrements in certain games is a helpful reminder of what makes their genres enjoyable.

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone is a platformer reduced to the core elements of platforming. In the game, you control shapes and move them through courses made of other shapes. Without any power-ups or environmental art, there is very little to distract from the basic mechanics of movement. You soon notice exactly how fast your character moves and exactly how far off a ledge you can hang. The game demands a high amount of precision, but it feels fair since the environment makes it easy to see the game's core rules. I soon became aware that my the neutral zone on my 360 controller was drifting to the right, something that would have gone unnoticed in a less mechanically precise or animation-intensive game.

Ultimately, this combination of sparse art and precise movement ties in with the game's equally minimalistic story. Delivered as a narrative voiceover punctuated by music, Thomas Was Alone's script somehow makes 2D blocks feel like fully-fledged characters. Each of them goes through simple personal victories and defeats that are meaningful not because the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance, but because they are written in a way that inspires empathy. Like Claire, a blue block who can't jump high but has the power to swim, we've all had to face our own shortcomings and strengths. It's a universal human story that fits alongside one of video games' universal mechanical stories: jump from one platform to the next.

Dive Kick

The wacky characters in Dive Kick give it a very different tone than Thomas Was Alone, but its adherence to basic, precise movements offer a similar lesson in boiling down the essence of a genre.

It's easy, though, to see the game as a parody of the genre. You play Divekick with two buttons. One lets you jump, the other lets you kick towards your opponent. A single hit ends the round, and all the characters are either ridiculously cartoonish or fighting game community jokes (sometimes both).

Divekick is funny, but it's also smart. It strips away all the baroque features that have grown around fighting games over the years and exposes the basic tactics behind high-level play. Underneath the layers of multi-hit combos, arcane special moves, and stat-boosting items, fighting games are about positioning, timing, and psychology. Going beyond button mashing means controlling space and understanding what your opponent will do. With Divekick's limited move set and sudden-death dynamics, you are forced to focus on these basic tenets during every second of every round. There is no room for sloppiness or half-hearted tries, as you have no health to waste and very few methods of attack. Without all the detail, you're left to focus on the the core of any match up.

Saint's Row: The Third

Sain't Row: The Third differs quite a bit from the two other games I mentioned. It certainly doesn't eschew modern trappings. Mini-games, ability upgrades, and shooting/driving/flying action abound. Instead of stripping away these things, Saint's Row highlights them, thereby emphasizing one of the basic tenets of open-world games. They can be extremely silly.

The beauty of a sandbox is the potential to test things out without having to worry about the consequences. In Saint's Row, every upgrade makes pushing the boundaries of the world easier by giving you more ammo, more resistance to damage, and more ridiculous abilities. There's no pretense of a morality system and no mention of any long term consequences. You're encouraged to have as much stupid fun as possible. Even the in-game bonuses reward this behavior by awarding points for driving on two wheels or up the wrong side of the road.

Whereas Rockstar seems intent on shedding it's formerly zany approach to GTA, Saint's Row has gone in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to emulate the real world and work on cinematic characters, Saint's Row celebrates the absurdity of even attempting such a task. We all know the physics system will break at some point, so why not lean into it by creating a mini-game in which you try to ragdoll off of as many cars as possible? After that, why not fly a jet up as high as the world geometry will let you and then try to parachute your way into a building? The basic point of having an open world is to explore its boundaries, and Saint's Row: The Third lets you do this in the most spectacular ways possible.

Again, there's nothing wrong with mash-ups and genre combinations. Borrowing and synthesizing different mechanical elements often provides great results (see: any/all action games that have RPG stat-progression systems). However, it's still refreshing to play games that highlight the core strengths of their systems, as they show us what's important to retain as we continue to mix things together.

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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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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