PM Pick

X, Y, Z

Colin Harvey

Games move through time because everything else moves through time. Including us. Constantly, inexorably.

"This is the game that moves as you play. . ."
-- X, from Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis (Simon and Schuster 1985)


In point of fact, all games move. Whether it be the metallic dog in a game of Monopoly, the spaceship in a game of Asteroids, or the scrolling description in that text-based sword and sorcery fest that is, was, and forever will be Zork. A key defining feature of all games, irrespective of their digital or non-digital nature, is that they are, in some form, dynamic.

A good game of chess, the ultimate strategy game, might include protracted moments of stillness. But the longueurs between moves only makes the moment when the player finally makes his or her decision and relocates their chosen avatar on the board all the more momentous. Indeed the ways in which games enable us to travel through space and time are manifold.

The first digital games to crawl from the primordial soup of zeroes and ones are often generalised as operating, in similar binary fashion, along only x and y axes. Certainly the generalisation would seem to hold true for games like Pong, Breakout and Space Invaders. In each case we see the totality of the playing field; the limits of our spatial engagement are there for all to see. Yet such generalisations tend to ignore the fact that from the very beginning there was an urge to create additional, unseen space outside the frame. Just as even the most abstract games like Pong or Breakout or Tetris reference the "real" world (duh: because the process of abstraction needs the real world to base its abstraction on, even if that reference point is coloured bricks) many of the x/y games implied a spatial expanse outside the frame. Think about it: where exactly were all those vehicles travelling to and from in Frogger?

Indeed, there's an apparently trivial but actually quite telling scene in the British documentary about the history of video games, Thumb Candy, first broadcast in 2000. Matthew Smith, legendary pioneer of the early British gaming scene in the 1980s, is being asked by the interviewer about the process of designing his classic Manic Miner. Obviously referring to where Smith got the idea from, the interviewer enquires where the self-evidently Monty Pythonesque boot that squashes the Manic Miner avatar comes from. Choosing to take the question at face value, Smith quips "Out of the top of the screen". And it's true: when I played Manic Miner as a kid, in a sense I really did believe that this booted foot was emerging out of another kind of space beyond the screen to squash my heroic Miner Willy figure. It's this space that we might call extra-diegetic, in that it moves beyond but informs the diegesis afforded by the visible playing area.

Subsequent scrolling games like Jeff Minter's similarly surreal classic Attack of the Mutant Camels made the idea of there being extra-diegetic space to explore its modus operandi. Your avatar would move inexorably right in its efforts to destroy all in its path. The scrolling might have been an illusion, just like in those old Warner Brothers cartoons where the same scenery keeps coming past, but the engagement is such that we're willing to suspend our disbelief.

Because the media age in which we live renders us increasingly amnesiac, we tend to associate the idea of there being additional space outside the frame with contemporary digital games, in other words those that use the z-axis as well as the x and y axes. But the idea of extra-diegetic space is not the exclusive purview of the Grand Theft Auto games or Halo, nor did it begin with the original Doom. In common with its descendant Asteroids, the first fully fledged digital game, entitled Spacewar! , featured a hyperspace function to enable you to evade your opponent's onslaught. With a click your spaceship avatar would vanish effortlessly along a z-axis into an unseen, momentary holding pattern. In fact, experiments in utilising the z-axis characterise lots of "early" games, for instance Tempest and Battlezone. Notable other examples include driving games like Night Driver and Pole Position and space exploration games like Star Raiders and its Thatcherite equivalent, Elite.

Contemporary games like the remake of Resident Evil utilise any number of audiovisual horror film tropes and techniques, along with a variety of techniques specific to the digital game, to render our voyage along the z-axis truly and terrifyingly exploratory. Many games that maximise the nature of the z-axis are consequently forced into providing maps in order to enable us to navigate the area, like the GTA games and Republic: The Revolution. Additionally, the new Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas game cleverly provides both plot exposition and an overview of the spatial environment in an opening cut sequence in which our anti-hero is accosted and driven through the environment by a bunch of corrupt police officers.

And it isn't simply the game that moves: increasingly, we do, too (but then, as I'll explain, we always were). Once again the antecedents for portable gaming were there in the early days of the medium: while the Stalinist behemoth that was my 16K Atari 800 sat impassively beneath our gigantic rented television set, back in the 1980s portable diversions were still possible thanks to the electronic machines courtesy of companies like Grandstand and Nintendo's Game and Watch series.

The Nintendo Gameboy arrived in 1989 and thanks largely to Tetris inveigled itself into the clutches of individuals throughout the land. Several iterations later and it's still going strong. In addition, we now have increasingly impressive mobile phone gaming, and an imminent new generation of portable consoles to distract us on our journeys through an increasingly suspect "real" world. No longer are our gaming activities limited to the console-and-television combo in our childhood bedroom, or to the hunched consumption of PC-based games.

Although, of course, if you remember — and hey, I doubt you do and who can blame you — I said earlier that we live in a forgetful age. Portable gaming is no new thing. Non-digital games always tended to be mobile to greater or lesser extents: the chess board in a box, the football, the whip-and-top. They went where we went. But the digital game experience, with its sometimes competing, sometimes complementary notions of simulation, narrative, and spectacle is clearly different to the non-digital pleasures provided by these other games and toys. What all gaming has in common, be it portable or non-portable, digital or non-digital, is that understanding the where of playing is as important as understanding the how of playing.

Not to mention the when of playing. As Henri Bergson observed, we really only understand space through how we understand time. In the context of digital games this doesn't just refer to the frantic activity necessary to beat the clock in Time Crisis or your efforts to frustrate a fellow contender in racing games like Burnout by being just that much faster. Nor does it refer to the many varieties of temporal engagement evident in say, Vice City, with its allusions to real time, to accelerated time, and to slowed time, revealing and fascinating though such insights might be. At a much more abstract level games move through time, because everything else moves through time. Including us. Constantly, inexorably.

Which means that we our governed by our experience of time even if our perception of time doesn't always admit to that fact. When commentators talk about the pervasive and negative effects of, say, violent games like the now infamous Manhunt on players, they are at once right and wrong. Games do affect us — any form of art worth the appellation ought to, goodness knows — but not in the player-as-suppine-dimwit fashion advocated by those who do not have either the best interests of gamers or games at heart. The game responds to us just as much as we respond to the game. And just as equally, the circumstances in which we play the game affect how we understand the gaming experience. And since all elements travel relentlessly through time, it is through time that we should now begin to discuss the digital game.

Except, of course, that I'm out of time. But I'll tell you more soon. Watch this space.

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

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

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

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

rating-image