Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10: Best Hit Songs of 2013

Previously on the SDP, I counted down the worst hit songs of 2013.  So of course, it's time to do the same with the best.  Now with more same-slot ties!

10) "Power Trip"
by J. Cole & Miguel
from Born Sinner
Peak position: #19
Year-end position: #48

Edit 24 Jan 2014: This song replaces "My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light 'em Up)", which previously sat at #10.

I admit I never thought much of North Carolina rapper J. Cole when he broke out in 2011; his first hit, the Paula Abdul-sampling "Work Out" did nothing for me apart from that Paula Abdul sample.  Guess I should've checked out the rest of his album.  Well, apparently he and I got off on the wrong foot, because when he re-introduced himself with "Power Trip", I was pleasantly surprised.  The beat is dark, but not in a lethargic Mike Will Made-It kind of way, but an intense Wu-Tang Clan kind of way.  Meanwhile, the lyrics are all over the place, going from rags-to-riches tales (and far better than Drake's attempts -- plural) one moment to picking up chicks the next, but as a rapper, J is skillful at handling the speed and throws in the occasional clever moment.  More importantly, he keeps his braggadocio just restrained enough to not be either soulless or obnoxious, which is all I ask from a rapper these days.

9) "Counting Stars"
by OneRepublic
from Native
Peak position: #3
Year-end position: #63

Speaking of artists delivering pleasant surprises, OneRepublic.  With few exceptions, none of their songs have stood out to me, and that goes double for the songs frontman Ryan Tedder wrote for other singers.  In fact, if their last song "Feel Again" had been an actual hit, I would've put it on the worst-of list, simply because his singing is horrendously off-key.  Fortunately, that is not the case with "Counting Stars".  This song is adventurous: both in the musical sense with its folk-slash-native-American beat, and in its lyrics, which talk about shrugging off the material establishment and forging off on your own adventure, whatever that may entail.  And when nearly everything surrounding "Counting Stars" is so boring (to repeat my recurring theme for this year in music), I'll gravitate to anything with some personality like a fly to a bug zapper.  Except without the horrible shocky death.

8) "Bad"
by Wale feat. Tiara Thomas
from The Gifted
Peak position: #21
Year-end position: #59

Okay, now I put Lil' Wayne's "Love Me" (no) through the ringer for its promotion of unhealthy gender roles, but at least we may take heart in the fact that not everybody plays the same game.  The chorus, delivered either by Tiara Thomas or Rihanna depending on which version you're listening to, contains lyrics such as:
Is it bad that I've never been loved?
No, I never did
But I sure know how to [verb]
These are some of the song's first lines, and already I've been given a lot to mentally chew on.  I mean, she's making the distinction between physical lust and emotional love, two things which have often mistakenly been confused for one and the same.  And this isn't just some doe-eyed groupie playing up the shallow stereotypes of women in the rap community -- the verses also deal with similar themes.  If you're thinking about the ramifications of all the shallow sex you're having, it's not the same (not necessarily worse) as creating a meaningful relationship, but anything that gets you (either the first-person or the listener) thinking deserves its place in the world.  Also, you may be wondering about that repeating springy noise in the back of the track.  The Rap Critic has a... disappointing explanation for that in his review.  Hint: it involves an inappropriately-chosen remake of a really bad song.  ...Still good though.

7) "Just Give Me a Reason"
by P!nk & Nate Ruess
from The Truth About Love
Peak position: #1
Year-end position: #7

Recording artists making guest appearances on other people's songs were a dime a dozen in 2013, and have been for some time, actually.  It's getting so that the guest rap verse has become the new guitar solo.  But it's rare that you see an actual duet these days, where the singers appear to interact with one another through the lyrics.  In a relationship that's hit the skids, their song is an... overly dramatic attempt to rekindle what they once had, but hey, it's the drama that makes it work.

6) "Get Lucky"
by Daft Punk feat. Pharell Williams
from Random Access Memories
Peak position: #2
Year-end position: #14

I've already talked about this song, and even compared it to the song which blocked it from number one.  Do I think that was an unfair episode?  Yes, but neither is "Get Lucky" my favourite song of the year.  I mean, repetition in both lyrics and music has always been a weak point of Daft Punk, and this is no exception.  But I suppose bringing on a guest vocalist softens the blow, because in the midst of such repetition (such to the point that I can't even think of a new word for "repetition"), I'm down for any new ideas.  BUT but, that's not to say "Get Lucky" is bad, by any means.  It wasn't the first of 2013's retro-R&B jams, but by correctly mimicking the late-70s mindset of cautiously experimenting with the possibilities of synthesizers whilst still maintaining a background of traditional instrumentation, it's the most true to its roots, and arguably the best.  Unless my #5 choice have something to say about it...

5) "Locked Out of Heaven" / "When I Was Your Man" / "Treasure"
by Bruno Mars
from Unorthodox Jukebox
Peak position: #1 / #1 / #7
Year-end position: #11 / #8 / #30

Make that choices, plural.  I make it a policy of mine that no matter how bad somebody fouls up, I am always ready to forgive them if they sincerely make up for their mistakes.  Even you, Capcom, but first I’ve gotta see results.  For example, no matter how much of a clusterfail “The Lazy Song” was, Bruno Mars managed to put out some half-decent music afterwards, such as this.  The first thing that hits me about "Locked Out of Heaven" is the restrained, classic rock-style production, which automatically gives it a leg up over the competition.  And the lyrics take a more spiritual approach to a subject matter which has lost much of its spirituality over the years.  By claiming that he used to feel "locked out of Heaven" until he has sex with his girlfriend, he realises how much he's been missing by not having sex over the past few... however long it was.

And then along comes "When I Was Your Man".  Whilst piano-ballads were a dime a dozen in 2013, and it didn't take a lot of listens for me to change the radio station whenever this came on, I can at least appreciate the sentiments described therein.  In the song, Bruno apparently suffered a breakup due to his own ignorance, and now all he wants is for her to be happy and for her new boyfriend to not make the same mistakes.  Humility?  In a pop song?  What has this world come to!?  ...Whatever it has, don't stop, please.  Add to that "Treasure", which is basically a self-esteem anthem like his own "Just The Way You Are" but as a post-disco jam virtually precisely in the style of acts like Evelyn "Champagne" King, and Bruno Mars is officially on my "nice" list again.

4) "Don't You Worry Child"
by Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin
from Until Now
Peak position: #6
Year-end position: #26

Full disclosure: I’m a fan of dance music. No, not that nigh-identical in-da-club pop-rap that passes for dance music these days; I’m talking real EDM, genres like techno, trance, house, drum-and-bass, even a little dubstep, from artists like Ian van Dahl, Armin van Buuren, Armand van Helden... a lot of "van"s.  This sort of music doesn’t get popular, though, except for maybe a few hits in the early 2000s, but lucky for me, another handful of these songs broke the top 20 throughout 2013.  And whilst one could point to David Guetta for making this sort of music popular again, I refuse to dignify that suggestion and instead point to this track by a band who had the amazing foresight to break up after notching their first hit.  ...Huh.  But back to "Don't You Worry Child": isn't it nice to have a dance song that isn't set in da club, but instead talks about a meaningful episode of doubt and consolation?  And one that doesn't rely on a "dirty bit"?  Remember when I coined that phrase?

3) "Swimming Pools (Drank)"
by Kendrick Lamar
from Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
Peak position: #17
Year-end position: #79

We get a lot of positive representations of alcohol in popupar music these days, particularly in hip-hop.  So leave it to a rap song to take boozing down a peg.  In his relatively short verses, Kendrick Lamar paints himself as an unconfident person who drinks to fit in with the cool crowd, and whilst he tries to maintain moderation, he takes peer pressure which threatens to push him past his limits.  And he does this by playing multiple roles, not only him, but the jerk who's trying to get him drunk through the chorus, as well as his own conscience in the second verse  ...I get the sneaking suspicion that alcohol can be a bad thing.  If you don't believe me, check out the Rap Critic's review.

2) "Catch My Breath"
by Kelly Clarkson
from Greatest Hits - Chapter One
Peak position: #19
Year-end position: #68

Edit 14 Jan 2014: This song replaces "Hold On, We're Going Home", which previously sat at #9.

One of my many problems with Kelly Clarkson is that she keeps recycling the same independent-woman anthems for each one of her singles.  But when you do the same sort of thing often enough, people can form opinions on what are the best and worst examples of that thing.  And "Catch My Breath", a new song from a compilation album of all places, rises above its many peers.  I guess what sets this apart is its performance.  The way she forcefully sings her lines, especially later in the song, give her words some much-needed defiance.  And the chord structure, which to be fair may have been adapted from Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream", adds some not-quite-major-key, not-quite-minor-key mystique to the composition.  Could you imagine how good something like "Mr. Know-It-All" could've been if she employed some of those tricks...?

1) "Thrift Shop" / "Can't Hold Us" / "Same Love"
by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, et al.
from The Heist
Peak position: #1 / #1 / #11
Year-end position: #1 / #5 / #43

Believe it or not, Macklemore is not the only independent rapper from Seattle to have a number-one album, and man was that an overly narrow classification.  But anyway, he and Ryan Lewis did the same with The Heist and it was awesome.  The song that broke them into the mainstream was, of course, "Thrift Shop", and since I've already reviewed it, I'm just gonna link you to that review and throw on some additional comments.  Now, in that review, I expressed concern that the music might grow annoying and that few of the lyrics would stick in my head, but over the course of the year I've heard it just enough for it to grow on me.  "Thrift Shop" hits me much in the same way as Jay-Z & Kanye West's "[nouns] in Paris" did last year, albeit on the opposite end of the economic spectrum.  And if I'm going to side with the 99 percent, I should at least support them.

So let's move on to their next song, "Can't Hold Us".  At first, I was wary of this song, since whereas "Thrift Shop" took potshots at our materialistic culture, "Can't Hold Us" is merely a song about celebration.  But it's a well-deserved celebration; Macklemore makes comments about how hard he's worked for his success (oddly prophetically, assuming he recorded this at the same time as "Thrift Shop", and therefore, before he could've dreamed it would be a hit), and how he's dissing the record labels in favour of giving his products directly to the people.  Yup, musical communism.  ...Some things work out better than they sound.  And whilst he still plays fast and loose with the concept of rhyming, this song makes him rap faster, and man is he on point.  He could've stopped the track after any line in the song and it would be the most awesome moment ever recorded.

Finally, there's "Same Love", their treatise in defence of same-sex love and marriage.  Musically, there's not much more than a piano and drums, but in this case that's a good thing, because that way the production doesn't overshadow the message.  Like Wale's song did at points, "Same Love" treats emotional love as a separate entity as physical sex, which is doubly notable because that hardly ever seems to be done in the context of homosexuals.  But it's not preachy about it, either, it's actually quite confessional at parts, such as the opening where he talks about questioning his sexuality as a child.  (Spoiler alert: he's straight.)  How good is "Same Love"?  If I had to pick any song out of these three to officially represent #1, it would be this, but really, if you have any respect for real music and want to change the course of our culture in a positive direction, buy their album, The Heist.  In fact, and I know it was created in late 2012, but I dare say it was the best thing ever to happen in 2013.

Top 10: Worst Hit Songs of 2013

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to my part one of my third annual year-end musical countdown: the Top 10 Worst Hit Songs of 2013!  As always, I'm basing both this and my best-of list off of Billboard's top 100 registered hits throughout the year (well, at least through November or somesuch).  For my stopgap 2010 lists, I experimented with a new rule where I accepted songs that charted within the top 20 during the year but didn't make the year-end list.  But this time around, once I noticed that nearly all the songs I wanted to include made the list anyway, I decided to scrap that extra rule.  Besides, it simplifies the matter of songs that chart too late in the year to make that list.  However, I am adding a new rule: if there are multiple songs by the same artist, I reserve the right to put them in the same spot.  Otherwise... well, let's just say that my best-of list would be way lopsided.  So with that declared, we shall start the countdown!

10) "The Fox"
by Ylvis
Non-album single
Year-end position: #73

I'm tempted to say "The Fox" is a transparent attempt to copy the success of last year's "Gangnam Style", but it turns out that Ylvis have been making comedy songs for a couple of years now.  And look, I'm trying to give them credit for this being a comedy song; I want to grade them on a curve, but they haven't given me a heck of a lot to work with.  The main point of "The Fox" is that it treats the question of what sound a fox makes as the deepest, most sacred question in the universe... in the second verse.  Should've mentioned that the first verse just lists off the sounds certain animals make, which sadly leaves a first impression that this is a song for children.  As if that weren't enough, then the chorus comes along and they answer said question with random, ungodly annoying noises which sound like failed attempts to vocalise the "dirty bit" from LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" (or for that matter, "Gangnam Style" itself), an unfortunate dissonance arises.  Basically, its problem is its lack of dignity, in that I don't know how not seriously I'm supposed to take it.

9) "Started From The Bottom"
by Drake
from Nothing Was The Same
Year-end position: #32

One of the songs from my Worst Hit Songs of 2012 list was "The Motto (YOLO)" by Drake and company, a boastful luxury-rap song that couldn't get the boasting part right.  "Started From The Bottom" is pretty much the same, with two notable changes.  One, he thankfully ditched Lil' Wayne and Tyga this time 'round.  And two, instead of using the adage "You Only Live Once" as a framing device, he compares his fabulous life now with the less fabulous life he lived before.  Of course, the whole concept backfires laughably for those who remember his stint as a TV star on the Canadian teen sitcom Degrassi: The Next Generation, which gets nary a mention on this song.  Even without that paratext, the middle-class life he does describe in the song doesn't sound all that soul-crushing compared to other rags-to-riches rap tunes.  I mean, the worst things he brings up in the song are arguing with his mother and encountering traffic on the way home from his night job.  You know, some rappers grew up in honest-to-blog poverty, so you're not exactly impressing us.  And above all, Drake just sounds bored throughout the whole thing.  Case in point, he literally says, "We don't like to do so much explaining".  I think we've found our problem, doc.  The Rap Critic summed up this song perfectly, I think, in a brief skit where he monotonely droned the line "My friends and I were broke, but now we're not" over and over.  So I guess it's true what they say: money doesn't buy happiness.  Or if it does, Drake's got a bloody terrible way of showing it.

8) "Roar"
by Katy Perry
from Prism
Year-end position: #10

Back in October, I wrote a separate review for "Roar" because I wasn't sure if it would make it on this list.  Well here we are now, and I think I can sleep soundly having left it on after all.  Throughout the year's pop scene, there were a lot of songs which I avoided like the plague for no crime other than being too boring to have any real staying power.  "Roar" is all that, but it also fails at the goal it set out for itself.  It's supposed to be this personal power anthem, but ultimately, "Roar" is just too cute for its own message.

7) "We Can't Stop"
by Miley Cyrus
from Bangerz
Year-end position: #23

So, this is Miley Cyrus's attempt at an edgier image.  (Anyone remember the last time she tried that?)  Yeah, I'm through with celebrities trying to shock me; I guess the endless onslaught of Lindsay Lohan exploits have desensitised me to it all.  So if the former Hannah Montana wants to sing a song with references to cocaine, ecstasy, and strip clubs, I'm not going to judge her for it.  I am going to judge her song, however, and it bucking sucks.  Producer Mike Will Made-It's insistence on pairing these club songs with lifeless, limpid beats does nothing for its atmosphere (nor does stapling his name to the beginning of the track), and Miley's voice has not grown any less shrill, especially on the high notes in the middle 8.  This isn't a song... it's a cry for help.  Emphasis on "cry".

6) "I'm Different"
by 2 Chainz
from Based on a T.R.U. Story
Year-end position: #99

2 Chainz, the rapper formerly known as Tity Boi, made his mainstream debut last year with songs like the laughably inept "Birthday Song".  Luckily that didn't make the list, but in its place is yet another slice of generic luxury-rap known as "I'm Different", I can't call that much of an improvement.  I mean, if your song's subject matter involves materialism and sex -- you know, like 90 percent of all commercial hip-hop -- how different can you really be?  On second thought, 2 Chainz is different -- in the sense that he's incredibly bad as a rapper.  How bad is he?  Here's his attempt at that so-called "hashtag rap":
I am so high, attic
I am so high like a, addict
Uh... you do know you're not actually supposed to explain the joke, do you?  I thought not.

5) "I Love It"
by Icona Pop feat. Charli XCX
from This Is... Icona Pop
Year-end position: #28

All the reviews of this song I've bothered to read seem to have praised it for some reason.  But ever the contrarian, I don't agree with them, because I don't agree with this song.  For one, the music.  You know that "four chords of pop" structure that seems to be the default for music these days?  "I Love It" somehow manages to get by with only two chords.  And the verses?  There is one, which repeats three times, and one chorus, which repeats twice.  It's a shame, too, because in the lyrics the main character goes buckwild without reason, throwing a bag of her ex's posessions down the stairs, only to crash her own car into a bridge.  Wait, was that the railings on top of the bridge, or the supports below it?  And more importantly, what the buck is up with her!?  Because of how much the lyrical content is recycled, we're given the bare minimum of context.  Sure, the chorus says that they have their differences, but how would that necessitate her destructive behaviour?  Geez, and I thought "Sexy [Chick]" set the bar for recycled lyrics, but the ante has been upped, motherfalcons.  ...Or downed.  Upped.  Err...  What I'm trying to say is: no, I do care.  And I hate it.

4) "Scream and Shout" / "#thatPower"
by will.i.am feat. Britney Spears / Justin Bieber
from #willpower
Year-end position: #23 / #95

In the midst of the Black Eyed Peas' latest hiatus, "frontman" will.i.am made his solo breakthrough in 2013.  Unortunately, he did it with the musical equivalent of empty calories.  I'd be lying if I said his "Scream and Shout" and "#thatPower" weren't catchy musically, but if you're going to have lyrics in your songs, at least make them competent and something different from the bragging and party-egging-on we've heard a million times before.  And if you're going to do the vocals yourself, for the Trinity's sake, put some enthusiasm into it!  You wouldn't want to upset the Holy Trinity, would you?  (But enough about Run-DMC.)  Sorry, I'd say more, but that's what my review of "Scream and Shout" is for.  Also, can we address this egregious use of hashtags, you know, the pound signs (#) people on Twitter put at the beginning of keywords?  I've seen hashtags in what felt like every other commercial this year, and I have to say, I'm fed up with companies trying to control how we use social media.  If I didn't know better, I'd call this thought control.  In fact, I'd omit the hashtags myself out of protest, but the joke's on you, will.i.am: I'm writing this for a blog in which hashtags haven't been implemented yet!  So no matter how I format it, it won't count for your attempt to trend those precious topics of yours!  Nya-ha-ha!! >:-)

3) "Pour It Up"
by Rihanna
from Unapologetic
Year-end position: #70
Link to video [NSFW]

Oh goody, another club song about spending gratuitous amounts of money at a strip club.  We don't have nearly enough of those, I said in sarcasm mode.  But wait, I said, this one's sung by a woman!  What a shocker!  So you think I'd applaud Rihanna for breaking new ground in the game of gender roles, but with a beat so dingy and lyrics so... samey, any compliments I could muster would be negated before Rihanna gets her next album out.  Seriously, she's like the musical equivalent of Call of Duty.  Sure, she used to be good in, like, 2007, but now she's just floating in mediocrity in between bouts of trying to hard to shock us (albeit through sexuality instead of violence), thanks in large part to her ceaseless annual production sched... what's that?  Rihanna hasn't released a studio LP this whole year?  ...Well, that's good news.  Let's see how long she can hold out, because I certainly don't need another "Pour It Up" in 2014.

2) "U.O.E.N.O."
by Rocko, Future, and Rick Ross
from Gift of Gab 2
Year-end position: # 87

Edit 9 Jan 2014: Ever the revisionist, I knocked "Harlem Shake" (which previously sat at #4) off the list in favour of... this.  What the heck does "U.O.E.N.O." stand for, anyway?  I for one had a bad habit of reading it as "Ueno", a region of Tokyo, but something tells me the writers of this song weren't exactly Japanophiles.  Actually, this five-letter collision is a corruption of the phrase "You don't even know", which in itself should warn you of the level of intelligence we're dealing with.  Now, I've managed to get through 2013 without this song ever showing itself on my radar, but if you've heard it before, odds are it's because of a certain line in Rick Ross's verse:
Put molly all in her champagne
She ain't even know it
I took her home and I enjoyed that
She ain't even know it
To put it bluntly, date rape.  Apparently this passage was so despicable that it got Reebok to drop their sponsorship deal with Rick Ross.  (Oh, I forgot to mention, there's Reebok product placement in this song as well).  I'd be more incensed by these lines myself if it weren't the only interesting thing in the song!  Virtually the whole thing, verses and chorus, follow the pattern "I say something / You don't even know it / I say another thing / You don't even know it".  Man, we've reached a new low in lazy lyric-writing, haven't we?  "U.O.E.N.O.": condemn it for the rape lines, forget it for everything else.

Wildcard) "Accidental Racist"
by Brad Paisley feat. LL Cool J
from Wheelhouse
Peak position: #77
Year-end position: N/A

My vote... for the worst song of the year... is not "Accidental Racist".  Partly because it was not a hit, at least as far as the Hot 100 is concerned.  And partly because it's not bad enough.  Sure, at six minutes long it's glacially paced even by the standards of country music.  The words are paced so slowly that, were it not for the cultural context, you'd forget each verse as soon as the next one starts.  And its attempts to bridge the gaps between country and hip-hop are half-hearted, with LL Cool J's verse more like beat poetry than actual rapping.

But if you're listening to "Accidental Racist" for anything, it's to meditate on its story.  So Brad walks into a Starbucks wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt with a Confederate battle flag on it, and that causes him to apologise to African-ethnic barista, played by LL Cool J.  Yes, Brad's apologising for a crime, heinous as it was, was not committed personally by him or even anybody from his generation.  So one would think J is in the right in this "argument", but he's still making assumptions that Brad still holds negative, threatening associations for black people, which isn't even the case.  Furthermore, is it possible for J to write off the issue of slavery just by Brad dropping any threatening connotations he may or may not have about black people?  Perhaps it can after all: if you think about the "conflict" in terms of that fable about the starfish on the beach, at the very least Brad and J could manage to forget the issue on a personal level, and start their friendship anew, so no harm, no foul.  I guess the reason this song got as much controversy as it did is because the topic of slavery is so sensitive that no one seems to know how to address it, and I have to admit, "Accidental Racist" is rather clumsy in its naivete.  But in the end, any song that can be interpreted in so many ways certainly deserves a place in the artistic sphere, no?

A brief warning before we go on: the number-one entry on this list can get a little racy, rapey, misogynistic, and uncomfortably skin-crawling.  ...It's not "Blurred Lines", either.  In fact, I've established that I don't believe the song was that bad.  Or that controversial, even.  No, for the real worst hit song of the year, it all comes back to Lil' Wayne.  AKA Weezy.  AKA Tunechi.  AKA Dwayne Carter.  AKA Weezy F. Baby.  AKA one awful, awful human being.  (Unless his album title I Am Not a Human Being is to be believed.)  Ladies and gentlemen, don't say I didn't warn you... without further ado, here is...

1) "Love Me"
by Lil' Wayne feat. Future & Drake
from I Am Not a Human Being II
Year-end position: #39

Lil' Wayne supposedly got his title as the self-professed "best rapper alive" because he freestyles all his lyrics instead of writing them down.  I don't know if that was the case for "Love Me" (no), but if it is, he has lots, LOTS of explaining to do.  I wish I could say I've been desensitised to the casual objectification of women in music, but every so often something comes along which makes me wake up and smell the proverbial coffee.  Counting repetitions of the chorus, he, Future, and Drake use the B-word 25 times, and the word "ho" thrice on top of that.  Throw in drug references and suggestions of what haters could go do to themselves, because why not, and you've got a disgusting cesspool of lyrics right there.  Perhaps the crowning achievement in this field is the following couplet:
She said, "I never wanna make you mad,
I just wanna make you proud"
I said, "Baby, just make me [verb]
Then don't make a sound"
Yes, I know I censored a key word, because that's how I roll, but you wanna know how I interpreted that passage?  I imagine that as him saying, "What, you think I give a wooden nickel about your hopes and dreams?  Now get back in the bedroom and make me an orgasm!"  ...Okay, so my version doesn't rhyme, but the point is, this Weezy guy's a douche.  I mean, he even says he "can't treat these hoes like ladies"!  And *what*, pray tell, is wrong with *that*!?

But believe it or not, "Love Me" (no) didn't clinch the "top" spot for Weezy alone, so let's list off some non-Weezy related flaws.  What was the point of having Future and Drake split the chorus if they both sound alike?  What was the point of them both delivering it in this auto-tuned monotone, especially if Wayne himself has dabbled in such?  What was the point of producer Mike Will Made-It pairing up these disgusting lyrics with a slow crawl of a beat or that disturbing, singsongy, jack-in-the-box twinkle on top of the track?  Or for that matter, putting another one of those fscking audio watermarks at the beginning?  (Oh right, just for the producer to promote himself.  Should've known.)  And what, pray tell, was the reason showing such questionable sights in the music video, including women writing in cages and bathing in a bathtub of blood!?  Had you no shame!?


It didn't have to be like this.  Late last year, Lupe Fiasco put out a song called "[noun] Bad", in which he deconstructed the B-word by juxtaposing the different connotations which the rap scene has bestowed upon that word against each other.  But its message apparently didn't catch on, because it didn't even make the Hot 100, and on the contrary, voices like those of Spin Magazine criticised it for preaching on an issue that they said wasn't exactly relevant in our culture!  And yet songs like "Love Me" (no) do just that and get promoted enough for a top-ten spot!?  Seriously, mister Brandon Soderberg, go fuck yourself.  And that goes for everyone who supports this shit unironically.  I quit.  Hope you're proud of yourself, 2013.


But soft?  What yonder noise transpires in the distance?  Could it be the knight in shining armour who will rescue us from the scourge of commercial hip-hop?  Yes!  Our hero is nigh, and his name is on second thought, this article's gone on too long.  Wait for part 2.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Indie-Cember: Dust: An Elysian Tail

Dust: An Elysian Tail
  • Publisher: Microsoft 
  • Developer: Humble Hearts 
  • Lead Designer: Dean Dodrill 
  • Release: 
    • XBox 360: 15 August 2012 
    • PC: 24 May 2013 
  • Genre: 2D Action/Adventure 
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$15
Over the course of Indie-Cember, I've tackled a lot of games which sought to do something innovative either with the way you play them or the way the make you think. And don't get me wrong, the world is far, far richer for their existence. But if you play enough of the more genre-bending games, sooner or later you hanker for something more familiar.

This game got a digital release published by Microsoft of all people, so you might assume it a stretch to call this "indie". In reality, it turns out that they only published the game because it won their contest at PAX East 2009. Apart from the music and voice-acting, it was made by only one person: Dean Dodrill, who had previously worked as an animator on the PC-based, 2D-platform-shooter games Jazz Jackrabbit (1994) and Jazz Jackrabbit 2 (1998). Despite the games starring a Mascot With Attitude, I hear they're pretty fondly remembered, and its fans certainly would've been dismayed when a third game languished in development before giving up the ghost altogether. ...Wait a minute, wasn't there some other two-game series with a potential third game that got cancelled? ...Huh. Well, whatever you were like, Jazz Jackrabbit, you have my solidarity.

But enough about the games that could have been, let's talk about the game that is: namely, Dust: An Elysian Tail. Get it, "Tail", because all the characters are people-animals. ...Am I sure I've moved on to the right game? I have? Oh, okay then, pressing on. You play as Dust, a sort of person-animal with mainly rabbit-like features and blue-green fur. At the start of the game, he wakes up in some forest glade with no memory of his life thus far. Oop, here we go, another amnesia plot. Actually, I for one have never been bothered by amnesia as a plot device, since it means you only learn as much as the protagonist. Maybe I just haven't encountered it enough for it to annoy me, but let's move on. Dust is soon greeted by two companions: Ahrah, a wise talking sword and your primary weapon, and Fidget, an orange Nimbat (read: flying fox-like creature), who dispenses magic attacks and snarky commentary. Wait a minute, a bluish talking animal followed by an orange flying talking animal? Where have I seen this before...? And why can't I stop making tangential comparisons?
Attacks like the Dust Storm trigger velvety wind effects.
Speaking of tangents, you may also have noticed the graphics by this point. There's so much subtle motion going on; "people"'s shoulders heave up and down as they breathe and trees sway in the wind, even during the in-game cutscenes which just show the characters talking. Certain attacks ripple the air in real time. And all of this runs silky-smoothly, even on my old graphic card which could barely run Receiver at minimum settings. Isn't it ironic that the in-game visuals look better than the animated cutscenes? Seriously, it's like one of Vanillaware's games, except without the overt sex appeal and suggesting that anyone who calls you out on it is gay. (I know that's not what you meant, Kamitani-san, but you've seriously got to think about what you sound like.) And, let me remind you, they were all done by ONE PERSON. To be fair, Mr. Dodrill used to work as an animator, but still: ONE PERSON!

So with the introductions out of the way, you get to play an action-exploration ("Metroidvania") platformer, with the world divided into multiple sections, and each section divided into many "rooms". Already we've addressed one of my major complaints about this sub-genre of games: its tendency towards backtracking. There are no hub worlds to pass through if you want to go to another corner of the world; just reach the exit at either end of a level, and you return to the map screen where you pick your next destination. Whilst there is still a fair bit of backtracking to deal with, especially if you go back to find new areas after unlocking new abilities, it still meets the hypothetical solution halfway. Even with all the backtracking, the combat system manages to stay fresher than in most other examples of this game's genre. Assuming you're using an XBox 360 controller, the X and Y buttons are used in various simple combos for attacking, although you'll probably just stick to your basic attack for most situations. And what do you know, there's even an "auto-attack" option where you can just hold X and keep attacking without having to keep tapping it. Fidget can also shoot magic projectiles with the B button, which on their own are weak, but you're supposed to combine them with Dust's "Dust Storm" technique (hold Y) so they expand into a thick swarm of shots which can juggle enemies for dozens of hits. Using these techniques, it's no trouble to routinely pull off combos in the hundreds -- there's even a sidequest (and Achievement) for finishing a 1000+ hit combo!

The combat system lets you rack up lots of hits. Case in point? This guy's combo is over eight hundred.
There are RPG elements in Dust, too: for each level you reach, you can put a point into Max Health, Attack, Defence, or Fidget (the strength of her particle attacks), and these stats can also be boosted through the wearing of equipment. Equipment may be bought, found, or built by finding blueprints and the materials needed to craft them. However, since both the blueprints and materials are randomly dropped by enemies, you might pick up the blueprint for an overpowered piece of equipment early on in the game; of course, getting the materials needed to actually make it is another matter. Even so, the game's not overly difficult; it's easy to not get hit, especially if you master Dust's parry technique (which itself is easy enough if you have auto-attack turned on), and save points show up every couple of rooms. On top of the main story, you can tackle sidequests by speaking to certain NPCs. These can be accomplished at any time throughout your journey, and you can take on as many at one as you like. There are only about 20 of these sidequests in the game, but together they contribute to a sizable adventure. I estimate it would take anywhere from 5 hours for a speed-run on Easy, to 20 hours for 100% completion; my first play-through was on the longer end of the spectrum. Yeah, for a game which only costs US$15 (or even less if Steam is having one of their world-famous sales). All those triple-A blockbusters which top out at 4-5 hours should feel ashamed at having been one-upped by something with a quarter of the cost!

The overarching story is forgettable, but the individual moments within stand out. For example, there's this one bit after I beat the first boss, where with its dying breaths it admonished me for all its underlings I had crossed to get to it. Never mind that said boss had torched an entire village beforehand. And this message isn't lost on our protagonists, either: it is immediately followed up with Dust and Fidget coming across some more monsters, and wondering if they should try to make friends with them instead. Of course, this doesn't work, so the game resumes as normal. This, mind you, takes place in the same game where Fidget sees an enemy walk into some spikes and comments that it should have saved first. So the story's modus operandi is to be serious when it needs to, and silly when it can afford to be. I haven't seen a respectful balance of moods like this since Avatar: The Last Airbender. And anything that can remind me of Avatar (no, not that one) or The Legend of Korra is doing something utterly, utterly right. Only this time, it's playable -- and how -- so, it's all good!

+ Simple but satisfying combat.
+ Uses and refines the "Metroidvania" design.
+ Gorgeous hand-drawn art and animation.
+ A story which knows when to be serious and when to be silly.

- The general story isn't as memorable as its individual moments.

Control: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Design: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Graphics: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Audio: 5 Nimbats out of 5
Value: 4 Nimbats out of 5
The Call: 100% (A+)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Indie-Cember: The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable
  • Developer: Galactic Cafe
  • Lead Designer: Davey Wreden / William Pugh*
  • Release: PC/Mac, 17 October 2013
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$15*
*Applies only to stand-alone Steam release
The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure game where you play as an office worker named Stanley. I don't know how much more I can say without resorting to spoiler tags, because this is an experience which relies on surprise, but I'll try to go on regardless.
The first of many choices.
Stanley's job in his office is to type keys on his computer. Not in any structured context, like a document or a piece of code, just "press this button for a second", then "press that button for two seconds", etc. But one day, when the orders stop coming in and everybody in your office mysteriously disappears, you set out to find them. You walk past the empty cubicles and offices, while a British narrator tells you what's going on. Eventually you reach a room with two doors, the narrator tells you to go through the one on the left, and you do so.

But what if you went through the door on the right?

Ah, therein lies the hook of The Stanley Parable: you, the player, have the freedom to make your own choices and go down any path presented to you at the moment. And whenever there's any possibility of you taking a different path or choice than what the "story" tempts you to follow, it will react to either possibility. For one example, I was in a room with a ringing telephone that I was "supposed" to pick up and answer. But the first time I entered that scenario, I instead pulled its plug out from the power point on the wall. (Mind you, I only did that because I tried interacting with the phone itself and thought it didn't do anything.) Boy, the verbal beating I got from the narrator for that one!

They keystone that makes it all work is the aesthetics. NOT the graphics, mind you; this game runs on the Source engine, which on a technical level is showing its age. I mean, the games that pioneered this platform, Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source, are almost a decade old! But seriously, folks, how many video games take place in an office setting, let alone one such as quirky as this? For just one set of examples, check out the slideshow and dry-erase boards in the meeting room, which even I won't spoil despite how early they show up. And then, there's the narrator, played by Kevan Brighting. This guy and his material are funny on a GLaDOS level. Said material relies primarily on fourth-wall-breaking, to make you question whether he's reacting to the character Stanley or you, the player; and on passive-aggressiveness, as if to guilt-trip you into following the "story" despite him being unable to stop you through direct incentives. All this creates a fusion of player and character which, surprisingly, has never been achieved in any first-person-viewpoint game yet.
One of the many changes that may be triggered through repeated playthroughs.
So assuming you've decided to highlight the spoiler tags and read what was underneath them, you're probably thinking that this game is an absolute good. Well... Let me put it to you this way: No matter how many directions the story can branch off to, you're always starting out at roughly the same place. Sure, you might trigger subtle variations by reaching endings and restarting multiple times, and part of the fun is seeing what will happen, but in the end it's still a computer game. It's programmed to always present the same events if you go through the same steps. And that curtails The Stanley Parable's replay value, which is utterly sad considering the nature of the game, that it relies on the unexpected to provide an engaging experience. When you know what endings there are and how to get to them, there's just no reason to play it anymore. Sure, you might be able to rope a friend or family member into playing it, tell them as little as possible about the game and how to play it, and see how they react to what it has to offer. But as a great man once said, a great game should be able to stand on single-player alone. And I know it's not the same thing here, but having to get other people involved in something is a pretty big "if", and big "if"s shouldn't be required to enjoy a product to its fullest. Perhaps that's why I didn't enjoy Goldeneye 007 as much as I should have, but I digress.
The first of many choices. (From the original mod.)
Don't get me wrong, there is great potential in the field of video games based around interactive storytelling. I mean, look at how a lot of the triple-AAA tripe handles storytelling: using gameplay as nothing but a tool to string together a bunch of cinematic moments more or less removed from said gameplay. If you immerse yourself in enough of it, sooner or later it all comes across as contrived. But not in The Stanley Parable. You are in direct control of the story, whether you choose to indulge yourself in the narrator's desire to follow said story or to figuratively flip him off in that regard. But if you're not the kind of gamer who can appreciate finding the little differences that come with each permutation of the story, then I'm sorry, this just wouldn't be for you.

Actually, and I regret to have found this out after buying a copy of the stand-alone version, The Stanley Parable started out as a free mod (downloadable here) for the Source engine, back in 2011. Sure, the stand-alone version re-designed the rooms and added numerous new paths and endings, and you have to own another Source-based game in order to play it (apart from the two games I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, other examples include Team Fortress 2 and Portal), but look at it this way: you pay for a great stand-alone game like Half-Life 2 (seriously, one of my favourite games of all time), and then you go out and get the The Stanley Parable mod as a free side diversion. (Wait, did I really have to use the word "the" twice?) So whilst I would like to see more arthouse-type games like The Stanley Parable become famous, sooner or later you're gonna have to look out for number one (read: you and your bank account).

+ Many surprises to be found by exploring the game's world.
+ Lovely voice-acting from the narrator.

- Gameplay is as basic as can be.
- Limited replay value due to the highly-scripted game design..

Control: 4 choices out of 5
Design: 4 choices out of 5
Graphics: 3 choices out of 5
Audio: 5 choices out of 5
Value: 2 choices out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Indie-Cember: Papers, Please

Papers, Please
  • Developer/Lead Designer: Lucas Pope 
  • Release: PC/Mac, 8 August 2013 
  • Genre: Puzzle 
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$10
The nice thing about the indie game scene, as is becoming increasingly apparent given the glut of bland shooters that the triple-A publishers appear increasingly reliant on, is its willingness to take chances on unconventional genres. I mean, gone are the days where paying for something like Silent Service (NES, 1989) or Wall Street Kid (NES, 1990) was considered acceptable. So it is with some degree of interest that I chanced upon the likes of Papers, Please near the end of this past summer. This game, it turns out, was inspired by its creator Lucas Pope's experiences as an American living abroad in Japan, and all of the immigration finagling he had to deal with.1 The closest thing I could compare Papers, Please to is one of those spot-the-differences puzzles, albeit with immigration documents. So does the game manage to make this concept compelling, and if so, how? Read on.

The story has a simple setup: In the fictional, faux-communist nation of Arstotzka, the government has just opened a border crossing and you have been drafted to control the flow of immigrants. You do this by examining the documents of everyone who tries to enter the country. Like the story, the gameplay also starts off simply. On the first day, your only rule is to deny people who, according to their passports, are not Arstotzkan citizens. The next day, you get to allow anyone whose documents have not expired. From then on, new conditions are introduced almost every day. When something in someone's papers breaks one of the rules or contradicts another document, you have to click on the X icon in the lower-right corner of the screen, click on the conflicting evidence, and interrogate him or her on it. You could save time by just denying entry then and there, but sometimes people will present additional papers on questioning, so you can't just assume anything. Plus, later on, you'll have to use a reason-for-denial stamp or else face a penalty. And just a few days into the game, you are granted the ability to arrest people instead of simply denying them entry, which for functionality's sake is pretty much the same thing until one of the guards comes along and pays you a small bonus for everyone you detain. In following this format, Papers, Please does a good job of setting up the basics early on, with plenty of room to experiment with new concepts as the game goes on.
You must search for discrepancies and interrogate the person about them.
Certainly a concept like this could never make for an interesting game unless the story was up to snuff, but thankfully, Papers, Please has this checkpoint covered, so to speak. The immigrants who attempts to filter through your office are for the most part randomly-generated, but there are also a great deal of scripted events. For example, say a husband has his papers in order, but next in line is his wife who has an error in one of her papers. According to the rules, you would have to separate them. But what would happen if you let her through? Or say a journalist attempts to enter with naught but press credentials, which your superiors won't accept? Would you prefer to face her newspaper-based wrath, or would you let her in and accept the penalty? And then there's the sub-plot involving the mysterious anti-government organisation EZIC (not to be confused with Ezio of Assassin's Creed II). Are their goals worth pursuing, and what will happen if you do or don't complete their requests?

With all the stories presented by the numerous NPCs of Papers, Please, there are a whopping 20 endings to be had. Although admittedly, many of them are similar to one another and are just glorified Game Over screens. Luckily, you've got a fair bit of room in order to experiment and discover them, but not without penalty. If you make a mistake, intentionally or otherwise, you miss out on the pay you would've gotten for processing that immigrant, you'll get a citation by the invisible officials who rather redundantly check your work behind the scenes, and starting with the third mistake per day, you get an additional monetary penalty. Oh and by the way, that printer sound which accompanies those citations is scarier than any jump scare I could imagine in a video game, thus making those seconds after you stamp a guy's passport and wait for said noise an oddly tense moment. But your progress gets saved after each day, so if you're not satisfied with your performance on a given day, you're welcome to quit before saving and not lose that much progress. Even better, you can jump back to any previous day, and your progress from then on will be saved in a new timeline.
New forms of documentation come into play throughout the game.
But say you'd prefer to soldier on and play this game by the book. No problem, it's just one of the many ways to experience Papers, Please. Your incentive to keep making money is to provide food and heat for your family, but let me tell you, I'd feel much more compelled to do so if they weren't represented simply by icons on a status screen. Let's see, what else can I pick on... The graphics have a pixellated, late-80s aesthetic which undoubtedly made the game simpler to design, and thus enabled the developer to focus on writing stories for all those characters, but the lack of detail can make it difficult to compare people's faces with their passport photographs, for example. Also, why do the people in this universe have multi-coloured skin? If I had to guess, it's either to stay in line with the palette limitations he's trying to emulate, or to diffuse our expectations involving race. If so, then well played, mister Pope.

Just because Papers, Please employs a set of nations and peoples unlike our own, that doesn't mean we can't gleam some insight into our own world from it. When you have a repressive system, say the Arstotzkan border controls, there are people who play by its rules, and there are people who run counter to the system, either in the form of bribery or simple requests. As such, moral choices are pervasive in this game, and for once they're not always good versus evil. More often than not the situations force us to choose between reason and emotion; in literary terms, these are conflicts of an Apollonian versus Dionysian nature (or if you'd rather, a Spock vs. McCoy nature). And the possibility that breaking the rules may yield something more interesting, if not better, down the line is a much-needed way to spice up the concept. So whether you feel like making a difference in someone else's virtual life or you'd prefer to look out for number one, there's no wrong way to play Papers, Please -- except to not play it at all.

+ Unique, simple, and evolving gameplay.
+ Many branching storylines and endings to find.
+ Engrossing use of scripted events.

- The pixelised art style is an acquired taste.

Controls: 4 passports out of 5
Design: 5 passports out of 5
Graphics: 3 passports out of 5
Audio: 4 passports out of 5
Value: 4 passports out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] Gwaltney, Javy (April 14, 2013). "Glory To Arstotzka: Papers, Please And An Interview With Its Creator". CultureMass.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Indie-Cember: Papo & Yo

Papo & Yo 
  • Publisher/Developer: Minority 
  • Lead Designer: Vander Caballero 
  • Release: 
    • PlayStation 3, 14 August 2012 
    • PC, 18 April 2013 
  • Genre: 3D Action (Platformer/Puzzle )
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$15

It's curious how the video game creation market has been all but monopolised by certain powers. Namely, America, Japan, and Western Europe are the main offenders in this arena. Surely there are other corners of the world with stories to tell, no? I sure hope so, because I'm starting to notice the likes of Call of Duty over there portraying white America with an increasingly holier-than-thou attitude with each successive entry. It's not like the American way isn't worth defending, even vicariously through a digital power fantasy, but the more non-Western European-ethnics I'm given the opportunity to gun down, the more I want to distance myself from that paradigm. And that's not just me saying that: these thoughts are also echoed by a mister Vander Caballero:
When I was playing Call of Duty and you landed [in the Brazilian slums] with a shotgun and you were killing everyone, I was like 'Oh man, that's so impolite! That's so disgusting!' And it makes people afraid of the favelas. [1]
Who is Vander Caballero? He just so happens to be the lead designer of today's subject Papo & Yo, and it turns out that hails from Colombia. Although, his studio is based in Montreal, Canada, so partial credit there. Confusing the cultural potpourri even further, Papo & Yo appears to take place in Brazil, or some fictional counterpart thereof. Bear in mind the game's title is Spanish -- as in not the language spoken in Brazil. Yo soy confused.

But enough trying to make sense of where Papo & Yo came from; let's look at it as a game like we're supposed to. Papo & Yo chronicles the adventures of a boy named Quico through a series of fantastical favelas in not-Brazil. Of the things this game does to spice up your journey, the first you'll notice is that to advance to new areas, you have to manipulate the environment. This activity takes the form of pushing switches or pulling levers, which cause events like stairs made out of white light to appear for you to climb up, or entire houses to fly up and out to a new location so you can use them as a bridge. One of its more memorable moments (or at least the one I spent the most time on) is when you move houses to form a tower, which you can lower and use as a bridge to find even more houses to extend the tower-bridge, and once it's long enough you can leave the section in the same manner. I simply loved this whimsical approach to making an adventure out of the ordinary, and is living (not literally "living", mind you) proof that just because one uses a video game setting based on the real world doesn't mean it has to stay grounded in reality. And while I'm on the subject, I simply have to give a tip of the hat to composer Brian d'Oliviera, whose soundtrack is appropriately whimsical and distinctly South American, and also happens to be the first game soundtrack I ever bought.
Further puzzle elements are introduced through new characters. First is an animate toy robot named Lula, who can trigger switches from far away, and even give you a hover-jump ability. Said hover-jump extends your lateral jumping range something useful, but doesn't do much for how high you can jump. And Quico's jump height, or lack thereof, was a real point of contention for me. Look, I'm not expecting him to jump several times his height like Mario. I mean, it worked in side-scrollers like Super Mario Bros. because verticality makes for more exciting 2D levels, and when you're in a 3D environment and you have the ability to walk around obstacles, it's okay to put that kind of realism back into play. But shouldn't he at least be able to climb up ledges or something?

After the first half-hour or so, you are then introduced to the Monster. Typically, he's a gentle giant simply on the lookout for coconuts to eat and places to sleep, and you can get him where you want to by manipulating these elements. They were even nice enough to add a thought-bubble so you know what Monster is focused on. But then frogs come into play, and hoo boy, now the game shows its true colours. See, Monster is addicted to frogs, and when he eats one, he takes on a fiery form and starts hunting you down. But the worst he can do if he catches you (outside of cutscenes) is to toss you around, giving you another chance to run away. That's right, Quico can't get hurt, not even from taking a long fall. I'm not saying that implementing a damage system would've helped this game in any way, or hurt it for that matter. But it certainly would make this otherwise kid-friendly game even more scary.
Although, when you take the game's backstory into account, it becomes a stretch to call it "kid-friendly". See, the game opens up with a dedication to Vander Caballero's family, with the exception of his alcoholic father who had abused some or all of them in some capacity. In real life, apparently. Occasionally, the linear level-to-level progression is interrupted by brief cutscenes depicting Quico and his father in some dark situations. And again, there's the whole business of Monster being addicted to frogs. So, put that all together, and what do you get? The Monster represents Vander's father! Don't worry if you couldn't figure it out by my description alone, the game is really, really not subtle about it. Which is not to say it doesn't have genuinely moving moments, but I've managed to finish the game in about three hours, so why bother spoiling any of them? (NB: There are collectible hats which you can... collect to earn a Trophy/Achievement, but for some reason they don't show up until you beat the game and play again.)

I should note that I played the PC port of this game, and as such this review has been shaped by that version. I understand that the original game for PlayStation 3 had numerous technical issues which were ironed out for the PC edition. We're talking game-breaking bugs here, like crashes, collisions, and other situations which force you to restart. However, I am unable to corroborate those claims, for the most part. I mean, come on, as a gaming platform Windows is about as stable as a house of cards. #PCGamingMasterRace  So either way, caveat emptor, I guess. But bear in mind: A) this is Minority's first game, and B) making a well-oiled machine of a game apparently came second to telling a great story, and you'd be surprised how rarely that is the case in gaming these days. That someone out there could manage to not only use such deep subject matter to base a video game around, but interpret it in such an imaginative way, is deserving of our utmost respect.

+ An emotionally-charged story.
+ A whimsical favela-meets-glowing-sketches visual aesthetic.
+ A beautiful soundtrack.

- Not much in the way of challenge.
- Various technical problems in both the PS3 and PC versions.

Controls: 3 frogs out of 5
Design: 4 frogs out of 5
Graphics: 4 frogs out of 5
Audio: 5 frogs out of 5
Value: 3 frogs out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

[1] Orland, Kyle (2012-03-14). "Papo & Yo explores abuse, fear, and poverty through… block puzzles?". Ars Technica.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Indie-Cember: VVVVVV

  • Developer/Lead Designer: Terry Cavanaugh*
  • Release:
    • PC: 11 January 2010
    • Nintendo 3DS: 29 December 2011
  • Genre: 2D Action/Adventure
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$5
*3DS port published by Nicalis.

As a gamer from the post-Nintendo generation, my experience with, if not knowledge of, everything that came before the NES is spotty at best. For example, as of writing this, I've never played anything on a Commodore 64. Shame, I know. And that's merely a reflection of my personal history as a gamer; I'm not understating its success or anything. For instance, I hear the C64 was way popular in Europe, so it's a very real possibility that an indie game developer from, say, the British Isles may have grown up with it, let its style shape his earliest concepts of a video game, and use that mental image to shape his own products. And what do you know, that just so happens to be the case with the Irish-born, currently England-based Terry Cavanaugh, and his most notable title to date, VVVVVV (pronounced "The Letter V Six Times").

In VVVVVV, you play as Captain Viridian, a grayish-blue humanoid who is forced to evacuate his spaceship along with his crew, only to come out the other side sans crew. It is then up to you to rescue the remaining five members of your crew, wherever they may be. And how is this to be done? Why, in the context of a 2D platformer, simple enough. The game is divided into an open world which you get to explore at your leisure, and various sub-levels in which your crew members may be found. Ah, a Metroidvania format, nothing we haven't seen before. Oh, and instead of jumping, you get to flip the gravity to get past obstacles.

Wait, what?

Yes, because jumping is too mainstream, pressing the action button (default: spacebar) flips Captain Viridian from the floor to the ceiling or vice-versa. This is not a new concept in gaming controls, having been represented in titles like Metal Storm (NES, 1991), Wendy: Every Witch Way (GBC, 2001), and Messr. Cavanaugh's own freeware title, Sine Wave Ninja (PC, 2009). But VVVVVV goes all-out with the concept, since nearly everything in this game revolves around this manoeuvre. After having eased you into the game's mechanics by letting you explore parts of the game freely, new concepts are thrust upon you, primarily in the aforementioned sub-levels. Tricks are introduced at just the right pace, like wrap-warping from one side of the screen to another, lines which automatically flip you upon touching them, and spikes.
Later areas gradually introduce you to concepts like wrap-warping.
Because it's a retro-styled game, of course they have to have instant-death spikes. I mean, how else are you going to ramp up the challenge? Put more animate obstacles on the screen? Not with this hardware! ...At least not the hardware Messr. Cavanaugh is trying to evoke. But before the more noobish of you get up and walk away from this article, to retreat behind the cover of your chest-high walls and suckle on the teats of regenerating health, hear me out. The difficulty of VVVVVV is balanced out by the presence of checkpoints -- and lots of them. And despite what I called you out on earlier, I applaud this approach. A major source of frustration in video games is failing a challenge and have to wait a long time before you can try it again. I've actually up and quit video games that made me sit through an unskippable cutscene every time I tried to face a boss *CoughKingdomHeartsNotTheHDRereleaseMindYouWhichThankGodfullyHasThisFeatureCough*.

If you remember the beginning of this article, I didn't write that spiel about the Commodore 64 just to fill up space. VVVVVV does, in fact, draw inspiration from the aesthetics of the C64 and its software. The visuals are presented in a limited colour palette, individual objects are drawn solely in shades of the same hue, and instead of camera scrolling, each room in the game's map fills the screen area, no more, no less. And you know what? I kinda like this approach. Each room has a different name (courtesy of the guy who made QWOP, no less), and non-spiky obstacles are patterned after these names. You can expect to dodge ghosts, clouds, stop signs, and even words and numbers in your journeys. I don't know about you, but that leads to far more memorable experiences than just facing down identically-uniformed humanoids.
It's nice to see creativity in the colours and object designs.
What's more, this was more or less intentional. The word from the horse's mouth (so to speak) is that not only was this an opportunity for Messr. Cavanaugh to indulge in his own personal "retro fetish", and to "make something that looked and felt like the C64 games [he] grew up with", but to avoid the hassles of modern graphics and make visuals that are genuinely interesting. [1]  And if the latter were the only reason, then I dare say this is one corner I wish was cut more often. It's not just how they're presented here in VVVVVV, but it's a bucking of one of my least favourite trends in modern full-budget game production: the "Real Is Brown" trope. Maybe it's allow advanced lighting routines to run without bringing down the entire graphics engine, maybe it's to reflect the stylistic choices in other media, maybe it's a stylistic choice for its own sake, I don't know. All I know is I hate it. Limiting yourself to a short slice of the colour spectrum makes for forgettable moments in your work, and when everyone's trying to do it, well, it's one of the many reasons I fear for the safety of our beloved industry. And to bring this review back to the point of Indie-Cember, it's one of the many reasons I've stuck my head under the surface of the indie ocean and drowned in its innovative pleasantness. ...Try not to think too much about that metaphor.


So yeah, VVVVVV. Yes, its controls may be overly-dependent on fast-twitch timing, and may occasionally be a bit slippery. Yes, it may be a little short -- I managed to finish a bare-bones run in just over an hour, in one sitting -- if you don't spend any time hunting out the optional Trinkets or playing the unlockable challenge mini-modes. Yes, being trapped in those cut-away sections drags down the pacing a bit, keeping you from the freedom of exploration until you finish them. Although, I will give them credit for eliciting an emotion of desolation. And yes, this business of spikes killing you when you simply brush up against their side needs to stop. But by all other accounts, VVVVVV is a well-oiled machine that pulls you into the zone with just a few rooms. Maybe it's Magnus PĂ„lsson's club-ready chiptune soundtrack that does the trick. Or maybe it's the pacing which puts you back in the action as soon as possible after each mishap which keeps the intensity flowing. Either way, it's got all I could ask for in a platformer: something innovative, something thought-provoking, and above all else, being really, really good at what it's supposed to be.

+ Delivers many variations on a simple gameplay mechanic.
+ Frequent checkpoints balance out its difficulty.
+ Creative characters and room names.
+ A thumpin' chiptune soundtrack.

- The cutaway sections drag down the pace a bit.

Control: 3 trinkets out of 5
Design: 5 trinkets out of 5
Graphics: 5 trinkets out of 5
Audio: 5 trinkets out of 5
Value: 3 trinkets out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)
[1] Rose, Michael (2010-01-06). "Intervvvvvview: Terry Cavanagh". IndieGames.com.