Games

Turn-Based Action Games Are Strange and Great

SUPERHOT (SUPERHOT Team, 2016)

The action in an action game doesn’t have to make sense for a viewer as long as it makes sense for the player.

Action in an action movie moves fast. Games have always tried to emulate such action by moving just as fast while demanding that the player learn to keep up. Fighting games, like Mortal Kombat X or Street Fighter V, demand that players learn an intricate series of button combinations and also be dexterous enough to input them on a moment’s notice. A character-action game like God of War or Devil May Cry demand of us the exact same thing, but against AI opponents instead of other players. Action demands speed, usually.

I must have slow reflexes because I’ve never been able to play a fighting game effectively, and I always want to play those character-action games on Easy or Normal. Or I can play games like RONIN and SUPERHOT, action games that slow their action down until they become more like puzzle games, albeit puzzle games in which we perform awesome stunts of acrobatic murder. Games like this allow more people to participate in the action, since we don’t need fast reflexes to keep up with the battles. The action moves at a pace that us normal folks are used to, and then when sped back up, we see just how impossible those action scenes really are.

RONIN is a turn-based game that casts us as a ninja out for revenge against the family that wronged him. Things move in real-time until we enter combat, then time stops until we make the first move. At that point, everything happens at once. We jump, guards shoot, and other ninjas cut through the space in front of them. If we die, if we get hit by one of those bullets or by that other ninja’s sword, we have no one to blame but ourselves because we could see what was going to happen before it happened. We could see the laser sights of the machine gun adjacent to us, so we should have known that we’d be cut down by lead if we tried to jump in that direction.

The speedy action of a ninja movie becomes a turn-based strategy game. This allows me to carefully plan out a route through a hail of bullets. At normal real-time speed, these decisions must be made in a split second, faster than I’m certainly capable of thinking, but when slowed down like this, anyone can be a ninja. Anyone can dodge bullets until the gun runs out of ammo when that person has all the time in the world to plan his jumps, resulting in a more accessible action game.

But an interesting thing happens when you slow this kind of choreographed action down to this extreme a degree. You come to realize that the idea of an action is more important than seeing the action itself, at least when we’re a participant in it.

When I’m watching a fight, it’s important to show me each move being performed in a clear and precise manner. This allows me to understand how one movement leads into another movement; how a kick leads to a flip, how a spin leads to a new position, how a punch leads to a win. We have to see moves clearly to understand what the move means, how it fits into the larger story of the fight. To miss a move is to miss a plot beat. However, if we perform the action ourselves, we don’t need to see it as clearly because we already know what’s supposed to be happening.

This is obvious when watching a replay of a level in SUPERHOT, which allows you to rewatch your actions sped up to normal speed.

During gameplay, SUPERHOT is a shooter in which time moves only when you move. This gives you plenty of time to take in the positions of all of the bad guys around you and to properly plan your elaborate attack: Throw a cue ball at Baddie 1 to distract him, then take his gun and shoot Baddie 2, dodge a bullet from Baddie 3, throw the gun at Baddie 4 to block his bullet, grab a nearby baseball bat to kill Baddie 1... and so on. It’s an action scene that requires us to hit multiple precise beats in a row. When it all works, it feels awesome, but it doesn’t look as awesome upon rewatching it because you can see our hesitation.

When watching someone play a level of SUPERHOT, you’re watching someone work through a puzzle. It’s a puzzle whose pieces are action movie tropes, but it’s a puzzle nonetheless. This means that we move and act in fits and starts. We don’t naturally know that there’s a guy behind us. We turn to see him, and then get shot while we’re turning. On our next attempt, we know he’s there, and we know how to act accordingly. Our grand action scene is not really a fluid, well-choreographed dance, but a series of improvised test-runs, stitched-together into something that just happens to be successful. We’re not really all that elegant.

The lack of action choreography becomes even more obvious when we watch the replay sped up to normal speed. It’s often hard to keep track of the action because things move too fast. There are times when I watch a replay, and I can’t quite understand what’s going on. Why did those two guys seem to die at the same time? It’s hard to follow the action because the game doesn’t care about framing the action. We see everything from our first-person perspective, so the game camera makes no attempt to help a viewer understand the flow and story of the fight. The end result is an action scene that is confusing and awkward to watch, but it is confusing and awkward in ways that don’t matter at all. It might be hard to understand the fight when watching the replay, but we already understand it because we lived it.

RONIN also moves in fits and starts. A fight that in a movie would last two minutes ends up taking us ten minutes to accomplish because we agonize over strategy and the direction of each jump and attack that we are planning out. It’s a slow process, which means that we lose the visual fluidity that defines a ninja fight. Because we’re always pausing, we can’t see how the momentum from a fall allows our ninja to swing through a window and to the other side of the room, but we still feel that momentum because we’re taking it into consideration when we plan our next move.

This is all to say that the action in an action game doesn’t have to make sense for a viewer as long as it makes sense for the player.

SUPERHOT makes one very obvious concession to the player that perfectly highlights this fact. When we disarm an enemy, his weapon flies into the air for us to grab. When playing in slow motion, the act of disarming and the act of grabbing usually happen within a second of each other, and the moment that we click to grab to the weapon, it is immediately in our hands to use. We need that kind of immediate access to the weapon because there are likely other guys around us, and we need the visual of a weapon in our hand to let us know that this new combat option is available to us. But when things happen this fast in slow motion, they naturally happen even faster in real-time. So fast, in fact, that we break reality: What you'll see during a replay is us holding the weapon while it is still in the air coming towards us. We're holding it before we've even grabbed it.

This make for a clumsy visual, but it doesn't actually matter. The idea of grabbing an opponent's weapon out of the air as he drops it is, to be frank, really fucking cool. SUPERHOT knows this and makes a point to allow you to do it. It might look weird later, but we know what we did. And we know that it was really fucking cool.

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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