The Tracks of 2011

A year later, a year a little more tired.

Music is a gargantuan part of what I do every day. I don’t necessarily write about it a huge amount, but I don’t spend a minute in silence if I can help it. Silence is where the thoughts get you. And so I devour music, pull album after album onto my player and hope that it spurs some spark of creativity that will get me onto the next thousand words. I probably don’t pay nearly enough attention to the things I listen to, because I’m usually done with an album after a few days. Maybe I pay too much attention. Who can tell.

Either way, these are the 40 tracks that managed to survive beyond those few days. As ever, it’s subjective, beyond even the normal measured subjectivity I’d hope to demonstrate. I managed to get them into groups of five, but the order of each five was a whimsical thing. I think I’ve got a good top spot, but tomorrow I might think myself an idiot. I usually do.

Here they are. Spotify Playlist is found here. Youtube Playlist is found here. Please, enjoy.

40. Autre Ne Veut – Sweetheart

More than most musical trends this year, it feels like My Bloody Valentine are coming back, in spirit. (Although they did reform this year.) That wall of noise, interspersed with light, melodic vocals is something that has popped up time and again, and Autre Ne Veut, in this little EP, managed to emulate it without just being a cheap imitation. Bravo, etc.

39. Gold Panda – Marriage

And this. Maybe I’m just being drawn to it a little more, but a sizable chunk of the music on this list is washed out, submerged, filled with more sound than it should be able to handle. Layers and layers and density that makes it difficult to pick out all that much, apart from the parts which come to the surface for a moment. Water is a metaphor I’m using more and more to describe the music that I like.

38. Childish Gambino – LES

And this would be the most watery track off Childish Gambino’s Camp. Comedy is all about timing, right? Makes sense that a comedian would know how to rap. And it makes sense that a comedian who is also a writer knows how to sling lyrics. Hah, I just said sling lyrics. I’ll stop now.

37. Thao & Mirah – Rubies and Rocks

Sometimes an album comes along that you listen to over and over again, enjoy, subliminally learn the words to, and yet you can’t really figure out why this, rather than that other, potentially lovely, album, is the one that clicked with you. Often it’s something intangible, some attitude in the vocalist’s voice, or just a way the beat comes together. Why does music even work? Fuck knows. This album does.

36. Oneohtrix Point Never – Sleep Dealer

If music really is like sex, which is an analogy I’ve seen drawn more than once, so it must be, then this track is the musical equivalent of a constant, almost unpleasant tease. The beat is always just about to kick in, the song is always just about to get going. And then it doesn’t. I think that makes me a bit of a masochist for liking it.

35. Mophono – Cut From Crunch (Feat. Flying Lotus)

Even when he doesn’t make an album in the year, he still gets go on the list, because he’s just that good. Everything he touches is a beautiful slurry of grimey, delicious crunch. Little bits and pieces flitting in and out, before the beat drops, and it all comes together like a titan made out of rubbish. But the good kind of rubbish titan. Not a rubbish rubbish titan.

34. Ducktails – Art Vandelay

Either 2011 was the year that lo-fi really took off, or it’s the year where lo-fi really took off with me. I’ve never really been one to really listen to lyrics, just to enjoy the phonetics of the words and how they work with the rest of the music. Lo-fi does a pretty great job of taking out the mildly distracting fact that words have meaning and my brain tries to acclimatise that. Ducktails, specifically, is like a great big aural hug, albeit a friendly, lazy one.

33. Low – Witches

2011 was also the year that Low made a happy album. Ok, maybe not happy, but at least not morose. There was a certain uplifting nature to almost the whole thing that was almost unsettling. Alan Sparhawk is still a sad sounding man, but the music was working against that this time, and even more surprising was the fact that it worked. If anything, the music is even more strong and powerful than before, because they can fill all that silence up with glorious noise.

32. Samiyam – Understanding

I’ve finally started to pay attention to labels. To actually follow what one label is producing and think ‘hey, maybe their other stuff is worth listening to.’ And that label is Brainfeeder, because Flying Lotus is so involved with it, and everything they’ve put out so far has been pretty fucking great. Samiyam I knew of before, but he goes a way to proving the theory.

31. The Horrors – Moving Further Away

There were a bunch of bands I found out about this year. Who have huge discographies going back a decade or so, and have been known by pretty much everyone, but I’ve just not come across them. The Horrors were one, and Beirut (further down the list), was another. I’m going to say that it’s because I was a genius recluse stuck listening to infinite loops of the Amen Break, rather than the fact I was just oblivious. Either way, The Horrors had a new album out, and it was great.

30. Bon Iver – Towers

I adored For Emma, Forever Ago. I felt so personally connected to it that I had that sickening gut reaction of anger and jealousy when everyone else found out about it and it was on every tv show ever. Then Bon Iver, Bon Iver came out, and all those silly people scratched their heads and looked a little annoyed. It wasn’t the exact same thing, you see. It had Auto-tune, you see. It wasn’t recorded in a shed in Alaska, you see. And then there was that last track. Ok, I can’t defend the last track. But I can the others, especially this one.

29. The National – Exile Vilify

I’m not one to fawn over the soundtrack of a game. I don’t really pay attention to the music all that often, because as soon as you start doing that you start smashing down the carefully erected walls of your immersion. But this, hidden away in that little corner of that little level on Portal 2, in its own little room with its own little radio, invited you to just stop and give it a listen. The radio would crackle a little, and you’d stare at the pictures on the walls. It was a beautiful moment that was entirely reliant on both my curiosity and my patience. Of my willingness not to interact, and just enjoy. Which was an interaction all of itself. The song, by the by, is absolutely beautiful. That swell, man. That swell.

28. Wilco – Art of Almost

I’d be tempted to lump Wilco along with The Horrors as ‘band I never knew existed but not listen to’, but I did know they existed. I just didn’t care. They were just another indie band, probably something like Weezer because of the ‘W’, right? Yeah, no, that was me being stupid. Then The Whole Love came along and it was incredible. I mean seriously. This is powerful stuff. And they just open with a seven minute climax, like it’s no big thing. It’s a Big Thing.

27. Death Grips – Beware



I might not care nearly so much for the rest of this album, but man! I’m a sucker for a good movie soundbite, and then they just fucking shout at the listener. They really don’t care even one little bit. It’s fantastic. That lazy beat, the meandering guitar accompanied by a huge cymbal crash and lyrics fired into your ear at a drunken shout. Beautiful stuff.

26. RXRY – Truant Harvest Elusive Frost

Bit of a cheat, this one. Four tracks pushed into one. But they only come to four minutes together, and they’re pretty much a single track on the album, all prefaced with a single ‘A’, so I figure it’s allowed. Oh yeah, I make the rules. So it’s allowed. And it’s worth being allowed, too, because of that excellent sludge that rumbles over and over until the whole thing pulls itself clear of that storm of muck and above the clouds, leaving you just dreaming.

25. Beirut – East Harlem

Did you know he made his first full length album when he was 19? All on his own, playing most of the instruments himself? And that he’s put out pretty much an album a year since then? I weep. I’ve heard The Rip Tide being referred to as a more low-key affair than his previous work, but I think I’ve enjoyed it the most, if only because of that light hearted tone that it affects. And that lovely horn. Mostly the lovely horn.

24. Fleet Foxes – Montezuma

So now I am older, than my mother and father.

That’s quite the opener. Helplessness Blues seemed like a fundamentally sad record, which I suppose suits the almost hymnal qualities of Fleet Foxes, although it never plummets into a dirge, which is helpful. Perhaps sad is the wrong word, and instead ‘realistic’ would be a much more fitting descriptor. The whole thing seems to be concerned with the futility of man and all that good philosophical stuff. But then I don’t pay attention to lyrics, do I.

23. Tune-Yards – My Country

I almost forgot this one. How could I almost forget this one? I mean really? Nothing about this is forgettable. It’s relentless and fun and bouncy and all over the place, when ‘all over the place’ is exactly where you want to be. Everywhere is a great place to be, so why not be all over it? Love life, man, love Tune Yards.

22. Tokimonsta – Bright Shadows

Another Brainfeeder offering, and my favourite EP of the year, maybe. Probably not, actually, but it certainly left a pretty heavy impression. When you call a track ‘dream-like’, it’s often because of the way it drifts, or doesn’t, how it occupies a space. I think that, by necessity, means it can’t really have all that much of a beat. But then I’m wrong, because this has a beat. Quite the beat. And it’s as dreamlike as they come.

21. Seefeel – Faults

Speaking of beats.


Yeah. Damn. I love.

20. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Stamp

I can’t remember how I found their first album, Hometowns. It was a crazy thing, all anger and vitriol and wonderful earnestness, and then this comes along and it’s… well, it’s still those things, but they’ve diminished a little. And while they’ve made up some of the difference in experience and the like, I can’t help but feel like something was lost. Nonetheless, Stamp was the closest they came to recovering that previous power.

19. St. Vincent – Cheerleader

I’m too young for Kate Bush. By which I mean, I was too young to enjoy her all that much when I was growing up. Besides, she was a girl and what kind of strapping young lad listens to a girl? It was all Black Sabbath and Lamb of God for me, thank you very much. Silly little boy. St. Vincent has done a pretty good job this year of being a Kate Bush substitute, which is probably a little unfair to her, but it’ll have to stand. Especially when Kate Bush went and released a bloody album and I still listened to this over that.

18. Atlas Sound – Te Amo

My, but that’s some pretty playing. My, but that’s some pretty singing, too. It swings from side to side, a grand pendulum. I could easily have made this list ’40 albums of 2011′, but that might disqualify EPs, or singles, and so this is what you’re left with. The rest of this record is just as lovely, but this is the stand out.

17. The Dodos – Black Night

They’ll never fail me. If I ever run out of things to listen to, (which I never should, but I’m a lazy man who can’t be bothered to look, sometimes), The Dodos will keep me satisfied. Could be that their vocal range is about as close to mine that I’ve found, but I think it’s because each song is a great condensed form of energy that one day we’re going to figure out how to harness and then we won’t all die of hotness.

16. Timber Timbre – Black Water

What is it about this that seems so sinister? It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, but it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon where the bodies are rotting in the swamp while the killer drinks a beer in the setting sun. He’s fine, and happy, but there’s something altogether wrong about the whole thing. That’s about as close as I can get. Just watch the video, you don’t need my words.

15. Clams Casino – Waterfalls

How many times have you been punched in the gut by a track? None? Oh, that just changed. It gives you a few seconds, and then BOOM, you’re bent double and trying to figure out why air isn’t something you’re intimately familiar with any more. And it doesn’t let up, with huge waves of that force coming over and over again. You could drown in it. You’d drown happy.

14. Mount Kimbie – Carbonated

I watched a video of these guys playing live. (This video). No matter how many times they’ve done it, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. The amount of things they’re juggling, the sequences they setting off and leaving to run. There’s something incredibly powerful about the modular approach of live electronic music. Layers on layers, always building until you strip them all away and leave just one still standing. It’s the most narrative of music, I think. At least without bringing lyrics into it.

13. EMA – California

I almost went with another EMA track because I knew Kieron would pick this one. And he has. But there’s a reason for that. And that reason is that it’s a very, very good song. (It’s also very Kieron, but that’s beside the point.)

12. Shlohmo – Your Stupid Face

There’s, oh, a minute and a half of build. Sick little guitar licks that run over a bed of moaned, submerged vocals. That’s just the hand winding up for the slap. It’s the rings coming off, then the owner laughing and putting them back on. Because you need the pain, you need that sting. And then, at the two minute seven mark, they let rip, leaving you with a mark that will last for days. That drop, man, that drop. 

11. Cults – Abducted

That was another thing. Some sort of weird appropriation of the sixties. Reclaiming the fun and innocence of the girl bands while at the same time tempering them with experience and sexuality. Not that they weren’t sexualised before, but we’ve come a long way in fifty years. Cults was the biggest one for me, not least because they tinged the whole album with the kind of unsettling that only comes when you’re obsessed with serial killers. No, really.

10. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears

Did you ever hear a more heartbreakingly, achingly, desperately beautiful thing? I’m a huge fan of Stars of the Lid, those kings of Drone, but here, when you’ve got Adam Wiltzie pairing up with Dustin O’Halloran, you have that drone punctuated with little trills of melody. I’m not saying it’s necessarily better, but it is absolutely beautiful. As cinematic as they come, but it doesn’t need a film to give it strength.

9. King Creosote and Jon Hopkins -Running on Fumes

I normally can’t stand accents in a singing voice. Not something as pronounced as this. But perhaps there’s a perfect genre for every accent, every vocal style. King Creosote has found that for his, for certain. I don’t think I can do this album justice with words, but it’s some beautiful stripped down acoustic stuff. Give it a go.

8. Tom Vek – We Do Nothing

It doesn’t seem to matter all that much what Tom Vek does, he’ll be limited to the periphery. Which is a shame, as he’s a smart, smart man. And Leisure Seizure is a powerful, obnoxious record, but one that it’s hard not to like. It’s the kind that just goes for it and doesn’t really care about how it’s taken, or the consequences that arise. That’s how I like to think of it, anyway.

7. The Mountain Goats – Estate Sale Sign

It’s hard not to expect excellent from The Mountain Goats. Because they’ve been so excellent for so long. And All Eternals Deck was excellent. But it was just excellent. What more could it be? Either way, it was just another Mountain Goats record, when they’ve all been pretty fucking good. Personally, I’d rate Estate Sale Sign almost on a par with No Children. Yeah, said it.

6. Dawn Golden and Rosy Cross – Blacks

Of all my submersible music in 2011, this was the submersiblest. The whole thing sounds like it was recorded at 40,000 fathoms, watching giant squid amble by while the anglers looked ugly. And that chug. That chug. A chainsaw on the jaw of the world. Badadadadadada BOOM. Chugachugachugachuga CHUG.

5. Battles – Icecream

Video of 2011, certainly. Most fun in music in 2011? Perhaps. Certainly comes very close to the kind of fun that Tune-Yards is having. But regardless of all that, it’s just music for music’s sake. And there’s never enough of that. I mean listen to that guitar. Listen to those nonsense lyrics. Listen to those drums. Listen to that DANCING.

4. Woodkid – Iron (Remixed by the Mystery Jets)

Biggest track of 2011, for sure. It was fucking huge. I mean literally, or as literal as you can get with music. It towers over you, and it walks on by, causing village-destroying earthquakes with each oblivious step. I listened to it over, and over, and over, until my ears heard it when I closed my eyes. A titan of a track. Mammoth.

3. Radiohead – Bloom

So what if the fans didn’t like it so much? King of Limbs was an incredible record. It was Radiohead managing to make an electronic album that rivalled some pretty great electronic albums. And they didn’t even break a sweat to do it, it didn’t sound like. People have been doing this for years, and they just swan in with a track like Bloom and go ‘Hey, what’s up?’. Lovely stuff.

2. Youth Lagoon – Bobby

This could only ever have been recorded in a bedroom. Vocals that sound about as small as they feel, thanks to heavy echo and low levels. And then there’s the fact that it sounds like the whole thing has been run through the tape decks a dozen too many times. But it’s not too many, because the whole thing is beautiful and delicate. And it’s always building, drums and drums and bass and bass.

1. Colin Stetson – The Righteous Wrath of an Honourable Man

I played Tenor Saxophone for nearly a decade, and got to a pretty high standard. These days, I don’t actually enjoy the saxophone all that much, instead preferring the deeper texture of something like the trumpet or the cello. Shows how much I know, really. Colin Stetson gets the saxophone. He gets all the saxophone.

His album, New History of Warfare – Judges Vol. 2 is incredible. I know I’ve used a lot of hyperbole so far in this list, but there I just used hyperbole and italics. That means you know I’m not just hyperbolising. It’s almost entirely him, on his own, with a saxophone and a dozen or so mics, and they just up and down the levels to fill out the sound, until you’ve got an entire orchestra from just one instrument. Not to mention the fact that he’s circular breathing, meaning he never has to stop putting out noise.

It’s not just technical brilliance, either. That track, The Righteous Wrath of an Honourable Man, is beyond beautiful. The whole thing slides up and down, faster than you can think, and it never stops being flighty, and delicate, while at the same time having an underlying power in its chord structure that grounds the whole thing. I’m getting technical again. Hah.

Anyway, track of 2011, for sure. Just look at his face. He deserves it.

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Podcast List-O-Tron


Listed in no particular order, except whatever order it currently is on my media player. I’ll link websites and RSS, because you’re worth it. (You might not be worth it, but I’ll take the chance.)

A Life Well Wasted (Stopped)
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Unfortunately seems to be mostly defunct, because Robert Lashley appears to have been gobbled up by 1UP or something to do videos and podcasts. But there’s still six great hours there, if you haven’t already listened to it, about the more esoteric end of gaming, all brilliantly produced.

Adam and Joe (Weekly)
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An editted hour from their Saturday Morning Show on 6Music, it’s probably a little hard to get into at first, as it’s completely riddled with in-jokes and entirely about their personalities, which might take some aligning before you understand it fully, but it’s consistently funny and excellently childish. WHY BE DENNY DIFFERENT?!

Double Fine Actioncast (Gamely)
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This isn’t exactly consistent, or at least, it’s only as consistent as they seem to be doing one podcast per game Double Fine releases, but it’s funny in and of itself, even if you don’t like their games. (Which would make you wrong.) It also has improv a capella jingles for each segment, which is something I wish more podcasts did.

Irrational Interviews (Erratic)
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Irrational’s Ken Levine interviews interesting gaming people. It’s pretty heavy on game design, but if you’re interested in game design, it’s fantastic. They sort of have a loose format with the questions, but Levine pretty much always hijacks it after the conversation’s started.

PC Gamer UK (Monthly, sort of)
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Bunch of funny journalists talking about the current issue of PC Gamer, except they mostly just joke about games that are in the magazine, and talk about stuff they’ve seen. Standard stuff, but consistently entertaining and good.

Rum Doings (Weekly)
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RPS’s John Walker and Positive Internet’s Nick Mailer talk about whatever they like for an hour, which usually involves Nick bullying John and John trying to tell a story without Nick lampooning him. It’s like watching the Devil poke the Stay Puft marshmallow man with a hot poker. It’s funny, but kind of uncomfortable. Also, John is Stay Puft not because he’s a blimp, but because he’s got a soft and gooey personality.

The Bugle (Weekly)
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Daily Show’s John Oliver and The Bugle’s Andy Zaltsman talk about the week’s news while making too many puns and funny observations. It’s sort of a British Daily Show, but not a tv show, and not much like the Daily Show at all, as it’s two guys and no interviews. But I think you get my point.

RPS Electronic Wireless Show (Erratic at best)
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It’s not as regular as I’d like, but it’s much like the PCG podcast, just without nearly as much structure, which can only be a good thing. Nominally, it’s about games. Practically, it’s very rarely about games. This can only be a good thing.

This American Life (Weekly)
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I’ve only started to listen to this a month or two ago, but fuck me it’s good. I mean, I knew it was before, because everyone raves about it, but seriously. This is like a mainline of empathy and heartbreak, once a week. Not really the best thing to run to, but then perhaps that uplifting/crushing climax of each story is the kind of fuel to make your legs pump faster. (I do most of my podcast listening while running.)

Three Moves Ahead (Weekly)
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Another one I’ve only just started listening to, but it’s wonderfully specific. It’s a panel of games journalists, sometimes with guest, talking about strategy games. Sometimes a specific one, sometimes lots. As dry as that sounds, it’s remarkably entertaining, and the guys really know their stuff. Recently switched host from Troy Goodfellow (top chap), to Rob Zacny (top chap).

Radiolab (Monthly, but Seasonal)
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It’s the science version of This American Life, if I’m going to be dismissive, which I’m not. Radiolab is the reason I gave This American Life a shot in the first place. Each one hour show has a vague topic, which then has a series of narrative driven scientific ideas explained using case studies and brilliant audio production to explain the concept to the listener. It works because the two presenters, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, along with their many producers, don’t really know about the science they’re discussing, and so they’re our in, someone to ask the questions we want to ask. Probably the best show on here.

WTF With Marc Maron (Whenever he does them, which is all the fucking time.)
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Those fucking intros. The layout of the show is that Marc Maron, long time comedian, uses his contacts to get some comedy-related person into his garage to have a chat for an hour. It’s just that it’s prefaced with him talking about himself for ten minutes, which at first was intolerable, but as I’ve listened to more, is becoming something I don’t just skip. He’s got a deeply personal interviewing style, using his own experience and depression to get his subjects to open up. Sounds depressing, but these are comedians, they know how to turn depression into something funny. Which also sounds depressing. It’s not.

That’s the lot. I guess they were alphabetical, rather than arbitrary, so there you go. Hope you find something good and new.

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External Cyborg

I’ve been away for two days doing important things like eating baked rice and drinking beer. Other things occurred, but they matter naught. This was why yesterday was postless.

(I make up the rules. You were never in control.)

Today is what matters. Today is the day we find out more about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That makes today a good day to talk about what I’m going to talk about.

Like a knife made out of adrenaline, the trip has brought into sharp focus something that’s been gnawing away at the back of my mind, slowly nibbling its way to the front, where it can finally get some air time. It’s taken my consciousness hostage, and it’s going to have its record played! It all started with Jim posting a wordthinks sometime last year.

Here is that wordthinks.

In the article, Jim lays out the idea that, despite the general definition of a cyborg being a physically augmented human being, he could be considered a ‘virtual cyborg’, because he spends so much of his time in virtual worlds, using games as a prosthesis, something to enhance and satiate his imagination and lust for escapism. It’s a fascinating idea, and he enthuses about it far more eloquently than I could. It’s worth a read.

However, the reason this managed to lodge itself in the back of my head is that this is an idea that is far more universally applicable than just games. The idea of technological prosthesis is a brilliant one; your phone isn’t just a gadget, but an extension of yourself. My MP3 player is a fake limb that I plug into my ears, enhancing the world around me. A laptop isn’t just something to help me work while on the move; it’s an extension of my hands, a translator between my mind and the external world.


1. a device, either external or implanted, that substitutes for or supplements a missing or defective part of the body.

The phrasing of that is interesting to me. ‘Missing or defective part of the body’. What constitutes ‘missing’? What is ‘defective’, in relation to ourselves? Obviously this is referring to the loss of a limb, or something equally damaging, but increasingly, I’m thinking of myself in terms of someone who has ready access to a desktop computer. I spend the majority of my time here, and that means that I’ve grown used to the abilities it grants me. The ability to listen to music near constantly. The ability to browse the internet, talk to me friends, send and receive emails. Having the wealth of human knowledge at my fingertips. These are things that are as familiar to me as breathing, or eating, or any of life’s other necessities.

So when I go travelling, does my MP3 player not substitute for my computer’s music library? Does my phone not supplement my need to be always connected, to be able to communicate no matter where I am? Is my laptop not a replacement for my computer’s ability to let me work, and write, and browse the internet with ease? These are things that I’ve come to require, however dangerous and potentially depressing that thought may be.

So these devices are augmentations, designed to enable me the same privileges and abilities that I enjoy and use from my home. They’re there to supplement and substitute for the things that I lose the instant I leave my room. I guess that makes them prosthetics, circuited limbs that I never knew I didn’t have. I’m a mild mannered Shiva, one limb clutching a smartphone, another a loose pair of headphones and a Zune.

Which is interesting, I guess.

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Boss, I Gotta Level You

I’ve just finished Castlevania, and, in a game that has quite a few bosses, starting with the most basic of large-nosed Trolls, and working its way up to Satan himself, there are a few standouts. And they might not be the ones you think, like Death, or the King of the Lycans, or the Queen Vampire. No, the levels that really impress, are the ones that make a level of it. As in, the boss isn’t just a fight, it’s an entire level.

The first of these is a huge Frost Giant, standing in the middle of a frozen lake. You wait for him to lodge his fist in the thick ice, and start to clamber up his leg. So far, so Shadow of the Colossus. But, by turning these huge being into a level themselves, you’re avoiding the massive huge, throbbing, glowing weakpoint of boss battles; fighting someone who is illogically powerful and annoyingly trial and error based. To give Castlevania its due, the boss battles were rarely actually all that frustrating, but still, the ones that made the boss into a platforming puzzle rather than just another, slightly longer melee scrap, were the fun ones.

It’s because it’s transferring the satisfaction from besting a boss in melee and shoving it into a grand scale of things. Instead of just dodging at the right times and using the right combo, you’re traversing a behemoth. You get to learn every nook and cranny, clambering your way up and around, all the while sticking your puny little weapon in places that it probably shouldn’t go. Even something like Tomb Raider learnt the error of its ways with Underworld, with the only real boss being a giant octopus. And even that is a platforming puzzle; you have to maneuverer your way around it, keeping out of sight, before dropping a chandelier on its cranium. Fun stuff.

The master of all this, perhaps obviously, is God of War, particularly 3, and particularly the fight with Kronos. Fights on his arm, tearing off his house-sized fingernail, getting eaten and then having to figure out how to get out, then cutting him up from the inside, and then all sorts of other unspeakable things. It’s as gross as it is comical, but really, it’s the scale of it all that’s so impressive. It feels so much more satisfying than beating someone your own size, especially when you didn’t have to do much apart from a few normal fights and some impressive platforming. It’s the satisfaction of a boss battle without the frustration. Genius, right?

This doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to gargantuan bosses, though; Batman Arkham Asylum (for the most part) figured out how to do things right, especially with the Killer Croc level. It wasn’t so much that you’re trying to outfight him, but instead he becomes part of the environment, something else to consider, as you sneak around on those floating platforms. It becomes brilliantly tense, and as you flee right at the end, before triggering the gel explose, the whole thing just reeks of satisfaction. You’re not getting killed over and over because you didn’t fight pitch-perfectly, but instead because you made too much noise, or didn’t run in the right direction when he was popping platforms. Even the Harlequinn fight is against her goons, before he quickly dispatches her; it doesn’t need to suspend logic and the rules of the game world so that you can have an ‘epic’ fight. It’s above that, and that’s admirable.

Even something like Assassin’s Creed has done similar things, especially in Brotherhood, where one of the best levels was a chase through the Basilica in the Vatican. It’s a chase sequence, sure, but the whole thing is about mastering the environment, and when you do finally catch up with the fleeing priest, he’s dispatched easily enough. It’s using the environment as a tool, rather than just buffing up his hitpoints. Hitpoints suck, and the more of them the game shoves on one person, the less fun I’m going to have.

This, like so many other problems with game design, boils down to an issue of creativity, but it’s a pretty simple case of thinking about something like this in a different way. Instead of relying on the same tried and true methods, instead think about what makes sense for your game, and work with that. Because you’re inevitably going to have something that is far more fun, enjoyable, and coherent with your game if you set about it that way.

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Impossible Architecture

One thing that’s so often frustrating with games is the refusal to play up to the strengths of the medium. We’re bogged down with trying to replicate reality down to the smallest, infinitesimal detail that we forget that we have this huge power to play with. We can create anything, and yet, for the most part, this is ignored. It’s all about getting the grime of an assault rifle right, or making sure that that burned out chassis of a car is rusted in the right parts. That has its place, but it seems that things have gone too far, that there isn’t enough people really pushing things. Look at that image above; it’s concept art, sure, but look at not only the size of that castle, but the complex nature of it. Imagine that in a game. Imagine having to scale its towers, explore the vast halls, its gargantuan throne rooms. Exciting, yeah?

I’ve been working my way through Castlevania: Lords of Shadow over the past week or so, and beyond the solid combat and consistently excellent voicework from Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart, the thing that’s most been sticking with me is the sheer beauty of the game. It takes the macro ideas of God of War and runs with them, forcing them into a Gothic, medieval setting and pushing it further, into something that’s consistently awe inspiring. That castle is just one section of a game filled with so much variety it’s almost too much to keep up with. You start in Teutonic forests, before making your way into vast, ruined cities, seeming to take their inspiration from middle eastern empires. Jerusalem, Persia, the influences are muddied but still clear. A veritable visual feast.

But it’s the scale that sticks with me, that these places are so vast, and intentionally confusing, that quite often navigating them is a mixture of impressive directional nous, and vertigo-inducing platforming. I’m currently navigating my way through what is called the ‘Titan Graveyard’, a poisonous smog-filled desert littered with the detritus of giant, stone golems. They’ve just about retained enough form to remain recognisable as vaguely humanoid, but for the most part it’s just the suggestion of a face, and only then after you’ve been climbing all over it for a few minutes. Impressive stuff.

Then there’s this.

That’s Guild Wars 2. And that’s in game. I’m so, so happy that ArenaNet have actually started making the stunning concept art of Daniel Dociu a reality, or at least a virtual reality. Just look at the size of that fortress; no such thing could exist in real life, and even a film would struggle to replicate the sheer scale of the thing without resorting to miniature or CGI, and even then it’s hardly like it would be completely synonymous with the rest of the world. There’s always a little suspension of disbelief with such effects. With a game world, you’re free to make it as outlandish as you like, because the whole thing is rendered in the same engine.

It’s an interesting comparison to make, really. Games aren’t all that like films, at least live action ones, at least in terms of production. They have far more in common with animation, where the world is created by artists and designers, each part of it conjured up rather than placed there. There’s a reason that animation so often concerns itself with the impossible or the fantastical; live action can’t go to these places, and so animation has a monopoly on it. Howl’s Moving Castle, Wall-E, even something that wouldn’t be too difficult to recreate, like Up!, lends itself to animation purely because of the impression and feel that the style puts forward.

But let’s not limit ourselves to fantasy. There’s always this.

My favourite part of that image is that the impossibly suspended bits of free-running obstacles are attached together like hinges. Like the designers figured that if they were all suspended separate from one another, that’d be a step too far for the player. It’s adorable.

But really, that’s a glorious example of a level artist free from restrictions, even the somewhat loose restrictions of Mirror’s Edge’s world, which was highly stylised in the first place. Now, they’re allowed to just go nuts, creating something that could never exist, and doesn’t even need to make sense. It’s made purely to be played, devoid of story or context, just there, glorious in its isolation. It doesn’t matter how you take it; it doesn’t really care about what you think, just what you can do. Think you can complete the level? Then do it, suspended in the aether, with nothing at all in any direction. Just you and this assortment of impossible blocks.

Which, inevitably, leads you towards something like this.

That’s Fract, a music inspired first person puzzle game from Richard E Flanagan, and it’s more of a visual tour de force than anything else. The integration of music and visuals is powerful regardless, but it’s the levels themselves, and they way they coalesce and pulse that is most striking. It’s obviously inspired by Mendlebrot and the fractals he was so famous for, but it’s certainly its own thing.

So that’s what I’m after. I’m after developers slipping free of the shackles of reality, and creating something a little more impossible. Because this is escapism, and I’d rather not spend 90% of my gaming life escaping to a war zone. Why not come up with something a little more creative, a little more imaginative, and little less slavishly attentive to recreating the intricacies of our world, and instead set about creating one of your own?

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