Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
Join 4 other subscribers
So maybe I wasn't playing video games at birth nor was this blog running 25 years ago, but this is my 25th year too!
2011 was an odd year in games for me. It started out like any other, filled with joy and happiness, and then it was all wrenched away halfway through, thanks to that burglary, until I was able to start replenishing my stores and getting the ball rolling again for the second half.
This list, unlike last year, will cover the games I played most this year, even if they came out several years ago :cough: Team Fortress 2 :cough:. I think it’s better to reflect upon what I put the most game time into, even if it wasn’t new.
Resident Evil 5 – 2011′s 2009 Game of the Year has to go to Capcom’s co-op survival horror epic. I remember the Giant Bomb guys pimping this game super hard, but I ignored them over and over again for nearly two years because I’m not much of a scary games guy. Then the steam sale happened and I wanted something co-op to play with Min and Lee, so I buckled. This game was so good, guys. According to Raptr, I played 57 hours of this guy just cruising through all the levels, S-Ranking each one, finding all the emblems and upgrading all the weapons, and getting every achievement for the first time on a full-sized game. Then I came back and played it all again with David. RE5 may be some of the best bang I got for my buck in 2011.
Batman: Arkham Asylum – I think it’s hilarious that I played both Batman games this year. Make no mistake, Batman: AA is the better game. Tighter story focus, less wandering and rambling around, and that sharp, crunchy combat system that we all love. It almost literally hurts to watch Batman punch people in the face in this game. Lots of fun, even for a guy who doesn’t really like Batman.
Red Dead Redemption – Man, every game that I played in January came out in another year. RDR has a lot of those Rockstar quirks that I hate (incorrigible supporting cast, homicidal ludonarrative dissonance, etc.), but it also has one of the best realized characters in recent video games in its portrayal of John Marston. Horseback riding is fun, lassoing fools is fun, and the story is frustrating (because of the asshole supporting cast), but also solid most of the time. The only thing that really annoyed me was breaking horses every fucking time. Why? It’s not like it was fun to do…
Magicka – 2011′s Game Most Likely to Make You Strangle Your Friends. Ask Min how many times I killed him by striking him with lightning. I never took this game seriously and mostly tried to speed cast lightning. Fun, but the polish wasn’t there. Buggy as all hell. Not to mention that lightning bolt was the only spell worth using…or maybe it was the only spell I knew?
Ghost Trick – I used this game to try and improve/practice my Spanish. It’s lots of fun, quirky, weird, neat, but I never finished it. I thought it wasn’t taken in the burglary, but I’m having trouble finding it now. I want to finish it soon…Pick it up if you have a DS. It’s quirky and fun.
Costume Quest – Picked this up on sale and played it for a few hours. It’s definitely got that Double Fine humor, but it couldn’t hold my interest.
Pixeljunk Shooter 2 – I don’t know why some of the magic was gone with this one. Maybe the new fluids weren’t as innovative or neat? The fluid mechanics remain super awesome and the game is plenty fun on its own, but even more fun with a partner to troll.
Face Raiders – Shooting at Min’s face is the best thing I did with my 3DS before it was stolen.
Pokemon White (Black) – I got David to try a new Pokemon game with this and I’m super proud of that. Gen V brought a lot of really interesting changes to a game that most people feel is flat and unchanging. I had a lot of fun playing it until the momentum was killed with the burglary. When Grey inevitably gets announced I’ll probably buy it.
Game Dev Story – When this finally hit the Android marketplace I was ecstatic. Then I played it and realized it was a competent, but not overwhelming sim. Worth a few bucks.
Borderlands – Another co-op game for Min, Lee, and I to play. Lots of fun even though the story is stupid as hell. Brings out the loot whore in all of us.
Planescape: Torment – Talk about old! Didn’t get anywhere close to finishing this. It seems interesting, but never captures my interest enough to play it for longer than 20 mins.
Portal 2 – This is, bar none, the greatest example of story and comedy narrative laid out in video game form. Portal 2 has just brilliant writing and pacing. Everything from Wheatley to the history of Aperture Science to the origins of GLaDOS is perfectly realized. Then you have the game itself…Portal 2 is not a bad game at all. It’s just not as hard or interesting, with respect to puzzles, as Portal. This was a result of narrowing the possible solution space (story-justified by the decay of the facility, but still) in such a way that it was mostly obvious where portals needed to go, removing that aspect of figuring things out. It’s still probably the best game of this year, but I wish it they hadn’t pared it down as much as they did.
Pro Yakyu Spirits 2011 (Professional Baseball Spirits 2011) – I had a fun, challenging season going with my 2011 Hiroshima Carp before that jerk (those jerks?) came and stole my copy of a Japanese baseball game (in Japanese, mind you!). What were they gonna do with a game in Japanese featuring teams they weren’t even familiar with?! PYS 2011 was a huge step forward from 2010. Home runs may have been a little easier to hit (ok, a LOT easier to hit), but 2011 looked sharper and had enough new, interesting features (the player development was cool) that I was super stoked…until it was all taken away from me. Assholes.
L.A. Noire – I got about 1/5 of the way through the game before someone stole it. I still remember the forensics guy asking me if it was any good. Here’s the thing about L.A. Noire: It’s an adventure game skinned with GTA. Getting anywhere in LA is unsatisfying because driving is a bummer (and property/car damage lowers your rank), the devolution of most cases into shootouts feels a little artificial, and, worst of all, most of the chases (car and foot) let you see how the sausage is made. What I mean is, you can tell that you can’t catch up to a perp before a certain point and you can also see where the game just makes a perp crash or fall intentionally to just let you catch up. The face modeling stuff is super cool (and eerie if you watch Mad Men) and works pretty well minus one or two people. A tremendous achievement, but ultimately a mediocre game.
Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – I’m combining these because I don’t have much I want to say about either. The shooting is good, but the missions are kind of lame. I can see where this might be fun, but it’s also not for me.
inFamous – This was my free mea culpa game from Sony after the big hack fiasco. Decent open world game, but it suffers from being an open world game, in my eyes. The electric powers were fun, but the story was stupid. I don’t regret beating this game or getting it for free. Skating on the rails and then getting hit by a train is awesome.
Shadows of the Damned – I wish I’d taken the time to actually beat this game. It plays exactly like a Resident Evil game, has a super cool aesthetic, kickass soundtrack, and some of the funniest, most Japanese characters I’ve ever seen (come on, Garcia Fucking Hotspur is the greatest character name of the year!). Maybe I’ll beat it in 2012.
Hot Springs Story – From the devs what brought you Game Dev Story we have Hot Springs Story. See the entry above. It’s equally meh to me. I think I just don’t like playing games on my phone.
Torchlight – Gave me my Diablo fix a whole year before I’ll ever see Diablo III (I bet D3 is still not out in 2012). It’s fun and addictive, but it can get a little repetitive after a while. Good for loot whores/junkies.
Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyu 2011 – I got this expecting to have as much fun with it as I did back when it was the only Pawapuro/Konami-style baseball game I could play. In a post (Dan Mesa) PYS world, the simplifications of the engine don’t quite work for me. I need the extra systems that PYS layers on top.
Team Fortress 2 – TF2 has always been good. The addition of large-scale achievements made it even better, but the real tipping point for me was Strange Weapons. Once I learned that there were weapons which tracked the number of kills you had on them…well I couldn’t go back. This year probably saw the most TF2 playing from me since its launch. This game is barely recognizable to what it looked like in 2007. It’s free to play now. It’s got so many new maps and weapons and hats. It’s still the best competitive shooter a person could play right now.
Cahterine – Some people don’t get Catherine. They think the block puzzles are annoying and frustrating and find the whole thing to be stupid, too anime-y, and a waste of time. While Catherine makes a turn right near the end that mucks with its interpretation, it’s still one of the most interesting, adult experiences out there, which isn’t to say that it’s got nudity (none) or sex (none on screen), but, rather, that it deals with a lot of grown-up problems. Vincent’s life is in a rut, he’s being pushed into committing to a woman he’s afraid to commit to, and then he finds an escape in Catherine. I have yet to play a more interesting or convincing game about growing up, taking responsibility, and becoming a man. Catherine forced me to take a hard look at myself, my life, the incidences of cheating that have been in it, and just think about it all. A lot of games don’t do that.
Yakuza 4 – Got maybe two hours in before it was stolen.
Dragon Age II – Man, a lot of people have a lot of beef with Dragon Age 2 and I don’t really get it. Maybe it’s because I came to the game knowing all the complaints that everyone had before I got there, but it’s really not that bad. It “suffers” from the Mass Effect 2-ization of Bioware’s properties, but that’s not all bad. Dragon Age: Origins was bloated, over-long, and caused most people to quit right at the cusp of its climax. The way I see it, there were two things that were glaringly wrong with the game mechanics. First was the way that enemy reinforcements just seemed to pop in out of nowhere, artificially extending every fight and turning them into hyper-frustrating affairs. Keeping things limited to the enemies on-screen would have been vastly preferred. The second big miss was the lack of polish/variety of locations. It was very clear that this game was rushed to market because there were maybe three or four map styles recycled to cover a lot of locations. The minimaps weren’t properly reflecting when doors were shut and it was painfully apparent how much recycling happened. These are not sins worth crucifying the game for. The way that it focuses exclusively on Kirkwall and Hawke’s family is actually a good thing. Rather than be as sprawling as DA:O, it allows for a more personal story. Every relationship in this game is way cooler/most interesting than the ones in DA:O and, arguably, any of the ones in ME2. DA2 gets a lot of shit, but it’s a great game.
Bastion – Considering how much everyone just loves this game I really wish I’d given it a little more time this year. I barely played it, but the narrator was cool and the game seemed neat. I’ve got to beat this in 2012
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – I bought this game to get the pre-order items it came with for TF2. I don’t regret doing so. Played about an hour or two of the game. Haven’t felt compelled to go back yet.
Gears of War 2 – This is the year that Min and I beat GoW1 & 2. It took a long time, but we still managed it. These games are really fun in co-op. Easily among the most fun we had in couch co-op this year.
Gears of War 3 – My GOTY comes down to this or Portal 2. I know I’m way late to the GoW train, but god damn these games are razor sharp. Shooting in this game just feels so right, you know? It’s about as polished and good as a third person shooter can possibly be. Fighting the final boss for two hours because I turned on no ammo drops will be memorable for a long time in a way that I don’t often make memories in video games any more. Thank you, Epic, for this amazing game.
The Binding of Isaac – The second I heard that the dude from Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen, was coming out with a new game, I knew that I would be buying it and that it would be tons of fun. You’ll remember from last year that SMB was the best game I played. The Binding of Isaac is not quite the best of this year, but it is a more realized game than it has any right to be. I mean, the game was $5 at launch, for Christ’s sake, and it featured a free content patch at Halloween. Isaac took 55 hours of my time this year, assuming every one was counted by Raptr, and I anticipate it taking more before I’m done with it. This game is the best $5 you can spend this year.
Galaga Legions DX – Coming off the awesomeness that was Pac-Man CE DX I expected big things from this game. It’s nowhere near as fun, but maybe that’s because Pac-Man is a way more fun game than Galaga ever was.
Batman: Arkham City – I’m pretty sure you already know that I think this game was a major step back from Arkham Asylum. I really don’t think the open world aspects did this game any favors. It’s still got that super-crunchy, razor sharp battle system, but it’s also marred by too many poorly dressed women constantly being called b***hes. This is a game that aggressively pushed me away from it and I was more than happy to be done with it when I was despite being the best thing to happen to brawlers in ages.
Dungeon Defenders – Tower defense made even more fun by allowing us to run around in the environments. I didn’t put in anywhere near as many hours as Min did, but it was fun while I played it.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – Man, Uncharted 2 was fantastic, wasn’t it? Try this new one! It’s a lot like the old one, but with a little less charisma. A little less je ne sais quoi. Despite featuring my favorite video game characters of the modern era, Uncharted 3 was lacking in weird ways that the appearance of the The Last of Us trailer makes clear. Focus was diverted. Glad that we got three of these, but I wish it was as much a step forward as the second one was.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Remember how I wrote that article where I outlined everything I hated about this game? Since I wrote it I played another hour or two and said, “Nope. I don’t want to play this.” Will I ever go back? God, I hope not. It was worth spending $60 to drive in the point that I don’t like Bethesda open world RPGs. Here’s a note to Future Dan: Don’t buy any more Bethesda games, you moron.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – This poor game is being victimized by the launch of The Old Republic. Had TOR not come out there’s not a doubt in my mind that I would be playing the most charming Zelda game since Wind Waker non-stop. Skyward Sword plays sharply and is tons of fun.
Star Wars: The Old Republic – My life has been sucked into this game in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. I can’t believe that there was a time where I was actively thinking about avoiding this game and staying away from MMOs altogether. Bioware did something fantastic here by adding story to a genre that typically lacked it. This game has already rocketed up the charts for total time played and I predict that it will never be usurped based on how much I truly love playing it. I haven’t even finished one story and I’ve still got seven more to go.
JoCo performing an acoustic set
It doesn’t care about second tries
You’re afraid whatever choice you make
Won’t be exactly the right mistake
It doesn’t care about second tries
You’re afraid whatever choice you make
Won’t be exactly the right mistake
Jonathan Coulton’s latest release, Artificial Heart, represents a much larger step that a lot of people might realize. After about eight years of pure solo effort, AH is Coulton’s first effort with a band and produced by someone other than himself. It also breaks with his comfort zone and explores many deeper themes and constants without using the nerdy/comedy song hook that made him internet famous.
To be honest, that’s really the best part of Artificial Heart. People love songs like “Re: Your Brains”, “Skullcrusher Mountain”, and “Code Monkey”, but there have always been greater depths to Coulton’s oeuvre that seemed almost hidden in his back catalog. Artificial Heart hides its comedy/nerdy songs at the tail end, almost as bonus tracks with a haunting rendition of “Still Alive” by Sara Quin, the Coulton version of “Want You Gone”, and the only real clunker on the disc, “The Stache”, a song about, well, mustaches.
The real meat of the album explores Coulton’s professional insecurities, maturing and dealing with the responsibilities of family life, suburban loneliness and despair, and, yes, a silly song in French. I’ll be going into detail, track-by-track, below:
1. Sticking it to Myself
The benefit of the increased production is rocketed right to our ears with this first track. It’s not really miles beyond the complexity of Coulton’s more flashy songs prior to this date, but it feels so much richer than anything that came before. It makes sense for this to be the first track of this new direction Coulton’s taking. It’s brash and loud and Stan Harrison kills on saxophone while Jonathan Coulton himself shreds on electric guitar.
It’s all apt for a sharp statement that Jonathan Coulton refuses to be classified in a specific way. I’m sure the Planet Money profile aired long after this song was done, but I can’t help but hear Coulton’s response in his lyrics.
The references to hostage situations could be interpreted as his perceived shtick holding him back while he also recognizes that said perception was partially created by the music he decided to put out. Still, he still feels that his career is in his own hands.
2. Artificial Heart
Paul and Storm regularly joke about Jonathan Coulton always writing melancholy songs about metaphysical creatures. Both may be true, but my point is that Coulton is a pro at writing the sad song. “Artificial Heart”, like “Not About You”, is a song about a breakup, only it’s a lot more obfuscated than “Not About You”.
His more subtle lyricism is brilliantly at play here in a song that tries to capture the aesthetics of a beating heart. There is a regular and prominent beat throughout the whole thing, but when it all ramps up we’ve got a strong bass drum keeping time.
I’m also rather fond of the piano/keyboard work in this song. It’s a fun song, but I think it’s mid-tier on this album.
One of the few Jonathan Coulton tracks headed by not Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick takes lead vocals here while Coulton harmonizes. Of course, not three tracks into a record I describe as less reliant on geeky topics, “Nemeses” is about a hero trying to get a villain to be his arch-nemesis.
Only it’s deeper feeling than it normally would be. Instead of hovering on the concept like he might have done with humorous lampshade hanging and trope highlighting, Coulton just lets this song be. Roderick’s vocals are smooth and sweet and Coulton’s harmonies add tremendous depth to a song that is as much about a hero who needs a villain as it is about professional jealousy, rivalry, and living up to your potential.
The Japanese seem to almost fetishize the concept of the rival in their anime and video games as a not-necessarily-antagonistic figure who is the motivation and catalyst for realizing your full potential. Here we see something similar in a hero attempting to get the attentions of a villain to make them both better. It’s interesting and I wonder if this is yet another way for Coulton to work out his professional insecurities toward other larger acts as he seeks to grow and expand.
4. The World Belongs to You
On the forefront we have this wonderful song whose main draw is the delicate sounding banjo work about a god whose star has begun to fade as its decisions, ambivalence, and handling has caused his believes to become disillusioned with it.
It’s definitely a stretch, but the themes are also applicable to the kind of meteoric rise to success that some stars have. Their initial success brings them into the spotlight and they can do no wrong. Of course the egomania from fame begins to take shape and while the creative mind of the artist pulls him one way, the demands of the people go another. Our “god” cannot reconcile this with his vision of what is right and sort of writes them off.
“The World Belongs to You” is a really grim and depressing song. I love that Coulton is so skilled at hiding them within really upbeat ditties. The arrangement in here is sparse and delicate, but it doesn’t feel precious. It’s one of the good ones on this album.
5. Today With Your Wife
From the hidden melancholy of “The World Belongs to You” we dive face first into the morose sounding, “Today With Your Wife”. It doesn’t go where you think it might from the title, but it’s more depressing for it.
Even sparser than the last track, this is a pensive piano track. The only other sound, beyond Coulton’s longing voice, comes from brass tones. It creates an empty sound that emphasizes the gap in the situation. Our song narrator is lamenting the fact that someone, probably Coulton, “should have been there” in this nice, soft, touching, close moment he had with his wife.
I see this song as Coulton expressing anxiety over the fact that his touring keeps him away from his home and his family. Being gone so much has to put a strain on them as he is missing these tiny, tender moments. The small moments that really make up real life. It’s touching and sad and precisely the kind of song I love from Jonathan Coulton.
6. Sucker Punch
It’s actually pretty appropriate to have “Sucker Punch” follow “Today With Your Wife” as both deal with responsibility.
“Sucker Punch” is one of those songs that feels obvious on the surface on what it’s about, but I can’t quite see any levels beyond that. It’s a short song, clocking in at under two minutes, and I think it’s about not wanting to grow up, mature, or accept responsibility as everyone else around you does.
There are some neat percussive parts in here that feel more complicated than pre-band Coulton percussion, but not to a highly noticeable one. It’s just the kind of small touch that I feel a dedicated drummer (rather than drum loops) can add.
“Glasses” is another of my favorites on this album. With all the songs about longing for lost loves and suburban depression, it’s good to see a happy song about the people he loves.
It’s not super sweet sounding, since it’s got some hard drumming and guitar work, but it’s sweet in tone. This is a song that celebrates the tiny moments in life and how it’s the tiny things that bring people together, not the grand gestures or moments.
Like I said before, great drums and guitar work in this song and the vocals are sneakily poetic. My favorite section from the song:
“There’s water in the walls
The stairs make waterfalls
Down in the basement the soft sound of a river digging deep”
It’s just a beautiful reflection of the way that water moves and is such a huge element of change, but it’s always so gradual and slow and hidden. Little bits of water able to make rivers able to dig canyons.
8. Je Suis Rick Springfield
This song has got this real lounge singer style to it and it’s perfectly in line with the ridiculous French. I love the xylophone.
I read the English translation of this song and it seems like it may be poking fun at him for the French “Re: Vos Cerveaux”. It’s not meant to be taken that seriously and it’s full of poor French and a hilarious Greek chorus-esque part where the French listeners mock his French. The other great thing about it is that Rick Springfield, assuming he’s talking about the same guy, is Australian, not American.
9. Alone at Home
This song is a lot like “Shop Vac” in its exploration of the vapid, consumer-driven, hidden unhappiness of the American suburban ideal. It’s been done by him and done better thanks to “Shop Vac”‘s haunting news stories in the background.
It’s not a bad song, just not a great one. Got solid band work, just not that interesting to me.
The bass line to this song carries the whole song, but the real beauty comes from the fantastic acoustic work. “Fraud” has a soft sound that belies its message about professional doubt (as I see it).
It’s not the deepest reading of the lyrics, but it certainly seems like it’s about those personal demons that gnaw at you from inside making you think that you’re a fluke and that your success is accidental. Could be that Coulton is making a statement about his doubts in expanding his operation, adding a band, and growing his sound. Is it too coincidental that this song feels most like it could have been an old Coulton song?
“Fraud” has got a great hook in the chorus that I absolutely love. This song ranks among my favorite on the album.
11. Good Morning Tuscon
This feels like the way more happy and mature spiritual sequel to “Code Monkey” in the sense that it’s a song about working and the way that goes, but not in the computer science or romantic way. “Good Morning Tuscon” is a good six years later from “Code Monkey” and the insecurities of youth have given way to a guy who is a lead in his morning show. The protagonist of the song is weary and shocked at how old he’s become, but he’s still able to do his job well. There is a hint of the Coulton melancholy in here too with that line from the chorus:
“I throw to you before I throw the rest away”
It’s definitely a catchy song and I can see why it was one of the first cuts that JoCo released online in advance of the album.
12. Now I Am An Arsonist
“Now I Am an Arsonist” is an absolutely beautiful song that is layered so deep that I can’t quite decipher its meaning. It’s full of imagery about heat, height, flight, construction, and destruction. I mean, it’s pretty much a story of a relationship that didn’t seem to work out with neat shifting perspectives, but, like I said, I can’t quite parse out all of the imagery. I can say that even the somber talk about an astronaut burning up in the atmosphere is absolutely beautiful.
Suzanne Vega does most of the heavy lifting on this song, with JoCo harmonizing and singing only one verse. Her voice is haunting and beautiful, which appears to be the two qualities Coulton is looking for in his duet partners, but that haunting aspect is helped along by sparse instrumentation (ie: little to none). I love this song. I don’t think I get it yet, but I love it.
13. Down Today
Both chipper and bitter, “Down Today” centers around a dude who is rubbing his new relationship in his ex’s face. Rather like “Not About You”, we’ve got contrasting lyrics with Coulton singing about not “coming down”, but all the time that he’s up he’s obsessing about ridding himself of his ex. It’s the kind of contradictory lyric that Coulton does reasonably well and it doesn’t feel that old.
Unfortunately, “Down Today” is stuck between two far better songs so, despite how much I dig this song when I hear it, I rarely remember it compared to “Now I Am an Arsonist” and “Dissolve”
A lot of this album seems to move in phases about similar topics. This relationship phase kind of ends with “Dissolve”. Where “Now I Am an Arsonist” feels like a relationship in progress, but headed toward failure and “Down Today” feels like a guy who has recently ended a relationship, “Dissolve” seems to be long after that relationship has ended. In fact, it appears to end with the character breaking up with a new person. Throughout the song we see how the character has learned from his failed relationship, but that while the changes seem to have made him stronger, he’s not above doing the same thing to someone else.
This song is my favorite one on the entire album. It resonated with me from the first listen onward. Everything about it is so great and I think it’s where the entire band concept congeals best. The bass line is wicked, the drums are hot, the guitars are sharp, and JoCo’s lyrics are perfect. This is the song that makes it happen. I especially love that last verse with its sparse bass and drum portion. So much fun.
15. Nobody Loves You Like Me
The most popular interpretation of this song is about an aging musician dying of throat/lung cancer resulting from too hard a life. It’s supported by the constant references to death, breathing, lungs, even an overt reference to smoking. The theory is even supported by the heavy vocoder use that makes Coulton’s voice sound like it’s coming from one of those throat vocoders for throat cancer patients.
It’s also readable as an embittered lover at the end of a relationship with its references to divorce papers. Let’s just say it’s a nuanced song.
There’s barely any instrumentation aside from the heavy vocal processing and it does create a sad, lonely feeling. It’s a good song, but it feels like it’s over before it starts because of how quickly it moves.
16. Still Alive
This version is sung by Sara Quin whose petite voice contrasts pretty deeply with Ellen McLain’s GLaDOS. There’s spooky theremin work and it makes for a sweeter, but sadder version of the song. Quin doesn’t quite hit the emotional notes as hard as McClain does in the game, but it’s different and good enough that you’ll like listening to it even though you’re probably sick of “Still Alive” by now.
I’m not sure I like Coulton harmonizing in this, but it’s relatively inoffensive. Just feels a little unnecessary and like it’s stronger with only Quin’s voice to guide us.
17. Want You Gone
This is my favorite of the two Portal songs and it’s interesting to hear Coulton’s voice versus McLain/GLaDOS. It’s almost a bummer that it’s from Portal 2, because the elements stand on its own…aside from the Caroline reference.
The instrumentation is almost identical to the game version minus one or two touches that I particularly loved from the original. Still, it’s a good song and I was happy to see the non-game versions on the disc instead. I think “Want You Gone” works better in Coulton’s voice than “Still Alive”, so I’m glad to see that he got Quin for that too.
18. The Stache
My least favorite song on the disc. Maybe I don’t fetishize mustaches enough, but it’s kind of dumb and I don’t like it. The music is fine, but the lyrics are too stupid for me to love.
Ok, ok, it has its moments. It’s not that bad, just not my favorite. That’s why I devised that bonus track idea about the album.
Artificial Heart is a bold step in a new direction for Jonathan Coulton. Purists might not dig the new production or the new direction, but I think it represents tremendous growth for JoCo and I hope to see much more along these lines in the future. Coulton has always been much more than the deceptively simple, geeky songs that made him popular and while I do love those, I’m happy to see him move away from being pigeonholed as a niche performer.
Despite the growing number of female gamers and older gamers, the larger audience in gaming does lie within the 18-35 (or whatever the range is supposed to be), male demographic, which means that games are made primarily for that audience (fortunately (for publishers), most 14-17 year-olds respond to the same marketing techniques). It follows that what comes out of the industry revolves around heavy action and sex appeal. For every indie game that attempts to take a mature look at female sexuality like The Path, there are at least five games where women are two-dimensional characters wearing ridiculous apparel meant to emphasize their unnaturally oversized assets.
Again, it’s not that surprising, right? Sex sells. It starts getting strange when you look at the results of a recent study by Carrie Lynn Reinhard (Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?). The results of the study showed that men prefer to play as more realistically proportioned women when they play games. They’re also more likely to recommend the game to a female friend if the avatar is more realistic. Meanwhile, women are more likely to enjoy playing as hyper-sexualized avatars and more likely to recommend these games to their male friends. It’s definitely not what I’d expect, but it makes sense given the cultural assault on women to be hyper-sexual and the empowerment the might feel, while it seems that playing as a hyper-sexualized female makes a man feel emasculated.
I guess I can kind of support those conclusions, at least with the way that I see other people play online. My entire character selection strategy is primarily geared toward emasculating and embarrassing my opponents. In almost every game where such a choice is available, I will always make my avatar either pink or female (or both) for the simple reason that it riles up the competition when they lose. I think that perfectly sums up most of the gaming landscape: sexist and immature.
Leigh Alexander is fond of saying that the immaturity of the gaming landscape is mostly due to the immaturity of the men who run it. In article she wrote titled “Bang Bang, Is Creativity Dead?” she quotes:
“There is a cycle in game development. People making games usually make games that appeal to themselves, and choose from a narrow set of inspirations — Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Tolkien, World War II, super-hero comics, and a few more. Then, those games appeal to a certain set of fans, and some of those fans will eventually grow up to make games themselves, and those games end up looking like the previous generation, because they were made to please a similar bunch of people. That loop just repeats and stays the same size forever.”
“There is a cycle in game development. People making games usually make games that appeal to themselves, and choose from a narrow set of inspirations — Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Tolkien, World War II, super-hero comics, and a few more. Then, those games appeal to a certain set of fans, and some of those fans will eventually grow up to make games themselves, and those games end up looking like the previous generation, because they were made to please a similar bunch of people. That loop just repeats and stays the same size forever.”
This concept has appeared many times in her work when talking about mature games versus “mature” games. Something like the upcoming Dante’s Inferno game is rated mature because it contains gobs of bloody gore and bare breasts. A game like Mother 3, which is outwardly cartoony in appearance, is actually mature because of the way it deals with death, family, and its themes of community and isolation.
I’m not saying that there’s no place for immaturity in art, but when it’s all your work has to offer, it’s almost insulting to me as an adult gamer. Take Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, released on the Xbox back in 2003. Never mind that calling it “xtreme” is already ridiculous, but the game itself is pandering to an extreme degree. The most clear cut goal in the game is to raise the friendship levels of the beach volleyball teams so that you can give your partner as revealing a bathing suit as possible to wear. I was 17 when this game came out and even then I was too old to be amused by such obvious attempts to catch my attention.
The first great hope that we were making progress came in Valve’s 2004 epic, Half-Life 2. Not only was Alyx Vance a smart, capable sidekick to the mute Gordon Freeman, she was realistically proportioned, wore jeans, only barely showed her midriff, had no cleavage showing, and donned a jacket that covered her arms to her elbows. To this day Valve continues to render its female characters in a realistic fashion. Chell, of Portal fame, was also not sexualized and Zoey and Rochelle, the two female leads in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, respectively, are also both modestly attired and realistically proportioned, but Valve is in the minority in this industry.
Also in the minority in the industry are women with positions of power. Video game development is unsurprisingly male-dominated (I say unsurprisingly because, in my experience, most computer scientists are men), but there are a few relatively famous women with positions of power. The first really famous woman I can think of is Jade Raymond of Ubisoft. I know I’m about to be super unfair, but Jade Raymond is known more for being hot than for her roles at Ubisoft. I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed, so I can’t really speak to its quality, but, despite her role as producer of the game, I couldn’t help but feel that Ubisoft was using Jade Raymond as the face of the game for more insidious purposes. I know that almost every video I saw where she was talking about the game was filled with immature comments by viewers about how good looking she is. Again, my statements are not saying anything about how good she is at her job. She’s clearly great at it, since she’s been named president of Ubisoft Toronto,but the immaturity of the medium has prevented some from really taking her seriously.
The other famous woman I can think of (probably because I’m such a fan of her work) is Amy Henning, the Creative Director at Naughty Dog. It makes sense that Jade Raymond has a wiki page, but Amy Hennig doesn’t, yet I feel that Amy Hennig has done way more for women’s portrayal in gaming than Jade Raymond has simply because of the characters that Amy Hennig has created for the Uncharted series.
Like Valve, Naughty Dog’s female characters are strong, confident, and able to take care of themselves. Nathan Drake, the star of the series, does have to rescue them from time to time, but both Chloe and Elena are more than able to handle themselves in the face of danger and both have saved Drake a fair number of times as well. While it is true that Chloe is a more sexualized character thanElena, she’s neither a ridiculous piece of eye candy nor a woman who trades exclusively on her sex appeal to get what she needs. It’s almost incidental that she’s hotter than Elena and, no doubt, a creative choice meant to emphasize Drake’s character arc in the second game as he is forced to choose between being selfish or doing the right thing.
It’s clear through the many interviews and videos of Amy Hennig I’ve heard/seen that she was the driving force behind forcing the moderate and respectful portrayal of women in the Uncharted series. No longer content to continue to watch women being objectified and marginalized in her medium, she was a vocal supporter of the idea that people will still like these games and characters even if they’re not all T&A. To her credit, I’ve never heard anything but praise for the characters of the Uncharted world. T&A or no, I still get hits on my blog on a daily basis looking for dirty pictures of Elena and Chloe. Could it be that men are just as happy with women who are real too? Does everything about a video game have to be a ridiculous empowerment fantasy?
I’m hopeful that the maturation of the field will yield more Zoeys and Elenas and fewer Lara Crofts and Bayonettas (new game set to come out this year focused entirely on the lead character’s sex appeal). It’s not that every game has to have realistic characters, I mean the men of Gears of War are no more realistic than Lara Croft in their own way,not to mention that even popular, respected, mature mediums feature plenty of shallow characters, but it would be nice to start seeing real people in our games.
You may notice some games that are missing from this list and are on every other list. Well, I didn’t play everything because I didn’t have the time or the money, so that accounts for some of the big misses like Pyschonauts or Resident Evil 4. Other games are deliberately omitted :cough: HALO :cough:
This list is also way long, but I didn’t want to limit myself to an arbitrary number like 10 or 20, so here it is:
Half-Life 2 (2004, 2006 – Episode 1, 2007 – Episode 2)
There are two divergent paths for shooters in the aughts. Halo and Half-Life. In the first corner you’ve got everything on the consoles since then: Regenerating health, aim assist, silly physics, and general jackassery. In the better corner you’ve got everything that’s come out of Half-Life and the Source engine: more realistic weaponry, realistic physics, and a much better legacy. Say what you will about the future of shooters and the PC market being antiquated, but this is a damn good shooter. I’d call it the best I’ve ever played. Valve has completely mastered the art of environmental storytelling and player manipulation. They can make you look where they want you to look and feel what they want you to feel all without ever wresting control from the player or relying on cutscenes. This game has brilliant pacing and amazing characters that you actually care about. Who’s ever heard of an NPC sidekick that you don’t hate? H-L 2 and its episodes are among the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Rock Band 2 (2008)
Ok, so rhythm games are kind of saturated now, but Rock Band 2 is the pinnacle (only because The Beatles: Rock Band doesn’t let players bring their dlc in) of music gaming. It hits at just the right sweet spot, four players, and its filled with music from all kinds of genres. Better yet, the interface and note tracking isn’t sloppy like that other franchise and it’s a fantastic way to get people together for a fun time and even grow as a person. It’s probably the game I’ve played the most since 2008 and a ridiculously fun time.
Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
There are a lot of Valve games on this list. The Left 4 Dead series is on it because it has done cooperative, first-person multiplayer right in a way I’ve yet to see done better elsewhere. Everything about these games is top notch, tons of fun, and worth returning to time and time again. Beyond the mechanics, the games also feature great environmental storytelling and fantastic voice acting putting it at the top of my list for the best games of the past two years. Zombies may be getting old, but this series will always feel fresh.
Jonathan Blow didn’t revolutionize video gaming when he released Braid last summer. What he did do was bring indie games (and XBL games, in general) firmly into the spotlight for consideration. A self-funded and self-made game, Braid proved that one man (and one hired artist) could still create a top-notch, professional caliber game. Braid is deep and complex and tons of fun to play, especially when you’ve figured out a tricky puzzle.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
OBJECTION! This game should be higher on the list. Overruled, this list has no numerical ordering.
The Japanese sensation that brought visual novels and a resurgence in adventure games to America may have a niche audience and play real loose with the legal system of the real world, but it’s tons of fun. Just think quirky anime and you’ll get the idea of what playing this game is like. It just feels right to present a damning piece of evidence while Phoenix screams OBJECTION!
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
I have yet to beat Shadow of the Colossus, but I absolutely love what I’ve played so far. Ueda is among the genius game designers in how well he understands presentation. The game world feels absolutely empty, as it should. All you come across, as the player, are the giant Colossi and man, they are wild. Each one is a dungeon/level to itself and the player is tasked with taking them down to save his love. But what have these giants done to you? Each one I take down makes me feel sad inside and a little empty. I usually find myself thinking What have I done? What did he ever do to me? The best art makes you think.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
I had my choice of any Final Fantasy game between 9 and 12 for this spot, but I really couldn’t go with anything but the best. X was definitely a close second, but there are just so many things that XII did right in its evolution of the series that I couldn’t pick anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with the world of Ivalice, but everything about this game just grabs me in a way I hadn’t been grabbed since VI. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being assaulted by too many belt buckles and leather by Nomura. It was probably because the story was mature, the characters way less annoying than before, and the battle system was finally revamped and moved into the 21st century. In any case, the best FF game of the decade.
Portal really does everything right. The game gets you acquainted with its mechanics quickly, gets you doing neat things with them right away, and then finishes up with a climactic and cool boss fight all comfortably within the span of 5-8 hours, if you’re slow. With mechanics and dialogue that are beyond brilliant, the only thing that could make this great game better would be to give it a hilarious end credit song penned by Jonathan Coulton. Oh wait, you’ve gone and done that already, haven’t you Valve? Bravo.
Burnout Paradise (2008)
Realistic racing games are kind of boring to me. Until Burnout Paradise, I would have said that I only enjoyed Mario Kart games, and those were starting to wear on me too. Then Criterion put out the first open-world racing game (that I can think of). Burnout Paradise would be tons of fun if all we had to do was run into walls and other cars. The fact that the game is so easy to get online and play (and purchasable as a digital download on the PSN) is brilliant and makes for tons of fun.
Mass Effect (2007)
Shepard. Wrex. It’s brilliant. It really is. Hard science fiction is always tons of fun to me, but when you go and flesh out this world to the nth degree, you’ve got me drooling already. Add in characters I genuinely cared about and enjoyed having in my party and a morality system that was finally free of cheap moral choices and I’d say that Bioware had a genuine hit on their hands. I anxiously await the sequel in January.
Eternal Darkness (2002)
I’m really not a big scary games guy. It’s simple: I’m too jumpy and I’ve got an overactive imagination. Those things don’t combine to make a pleasant gaming experience. Now you want me to play a game that’s actively trying to mess with my head to freak me the hell out? I’d normally say “No thanks,” but I was eventually convinced to try this Lovecraftian horror game and I found myself loving it. The plot is interesting and the characters are neat, but the insanity effects are what stick with me to this day. I can still see that image of Alex lying dead in a bathtub filled with her own blood when I think about it and it still gives me the chills.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
You know what? I really loved the old-school Mario games. Those 3D ones are way too easy. This game does it right. What makes it even more awesome is that you can play it with four dudes, making it both infinitely harder and easier while also making it more fun and frustrating. Use the multiplayer mode at your own risk, it may start fights.
Rhythm Heaven (2009)
Scratch-O, HA! The Rhythm Heaven (Paradise in Europe) series is loosely based on the bizarre Wario world, which is totally obvious after three minutes of play, which is great, because that series is brilliant (if stale by now) too. This game features simple rhythm mini-games, but man are they fun AND catchy. As I write this I’ve got the Moai statue song stuck in my head. Go play this.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, Subsistence – 2006)
I love this game. MGS 2 may be the biggest practical joke (and most significant of the four), but this is undoubtedly the best. The epic cycle of the Metal Gear universe is made clear in this game that does its best to subvert war in every way possible. I do truly find it significant that in a Cold War game focused on stealth action, you can make it through from start to finish without killing one person. Well, almost. Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost heartbreaking when you play it non-violently and the ending still has a strong effect on me to this day. Definitely Kojima’s finest work.
World of Warcraft (2004)
I would give anything to get the time I spent playing this game back, but I definitely can’t deny how truly great it is. We’re talking about a bona fide phenomenon here. The absolute refinement of social engineering to such a degree that escape is nearly futile. Blizzard has truly outdone itself with this one.
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
What a surprise, more Valve. The Orange Box was a groundbreaking offering in value and Team Fortress 2 continues to be a huge part of that. I bought this game at launch back in 2007. Since then they have added achievements for nearly every class, new weapons for nearly every class, new game types and maps, hats, and an item crafting system. I’ve never seen so much free support for a game in my life. It’s no reason that Valve is my favorite developer of all time. They really know how to treat their customers and put out a great game.
The Sims 2 (2004)
Yes, I did create Sims of my friends and family. You’d better believe I killed some of them, turned one into a vampire, another into a werewolf, one into a zombie, and bargained with death to revive another. The Sims certainly don’t feel as relevant as they did at the start of this decade, but man were they a success and tons of fun. Sure, I should feel a little guilty that I spent so much time in what amounts to a digital dollhouse, but I really don’t. It was fun.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
If you don’t think that this is the best in the series, you’re wrong and you’re clinging to the past. Tons of characters, great level design, fantastic music, and all the right refinements to the battle system are what makes this great. The fact that I can listen to Snake Eater or the Love Theme from Mother 3 is just icing on the cake.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)
The band never really saw much mainstream success. “Hey Driver” was their most popular song and actually made it into some video games, movies, and got some airtime, but they broke up only moderately more famous than they were when they were first signed.
Five Iron Frenzy
Notable Album: The End is Near/Here (2003)
As a primarily ’90s act, I was hesitant to include FIF in my list of my favorite music of the aughts, but their musical swan song had a major effect on my musical development, so I couldn’t rightly leave them out. Beyond just the CD, Five Iron Frenzy’s farewell tour, Winners Never Quit, was the first time I recognized that a live show was well worth attending. Before that I’d seen music live a few times and listened to a live CD here or there, but found them to be sub par. I was annoyed that the songs varied from the usual pace and intricacies of the album version and seemed to have lower quality. It all changed that night.
The small, intimate club atmosphere put me up close with fans for the first time (my previous concerts had been mega-stadium deals) with a band playing an emotional final tour. I also learned the best part about a live show: the new ways in which a band mixes up their music. I got to listen to the amazing FIF Medley (also on The End is Here), which, aside from it luckily being on a CD, I probably would never hear again. Ever since that night in Orlando, concerts became a part of my musical experience and the effect that FIF had on me is apparent when you realize how much of my music is upbeat, uptempo, and filled with brass sections. They may not be the best band on this list, but they’re one of the most important ones.
Notable Albums: The Resignation (2003), …And the Battle Begun (2006), Mandala (2009)
I didn’t realize what I got when my friend Daniela gave me a copy of The Resignation for Christmas back in 2004. We listened to it and she brilliantly pinpointed “Mastering the List” as my favorite track on the CD, but I didn’t get just how good the CD was for two years, a testament to how music tastes can drastically change over short periods of time. When I finally started listening in earnest in 2006, I think the best adjective to describe the experience was revelatory.
Of all the bands on this list, I think I’ve gone on and on about the Bandits the most on this blog and for good reason. They are talented, their music is rich and full, their lyrics are pretty solid, if not a little too hippie, and their dedication to an organic sound seems unparalleled in today’s overproduced soundscape. If there’s one album on this post that you choose to listen to, it should be …And the Battle Begun. It’s my favorite album of all time (as of 2009) and I don’t think there’s a single stinker on the whole disc.
Their best songs are “Mastering the List”, “Never Slept So Soundly”, “Decrescendo”, “In Her Drawer”, “Only for the Night” (my favorite on the list), “Tainted Wheat”, “White Lies”, and “Mientras la Veo Soñar.”
If there was one criticism I’d have for the band, it’s that they got rid of their horn section between …And the Battle Begun and Mandala. It doesn’t mean there’s no more brass in their newer work, it just means that it’s no longer a regular part of the band. Shame that they’re losing it, but they claim it has allowed them to open up and improve their song complexity.
Notable Album: Mmhmm (2004)
When I think of my freshman year at Cornell, American Idiot and Mmhmm are the soundtrack that plays in the background. I listened to both CDs many times on my way too and from the townhouses and the engineering quad, not to mention through my computer’s speakers. Mmhmm represents the transition from Relient K from a slightly niche, Christian music band to a more popular, mainstream act with its understated message (it seems that they returned to their more obvious Christian references with Five Score and Seven Years Ago) and their sound had matured to the best I’d heard since their debut album.
The album is full of some great songs, but my personal favorites are “High of 75″, because it cheered me up in the miserable Ithaca weather, “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend”, because I love sappy love songs, and “Which To Bury, Us or the Hatchet?”, because it resonated with my seriously rocky and messed up relationship at the time. Beyond that, the rest of the album is also great, but I can’t just list all the tracks now, can I?
Notable Albums: Who Killed…… The Zutons? (2004), You Can Do Anything (2008)
This one comes straight from my old high school friend Michelle. A fan of the quirky, indie scene, she recommended that I check out this band of Liverpudlians and I was not disappointed. You almost can’t go wrong with me if you’ve got brass or a saxophone in your band and The Zutons have one saxophonist adding her own distinct flavor to their already distinct rock grooves. Their music is unique and just great to listen to, especially when you get Abi Harding’s voice harmonizing with Dave McCabe’s on a lot of their numbers and the band’s sound has improved greatly from Who Killed on to You Can Do Anything. Their best songs, “Pressure Point”, “Havana Gang Brawl”, “Valerie”, “You Could Make The Four Walls Cry”, “Put A Little Aside”, and “Freak” are all so different, but all so much fun to listen to, even if they’ll probably never get any airtime stateside.
Notable Album: Oh No (2005)
There’s a reason the phrase “sophomore slump” is part of the vernacular and it’s not often that a band not only releases a far superior second album, but does so with a significant change in sound. At a live show I saw them play at Cornell, OK Go outright stated that they were going for a safe, pop sound on their first album to try and appeal to the masses. Listening to it yields some decent tracks, but otherwise, I’d be inclined to agree. It’s cautious and it probably got them a record deal, but it’s not great. In three years, they turned around, completely matured their sound, and launched one of my favorite albums of the decade, Oh No. Almost everyone has heard “Here It Goes Again” or seen the treadmill video and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a person who would rather listen to “Get Over It.” They got that much better.
While I’m mentioning the videos, it’s also worth mentioning that Oh No also represents a creative turn for the band with it’s quirky, interesting, low-budget, high awesomeness music videos. “Do What You Want” has a more typical look, but “Here It Goes Again” and “A Million Ways” have hilariously awesome and indie videos a tradition they’ve melded with budget to create their newest video for “WTF”, which you already know I love. I don’t think that the viral video approach to music videos will take over the industry, but I don’t think you can say that they didn’t start something big with their Youtube-released video.
The whole album is pretty solid, but I’d also like to point out “Oh Lately It’s So Quiet” and “Let It Rain” as great tracks (beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned). They’re two of the slower, more contemplative ones, but they just feel right to listen to.
Fall Out Boy
Notable Albums: From Under the Cork Tree (2005), Folie à Deux (2008)
Yeah, they’re not the greatest band in history, but they’ve got some seriously catchy songs that I can’t help but enjoy. If their songs don’t make your toes tap, I’d seriously question whether or not you have a soul. FOB finally managed to break mainstream with their sophomore album, a CD filled with a neat take on pop and rock that’s just complex and different enough to pique my interests and just safe enough to be ok with the average Joe. Since then FOB continues to push into strange boundaries with its music borrowing from tons of genres and recording some solid tracks. I may not agree with their single selection (:cough: “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” SUCKS :cough:), but I’d say that 80-90% of their albums are filled with great tracks.
My favorites: “The Take Over, the Breaks Over”, “Hum Hallelujah”, “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, a Little More “Touch Me”", “7 Minutes in Heaven (Atavan Halen)”, “She’s My Winona”, “Headfirst Slide into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet”, and “20 Dollar Nose Bleed”.
Notable Album: Live at Stubb’s (2005)
I had the chance to see Matisyahu my freshman year at Cornell, but I had no idea who he was. The posters were up one day advertising a Hasidic Jew singing reggae and so I chuckled and went on with my day. Little did I know that a year later I’d hear a track from his live album in my ex’s brother Bobby’s car and fall in love with his brand of religious reggae. That’s the catch, of course, if Jewish-themed music offends you, Matisyahu is not for you. Then again, aside from allusions to scripture, isn’t reggae really all about peace and love? Matisyahu’s music may be about the Old Testament God, but its a celebration of love, life, and peace that will undoubtedly make you smile. My favorite songs by Matisyahu are “King Without a Crown”, “Aish Tamid”, and “Chop ‘Em Down”
Notable Album: Wolfmother (2006)
Ever feel like the days of classic rock are gone? You must not be listening to Wolfmother. We’re talking straight up 1970s, Satan’s music here. From their ridiculous throwback album covers to the solid guitar solos, these guys clearly never gave up on the past and they want to bring it to the youth of today. They sound so classic that I didn’t notice for months after playing their songs in Guitar Hero II and Rock Band that the year was post 2000. If you’re ever craving a true hard rock sound, look these guys up. They’ll rock your socks off.
Best songs: “Woman”, “Joker & the Thief”
Notable Album: Light Grenades (2006)
I know what you’re thinking. Incubus, really? Yes, really. Light Grenades was a solid album. Their best work in the decade, really. I happen to really love “Dig”, “Light Grenades”, “Anna Molly”, and “Paper Shoes”. It’s my list, leave me alone.
Notable Albums: Keasbey Nights (2006), Somewhere in the Between (2007)
Probably my favorite ska act and one with kind of an ugly history. If you’ve ever heard of Catch-22, you’ve probably heard their most famous album, Keasbey Nights (1998) and the vocals of Tomas Kalnoky. At some point Kalnoky and the rest of the members had a major falling out and the band mostly split up. Kalnoky started up Streetlight Manifesto and the band gained notoriety quickly while Catch-22 morphed into a new band, but still played Kalnoky’s old songs from Keasbey Nights. Things were pretty dicey and ugly for a time too, because the bands traded lyrical jabs on their subsequent albums and, eventually, it seems that Kalnoky decided it was worth re-recording one of the seminal albums of third-wave ska, hence the Streetlight Manifesto edition of Keasbey Nights. As the owner of both editions of the album, let’s just say that the extra time and money made an already good album great. Kalnoky’s music work in Streetlight is sharp, the horns are solid and the guitars are great, creating a sound that you can’t help jamming to. Their best work comes out in “Riding the Fourth Wave”, “Keasbey Nights”, “Would You Be Impressed”, and “Somewhere in the Between”. Ska can be hit and miss, I know that most people don’t like it, but you’ve gotta check these guys out, they’ve refined the genre to its best.
Notable Album: Costello Music (2006)
The UK makes the list again with Scottish rock band The Fratellis. Their music is so full of energy and that unique, intangible British music quality that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the band after playing their songs in Rock Band for the first time. “Henrietta”, “Chelsea Dagger”, and “Ole Black ‘n’ Blue Eyes” are my favorites from the disc, but there are plenty more where that came from with a mix of wild rock and slower, British-sounding songs to break up the beat and calm the heartbeat. A band definitely worth checking out.
Jarabe de Palo
Notable Album: Adelantando (2007)
I’ve listened to a lot of Spanish music in my lifetime. It’s a byproduct of my heritage, but most of what got airtime when I was a kid was salsa, merengue, the occasional bachata, and (nowadays) reggaeton. While they’re all plenty fun genres to listen to, there’s not a whole lot of innovation to be found in the strict confines of their musical definitions. Then Daniela went and introduced me to yet another great band, Jarabe de Palo. They’re not what you’d call typical Latin music, in fact because they’ve gone and formed a rock band and it’s actually not half bad. It’s actually pretty common to see other countries try and adopt American musical styles, but the results are usually pretty ghastly. Thankfully, Jarabe de Palo avoids this common shortcoming of foreign rock and is actually some pretty great music. His best tracks (that I know) are “Me gusta como eres”, “Dejame vivir”, and “Estamos prohibidos”.
Notable Albums: Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow (2004), Thing-a-Week 1-4 (2006)
In 2007 I played a game by Valve called Portal. Aside from being one of the best games in the history of gaming, it also featured one of the greatest songs in gaming at the end, “Still Alive”. That same Christmas, my ex-girlfriend’s brother (he makes a reappearance) showed me a youtube video of Coulton playing “RE: Your Brains”. Both were great, but in the hustle of the season, I failed to take notice of Coulton until about April or May of 2008. On a whim, I decided to check out Coulton’s work and bought his entire collection off of his website without listening to most of it. That day I took notice of the greatest Internet folk sensation to ever grace the web. Coulton’s music is mostly nerdy love songs and he himself has claimed that he needs to make an effort to write fewer melancholic love songs, but he’s also got songs about completely random things, like a tall tale about baseball’s first commissioner and how he dealt with the Black Sox Scandal, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (in a song appropriately titled “Kenesaw Mountain Landis”) or one about the trials and tribulations of being a clown (“Bozo’s Lament”). Perhaps his greatest undertaking was his Thing-a-Week challenge, where he took it upon himself to write and produce one song every week, which actually produced some of his most famous songs like “RE: Your Brains” and “Code Monkey”.
Other than the songs I’ve already mentioned, my favorites include “Screwed”, “Skullcrusher Mountain”, “Madelaine”, “Mandelbrot Set”, and “When You Go”, but I could list 10 or 20 more songs that are just as fantastic. Even better is that Coulton is all about Creative Commons and he understands the internet. He’s got an option to pay him some cash if you’ve already stolen his music and he’s more than happy to let you remix it or use it however you want, so long as you credit him. He’s truly a product of the Internet and a great musician to boot.
2007/2008 also brought two big concepts that changed the way I dealt with music and time. One thing, podcasting, is arguably not music, but it’s audio-related, so it’s worth mentioning. Before I had an iPod, I occasionally walked around campus with a CD player, but I mostly didn’t listen to much at all. After I got one and started getting podcasts, the way that information was relayed to me made a fundamental change and now I was learning about all of my hobbies and passions during my dead time walking around campus (and driving to work once I graduated). It’s pretty amazing to see that in a few short years which podcasts I’ve settled on and which ones I’ve moved on from as I struck a balance between too much (and a diminished ability to listen to anything but podcasts) and too little.
The other major musical revolution of the decade was the rise of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I first played Guitar Hero back in the summer of 2007 and I immediately fell in love. When word started to trickle in about Rock Band, I was initially skeptical, since I believed it to be a knockoff (I later learned that it was the true evolution of the series put forward by the true innovators behind the magic, Harmonix), but I eventually came around and pre-ordered the special edition for my xbox. That game meant a lot to me and it even changed some fundamental things about me. It’s also been one of the best ways for me to gain access to new music and has widened my musical tastes considerably.
Back to bands!
Notable Album: Dawn Metropolis (2009)
I get why people might be skeptical about chiptunes. It’s 8-bit music coming out of retro sound chips and nine times out of ten, people use it to just remix video game music. Imagine my surprise when I read an article about Anamanaguchi on Kotaku by Leigh Alexander detailing how this Brooklyn band was making great strides. Their music is top notch and stands out from the crowd because they don’t just play a 1985 NES, they’ve also got a drummer, guitarist, and bassist thrown in there. The music may take its cues from some of the conventions set forth by the game composers of the 1980s, but their music is completely original and super catchy.
My favorites: “Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues”, “Tempest, Teamwork, Triumph (at Sea)”
Notable Albums: サンボマスターは君に語りかける (Sambomaster is Talking to You) (2005), 僕と君の全てをロックンロールと呼べ (Call everything that we (you and I) are ‘Rock n’ Roll’) (2006)
What’s an article on this blog without some sort of tim rogers mention? It was this year that I read “changing the world in japanese” on his blog LargePrimeNumbers, a treatise on rock music, Japan, and, most importantly, how Sambomaster was one of the most important bands playing in Japan. Listening to the track he had posted on that article, Romanized as “Sono Nukumori ni Yō ga Aru”, I saw precisely what he was saying and became an instant Sambomaster fan. From that sandpaper, gravely voice to the emotion that is so obviously apparent through the language barrier, Sambomaster’s music speaks to a deep part of me. The guitars are stellar and interesting, the drumlines are solid, and Takashi Yamaguchi’s vocals just resonate and feel so right.
My favorite story about the band is that I’d actually heard their music back in 2005 as the fifth opening to the Naruto anime. I had no idea what the band was called or what the song was, but when I heard it, I immediately called it my favorite opening of the series and filed it in the back of my mind. Imagine the joy that returned to me when I was reading about Sambomaster on tim’s site and I downloaded and listened to “Sono Nukumori ni Yō ga Aru”. As I recognized Yamaguchi’s distinct vocals and guitar style, I immediately began researching whether or not the same group was responsible. I was right and I’ve been smiling about the band ever since.
Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.
Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:
Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation
Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!
Wow, we’ve finally made it to the last week of my all-stars feature! Beginning back in November of 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360, this generation has seen some of the biggest shifts and changes that the industry has ever seen. Again, starting with the 360, consoles finally began to be a match for the PC market with online matchmaking services rivaling the best on the PC drawing gamers to the consoles in droves, depleting the once very robust leader in innovation and technology’s user base. Not a group to sit on its haunches, Valve re-invigorated the PC market with its Steam platform, a release and matchmaking mechanism that has recently started to rival Xbox Live in terms of functionality.
The PS3 launched about a year after the 360, promising much, but struggling to deliver any worthwhile software for a full year after launch. Its online service also leaves much to be desired, with no cross-game integration to help it out, it pales in comparison to XBL, even though it is free.
The greatest shift in gaming has come from the revolutionary Nintendo Wii and the Big N’s “Blue Ocean” strategy. Nintendo, understandably weary of being in last place for the last two generations, decided to take their console in a totally different direction, emphasizing the casual through an accessible control mechanism, affordable system, and lighter gameplay fare. While their strategy has succeeded, selling out systems each and every month and given them a greater install base than the Xbox 360, even with a full year’s delay in launch dates, many a “hardcore” gamer feels like Nintendo has forgotten about them with their new strategy.
The brilliance of this strategy has caused many a developer shift as both Microsoft and Sony attempt to develop motion sensitive controls to mimic the Wii and the huge blockbuster game releases of last gen start to tone down some of their production values in favor of appealing to the mass market. Minigame compilations flood the market as countless companies try to tap into the previously unreachable markets. Most find failure as Nintendo continues to milk dollars out of the Nintendo DS and Wii, causing concern for third party developers on both systems.
While the music gaming phenomenon technically began last generation, both Harmonix and Activision have enjoyed unprecedented success with their Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. It seems that music gaming is one of the next big things, with Activision basically saturating the market with GH products and Harmonix releasing track packs every week to expand the already robust playlist of the party-friendly Rock Band.
Yes, the new generation has advanced gaming by leaps and bounds, with the 2007 holiday season being one of the best gaming history has seen in a long time, but the new generation has also drawn new lines; created new schisms. All of a sudden the terms “hardcore” and “casual” have divided a once unified user base. Nintendo’s radical decision to eschew high definition graphics in exchange for cost-effectiveness has split third party developers who now have to choose to develop for the HD systems or the system with the highest rate of ownership, but smallest attach rate (average number of games owned). Many claim that this will be a long one, unlike last generation, since Nintendo has proven that low-tech can still bring innovation and sales. All I know is that it’s still early and it’s still anyone’s ball game. The slow start of the PS3 is turning out to have been a slow boil while the 360 is looking like a flash in the pan as it peters out. Nintendo’s massive onslaught of sales still hasn’t even shown signs of slowing down, baffling everyone who said it was just a fad. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out when the dust settles, but until then, I’ve been enjoying some great games. Let’s take a look:
This first game revolutionized the gaming world last year by proving that a cohesive, well-thought out, well-written, but incredibly short game can top a robust 20 hour experience simply through the power of brilliant game-design, hilarious dialog, and a little bit of cake. Yeah, it’s Portal.
Many of you know the story of how Portal came to be developed at Valve, but for those of you who don’t, here goes:
Up in Washington there exists a game design school called DigiPen. Since Valve is a Washington-based company as well, they tend to send people to check out the work done by students to find potential new hires and ideas. Cue Narbacular Drop, a project by students that featured the portal jumping gameplay we know and love in Portal. The story goes that someone from Valve saw the brilliant idea, brought them over to Valve headquarters to show Gabe Newell, and Newell hired them all on the spot, which was a brilliant move on his part.
Portal is a shining beacon of game design because it does everything that it sets out to do perfectly. It’s just the right length, has just the right amount of humor, has just the right difficulty curve, etc. Valve takes forever to produce games, we all know this, but Portal proves that our patience is definitely worth something.
There’s not really much else to say about this brilliant game, it has to truly be experienced to be understood as the masterpiece that it really is. Go out and buy it, seriously…it’s only like $20 on Steam
Here’s the ending credits, complete with the super-famous “Still Alive.” DO NOT WATCH IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME!
International “Still Alive”!:
My #2 game would actually make a better Indiana Jones movie than the abysmally stupid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It currently tops my most anxiously awaited sequel list based on the promise of another adventure with its hilarious and cool protagonist. Last clue: the PS3-exclusive company that produces these games seems to have an affinity for main characters sharing the same name that starts with ‘N’. These obscure hints may lead you to realize that I’m talking about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
#2 Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
I bet you didn’t realize that the best action movie of 2007 was actually a video game. Uncharted follows Nathan Drake, supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake, as he searches for the hidden treasure of El Dorado throughout the South Pacific. Joined by his partner Sully and the requisite sassy reporter Elena (yet another example of a restrained female character design that is STILL cool despite not having huge knockers. Take that sophomoric game designers!) Drake faces off against a plethora of pirates and puzzles as he discovers the dastardly secret of Drake’s fortune.
It sounds pulp-y, but that’s the point. Uncharted is the first time I’ve ever played a video game and thought “Well, this could actually be a movie without very much changing about it at all.” Play it and you’ll get the same impression. Voice acting is superb, the story is pretty cool, there is very real chemistry between characters, and the game just looks beautiful. Along with MGS4, this is one to show off your HDTVs to your friends. (Quick MGS note: I haven’t beaten MGS4, so it’s not eligible for this list).
Gameplay is pretty simple and mostly revolves around third-person shooting coupled with a cover system a la Gears of War. This part does get a little old sometimes as enemies continue to spawn at some points, but it’s well-done enough to not be too tiring. There’s also some platforming tossed in as you explore ruins that feels very satisfying. In fact, a great deal about what makes Drake such a cool protagonist stems from the fluidity of his movements both in combat and exploration. The way that he jumps from ledge to ledge, stumbling as he lands gives you that all important “Yeah, I think I could do that” feeling that makes up a successful everyman protagonist.
If you’ve never even seen Uncharted before, go rent it or buy it or come over my house. I’ll let you try it out.
E3 2007 Trailer;
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my #1 game of the current generation. My choice may surprise you, but I think that at the end of the day, it has to be number one based on how much time I’ve put into it compared to any other game in my entire library. There’s no good way to hint at it, so I’ll come out and say that my top game of this current generation (so far) is Rock Band.
#1 Rock Band
Rock Band and I had a strangely hostile relationship when I first learned of it. Not being as well-versed in video game news as I am nowadays, back then I had no idea that the original developers of Guitar Hero II were behind RB, I just saw that someone else was trying to make a music game and that it was really, really expensive. As a fake-guitar player, I also didn’t quite see the allure of drums or vocals.
That all changed when I started to see footage of both games and learn about the pedigree of both series. Concerns began to crop up in my mind as GH3 coverage showed the game design to be stagnant, note charts a bit asinine and arbitrarily hard, and art style to be ridiculously ugly. This was also about the same time that I learned of the very ugly breakup between Harmonix and Red Octane and EA/MTV’s partnership with Harmonix. There was an immediate shift at that point where I realized that I was siding with the wrong company and antiquated game design. The music game future lied with Rock Band, its new digital distribution system, and four instruments.
As a quick aside, I actually actively hate Activision and the GH franchise over stupid stunts like this one. There’s no reason why they should have screwed over PS3 GH3 owners who just wanted to be able to use the same guitar peripherals over both games. No one needs as many plastic instruments as Activision is going to force upon us very soon…
Back to Rock Band: it’s yet another one of those casual games meant to open up the market. How does it do this? There’s the simple four-player multiplayer aspect that makes the most sense in this context. Gathering up four friends to play music on fake instruments has turned out to be a tremendously appealing concept. I can honestly only think of one or two of my friends who doesn’t enjoy Rock Band at all. Friends of mine who live thousands of miles away are excited to get some Rock Band in next month when they come to visit. It has that much draw, especially to people who typically don’t game at all, including older gamers (NOT my parents) and women. While being able to shred on expert isn’t about to impress any of the ladyfolk, it’s still a good game to bridge the gap between the gamer and game-hater, since most people who have never played video games can understand music within a few minutes.
The other real innovation in casual gaming is that Rock Band is not as ridiculously hard as Guitar Hero 3. Activision went the totally opposite direction, attempting to create a hardcore experience with note charts that made no sense, but were harder to play. Rock Band’s more intuitive note charts seem way easier by comparison, but they still provide tons of fun and, most importantly, they generally won’t fail an appropriately skilled player during multiplayer play, the main draw of the game. Yeah, Rock Band is a lot less fun solo than with friends (still way fun though), but it’s meant to be played with friends, not alone. I’ve spent countless hours with large groups of friends handing off the guitars, drum sticks, or microphone as we shredded the night away (and probably made our dormmates hate us…bwahaha).
Rock Band is, by and large, the only reason I turn on my Xbox anymore and it gets playtime at least once a week from me as they launch new tracks each and every week. As it introduces me to new, sweet music (Boston being my favorite discovery so far), it’s impossible for me to not rate this as the best thing to happen for me since I started gaming. I’ve always loved music and had some aptitude for it, but never really learned to play anything. RB gives me the freedom to love that music using a medium that is friendlier than actually picking up a guitar (although I do aspire to actually start playing at some point in the near future). Detractors will say, “Why don’t you just play real music?” I will say, “Because I love music, but don’t have the time or money to devote to learning a real instrument right now. Besides, this is fun for me and my friends, so stop being a jerk.”
At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters with a video game? Aren’t we just supposed to be having fun?
“Margaritaville” Guitar and Drums:
“Rock and Roll Band” (one of my favorites!)
Another funny Rock Band-related PA comic.
And with that, I officially close out the Game Overview All-Stars feature on this blog. I’m sure you readers have pretty different opinions from me, so feel free to let me know what you think. I’m not planning on doing any runner-ups for this generation, but keep an eye out for game reviews in the future receiving the prestigious all-star award.
Remember guys, video games are all about fun. I spend a lot of time gaming, so it’s good to know that there are such fine specimens of gaming to make deep, lasting impressions on me. Keep it up game devs and I’ll keep picking up that controller.