Tuesday, December 15, 2015

As Solid as Ever

There is a pantheon of franchises in the world of video games that can only be considered iconic. In a world of popular culture where we are seemingly obsessed with series1, consumers are always looking forward to the next entry in the set. With video games, players are always eager to try the new Mario or Zelda or Final Fantasy or Halo. The consistency for these games have endeared them in video game history.

In any type of popular media, franchises are significant, and they deserve to be. There is a reason a series becomes popular and remains relevant. Part of what make game franchises important is that they are somewhat genre-defining. They initially popularize the genre, and then tweak and improve it with each iteration. The two-dimensional, side-scrolling platformer does not exist as it is today without the first Super Mario Bros. StarCraft shaped the way we know real-time strategies. Together, Metroid and Castlevania literally named a certain style of games, “metroidvania.” Basically any genre of video game can be traced to one or two franchises that are still pervasive today. Such games may not have invented the genre, but they propelled them into popularity enough that they can continue making games in the series today. This is what Metal Gear Solid did for the stealth game.

To tell the truth, before this fall, I had never really played through any stealth game properly, much less a Metal Gear game. I couldn’t play Thief, and I barely made it out of the training level of Splinter Cell. I even had issues with some parts of Dishonored, a stealth-lite game. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I’m not patient enough to plan out events and bide my time in a video game, and when something goes wrong, I don’t like to painstakingly retrace my steps to get back to the same point. Needless to say, I thought I was in for more of the same when I bought the complete collection of Metal Gear Solid games.

Why did I make such a purchase if I was fairly certain that I would not enjoy myself? The long answer is that the newest entry to the series (The Phantom Pain2) had just come out and was receiving rave reviews for being more accessible than previous games as well as just being incredibly bizarre. There was also the possibility of this being the final game in the series. This, coupled with the long time between releases in the series, meant that the zeitgeist for Metal Gear games was palpable. I wanted to experience the fascinating series that people seem to either love or hate, and I wanted to start at the beginning. The short answer is I’m just not smart with money.

In any case, I purchased the collection knowing full well that I might just hate it. I figured I would turn it on, not be able to make it out of the first zone and never try it again. Then a few years later, I would try one of the later games to see if that was any better. And that’s okay, I still had to see what the game was like. I wanted to see what all the buzz was about and be able to tell myself that at least I tried it, and I had at least a passing, academic understanding of it. I could never have guessed how wrong I would be.

I downloaded 1998’s Metal Gear Solid and sat down to play, essentially going in blind. I knew some characters’ names, but that was really about it. Immediately, the opening cutscenes began to draw me in. It’s difficult to explain, but the opening sequence seems both ludicrous and believable at the same time. It’s done with a level of self-seriousness that is really hard not to like. It’s hard to be so stupid and so deep at the same time. This is not supposed to sound like criticism; the opening sequence (and any of the ensuing cutscenes) is highly amusing. The game’s not dumb, just extremely ridiculous.

I expected to have some issues with the controls. The game is old, so the movements are a bit unrefined. It was definitely jarring at first to use the directional pad for movement3 and to press Circle to start4. But it did not take me long at all to grow accustomed to the obscure movements. It got to the point that when I used a thumbstick to play another game, it felt strange.

To some extent, I also expected to be stymied by the game’s puzzles. With older games, there is commonly a less-is-more approach to instruction as to what to do or where to go. And I have the unfortunate tendency to get easily frustrated when I cannot figure out the next step. For whatever reason, though, I had no issues. The game provides references to call that provide numerous helpful hints. In this way, it is impossible to be stuck for too long in one area. Longer fights against major enemies also provided enough of a challenge without being impossible.

Finally, I fully accepted the gimmicks of the game that I could only characterize as ‘zany,’ even if I was already somewhat aware of them. The best examples of these comes in one longer sequence against a certain character (I’ll speak delicately, even though you must know the tricks by now). Without giving too much away, in the scene, a character reads the player’s thoughts, the TV screen goes black, and the controller moves of its own accord. I was all in.

It’s weird to speak so highly about a game that was released so long ago. I have come to learn what many other players already knew:  Metal Gear Solid is a sublime game. Beyond appreciating the significance as one of the most popular games on the original Playstation, I legitimately enjoyed every minute I spent with it. There are only a handful of times I can recall feeling better about a game throughout the entirety of it. I can’t wait to move on with the rest of the series.5

1 Of the top ten grossing films of 2015, seven are parts of a multi-film franchise and one is a remake.
2 Interestingly, this pushes Star Wars: Episode One further down the list of things that begin with “The Phantom…” behind The Phantom Tollbooth and every form of the The Phantom of the Opera.
3 You may have known, the original Playstation controller did not have thumbsticks.
4 You may have known, traditionally Japanese games use Circle instead of the Cross or “X” that we’re used to.
5 Upon finishing the first game, I immediately played through the short prologue to the newest game, 2014’s Ground Zeroes. I liked it, and I noticed some of the elements derivative of the first game, but it did not capture me in the same way the original did. Not enough to discourage me from the whole series, though.

Friday, November 27, 2015

What to Expect When You're Expecting

In the last year, I heard a story on NPR that made the argument that people tend to enjoy a story more when they already know the ending (the example used was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which the ending is a complete reversal from the first part of the story). This baffled me completely. In an age where finding out the ending to a new movie or book is as easy as reading the Wikipedia summary, is it possible that people now find endings meaningless? I mean, you can hardly read an online review without seeing an obnoxious “SPOILERS!!!1!!” tag. But on the Internet, people are infuriated when they accidentally read about a twist. So the sides must be split.

The basis for the argument is that when we know what is coming, it makes the journey to get there more special. Sort of like when a suspenseful moment rises in a horror movie, there is no surprise, but the excitement is still heightened. Sort of. I find it hard to believe that knowing (<spoiler> “Vader is Luke’s father” </spoiler>) in 1980 would have made Empire more enjoyable. It’s called ruining the plot for a reason. But, hey, I guess times change.

I got to thinking about this claim and realized that it is not an easy thing to prove. You cannot experience the same movie twice, once knowing the ending and once not knowing, so you would have no way of comparing the two experiences. Two people--one who has not seen the film, another who has--cannot compare their experiences; one person might simply like the movie better. It is a qualitative judgement call, anyway. There really is no good way to compare how enjoyable some piece of entertainment is based solely on knowing or not knowing the ending. But still, the question bothered me. For me, the best way to go about looking at this is to simply ruin the ending to a movie, short story, or video game. Then, hopefully, I would have some better understanding of this absurd claim.

Needless to say: warning, spoilers ahead.

* * *

I found the perfect movie to test this hypothesis, and you are going to laugh at it. I realized that I was the last person on Earth in 2015 who had not seen The Sixth Sense. I know what you’re thinking: that movie came out 15 years ago, and everyone saw it. A few people might even swear they saw it with me, but I have no recollection of it. It was the movie that established M. Night Shymalan as the king of suspenseful twists, a title he promptly lost in the years to come. It was one of the most talked-about movies of the time. I just never got around to it. I’ve been busy.

Of course, it is impossible to get to this point, even having not seen the movie to know the iconic line, “I see dead people.” So, I surmised what this meant in the context of what I knew about the film, and then read through a plot summary of the whole film. Generally, I had the main points correct. All I needed to see now was the execution.

With the details fresh in mind, I watched through the movie and truly enjoyed myself. I picked up on subtle hints about Bruce Willis’s character, because I was acutely looking for them. The discreet hints were a little more obvious, but I appreciated them in the way you feel upon rewatching a movie. And still, the intense moments were no less intense because I knew what would happen. I was watching a movie for the second time without having seen it the first time.

In the end, I obviously can’t say whether or not I would have liked the movie better if I was going in blind. On the contrary, the first time I watched Memento, I went in without knowing a thing about it, and had to watch it again immediately after finishing it. So, maybe there are really no ways to ruin a well-made, suspenseful film. All I can say is that fifteen years later, The Sixth Sense still holds up as a fine movie. I would give it a belated positive review, but you’ve already seen it, probably more than once.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Defense of Achievements

In the last generation of consoles, video game players saw the rise of in-game achievements. At the time of their introduction (around 2005 or ‘06), they became popular, almost unbelievably so. So popular that users would go through nefarious hoops to accomplish these tasks just so that they were displayed on a profile. In recent years, appreciation for trophies or achievements has become more or less divided. Some people still obsess over maxing out their score; others could not care less.

So what are achievements, and why do they matter (or not)? Ostensibly, they are minor awards given to the player for accomplishing certain feats in video games. Microsoft debuted the concept with the releases for its console, the Xbox 360. PC games, including many on the Steam and Blizzard platforms, added them soon after, with Sony following suit in 2009 with trophies on the Playstation 3. While trophies did not have points associated with them, they did introduce a Platinum-level for getting 100% of the trophies in the game. It is a good way for developers to observe exactly how many players buying the game actually complete goals. Only Nintendo consoles do not have an established achievement-like system1. For the vast majority, these awards have absolutely no effect on the game itself; they are merely for a player to display on his or her profile.

Despite having no discernible value, for whatever reason, these became incredibly popular. When Xbox achievements unlock, an addictive “pop” sound accompanies them that elicits a near Pavlovian response in players. It is exciting to play through a game and have notifications as you complete an especially difficult task. Players would trade games to boost their scores or rent games with especially easy points. Gaming websites in the mid-2000s ran articles about the “10 easiest games to 1000 points!” ranking the quickest ways to get the then-maximum amount of awards. Then, players would seek to gain them with questionable motives. Tamer players wanting to “cheat” could play some games with their friends offline; the more hardcore cheaters actually unlocked achievements by unlawfully manipulating the data. For a short time, the achievements seemed more popular than the games themselves.

There is quite a wide range of tasks required to unlock the award, but most games will follow certain rules in achievement development. Story driven games will often have achievements for each mission or chapter completed. Also common are exploration goals, encouraging users to go out and find new locations. Sports games feature tiered achievements, like scoring so many points against the other team. Then there are online multiplayer tasks, as in bringing down 100 aliens with a certain weapon. Obviously, tasks vary by skill and are awarded as such. For example, most people will get the five points for completing a tutorial, but very few will get the fifty points for finishing a game without failing once.

Almost as quickly as they rose to popularity, they became passé. The many people illegally acquiring achievements were banned, but their actions still devalued the concept and people seemed to start realizing how they were actually quite worthless. There has never been a great way to look at your aggregate awards and compare them with friends, like a social network. Nearly every game that comes out today still has the same amount of achievements, but mostly gone are the hunters who work to gain every single award.

As I said, there is a fairly divided split in the favor of achievements. The pragmatic side sees achievements for what they truly are: meaningless and almost totally unrelated to the game’s experience. It is possible to play through the game and have a great time doing it without ever noticing a trophy unlock. Nintendo proves this quite well. Super Mario Galaxy is still a perfect game without an achievement for each unlocked planet2. The other side views achievements as the most important part of the gameplay experience. Don’t start a game if you can’t finish raise your completion ratio3! Nothing matters as long as you have more points than your friends! It doesn’t matter if you don’t like a certain mission: you have to do it nineteen more times to get the award! Of course, I’m exaggerating, but the point is, you either like achievements or you don’t care about them.

That is why I feel like the worst an achievement can possibly be is just pointless enough to inspire apathy. Like many people, I was very big into gathering achievements in the mid-2000s. In fact, I used to be too much into them. I definitely participated in matches where players were working together just to accomplish the inane tasks required. Embarrassingly, I might have even chose to play one game over the other simply because of the achievements. I have gotten much more realistic about them since then, but I still maintain that they are great for games.

On the contrary, the best kinds of achievements inspire new ways to play a game. If you generally play a game in one style, an achievement might make you go out and try new combinations of weapons or skills. Exploration tasks might send you out to new locations you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Some other awards may get you to play the game again at a higher difficulty. So while I still get a sense of enjoyment from seeing the announcement that I’ve unlocked a goal, and I still strive to gather as many as I can, I treat them as a fun side effect to the larger overall enjoyment of the game.

Trophies and achievements may not be that important to every person who plays a game, but they are not going away. If nothing else, they provide new reasons to dig further into games. I’m sure I’m not the only player who still looks over the achievement list before I start playing. It gives the player a list of goals to do that is, by definition, achievable. Even if some of them seem impossible. Happy hunting!

1 I should take this opportunity to highlight an amazing website called Retro Achievements. It allows users to play through emulated versions of their own classic games with user-created achievements. It gives a great new reason to replay through classic games. And it does include Nintendo games.
2 Although isn’t it fun to dream up trophies for 100 Skulltulas in Ocarina of Time, every Pokemon in Red/Blue, or escaping Zebes in less than a minute in Super Metroid?
3 Completion ratio is, of course, the percentage of achievements unlocked. Unabashedly, I still care a little bit about my ratio.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Do Three Stars Equal a 6.0?

When I finish a book or movie or CD or game, one of my first thoughts is, of course, processing how I felt about it. Did I like it? Would I like to experience it again? How would I compare it to others? Quite often for me, this boils down to a single rating, which somewhat reductively describes my experience with the item. In this way, I can look back later and remember first, if I’ve already done something (read that book, for example), and second, did I enjoy it? One concept I struggle with, however, is the multitude of rating systems. You have stars, half-stars, 10-point scales, 100-point scales, and many others.

Somewhat obsessively, I like to catalog what I’ve experienced. I have multiple accounts that track my music listened, games played, movies watched, books read, and so on. I like to go back and look at what I’ve accomplished. It’s also a good way to compare artistic tastes with friends. Most often, the best way to track this kind of information is by assigning it a rating, and as we know, rating systems can vary wildly.

The confusion of different systems arises because so many publications try to utilize unique ways of reviewing items. Websites and magazines that review products are in constant competition for views. Numeric ratings are often used in conjunction with a longer written review, obviously far more informative. Longer reviews, however, have the larger problem that most people would rather look at the number without digging into the article. Personally, I glance through a review only when I’m interested in the item in question. So, the rating system is a quick way to grab attention for the item.

I have had many debates with friends about what is the most effective system. Largely, these discrepancies revolve around the degrees with which items can be assigned. Five stars obviously gives five levels of definable quality; a 100-point scale gives 101 levels (including 0). As you can see, these get more precise with more levels. My personal preference falls somewhere in between.

100-point scales are a bit excessive. Though they carry a sense of scientific nature, it is mostly impossible to assign a sense of value with so many options. Questions arise like: is a 68 really better than a 66? These statements are obviously impossible to discern. However you feel about aggregate sites like Metacritic, these actually are take an average rating based on a collection of ratings and you can actually explore the differences between a 66 and a 68. But in the end, there is not much of a difference.

Ten stars is tricky. It gives twice as many choices as five stars, but not nearly as many as 100. In this way, we can get more specific responses, without getting ludicrously deep into ratings that differ by 2%. But I have issues with 10-point scales as well. Although I like the scaling, there is an inherent nature of interpreting quality, where any rating below about a 6 is considered ‘below average.’ Perhaps it is largely a problem in the U.S.--where a 60% is generally considered failing in the education system--but this has an enormous effect on how we comprehend low scores. Because of what we (at least in the U.S.) have learned, even something that earns 7 stars is considered mediocre.

The argument for five stars is a good one. The best way I have heard it described is that three stars is average with two levels above average and two below. I believe this is the most popular preference because it is most akin to how we think about quality. Was it very good? Five stars. Just okay? Two stars. The ease of use with a rating system like this makes it easily translatable. Furthermore, three stars is perceived as a better rating than a 60 out of 100. My issues with this system is that there is just not enough to differentiate from other ratings. I don’t enjoy every four-star item the same way; some are better than others. This is why I believe the best way to rate includes five stars with half stars.

I’ve been told that my issue with half stars is that I compare items against each other too much. Simply because I enjoyed something more than another is not reason enough to assign it a higher rating. I acknowledge that this is an issue, but I can’t help it. It’s only natural to compare media, so why wouldn’t you want to say something deserves a higher rating than something else? To me, half stars is as granular as I need to be to denote how I feel about a piece of entertainment.

Obviously, the rating is totally dependent on the rater. I know when it means when I’ve given something four stars, but I also know what it means when I assign something a 7 out of 10. The rating doesn’t matter; it’s how you ultimately felt about the item in question.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Comment About Comments

The Internet is a great place for millions of users to come together and share ideas. The network allows for more interconnectedness than television, radio, or any other technology before. Anyone can share their creations. It is easier than ever to find someone who connects with an interest and have a dialogue with that person. Evidently, it is also very easy to display strong attitude, sometimes with hatred towards a person or group. I’m speaking, of course, of comments.

Scroll down to the bottom of most web pages and you will find the comments section. Some of them are blocked by login information while others require Google or Facebook verification, but the infamous ones have seemingly no rules and anyone can post whatever they want under the guise of “anonymous.” If you’ve spent any amount of time on the Internet, you have probably heard it before: “Don’t read the comments!”1 Ostensibly, this section is a place for users to reflect knowledgeably upon what they have just read or watched. But it is not uncommon for this to devolve into rabid spewing of inappropriate or offensive speech almost completely unrelated to the original content. This is a problem.

Some websites are built entirely on the premise that sane folks can have a reasonable discussion in comments. And these can be successful because of the community that builds around the discussion. Based on the traditional sense of a public assembly, Internet ‘forums’ allow people to virtually gather and discuss a range of topics. These are the very best examples of comments on the Internet, as they allow like-minded people to be together. As the community grows, inflammatory commenters are excised. The opposite of this strict self-policing is a sort of free-for-all where people are rude almost immediately. YouTube is a notorious example, where commenters can be outright abusive. I’m just going to vent a bit, so if you want to skip the next two paragraphs, that’s okay.

Why do these kinds of people do this? What gives them the right to trash an otherwise fine piece of content? These are both difficult questions to answer, but one short, acceptable answer is that our freedom of speech extends to cover ideas stated on the Internet. People feel that they have the power to say whatever they wish, and that others need to listen to them. To an extent, this is true: all of us on the Internet have an equal voice. But these people are also wrong. Just because hate-speeches are widely publicized, this does not make them right or even popular. Even online, ignorant speech is still ignorant. And hateful people are still idiots.

Another obvious answer to the question, is that commenters can hide behind anonymity. A cowardly person can say whatever they want if their name is not directly to the left. There is nothing to risk by antagonizing others. Unless there is a some kind of thumbs down feature, that comment will exist as long as people respond to it. Which is, of course, the improper way to deal with “trolls” on the Internet. The best thing to do is let them say what they will and ignore it. Or read it and laugh at them inwardly because you are better than them2. Either will suffice.

ANYWAY, I’m done with the negativity. Here is an absolutely radical theory: is it possible that comments are actually a positive force on the Internet? I might go so far as to suggest that they have become a part of the original content. Is that too much? For better or for worse, I believe our experiences are shaped by external opinions. I might think differently about a video after having read a comment about it. This might be a sad way to look at it, because it implies we cannot arrive at opinions on our own. That’s not really what I mean. I’d like to think browsing comments give us different avenues of thought from which to compare. I came to this realization while reading a library book in which another reader had written some notes in the margins of the book. It occurred to me that this marginalia really was affecting how I was reading the book.

As an undergraduate, I’m sure I remember a philosopher positing that a piece of literature is only half produced by the author. The other half is from the reader and the experiences they bring to the reading. This implies that every book is different for every reader any given time they read it. This also suggests that comments play a significant role in our comprehension of the work. For instance, if I read a news article online that particularly fascinates me, I purposely scroll through the top dozen or so comments, just to gauge the reactions of others. And yes, this affects my reading of the article. Therefore, I think that comments have slowly become part of the entire piece.

Basically, be careful with comments. They might have more of an effect than you think. It does not make sense to merely post that you don’t like something. Disagreeing with the content or another poster without providing any reasoning whatsoever does not add anything substantial to the conversation. Thoughtful is always best in comments.

So, what do you think? Are comments meaningless addendum to online publications, or should they be taken more seriously? Let me know what you think below.

1 There are myriad hilarious examples of these types of messages online that spoof the ridiculous nature of comments. Sometimes, though, the parodies are more accurate than they should be.
2 In fact, I do get some enjoyment out of reading bad comments because some people are so laughably dense.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Just Don't Call It a "Rock Opera"

I hate the term “rock opera.” Granted, I probably thought it was cool the first time I heard it, but it did not take long for the stupidity of the name to sink in. I mean, what does that name accomplish? It’s rock music, sure. So, because the songs have a related theme, it’s becomes an opera? The opera is not music’s equivalent to the short story collection. It simply does not make sense. And I try not to even think about the next iteration: the “hip-hopera.” Awful. Just awful. Call them by their more elegant names “concept albums,” please, regardless of how pretentious you will sound. Anyway, I hate the term as much as I love the thing itself. That’s right: I adore “concept albums.”

Even though most (if not all) concept albums come off as comical or mediocre, I find them immensely enjoyable. Music is not notoriously known for telling an engaging story, but just the hint of a deeper meaning is enough for me to listen that much more intently, to try to find that glimmer. And usually, as the story unfolds, I find myself thinking that the story would be barely passable in a movie or story. I always convince myself, though, that it works in this context. I give albums with a message the benefit of the doubt that I certainly don’t give to books. I think that’s what makes concept albums so interesting to me--I’m willing to fully buy into a story even if it is basically garbage.

Sometime, somewhere, a person was tired with making individual songs, so they focused on creating a story using the full hour of an album. It was probably Sinatra, so it was probably very good1. This caught on, and now we have new concept albums fairly regularly. The unification of a collection that was formerly unrelated is the same reason I love short stories that function together. I cannot always defend the story itself, but the idea is an attractive one to me. Regardless of how ridiculous the message almost always turns out to be (usually involving an oppressed young person), I can make the excuse, “At least they are trying it.”

Personally, I get something more out of listening to an entire album as opposed to individual songs. There is something to be said about an artist establishing an order to which their songs should be listened. In most cases, an album just seems to be the proper way to listen to all of the songs. A concept album is the extended form of this, as the songs tell a story and need to be listened to in a set order. I’ll briefly go through some of the most famous examples, as well as some of my favorites.

* * *

1969 - Probably the first and possibly the most famous concept album, The Who’s Tommy presents a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who grows up in the 1920s. Most people know of the character’s prowess as a pinball player, but the album goes into more of his experiences with his family, dealing with difficult topics such as abuse. The album is also The Who’s first foray into concept albums, as they returned to format in 1973 with Quadrophenia.

1979 - If not for Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall would be unquestionably the most famous concept album, and it probably does the best job in storytelling. It tackles the emotional problems of the protagonist, Pink, in ways that some novels can’t approach. It was turned into a successful, albeit disturbing film three years later in 1982, and the show was still performed for decades by Roger Waters, who wrote the album. Like The Who, this is not Pink Floyd’s only example of a concept album, but it is certainly the most clear and the most profound.

1984 - I might be cheating here by using a soundtrack to a movie, but, honestly, Prince’s music of Purple Rain is the important part of the movie, not the story. And the music is really incredible, probably Prince’s best material. It may still be considered a concept album, in my opinion, because it does tell a ludicrous futuristic love story.

2000 - In what could be the very first “hip-hopera,” the rap supergroup consisting of Del the Funky Homosapien, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala released the album, Deltron 3030. Set a millenia in the future, the rappers need battle dangerous robots in space. If it sounds ridiculous, it is. It’s also great. And there are some good messages and themes present as well.

2004 - I have an unreasonable love for Green Day’s American Idiot, and I would defend it as one of the band’s best albums. It is an album I can sing (and occasionally have sung) every word along with the band. The music is intense, and the lyrics have moments of brilliance, even if they beat the listener over the head in blatant political overtones. Even though I realize that the story isn’t great, I’ve been championing a movie since the album’s release. It came out at just the right time for me and will always be one of my favorites.

* * *
There are several more I could have listed here that are just as good, but there are really too many to mention. It seems like albums that tell a story are becoming more and more prevalent. This is a cool thing. I realize the stories of concept albums can sometimes be lacking, and the music isn’t always great, but I am always excited about the possibilities. It just gives more of a reason to sit down with an album and have an experience. Just as the artist intended.

1 In fact, some say In the Wee Small Hours was the first concept album. So, yeah, that’s a pretty high standard to meet.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

One Golden Album

I have strong reason to believe that the first album I ever heard was Gordon Lightfoot’s 1975 compilation album, Gord’s Gold. And that makes me very happy. According to my parents, around the time I was born, one of the only cassettes they played regularly was Gord’s Gold. If it was not the first album I ever heard (unlikely), then it is definitely the one I have listened to for the longest.

If I were to rank my favorite Canadian musical artists, I would be hard-pressed to come up with someone higher on my list than Gordon Lightfoot. Although I listen to them from time to time, I’m not the biggest fan of either Arcade Fire or Rush. For me, Gordon even leads Neil Young in the category of prolific Canadian folk artists. I just find Gordon Lightfoot to be incredibly authentic and all-around enjoyable. Unfortunately, he is often underrepresented in folk music discussions.

As with the most talented folk artists, Gordon Lightfoot has the ability to tell incredible stories with his songs. He ranges from heartbreaking to uplifting, but the captivating narratives always feel honest and true. Some of his very best stories are displayed on this collection1. “Song for a Winter’s Night” makes the listener feel like riding through a snow-covered woods. The seven-minute epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” chronicles the history and importance of the railroad spreading across the continent. My personal favorite, “Steel Rail Blues,” tells the tragic tale of a person who cannot seem reconnect with his love.

Usually I’m not the biggest proponent of greatest hits albums. They may range from offensive to tolerable, and not worth owning on the whole. I feel that listening to individual tracks takes away from the overall listening experience, and often the so-called “greatest” tracks overshadow some truly great songs tucked away on a lesser-known album. But I thoroughly enjoy Gord’s Gold so much that it still gets fairly often airtime in my CD player. That is not to take anything away from his studio albums, which are very good. I just stick with what I know best, and Gordon’s hits collection is what I’ve grown up knowing.

I have bought this album five times on three different mediums--and every single one has suffered a tragic demise. Two cassettes unspooled, forever ruining one of my stereos. One CD that I purchased (new) has an unexplainable skip during “Minstrel of the Dawn.” The other CD had a staple through the disc that was intended to hold the liner notes together. And a groove on my LP version has an infinite loop on side B. It must be a sign, but it won’t stop me from picking up new copies.

For a greatest hits album, Gord’s Gold is remarkably thorough. The songs function as an album as a whole, rather than a collection of unrelated songs. This is due, in part, to the fact that many of the songs were re-recorded for the new release, so there is a level of consistency throughout the pieces. Released in 1975, the album encapsulates his early career, which is probably his best material. While a second volume of his greatest hits, released over a decade later, was hampered by some forgettable numbers, there is not a bad song on the first volume of Gord’s Gold.

As it is famously proclaimed on the front cover, this was a “2 record set on 1 specially-priced disc.” I think this is a telling description: the album is long without feeling tedious. It is over seventy minutes long, and it is the perfect type of anthology to put on for a stretch of time. I recommend tracking down the song “Affair on Eighth Avenue,” a song missing from the CD release, for the full experience. This is the kind of album where even shuffling for a dozen or so songs is a wonderful time.

One of my favorite memories from college was belting every word to Gord’s Gold late at night with a friend. I certainly don’t do that with many albums. That should be a clue of the power of the Canadian musical genius, Gordon Lightfoot.

1 Perhaps Lightfoot’s best-known tale, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” is absent in this collection. It was released the next year.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Welcome to a Podcast Phenom

In order to become an engaging serialized story, whether it is a novel, TV show, or anything, it must first be inventive and new. Tried, overused themes are quickly lost among other stories. Instead, a piece that is new has a chance to build a group of followers. To remain relevant over a longer period of time, though, it must continue to adapt but also stay true to its beginnings. I’m speaking broadly, of course, but this is exactly what happened to the podcasting phenom, Welcome to Night Vale.

To understand this show, first, you must understand podcasts, and they are difficult to understand unless you are already hooked on them. They truly can be sort of addicting. Beginning in the mid-2000s, the easiest way to understand them is as an on-demand form of information and entertainment. I’m sure most of you have heard of the captivating drama, Serial, which enthralled millions each week and has left listeners eagerly anticipating a second season. Ultra-trendy, these downloadable audio files are a viable replacement to talk radio. In fact, many shows on National Public Radio are already found on-demand in the podcast form. They are easy to make, inexpensive to share, and (usually) free of cost to access.

Because basically anyone can make one with cheap software and tools, they can be found on an incredible range of topics, sports, news, science, comedy, anything that interests you. Podcasts can be incredibly informative, or they can be a regular form of entertainment. I think committing to a podcast is one of the best ways to learn about a subject that you wanted to get into. And some of them, I look forward to as much as I do a weekly comic book or TV show. There are so many of them, though, that it is sometimes difficult to choose which ones are the best and to dedicate so much time to these shows.

Without going into specifics, it is equally difficult, or nearly impossible, to describe Welcome to Night Vale to people who have not listened to it. The best way I can describe its clever storytelling is in the same vein as Garrison Keillor’s long-running “News from Lake Wobegon” only in the soothingly sinister community of Night Vale. It is a “radio-drama” in every sense of the word, in that characters and places are instrumental to fleshing out the goings-on of the community.

The town of Night Vale is illuminated by the relaxing voice of Cecil Palmer, the local radio host. And while everything appears to be normal to him in the radio station, events are decidedly not normal to listeners. Eerie events and non-corporeal beings plague the town, but all the while there is a peaceful nature to the town. Even with all of the confounding and dangerous developments that take place, it is difficult to listen to each episode and not feel compelled to live there. That is the charm of the show.

A show like Welcome to Night Vale is successful for the reasons outlined above. It is unique and fresh, and constantly building on the established history of the town. Credit to the show’s creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, for developing such an enjoyable and successful program. And it certainly is successful. Each episode is downloaded thousands of times. A novel is expected this upcoming fall. The team has added a live show which sells out as quickly as Justin Timberlake. I’ve been fortunate to see them live twice, and the fanbase is so positive that it is a treat to be a part of such a devoted group of people. There are many inside jokes that build from episode to episode. A new fantastic song is featured each time in an intriguing way. Numerous well-known guest stars, such as Mara Wilson and Wil Wheaton, have made voice appearances. All of this has contributed to its rise and success.

It is innovative in the fact that there is hardly anything like it. It is released bi-monthly, so the two weeks is plenty of time between episodes to get excited about what is to come. There have been some great story arcs where it becomes a trial to have to wait so long for the next installment. I have been up many nights at midnight, refreshing until the new episode came available. It is a fairly small time commitment (half an hour, twice a month) so anyone can really give it a try to see what all the hype is about. Please set aside some time to listen to it. (Some advice: It’s best at night.) Each episode closes with a proverb, and so I end with my own recommendation: Enjoy yourself… but never too much. And stay out of the dog park.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Doing Things for Free: Part 3

A lot of musicians complain very publicly about not receiving enough money for their work. Whether it is record companies or streaming services, artists claim they are not compensated enough. They make these claims loudly, looking for enough sympathy that consumers will buy their records from their own labels to maximize a profit. But for every artist demanding more money for their music, there are ten musicians who produce everything by themselves hoping for even a dozen people to hear what they’ve done. Even if they hear it for free.

This brings us finally to the interplay between producers and consumers of music. Like most content creators, musicians make music because it is a passion of theirs. This is as true for major musicians as it is for high schoolers playing in their garages. And anyone who is passionate about something wants to share it with others to spread their enjoyment. Luckily, there are places, again on the wonderful Internet that makes it possible to share and promote music for their audience.

SoundCloud is a community devoted to just this purpose--artists giving their music to any interested person. It benefits both artists by promoting and listeners by providing new tunes. Because SoundCloud is disconnected from most major labels, it hosts tracks to be played directly on the website, or in some cases, to be downloaded for personal playback. This is an ideal use for someone who does all of their own work independently and can just upload finished products immediately. Fans can interact with the music instantly, as well as browse and discover new interesting songs. Occasionally, even major established artists take advantage of this service to share new music before the major release of an album.

Bandcamp is a similar service in that it allows songwriters to upload tracks and even full albums for distribution to interested fans. People can stream music directly on the site or, as is more commonly the case, they can download individual tracks or albums. The site utilizes a “pay what you want” strategy, where users can give what they feel the music is worth or what they can afford to spend, even if that cost is nothing. This system allows artists to earn a bit of a profit, if they wish, while still being able to advertise their own creations. From a listener’s perspective, there are dozens of great artists ready to be discovered for no cost. Some fans even curate lists of the best music on the site that’s also available for free.

But not all artists who want to share their music happen to be small independent musicians using these aforementioned websites. English rock band Radiohead, famously released their album, In Rainbows, for any price, including $0. Just as famously (or perhaps infamously), U2 forced any iPhone user to have their album, Songs of Innocence, at no cost but without the user’s permission. Influential hard rock musician, Trent Reznor, has made use of public copyrighting known as Creative Commons licensing to release several albums for free. Numerous rap groups give songs away in the form of mixtapes. The list goes on and on.

Obviously, even well-known and critically acclaimed musicians care enough about their listeners to simply give their music away. Once again, the Internet provides several outlets where consumers can get what they are looking for from producers with a little searching and no cost. Most people can find places to stream music online or download it illegally, but there are many great places where music makers can interact directly with fans. After a bit of poking and prodding around different websites, it’s not hard to broaden one’s mind, for purposes of both entertainment and information.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Doing Things for Free: Part 2

In 2015, at least in the US, video arcades are certainly no longer the hubs of activity they used to be three decades ago. Places that used to be packed with children, flashing lights, and pinball machines now look sort of sad. Even when I was young, arcades were already on the decline in all but the more heavily populated areas. Modern arcades, however, are hardly updated and--from personal observation--mostly empty. For many reasons, this is disappointing. Children (and adults) miss them dearly; parents miss having a place to send their kids.

This is due, in large part, to the rising availability of arcade games on home consoles. People no longer needed to feed quarters into a machine to make endless runs of games. Instead, with one moderately sized purchase, a game could be played over and over again, in the comfort of one’s own bedroom. It would not take long for the purchase price to offset the quarter pay per play method. It became the case that many popular console games were ports of arcade standbys. But it could not recapture the feel of arcades.

Home computers interconnected by the Internet was steadily more popular in the mid-1990s. This lead to innovative new ways to distribute games, such as message boards and shareware. This new term meant that content creators could make their software instantly available to anyone who wanted it. In all likelihood, these were the first examples of “viral” distribution. A piece of software that received a bump in attention could suddenly spread like wildfire. And there was no go-between interfering with the producer and the consumer. It was a direct link.

As it were, playing video games at home turned out to be desirable. The iterations of the Atari were basically mini arcades. Companies like Nintendo and Sega warred with competing consoles and playing games on the computer became even bigger. And as time passed these games became part of the history of the larger game industry as a whole. Games now seen as history, however, are increasingly difficult to enjoy as fewer people have access to actual working machines. Luckily, there is a legal home for these classic titles so that they can still be accessed today. Of course, it’s on the Internet.

The Internet Archive, also famously known as the Wayback Machine, is a nonprofit collection of links and files. One of its primary uses is archiving slices of the Internet so that it can be visited in the future. Want to see what your favorite website looked like in the early 2000s? You can bring up a sample of it in a matter of seconds. The other use of the website is to browse millions of files, including books, audio, and software, such as games.

While the collection is fairly small still, users can download and play many classic titles for the PC or for Atari and Sega systems. Some games do not hold up, to be sure, and appear outdated and uninspired. Others were and still are considered to be masterpieces. But they are all available for one to peruse at no cost, regardless of quality.

Being able to broaden one’s horizons is becoming easier all the time with the aid of the Internet. There is no cost barrier to entry with so much entertainment, just as it’s never been easier to freely share one’s own creations. Content goes from the producer to the consumer effortlessly. Anyone with an Internet connection has the freedom to experience new things. Or in some cases, old things which help ground our current landscapes. In any case, it’s a good time to be connected.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Doing Things for Free: Part 1

I don’t read as much as I should. Between fifty and a hundred books a year is a good number for me. I truly enjoy reading, but it is one of many ways I choose to spend my free time. And it’s tough to find a balance in free time! As my list of books I want to read grows bigger and bigger, the amount of new and interesting books certainly does not go down. For every book I finish, I’m sure I add three more. This brief is not about making a dent in that list.

As more and more books are released every year, it is easy for classics to become buried in the past. Furthermore, if young people read less, they become painfully lacking in knowledge on classic literature or philosophy that forms that background of much of today’s media. Missing out on literature that is “too old” means missing out on allusions that are worth knowing and stories that are worth hearing. One way to combat this: exploring free archives of such writings.

In today’s Internet culture, there is certainly no shortage of free access to information. Although the means for receiving the information are sometimes questionably legal, many of these no-cost resources can be found through legal means as well. A quick search on Amazon’s Kindle store reveals hundreds of classics--from Ulysses to Les Misérables--for absolutely free. But this is not limited to just old titles; hundreds of recent releases, both fiction and nonfiction, are also available for immediate download. These are available to anyone with the Amazon app, not even requiring the Kindle itself.

Another legal example, Project Gutenberg (presumably named after the inventor of the printing press) is one of the oldest and largest digital collections on the Internet, amassing over 48,000 titles. With this many options, a dedicated reader could spend their entire lives getting caught up. Again, as these books are totally free, it makes the option to pay $13.99 for the same book in a Barnes & Noble seem absurd.

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is certainly free literature. These are just two of the options one has to pick some up; there are many other possibilities as well. If it seems too easy to find, it’s because it really is that easy. Once, I wanted to read this old journal article on a subject I was into at the time. A Google search found a PDF for me in less than a minute. I’ve said it before: I love the Internet.

To me, though, nothing replaces the feeling of holding a book. I could never advocate using a device over a paperback. But the truth is: enough people are carrying around a phone or using a computer that these titles could be quite useful. It’s remarkable how much of the world of literature can be found instantly in the comfort of your own home. These no-cost options certainly offset the cost of a device and might justify the purchase.

At its best, the Internet can be put to use as an incredible archive. As a repository for information, there is almost no limit to the amount of content that can be found. And public domain means, literally, owned and shared by the public. So, if you haven’t yet gotten around to the complete works of William Shakespeare, you technically already own them, and they’re already stored for you online.

This is fascinating because it largely takes away the excuse to not be educated in classical humanities. For no monetary cost and no more effort than the click of a button, one can easily find something rewarding to read and enjoy. A person has a right to read whatever he or she wants, and the options are easily presented and seemingly endless. I know it puts my To Read list in a pretty bad shape.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Classic Terror, B-Movie or Otherwise

I truly believe that someone’s first experience with a piece of art is prone to become that person’s favorite. Of course, this is a purely experiential observation; however I have noticed that it has happened to me on more than one occasion. And it makes sense: if you enjoy your first brush with a piece of entertainment, every time after will be compared to that first time. I imagine I am not alone and that many people feel the same way about these first impressions, whether it be with film, music, or any other art form. This theory certainly applies for my foray into the genre of B-movie horror.

I unequivocally love the film called Scarecrow Gone Wild. But my love for this film goes much deeper. I’ve seen Pulp Fiction and The Godfather more times than I can count, and every time I watch them, I pick up new evidence of why these films are so brilliant. But I have little doubt that I have watched Scarecrow Gone Wild more times. You read that right: I cannot think of a single film I have seen more in my life than Scarecrow Gone Wild. I watch it multiple times a year, and I have probably seen the special features more than I have seen most films.

I first watched the film when it was released (straight to on-demand, if you can imagine) with a good friend in 2004. At the time, I thought it was just a bad movie with a funny title. I had no idea that I would be embarking on a lifelong journey with the film that would haunt me for a decade (figuratively, certainly not literally, as the film is not scary in the least). My friend and I were at the perfect age to appreciate the blatant humor of such gags as throwing a bottle of gasoline at an undergrad from a moving vehicle. We were also excited to point out the gentleman out for a jog on a beach who is clearly not associated with the filmmaking at all (and probably didn’t sign a release agreement). Our young minds were not, however, prepared to notice the subtleties of messages like the tragedies of hazing. These kind of qualities become evident after years of dissecting the film.

For a while, this was just a private enjoyment, shared between only the two of us. We might have been only a very limited group that saw this film originally. I’m not sure if anyone else watched the movie unless they were fans of the first two parts of the trilogy. Right, it should be mentioned that this is the third in a series, but take it from me, the first two are not worth the effort. There is a reason the Gone Wild is sold as a standalone--to differentiate itself from its predecessors. At any rate, we must have been part of a small audience to witness this piece of artwork at its inception. They say only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but all of them formed a band. Such is the kind of influence of Scarecrow Gone Wild.

It is difficult to assess exactly what it is the value of the film without going into the specifics of what make the film great. Despite the natural “good versus evil” theme that develops throughout, it is unclear which side emerges victorious. By the end, the viewer wonders whether or not evil is truly extinguished. With the losses sustained, the cost of attempting to end the terror of the scarecrow is almost too great. Perhaps the deepest, most unsettling question: is the scarecrow just plain evil, or is it the more complex embodiment of the pain inflicted by the hateful undergrads? These questions are left to the interpretation of the viewer.

Fortunately, the action is not distracted by a cast of star actors. While talented, the intrepid college students are played by several young, yet-to-be-discovered thespians. Since this group is not dominated by a standout actor, it allows for the realism of the scene to become evident. The film is anchored, however, by the acting talents of the World Wrestling Federation’s own “World’s Most Dangerous Man,” Ken Shamrock. His classic portrayal of coach and gym teacher is engaging and provocative. The former wrestler displays every ounce of his expertise for both acting and fighting.

Halloween may be a long time away, but some horror movies are worth watching throughout the year. And just because it’s spring, there is no reason why you could not stand a little scarecrow in your life. Perhaps you can take advantage of this unique weekend of Friday the 13th and Valentine’s Day for a two-night double feature. To be sure, horror movies are always exciting and you can always pick up new things from watching them. B-movie horror is no different. A surreal mixture of emotion, from humor to tragedy, drama to terror, Scarecrow Gone Wild has just a bit of everything. You owe it to yourself to see this picture. That way, when it is filed away by the National Film Registry, you can say you saw it first.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

There's No "U" in Enjoyment

When it comes to arts and entertainment, creators have one clear goal: to make the content enjoyable to the most people. This is not to say, however, that art is meaningless. Far from it. Without getting philosophical, art--be it music, literature, cinema, et cetera--exists to fulfill a need for personal pleasure. There are a huge number of qualifications that lead to this enjoyment, to be sure, but suffice it to say that it is human nature to pursue what makes us happy. Therefore, if successful art relies on making us happy, it is the musician’s or writer’s or director’s role to know what we enjoy and recreate it to make the most people happy. If only it were that easy. Despite the sound of it, I promise this will not be getting too philosophical.

As it comes down to it, making art that the most people enjoy is difficult. A film might amaze hundreds of audiences, but no film is going to satisfy every person’s desire. Or maybe a book only piques ten people’s interest, but for those people, the book is life-changing. Obviously, while artists set out to please audiences, not everyone can make it happen. And there is no surefire rule of thumb for reaching people; instead, it is a trial and error until something becomes popular. I do not have any answers either, but I have come to a (very) general theory that defines, in part, what is enjoyable to me.

Perhaps this theory is only true for me, but it might also apply to more people. I suspect this is the case. The test is totally subjective, so I really cannot be wrong. Try it yourself to see if you agree. A second disclaimer, despite the sound of it, I promise this will not be getting too scientific.

Imagine a graph where the horizontal line represents how “good” something is from worst on the left to best at the right, while the vertical line is how much you “like” the thing from least (bottom) to most (top). Again, extremely general and totally subjective, so you can’t argue with me. Begin by plotting your examples, such as movies, books, games, or albums. These are what I’m using, obviously. 

As you get going, some conclusions are made apparent immediately. Qualitatively speaking, I think The Godfather is one of the best movies ever made; it just so happens to be one of my favorites, as well, so it goes at the top-right. Same goes for Pulp Fiction: somewhere near the top-right. As you plot the graph, you can see the obvious correlation: higher quality means higher enjoyment. Discounting a few outliers, it is a fairly straight line towards the upper right corner of the graph.

Towards the middle of the graph, we see more objects of average quality toward the bottom third of the graph. This is the largest part of my graph, where a lot of “three-stars” go. For example, this where to find a lot of the stock, summer action movies, most albums by Weezer, and the Call of Duty series. Unfortunately, there are so many items in this list because high-quality, high-enjoyment items are usually few and far between. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with all three-star entertainment (or anything wrong with me for doing a lot of it). They are fine uses of time and, I think, serve as a great comparison for when you really find something excellent. There is my endorsement for three-stars: a good foundation for some even better entertainment, but ultimately boring and not lasting.

At the left side of the graph, however, some interesting happenings begin to occur. Low quality starts to tick upward in enjoyment a bit, then a bit more, until we reach levels of enjoyment rivalling the right side. Maybe this is just my chart, but I suspect not. Finally, we can see the phenomena: something that is so bad, it’s good. I mean, how else do films like The Room and Plan 9 From Outer Space become immortalized? Fans adore so-called B-movies or read hundreds of “trashy” novels in a year. In the end, my graph comes to look like a big, wide “U” with highs on both ends and a long, low middle.

Sure, there are going to be some problems here and there. This is where we develop terms like “overrated” and “underrated.” I can respect that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a high-quality film, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. I always get a kick out of James Bond novels even though I know they are not terribly well written. Conversely, I think there is nothing redeeming about the second Caddyshack film. 

Of course, so much more goes into enjoying something, like where you were when you read this book, the people you were with when you watched this movie for the first time, or how you heard this album at the right time (also known as nostalgia). But this is just a general theory that generally explains how I like certain things, which maybe explains more about myself. Science is way more accepting of general theories anyway, right? Therefore, art of spectacular quality or of spectacularly bad quality are highly enjoyable. Meanwhile, middling quality is typically bland, forgettable, and represents my least favorite forms of entertainment.

This is why I don’t like The Police.