Games

The (Mis)Education of the Player

Players can approach a game however they wish, but a developer has a responsibility to provide some sort of guidance through their virtual world.


Antichamber

Publisher: Demruth
Price: $19.99
Players: 1 player
Developer: Alexander Bruce
Platforms: PC
Release date: 2013-01-31

Starseed Pilgrim

Publisher: Drogan's Games
Price: $5.99
Players: 1 player
Developer: Drogan
Platforms: PC
Release Date: 2013-04-16
Image from Antichamber (Demruth, 2013)

Players can approach a game however they wish, but a developer has a responsibility to provide some sort of guidance through their virtual world.

In gaming, people always talk about how much fun it is to discover things: A new location, a new weapon, a new ability, or a new system of rules. All games have rules, and it’s necessary to understand those rules to progress through the game. Yet there are a lot of games, mostly puzzle games, that obfuscate their rules in the name of “discovery.” This obfuscation is a dangerous game. “Discovery” is certainly something that’s prized in all sorts of games,since players just love it when old rules are augmented by new rules to significantly change the game being played. That expansion of our understanding is exciting. However, there’s a careful difference between “discovery” and “learning”.

Discovery is fun, but learning is work. Discovery is optional, but learning is necessary. Learning occurs quickly, or at least, it should. Before we can properly play a game, we must learn its systems and controls; we must learn how to interact with the game on a fundamental level. Any knowledge that then alters that fundamental interaction can be considered a discovery.

At least, these are just my personal definitions for this column. Semantics aside, my point is that there are some games that don’t explain their rules that are nonetheless able to ease players into their world through a series of simple puzzles that teach us the basics. There are also some games that completely botch this process. Two puzzles games released last year are perfect examples of both extremes. On the one side, there’s Antichamber. On the other, there’s Starseed Pilgrim.

Antichamber

Antichamber is a first-person puzzle game set in a non-Euclidean world, which basically means you can change the world simply by walking through it. A hallway can stretch forward endlessly, but the moment that you turn back, you’ll be facing the exit

Antichamber succeeds as a puzzle game because it eases the player into this bizarre world. There are no explanations of what a non-Euclidean world is, the word isn’t ever used in the game itself because Antichamber knows it’s better to show than to tell.

The first obstacle that you encounter is a deep pit with the word “Jump” hovering in the air above. Naturally, you’ll jump. And fall. If you had ignored the command and just walked across the pit, a bridge would have formed beneath your feet.

The teaching continues with the second obstacle that you encounter at the bottom of the pit (or at least the likely second obstacle, since you’ll see something different if you walk across the pit instead of jumping down): A hallway with a pair of staircases at its end, a red one going down and a blue one going up. If we take the red one up, it takes us to another hallway with... a pair of staircases at its end, a red one going down and a blue one going up. If we take the blue one up it takes us to yet another hallway that ends with the same pair of staircases.

After a few attempts at progression, the player realizes that he’s stuck in an infinite loop. The staircases (impossibly) circle back to the beginning of the hallway. The only other option is to turn around and go back the way we came, to loop around in the opposite direction. but this actually breaks the loop, taking us into a wider area that splits off into multiple puzzles. The training is now over.

These two moments teach you to view the world with suspicion, to not trust the obvious solutions, that the unintuitive answer is probably the correct answer. It’s necessary that Antichamber gets us into this mindset as soon as possible because it’s a recipe for frustration. No one wants to play a game that doesn’t explain itself and then punishes you for not knowing something important. Such a game feels unfinished at best, condescending at worst.

Antichamber succeeds because these initial puzzles limit our possible interactions with the world. In each case, we only have two options, jump or walk, then go forwards or go backwards. One action is obvious. The other is not. Since our options are so limited, it’s (relatively) easy to find the solutions, even if we stumble upon them by accident. These puzzles are designed so that you’ll come away with a basic understanding of Antichamber’s abstract logic.

The game never explicitly states its rules, except that it kind of does. These puzzles are tutorials, snippets of the larger game that explain the basics of interaction. They’re just not labeled as tutorials, and that lack of labeling allows the player to feel a sense of discovery upon learning the rules, even though that “discovery” is more like finding a hidden Easter Egg in an empty room.

Antichamber gets more complex, with other puzzles that rely more on what we see rather than on where we are and through guns that can add or remove blocks from the world. However, by the time that we encounter these other puzzles, we’re aware of the abstract logic that governs them. We’re ready for them. Antichamber uses its level and puzzle design to ensure that we learn things in a specific order, an order than guarantees we’re never overwhelmed or confused by the weirdness before us.

Starseed Pilgrim

Contrast Antichamber, which seems to teach the player nothing even as it teaches us everything, with a game that truly teaches us nothing, Starseed Pilgrim.

Starseed Pilgrim mistakes confusion for complexity. It’s built around a single puzzle, so it’s specifically designed to be unable to ease us into its logic. The very nature of that puzzle is never explained, so the player is left to fumble around for a goal or objective or reason to play. Starseed Pilgrim has no interest in telling the player anything and mistakes our fumbling trial-and-error confusion for “discovery.”

You’re a “gardener” on a floating set of blocks in white space. You can destroy blocks by walking into them or plant seeds that will grow more blocks in various ways. Each seed has different properties: sometimes a set of blocks will grow straight, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, or snake around as they grow. It’s not clear initially why we would want to move away from our little floating home. there’s nothing around us but an abyss of white.

Starseed Pilgrim (Drogan's Games, 2013)

However, as time passes, the blocks below you turn black, and this blackness spreads to the blocks around it. If you touch these black blocks, the world is inverted. What was once a block becomes empty space and what was once empty space becomes a block, so we go from floating in endless space to spelunking in a cave of our own making.

There’s a keyhole in the floor, suggesting that somewhere there’s a key for us to find, which at least implies a goal. As it turns out, the keys are floating out in the abyss of white, and we’re meant to grow our garden in such a way as to grab the key(s), then invert the world to unlock the door, then repeat. Learning theses basics can take hours.

Antichamber may be a visually bizarre, logically alien game, but it’s interested in conversing with the player. This keeps it compelling even as it gets frustrating. Starseed Pilgrim isn’t interested in having a conversation with the player. It’s not even interested in lecturing the player. In fact, it’s not even interested in the player at all.

Playing Starseed Pilgrim is like playing a sliding tile puzzle with the pieces turned over: Sure you can still technically play the game, you can still slide the pieces around, but since you can’t see the picture on the other side, you can’t know if you’re making progress. There’s no feedback, which breaks that fundamental contract between player and game.

In obfuscating its rules, Starseed Pilgrim makes itself seem more complex than it really is, and in pushing away all but the most devoted of players, it ensures that every fan becomes an evangelist.

Similarly obtuse games have similarly fervent fan bases: Minecraft, Don’t Starve, Warframe, Dark Souls. (I really enjoy the latter two, but my God, are the first several hours a pain in the ass.) I believe gamers are so addicted to a sense of “discovery” that we’re attracted to the pure effort of “learning”. We’re so in love with the idea of finding something new within a game that we’re willing to forgo any and all instructions just to have the chance to “discover” those instructions for ourselves. The actual quality of a game is less important than how much of it we can “discover” through play.

This is a fine way to play a game, but it’s not a fine way to design a game. Players can approach a game however they wish, but a developer has a responsibility to provide some sort of guidance through their virtual world because if the puzzlemaker can’t explain his own puzzle that does not bode well for me.

All games have rules, and all games should explain those rules in some form or another. The best games find a way to hide this learning process, to make the learning feel like discovery. The worst games just ignore the learning process altogether.

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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