Games

Bad Graphics Are Still Impressive in ‘Spirits of Xanadu’

Spirits of Xanadu wrings emotion and style out of its low fidelity graphics.


Spirits of Xanadu

Platforms: PC
Developer: Good Morning, Commander
Release Date: 2016-03-26
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Last week I wrote about the story content of Spirits of Xanadu. This week I want to write about its graphics, those terrible graphics that "look like a student project from the early 90s". That description still holds true, but what's impressive about this virtual world of simple geometric shapes is how much emotion and style it wrings out of such low fidelity graphics. It might not showcase much detail, but it know how to frame a scene, and in this case, composition is more important than detail.


There are two scenes in particular that I want to call out. Both can kind of be considered spoilers, but one can definitely be considered a spoiler, so I recommend that you play the game first before reading on. It's only a few hours long and only $10.00 on Steam. With that said...

The first one that you'll see will be when loading up the game: the main menu. The camera starts below a planet and pans upward. The planet is larger than the frame, so for a few seconds, it swallows our view. Then, we emerge above it to focus on the Xanadu in orbit, a small ship dwarfed by the giant black orb below.

The image is reminiscent of the main menu for Alien: Isolation, but with a few notable differences. On the technical side, the dichotomy between planet and ship doesn't have the same intimidating effect as it did in Isolation because the graphical fidelity prevents the planet from being portrayed as an almost living thing. It's surface is a mass of roiling clouds. But that's okay because Spirits of Xanadu is going for mystery rather than fear, and in that respect, the blackness of the planet is more appropriate. The planet is still considerably larger than the Xanadu, but is it something to be feared or appreciated? Will it swallow us like it did the camera, or is the darkness hiding something helpful?

The blackness is doubly important once you play the game and encounter the artifact at the center of the story: a large, floating black orb, described in equal parts as “beautiful" and “dangerous." The planet in the main menu effectively conveys mystery, and it does so with an image that's far more literal than we ever could have guessed.

The planet is so dark because a sun is behind it, putting us on its night side, which also means that the sun is within our line of sight. That doesn't mean much to us on the menu screen, but it's another piece of foreshadowing, this one hinting at a surprisingly emotional ending.

The ending in question is one in which we choose to steer the Xanadu into the star, destroying it, the artifact, and ourselves in the process. It's an ending that you can see coming the moment that you realize that you're infected with whatever it is that the artifact infects people with -- obviously you're too dangerous to live -- but the execution of that ending is unlike any other that I've seen. It is shocking, subdued, yet frightening, paced both too slowly for comfort and too quickly for comfort.

We stand on the bridge, looking out at the star. We're standing past the ship controls, so there's nothing between us and the glass to interfere with our view, but we're just far enough away to see the steel frames of the window. The star itself looks alive, like Jupiter on the Alien: Isolation menu, filled with a maelstrom of swirling reds and yellows. Even though it's a fair distance away, the blackness of space around it is glowing red with heat. As we fly closer, the steel frames begin to glow and the ship shakes. It's an intimidating sight.

The scene goes on for an uncomfortably long time, the star growing bigger and bigger in the window until it encompasses your entire view, and then it keeps going still. For a moment, it's easy to think that you'll actually fly into the star, but then the screen fades to white. It's slow, but it feels fast because we don't immediately notice the changes around us. By the time that the frame begins to glow, the heat has spread out from the center, and we have to wonder how long it's been like that. It's slow until we realize how much we've missed.

What strikes me about this scene is the lack of any heroics. This is the “good" ending in which we save earth by sacrificing ourselves, but there's nothing noble about this sacrifice. As the game portrays it, the star is scarier than the artifact. Both are beautiful and dangerous, but the danger of the latter is abstract while the danger of the former is obvious as we feel the ship break around us. It's a “good" ending that doesn't want to be seen as purely good, but rather as the lesser of two evils, letting a giant monster take care of a smaller monster. It's a “good" ending that wants to make us think, if only for a moment, that we made a mistake.

Spirits of Xanadu makes a strong argument that the composition of an image is more important than the details within that image. Graphical fidelity doesn't matter much if it's not being used in an interesting way.

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.

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Features

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.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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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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