ZA Critique: Ico

An in-depth analysis of Ico based on the ideas from the Zarathustran Analytics. Spoilers abound.

Fumito Ueda's Ico is hailed as one of the first mainstream games to really inspire emotion and potent characters. Sometimes to appreciate a video game it's best to frame it not only using a simple method but also looking at it from a critical angle. In this specific instance, Ico raises a really interesting question because it crosses the disingenuity barrier that Jonathon Blow describes in many games. Specifically, he refers to how a game where I'm waiting for a character to unlock a barrier while I defend them creates a disingenuous relationship. I'm hanging out with them because of circumstances, not because I care. I'm keeping them alive to open the door and keep the plot moving, not because I'm worried about their safety. How does Ico follow a similar game design and yet surpass this issue?

Ueda's two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both contain interesting elements of animation that really enhance a sense of fragility in the avatar. Both of the protagonists from his games have gawky, awkward running and walking animations. Contrast this to a game like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, where the characters move like Olympic athletes and are the epitome of physical perfection. This is also highlighted by the fact that a stick is your main weapon for much of the game. When you do make the transition to a sword in Ico, it's heavy and you can tell it drags down Ico's arm. This awkwardness of presentation carries over into Yorda as well. When she climbs up stairs or a ladder, she carefully steps on the same leg to get up. When Ico is pulling her across a room at full run, her arms flail and you can tell she isn't used to moving at this pace. Contrast this to the agile and liquid fast shadows that hunt both of you while you move through the castle. A real sense of fragility, of being inferior to the monsters that hunt you is communicated through the animation. The game begins to bridge the disingenuity gap by animating the characters as fragile and thus getting the player worried about them. Contrast this to a game where you play some ultimate badass who is then handicapped with someone much weaker and you see the dilemma. If the game is making me feel like I'm a scruffy but weak kid, a different set of emotional expectations develop as opposed to being Super Death Guy.

The game design takes the relationship established by the animation and further enhances it.

Yorda cannot make huge jumps or climb chains. To get up a wall or cross a chasm, you must call out to her and help her up. And you don't just tap X when you do this, you have to hold R1, and then once she grabs your hand you have to pull the d-pad back. The point is that the game design makes it so that helping Yorda is a fully involving activity as opposed to something you click like a T.V. remote. The game design also takes the stress off your relationship by making it so that protecting her is never very difficult. Every time you help Yorda across a cliff or up a wall, there doesn't have to be monsters around. If there are, you can get rid of them easily enough. There also is never any concern for your own safety; Ico can only die if he falls off a cliff. Yorda doesn't have health either, you only lose because of her if she is dragged into one of the gateways and you can't get to her in time. Unlike Resident Evil 4, where Ashley's death was usually the result of me accidentally shooting her, you also can never accidentally hit Yorda. In this way, the game design promotes a much purer bond for players to role play with because they never accidentally lose because of Yorda. If she gets kidnapped, you're thoroughly warned. Contrast that to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time where the hardest levels of the game involved keeping Farah alive and can induce massive amounts of frustration. When characters make you lose as often as Farah does, it's no wonder a lot of bitterness can grow between the player and them.

The game design further helps the relationship move away from Yorda being a liability and becoming instead someone the player worries about by keeping her always at risk. If you leave her alone, it's a race against the shadow monsters and hoping they don't kidnap her before you get back. Since there are multiple moments in the game where you have to abandon her, even when Shadow monsters are moving around, you will have to worry about this problem several times. Which begs the question...when does game design-induced fear and concern become real fear and concern? True, I lose if she gets taken away and one needs her to open doors, but the relationship that the game design creates finds its ultimate expression in the story. The game design creates a variety of ways for the player to express concern and co-exist with Yorda, while it is the plot that pushes and pulls that relationship into being.

Technically, the story is fairly minimal. Ico has been abandoned by his village because of the horns on his head and he finds a spiritual soul mate in Yorda. Like him, she is marked by her ancestry and forced to live out a life in the castle through no choice of her own. You also can't understand each other, a situation that forces the player to impute a lot of identity on her rather than leaving it up to the game. Even her final parting words when she sends Ico off on the boat are untranslated, a fact that lets the player have their relationship achieve a depth of their own making. Even in the few moments that the game takes control with cut scenes, the player can still interpret Yorda however they see fit. But perhaps the moment where the game truly makes the relationship cross the disingenuity gap is at the bridge. As Ico and Yorda flee across, you begin to realize something is very wrong with her. The game design makes it so she can't run anymore and the player has to pick her up and eventually slow down for her. When Yorda finally collapses and the bridge begins to separate while Ico is on the other side, the player genuinely feels a pang of emotion. You've never been apart from her before and the game expects you to either leap back across or miss your chance. I played the scene out in both ways and the emotions going on are intense either way. You either must bear the awful moment of watching Yorda slowly dwindle as the bridges pull farther and farther apart, or watch as she struggles to pull you up before the shadows engulf her. It's a mirror of the numerous moments where the player helps Yorda up a cliff or wall, only now they aren't in control and can't help Yorda when she needs you.

Another moment where the game design induces pity is when you realize the origins of the shadow monsters. As each tomb, just like the one Ico was locked inside, begins to light up and a shadow comes out, you recognize the truth. They are the ghosts of abandoned boys like you. It's the same emotional connection that the player has with Yorda, both being abandoned children, but one that is complicated by the fact that you're enemies with the shadows. Since the player possesses the magic sword in this instance, they far overpower them and instantly destroy the shadows when they hit them. Because you still can't die as well, you end up feeling pity for these creatures. The game design makes you immortal and all powerful, yet rather than this being a fulfilling or fun moment, it is a sad one. As you finish them all off, the monsters just run around in confused circles while you swat at them. The sad music and frozen state of Yorda make this scene all the more troubling for the player.

There are countless visual touches throughout the game that also makes all of this come together. The minimalist influences of Giorgio de Chirico can be seen throughout the game and lead to an economy of not just aesthetics but levels as well. You don't just run around room after room to the point that the structure no longer feels realistic to the player. Countless games just keep producing these humongous mansions and castles that make no structural sense while this game avoids it. You backtrack a lot and you develop a real sense of space and logic to the castle's architecture. You can see buildings you visited in the distance and appreciate ones you're heading towards. The dark and plain walls of the interior give way to beautiful greenery and amazing soft-lighting. Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the game is when you're running to the two solar stations to turn on the gate. As you and Yorda run across the long bridge, the camera pans out and you see the lush green forest you both are trying to escape to. The game instills beauty in this forest because it's the place you're seeking to go in the game design, the place Yorda and Ico seek in the plot, and the player enjoys the sight as a result. The game design, plot, and player input all come together in a way that supports the whole experience as opposed to having the two operate with unrelated motives. Moments like this and others are what make Ico cross the disingenuity barrier where other games fall short.

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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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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