Sunday, December 31, 2017

This Year in Music, 2017

The end of the year is the time to think subjectively about the past year and determining the best creative output. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy the end of the year for this reason. Nothing makes me happier than seeing lists begin to fly with titles that read "Best ______s of 2017." I try to be as proactive as possible, so I can have thoughts on the year as well. So, I have opinions on this year in music! Here is my process:

Throughout the year, I checked out as much new music as I cared to based on various sites and blogs. By the end of the year, of the dozens I listened to, I had culled 33 albums that made my favorites of the year. Next, I listened exclusively to those select few and tried to sort them from there. This was enjoyable, as I had amassed (what I personally thought was) an excellent list of music. Some of the albums were not as amazing as I had remembered; others were surprisingly better than I had credited at the time. It goes without saying any of the following are worth listening. Still, I've separated them into three tiers: 'B' for pretty good, 'A' for pretty great, and 'S' for must-listen. They are listed alphabetically. Follow along, and Happy 2018!


Aromanticism - Moses Sumney
DAMN. - Kendrick Lamar
Halo - Juana Molina
In Spades - The Afghan Whigs
Near to the Wild Heart of Life - Japandroids
Pleasure - Feist
Ty Segall - Ty Segall


American Dream - LCD Soundsystem
Culture - Migos
A Deeper Understanding - The War on Drugs
Exile on the Outer Rings - EMA
Hope - Shamir
Hug of Thunder - Broken Social Scene
I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone - Chastity Belt
Love What Survives - Mount Kimbie
Melodrama - Lorde
Playboi Carti - Playboi Carti
Rest - Charlotte Gainsbourg
Rocket - (Sandy) Alex G
Routines - Hoops
Science Fiction - Brand New
Significant Weather - Real Life Buildings
Sugar at the Gate - TOPS

A Crow Looked at Me - Mount Eerie
Guppy - Charly Bliss
Last Place - Grandaddy
Life Without Sound - Cloud Nothings
Nothing Special - Harmony Woods
Powerplant - Girlpool
Sorcerer - Tonstartssbandht
Turn Out the Lights - Julien Baker

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Andre Drummond, Point Center

As of this writing, the Detroit Pistons are 11-6. Respectable, yet not astounding, the record is good for a top-4 spot in the Eastern Conference and a lead in the Central division. For a team originally slated for 38.5 wins, however, now projected somewhere in the mid-forties and on pace for even more, this is a fantastic start. For a team with only one playoff berth this decade, moreover, this is even better. Seventeen games is still a small sample size, to be sure, but one that keeps getting bigger.

During an especially hectic NBA offseason, the Pistons were relatively quiet. That meant mostly familiar faces would make up the lineup, players whose strengths and faults were already known to a fanbase. Few of these players would be under as much scrutiny as Andre Drummond. Signed to a maximum contract, Drummond bears much of the brunt of the team’s successes and failures. In an era when teams are largely shifting away from centers and towards point guards as cornerstones, Drummond’s max deal raised some eyebrows. It has been interesting to watch the trajectory of discussion surrounding offensive statistics since his contract year.

Two years ago (the lone year the Pistons qualified for the playoffs) the focus was on a positive stat: rebounds. The center led the league in rebounds--the first Piston to do so since Ben Wallace in 2003--with the third-most total rebounds for a season in Pistons’ history. This earned him a max contract during the offseason. The following year (as the Pistons underachieved and missed the playoffs) focus turned to historically poor free throw shooting which made him a late-game liability. His rebounding remained consistent, but the foul shots were the scapegoat for his season. Now that the team is winning games again, it is time to look for positive statistics that contribute to the wins. One stat in particular jumps out: assists.

In his first five seasons in the league, Andre Drummond cracked an average of one assist per game one time--at 1.1. This season, he has more than tripled that average to 3.4. Through seventeen games, Drummond has more assists than in any of his first three seasons. At this rate, he will hit his career best season by the middle of December. Unbelievably, Drummond trails only the two point guards--Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith--in total assists. He even led all Pistons with seven assists in the November 10 game against Atlanta.

What does this mean? The obvious answer is more points. The Pistons are currently posting their highest offensive rating in ten years (since 2007-08), in which they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. There are numerous other factors involved, of course, but Drummond’s personal offensive rating cannot be discounted. Since Drummond is already pulling down a greater than average number of rebounds, an increase in assists shows that he has an option other than to go right back up and score. He can pass out to a wing for an open shot or look elsewhere to find weak defense.

It also means he is more confident handling the ball at places on the court other than below the basket. This makes him more effective in the eventual pick-and-roll. He can receive a pass and look to set up a play--or get it to someone who can--extending the shot clock.

The increase in assists has led to a higher turnover rate, which is to be expected. This season, Drummond is nearly doubling his career average in turnovers. Short of watching every possession, it is not easy to determine how many turnovers are direct results of attempted assists, but 22 of his 57 turnovers have come from bad passes. It is safe to assume several of these are related to more aggressive passing.

Of course, one statistic is far from enough to determine the success of a team--or even a player. But it is a part of the story: more assists makes for a more well-rounded player. And if Andre Drummond can keep up this level of offensive efficiency by adapting this new role, the Detroit Pistons are better for it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


I am typically an album listener. Some people are songs-first, then explore the album. It’s just a personal preference, but more often when I listen to a band, it is usually because I had heard of an album and wanted to check it out. I know it is uncommon; most people hit on songs on the radio and then turn to the albums for more. I mean, this is the purpose of the radio single. This is why it was unusual for me to learn of this group who, to my knowledge, has only put out three individual songs.

The band is called Superorganism, and before you try to do a search, believe me, it is not easy to come up with information on them. I have seen this sentence quoted several different times online, so I will do the same here: “Superorganism are a new group made up of a 17-year-old Japanese girl named Orono who lives in Maine and 7 other people who live in London.”

Now, since the band’s auspicious debut, this has proved mostly an in-joke. Much more information is available, and it seems the band just may prefer to occupy this mysterious status. Sort of, the less information I know about the band, the more intriguing the songs become. Most of the articles I tracked down (there are, like, three) seem to echo the same thoughts: this nebulous group puts out some addicting songs. That much we do know.

I love all three songs and have continually rotated them. I really can’t decide which is my favorite; all three have spent some time as that designation at one point or another. I enjoy them so much, I have tried them in every possible order (6 combinations) to see what works best for me. I suppose one upshot to take is that this exploration can be more rewarding than listening to an order set by an album. ANYWAY, naturally, I have thoughts on all three:

“It’s All Good” Of the three songs, this is the one that sounds like it would be the most likely to be on the radio. It has all the qualities of a pop song that appeals to a mass audience. This may sound demeaning, but it’s not meant to be. I only mean that it would be easy to rope in the widest array of listeners with this track, more so than with the others. Complete with what sounds like a full chorus and about twenty different instruments, the song is so happy, it’s impossible to listen to once.

“Nobody Cares” This is the one that I find running through my head hours or days after listening to it. This does not necessarily mean it’s my favorite, but its jaunty pace gets inducted in my head more often than I care to admit. Like the predecessor, happiness oozes from this song. Of all three, this is also the one where you should track down the video. It’s as trippy as it is joyous.

“Something for Your M.I.N.D.” To my mind, this is the crown jewel of the three. Without question, this is the most infectious song I have heard in 2017. As with any good thing, my discovery of the songs has a story. I missed finding them when they first hit the Internet big in the early spring. Instead, I found out about them five months later on a music blog. When I went to find the song I had missed, however, it was nowhere to be found. The Spotify entry was present but not active. The YouTube video was fuzzy with a dead link. I even checked the wild--SoundCloud--and the band's page was empty. Not being able to find it nagged at me, and I was reluctant to let it go. It didn't help that any article I found about the song could not write about it without talking how addicting it was. So, over the course of a few months, I searched for it from time to time to see if there was any new information. This song was taking on mythical qualities. When I finally found it, I was hooked almost instantly. The electronic beat pulses throughout and seems to feel better on each listen. Needless to say, the payoff was unbelievably sweet.

It sounds like a cliche, but I really cannot wait to see what’s next for this band. I’m hoping for the album, of course, (currently rumored for early 2018) but at this point I would take just one more song as fantastic as these first three. They are currently touring with about a half dozen other songs which, if they have been released, are tucked away on some corner of the Internet I haven’t found as of the time of this writing. I honestly cannot remember the last time I was this excited about a new band. Take the nine minutes and fifty-three seconds to listen to these three songs, and then join me in anticipating what is to come.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Best Thing I Did Last Week: Read The Man from the Train

I don’t read true crime. I watch a popular true crime TV series, and I get scared. I overhear a true crime podcast, and I hear strange sounds in the apartment. But I, like so many other people, cannot help but be fascinated by such stories. The popularity of the genre cannot be understated. Why is the true crime section is so huge at most public libraries? Or why does it seem like there is a new unsolved crime documentary every other month, and seemingly everyone has watched it? Despite my weak constitution, I still devour the documentaries and follow up on the stories because they fascinate me. This was part of the reason I picked up my first true crime book.

The Man from the Train, by Bill and Rachel James, is a heart-pounding, yet humorous study on a presumed serial killer whose crimes have been unsolved for over a hundred years. That’s right: one hundred years. Now, the other reason I picked up this book, admittedly, was the author. Possibly you recognize the name, Bill James, from something other than true crime1. For years, I had been a fan of his pioneering of baseball statistics.

Although this is not James’ first foray into true crime, it gives him a chance to use his research and analytical skills to attempt to solve this century-old murder. The amount of research the father and daughter team complete is just astounding. Think about it: the crimes would have been reported by local newspapers--and that’s about it. This was about forty years before TV and eighty years before the Internet, so news didn’t get around very fast. Despite working with biased, racist, and incomplete primary sources, they are able to compile a laundry list of crimes with several similarities that lead to a certain conclusion.

It is only fair to allow you to discover that conclusion, as the authors are very careful not to lead in one way or another. They state their ideas clearly, but want the reader to arrive at their own in due course. And you will form an opinion after seeing the purported evidence (an opinion which, in all likelihood, will be similar to the authors). There is nothing misleading about the details presented. Instead, they are upfront when presenting both information as fact and information as conjecture. That information may shape you, but it does not force you to agree with the authors. There is room for interpretation--albeit not much room.

Finally, the book is actually hilarious, or as hilarious as a book about an axe murderer could be. If you are familiar with Bill James' work on baseball statistics, you are probably familiar with his distinctive voice. The tone is almost conversational, addressing the reader directly, joking casually about incompetent law enforcement, or openly criticizing racist accusations of the early 20th century America. Not that they don't take the story seriously, but the authors make light when they can, surely appreciated in this gruesome, tragic story. If you are new to true crime, this is a great book to start. If you are a longtime fan, you won't be disappointed either.

1 Briefly, Bill James wrote articles and books asking new questions about baseball performance. He invented new stats as a way to measure and compare players, ultimately publishing his Historical Baseball Abstract, the sacred text to baseball and statistics nerds. If you’ve read Moneyball or seen the film, you know who this is.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

2018 Detroit Lions Preview

This could be an interesting year for the Detroit Lions. Poised to be the strongest professional team in the city, a playoff berth would be a nice response to a solid year from last year. 

Matt Stafford got paid this offseason. The nine-year veteran became the highest paid quarterback in the history of the league. He definitely deserves it. He is an elite quarterback, with years of experience and solid targets in Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and the exciting, young Kenny Golladay. The issue is whether or not he will be protected on the line. The biggest tragedy1 in Detroit sports this year--and I don’t think I’m over-exaggerating--is losing last year’s first-round draft pick, offensive tackle, Taylor Decker to a shoulder injury. As a rookie, Decker started all 16 games last season, and his injury leaves a huge hole in the line. There’s a chance he may be able to return for the playoffs, but the Lions will have to get to that point without him. 

The quarterback isn’t the only spot the offensive line needs to protect, though. For the first time in a long time, the Lions have a bit of a running game. Ironically, the first time the Lions don’t have a newly drafted “next Barry Sanders.” But they should be just fine with the pieces they have. Ameer Abdullah looks healthy at last and Theo Riddick is available to reel in screen passes in the short backfield. Of course, their skills are all dependent on whether the offensive line can create some running lanes. 

Basically, this entire season may hinge on the success of the offensive line. Do you still think Taylor Decker’s injury is overrated2

After earning a wild card playoff spot last season followed by an early exit to the Seahawks, can the Lions return to that stage this year? Sure, but there are a few problems with that, most prominently, the team in Green Bay. The Packers have had the keys to the NFC North for several years, and for the Lions to guarantee a spot, they have to top them. If they can’t, they will have to compete for a wild card against a tough NFC South with three (four?) playoff contenders3 and a perennially difficult NFC East. 

As the Lions have one of the hardest schedules I can remember in recent years, it will not be easy. They have to make it through a slightly weakened but still decent AFC North division, which should be good for two wins. The Lions also have to play the aforementioned NFC South, who has supplied the last two NFC Super Bowl opponents (and the last two league MVPs). All four of those games will be trials, so I would be overjoyed to split those games. If they can scrape out 10 wins, they should have a good shot. Unfortunately, as hard as I try, I can only come up with 8 or 9. We will need to rely on more Matthew Stafford late-game magic for hopes of returning to the postseason.

1 Deaths, notwithstanding. I don’t want to be morbid here.
2 The most underrated tragedy is Malik Monk not falling ONE more spot in the NBA Draft.
3 Not to mention three or four elite quarterbacks.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Supersaturation of Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar will be remembered as one the finest rappers of this decade. Since his breakthrough album in 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city, seemingly everything he's touched has been golden. Good thing, too, because he has touched a lot of music since then.

In 2015, Lamar released the hugely anticipated follow-up third1 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which many (myself, not included) believe to be his opus. One year later, he released untitled unmastered, a collection of tracks that were great despite being, well, untitled and unmastered. As it were, the album was met with an appreciative surprise from the collective music world. One more year after that, Lamar was back with another album, DAMN, his third in three years. Personally, I thought it was his best since gkmc, but some reviewers have been less forgiving, claiming he may not be as fresh as he used to be. On top of all the full-lengths, he's been featured on numerous tracks.

As I write this, I am playing Vince Staples' excellent Big Fish Theory, on which Lamar has a featured guest spot. And this is far from his first feature of the year. Earlier today, I heard a Future remix with him as well. In fact, it is more surprising when a major hip-hop album does not feature Lamar in some way. I'm probably being hyperbolic here, but the amount of times he has been a featured artist is almost shocking. Just looking over the Wikipedia list for his guest appearances is enough to remind me of a half-dozen albums I had already forgotten he was on. He transcends other genres too, not just hip-hop. He was in songs with The Lonely Island, Imagine Dragons, Taylor Swift, and Maroon 5, not to mention the copious rap tracks. All of this prominence reminds me of another artist of the last decade: Lil Wayne.

In 2008, Lil Wayne released his last truly great album, Tha Carter III, after a consistently solid ten years. The new album was monumentally successful: it sold a ton AND it was really good. He put out three albums in the next 18 months, none of which attained the same quality as III. Over that same period his already-prolific guest features list increased by the dozens2. Waves of mediocre songs peppered in with some good ones, and before too long, Wayne was tired and overplayed. Let me reiterate: Lil Wayne was at the top of hip-hop in the late 2000s (with good reason), and within three years he was basically done. He has continued to put out records and singles, but his best years were inarguably behind him.

Of course, Wayne had some personal issues that hastened his decline, issues Kendrick has not had to deal with (read: prison), so I don’t think Lamar should expect the same floor. And I get it, unlike other genres of music, the high points in a rapper's career are relatively short-lived. For the most part, older rappers can't compete with or move out of the way for younger up-and-comers. But Lil Wayne's career was something else, with some of the highest highs and lowest lows3. Both Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar are immensely talented, and both have had some fantastic albums and dozens (hundreds?) of guest appearances. I would like for the similarities to end there.

Don't get me wrong: I am not at the point of saying Lamar is already making bad verses, or that I don't still like hearing his tracks4. All I am saying is that there is slowly rising cause for concern. Maybe my complaints are petty, but he's just not surprising to me anymore. We are at serious risk of Kendrick Lamar over-saturation. He is one of the most versatile rappers working today, but that does not mean I need to hear him in every other major rap release. Instead, I would rather absorb his existing music for the time being without being hit with something else.

1 Yes, third album. His first album, Section.80, went virtually undiscovered until gkmc blew up and retroactively elevated it. Same goes for his solid mixtapes.
2 Again, look at a Wikipedia list to see what I'm talking about. You'll be amazed.
3 For the record, I would love a Lil Wayne renaissance with one, final, stupendous album.
4 I'm serious here: I could name half a dozen tracks where his feature is the best part in the song. When I put on an album for the first time, and I see he's on it, I look forward to his track, eager to see how he sounds.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Best Thing I Did Last Week: Read Stamped... and Listen to Between...

Stamped from the Beginning is a heavy book. The fact that it is a physically large book notwithstanding, the debut work from Ibram X. Kendi, historian and African studies professor, tackles some incredibly tense issues. And with a subtitle that reads, “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” you will know exactly what to expect, which is to say that it is not a pleasant book. In fact, the majority is understandably troubling. However, this does not make the presented facts any less important. Instead, the upsetting nature makes the book all the more challenging and powerful.

Professor Kendi divides the book into five chronological subsections, each headed by a principal character of each era. Those characters have defining roles in racial relations of each time period, ranging from emphatic civil rights activists to prominent racist agitators, with some situated confoundingly in between. The effect of framing each era around a major figure, regardless of that person’s stance, serves to analyze each individual era in the development of racist ideas throughout the history of the country. Rather than title each section based on a certain era in the country as a whole, Kendi personalizes each section by following the individual, a unique choice for a book of this type.

Over the course of the book’s 500-some pages, Kendi demonstrates an incredible amount of research. Every era is thorough and well-documented, and you get the impression that he has dedicated years to tracking down all of the quotes, passages, and works he references. The way Kendi manages to walk through the history, however, does not feel simply like reciting facts and quotes. He expertly leads a train of thought through the history in a logical manner, drawing conclusions among different participants. At the same time, though, Kendi does not force an opinion on the reader. Of course, it would be difficult to read this book and not arrive at a conclusion. Personally, I think this book is required reading for anyone with an interest in American history.

Around the same time, I put on the audiobook for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It is a short listen (the book is only about 180 pages), but another powerful one. Presented as a letter to the author’s son, Between the World and Me describes what it is like to be a Black individual in present day America. Coates describes his reactions to injustices both personal and in the news (which is heartbreaking, naturally). Furthermore, he narrates his own audiobook, so his words are quite literally his own. Imagine listening to this on your commute, and then picking up Stamped from the Beginning at home.

At this point, I was concerned that my high praise of the two books was based on the terrible concept of purported ‘white guilt,’1 (because I also felt similarly about James Baldwin’s anti-racist treatise, The Fire Next Time, after reading it last year). The more I thought about it, though, the more that seemed preposterous. No, I appreciated all three books because the writing is emotional and beautiful. The subject matter inspires the writers, to be sure, which affects the sheer impact of the words. But subject matter does not define the sole reason these books are excellent.

What originally drew my attention to this book was the 2016 National Book Awards. Stamped from the Beginning rightfully received the honor of being the best literary work in non-fiction. After reading it, I wholeheartedly agree. It is the perfect complement, if you are interested further, to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the previous year’s recipient of the National Book Award. In fact, I suggest experiencing them back-to-back, but you should probably plan for a happy read afterwards. Not only was Stamped from the Beginning the best non-fiction book I read in the last year, it is one that will stay with me for a long time.

1 The despicable idea that groups of (white) people can and should feel shame for the racist ways their ancestors treated other people. On its own, this may not seem like a bad thing, but it can be if it is equated to false or hypocritical social progression. The term de-legitimizes the ability to appreciate a racial critique by turning it instead into some sort of apology. Honestly, I think accusations of ‘white guilt’ are both reductive and offensive to considerations dealing with works about race. Instead, we can appreciate the works for what they are: excellent literature.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Best Thing I Did Last Week: Listen to Tonstartssbandht

The first step is learning to pronounce their name. When you see a name like Tonstartssbandht, it makes you think. Is this Swedish death metal? Some sort of German electronica? No, they are just two brothers from Florida who make exceptional rock music. And luckily, they have posted a pronunciation on their Bandcamp page. (It's TAHN-starts-bandit, by the way).

It should really be mentioned here and now that Bandcamp is a wonderful place to find music on the Internet. It is a place for artists to post and sell digital music directly to an audience. Because there is little attention and publication given to such releases, one can often find hidden gems of amazing quality for little to no cost.

The next piece of information about Tonstartssbandht you will find after spending a few seconds on their page is that they are prolific musicians. I only learned about them from their most recent release, but sifting through their older music reveals sixteen other distinct releases dating back to 2008. Imagine my delight in learning that there are another hundred songs to go through.

At any rate, their latest release, Sorcerer, came to my attention a few weeks ago, and it has been playing fairly consistently since I first heard it. There are only three songs on the album, but at 34 minutes, there is a lot to unpack.

The music itself is rather minimalist. Without doing any research on the band, the music feels like there are several potential possibilities. Either all of the instrumentals, vocals, and so on are done by one person and then intricately laid together, or each piece of the music is done by a group that is perfectly in sync. In reality, the sound is created by just the two brothers, which makes the sound all the more impressive, to my mind.

Sorcerer is the kind of album where any song (of the three) has the chance to be your favorite, and that choice could change at each listen. The music is diverse enough that a single genre is not enough to describe accurately the album as a whole. Instead, each song works as a 10 minute movement, sometimes acoustic, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes classic, sometimes modern. It is an album that demands to be listened to several times over, making new discoveries along the way.

For this reason, it is not easy to recommend the album in a conventional sense, as in “If you like this, try that.” You can hear roots from so many different eras of music. Their sound can be all over the place, while still being firmly situated in established independent rock music. If that appeals to you, Tonstartssbandht’s Sorcerer is totally worth checking out. Surely, you will find something great in this brief, yet impactful album.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Best Thing I Did Last Week: Play Bastion

When the word “craft” comes up in a conversation about video games, it often refers to the title of the game. Here, I’m thinking of the Mine-, Star-, [World of] War-, and so on. In rare cases, however, the word refers to what is going on behind the scenes. The word “craft” evokes the amount of time and effort it takes to a game with a certain style. Nothing about a well-crafted game is generic; nothing is boring. “Craft” is the word which constantly ran through my mind while playing the 2011 game, Bastion.

I have the tendency to come to games a few years (or decades) late. Usually, this works out in my favor, and I get to experience something classic that has withstood time. Of course, I miss out on the conversation around the game in the height of its popularity, but many times, it is nice look at the progression several years removed. In the case of Bastion, players have continually praised its style, despite being a small product from a little-known, first-time development team. Comparatively, a lot of praise for its small size. I certainly was never disappointed.

First, the gameplay itself is extremely engaging. It is no secret that Diablo II is my favorite game. The amount of times Bastion reminded me of Diablo was amazing. Not tonally (to be sure) but in the style of play. The view is top-down with a diagonal, isometric view that was so reminiscent of Diablo (but with much less red blood and dark shadows. The similarities do not end with the camera. The primary focus of the game is to fly to varied zones and recover a piece which in turn rebuilds the main world. On several occasions, my character was dropped in the middle of four roads with a choice towards the goal and--not unlike Diablo--I had to choose a route and hack and slash my way to the end. Whether or not these comparisons were intentional, it was hard not to be at least reminded of one of my favorite games.

There are differences, of course, in the art style, which was absolutely stunning. Each zone is unique in terms of terrain, color, brightness, enemies, and landforms. Every part of each zone looks to be hand-drawn. As your character moves about, the path builds its way up around you with pieces falling into place which literally makes it feel (here’s that word, again) crafted. Time after time, I would just run through levels and wonder at the visual display in front of me (which is dangerous, because you can fall off the map). Even if the act of playing doesn’t grab you (which shouldn’t be a problem) the sheer artistic merit makes it a worthwhile experience.

The soundtrack alone is worth turning the game on and leaving it running in the background. Each area has a unique sound that coincides with the gameplay. Not unlike the visuals, the music makes each zone feel like an individual part of a special world. The soundtrack has the kind of music that makes you want to grab a guitar and play along. In many ways, the music can stand independent of the game and still be praised for its quality. But the ways it works in conjunction with the game are superb.

Although I unintentionally seem to come to a few games late, I am usually rewarded for the long wait. And with a game like Bastion, it is most certainly better late than never.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Future of the Phone Game

If you take a critical look at modern video games, there are two basic opinions about the mobile phone. Either a) games on a phone are the extent of known video games or b) games on the phone are not even considered games. Now, both of these opinions are missing part of the story, and I would disagree with either one.

The history of playing video games on-the-go is not a recent one. Nintendo’s Game Boy has been popular since 1989; Sony has been at it for a few tries as well. Many times, games on these handhelds follow in the footsteps of their larger market console versions, and while perhaps at a smaller scale, they are accepted into the broader canon of a franchise. For instance, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Metal Gear Acid are two games that are a part of a grander franchise on consoles. Regardless of quality, these are two examples of franchises continued on their proprietary handheld consoles. Phones do not have the same luxury. Of course, licenses would preclude many franchises from appearing on certain consoles and on phones, but that does not mean equally affecting experiences can turn up there. Instead, phone games are for passing time on a boring commute. Why is it that games released on such consoles are more legitimized than games appearing on phones?

The first opinion is that games on phones are the only games to play. This would be someone whose idea of playing games is hours and hours of Candy Crush on an iPhone. If this sounds like fun to you, then that is wonderful! But there are longer experiences on phones that can be so much more rewarding and enjoyable.

The second opinion is that phone games do not “count” as proper video games. An example of this person would be someone who self-identifies with the detestable term, “hardcore gamer.” In such a person’s view, games require at least a few hours of dedication and are played on high-end computers or retro consoles. At least if it is a “real” handheld game, it had better be on a Nintendo or the like. Again, if this sounds like your concept of a traditional video game, that is perfect! But there are a handful (no pun intended) of great games that, while not being as graphically intensive as those on a modern TV, can deliver the same amount of exciting or emotional punch.

Mobile video games exist in a truly bizarre realm. People who play games regularly refuse to take phone games seriously. Those who exclusively play one or two endless mobile games are not aware of what other great opportunities they can get on their tiny computers. People who do not play any games at all disdain mobile games as a waste of time altogether. Mobile games really can be valuable in their own right, more so than just a time waster.

One hindrance to the phone’s ability to compete with established handhelds is the ratio of quality to bulk. If you watched the Super Bowl this year, or any amount of TV for that matter, you have probably seen huge ads for certain mobile games. It’s true, there are some insidious games that use addicting feedback loops to pry quite a bit of money from consumers. The sheer size of the respective app stores means that thousands of games can be produced at virtually no cost and only a small few will gain any sort of notoriety. The games of lasting quality, then, can get easily buried if the market is not followed constantly.

I predict the increase in valuable mobile game experiences will be akin to that of television. There was a time when the sheer production value of television shows could not attempt to compete with those of film. As TV began to tell more sophisticated stories, however, we began to see shows advance to a quality, which (in my opinion) now rivals many films. Sure, there will still be mindless puzzle games that sadistically trick millions of dollars out of its player base, but here and there, worthwhile experiences will come to fruition on mobile phones and anyone interested in games will take notice. In many cases, that renaissance is already here; players just need to start accepting it.

We have already seen the rise of independent games, or simple, short, artistic experiences that do not rely on action to draw in players. There is no reason such games cannot transform the mobile game market in years to come.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Life on Track

I'm obsessed with tracking things. Let me explain what I mean by that. When I refer to tracking, I mean I like keeping track of the types of media I consume. Websites like Goodreads, for example, which allows me to keep track of every book I have read, am reading, or will ever want to read. I don't just use these sites to keep track, though, I use them to motivate me to keep active. There is just something psychologically which make me more apt to do things if I'm being tracked. So, I am possibly (read: definitely) obsessed with tracking what I do.

I have a wide variety of interests. I love to read books, watch movies, play games, watch TV shows, listen to music, follow sports, read comics, and so on. Having a way to keep track of these things makes managing my passions that much easier. For most of those just listed, I use some sort of website to keep a tally of what I've done. I’m always on the lookout for more of these kinds of trackers. But here's the issue: I'm not altogether sure if this is good for me.

When I use these kind of sites, it is almost always only for my benefit. I rarely use the social features such sites provide, like comparing my stats to other fans. Instead, I use it to look back at my time in review. What album did I listen to a year ago today? I could tell you in a few minutes by going to LastFM. How many movies have I seen from the 1990s? I would check my Letterboxd account for that. The sort of stat-keeping that these sites provide is perfect for a neurotic person, like me apparently. It's sort of like stats in a role-playing game (for how many I've played, I look at my Backloggery).

I'm so crazy about this, I use two sites for music alone. LastFM automatically logs my tracks, then I manually add my albums to the site, BestEverAlbums. Here's something insane: if I listen to a CD in my car, I will play the album later on the computer later so the songs are added1. And if there is not a good existing site, I'm not above creating my own spreadsheets, as I've done for some sporting events. Yes, it's excessive. I'm well aware.

Excessive, sure, but harmless, right? That's what I'm trying to determine. I really don't like the thought of reading something, and then NOT immediately rating and adding it to my lists. I'm worried that as I get deeper and deeper into these kind of websites, that I'm no longer enjoying the thing itself, but rather the filling in of the thing to a list. I'm not to that point yet, of course, but I do still shudder at the thought of not keeping track of what I'm doing. And I've been doing this for years! Is it too late for me?! Can I just enjoy reading a book like a normal person, or am I a slave to the lists I have created?

Here’s the benefit, though: tracking websites really do get me to do more of said thing. I listen to way more music if I know it’s being automatically tallied. I read more to fill in gaps in my Goodreads. I run more miles just to look at the stats. See, these are positives2. These dumb websites actually do a lot to drive what I do. And I think this cannot be a bad thing.

So basically, if you want to get me into something, it might be a waste of time extolling its virtues. Just give me a tracking website with a nice interface, some charts or graphs, and some stats I can dig into. Geocaching might be a lot of fun, but I’m going to need a neat graphic to keep me going3. I’ll be happy as a clam. I mean, if I’m going to do something, it better be worth cataloging.

But in the end, I'm a stats and numbers kind of person. Analytical by nature, seeing how many books I read last year in a concise number is personally a good feeling. I like being able to visualize my 'accomplishments,' if you consider my free time an accomplishment (and I do). It doesn't take anything away from the enjoyment I felt (or didn't feel, as the case may be), and sometimes it is a perfect reminder to see a forgotten book on my virtually logged shelf and know that I liked it.

1 But played on silent only, of course; otherwise, I would have to track it twice. It’s weird. I’m weird. I know.
2 Although I am currently experimenting with some beer tracking apps, so we’ll see.
3 For example.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Spiciest Seat in Cooking

AS MARIE PUSHED her way through the revolving glass door, she looked around in amazement. It was her first time in the EXO headquarters, and she looked up what seemed to be a mile to the skylight above. The warmth and natural light meant she no longer needed the jacket that protected her from the chill January air of Manhattan. She could see windowed offices with people busily working running the whole height of the tower. She was simply amazed.

EXO, as everyone knew, was one of the largest media conglomerates still in existence. It started as a television channel in the late twentieth century but had evolved--as most things do--into a multi-platform experience. Now, the television channel was dwarfed by the sheer amount of material in its name. More channels were added, divisions purchased, and content made. Soon, EXO had its hands in everything, from news to sports to original programming, and so on. Of course, a paranoia of Big Business surrounded EXO, but honestly, what sizable company could hope to escape such an inevitability in those times? Most of it was well made, after all. But today, Marie was here for one reason: the cooking department.

She walked her way up to a secretary whose face was illuminated by the blue of her computer screen. “Can I help you?” The secretary asked dourly.

“Yes, I’m here for Cooking?” Marie replied.

“37,” came the response, as the secretary barely took her eyes off the continual data she was entering to gesture towards an elevator growing ever crowded. Marie was unphased by her attitude.

She excused herself and headed towards the elevator, still mesmerized by the amount of people in the lobby. When she was finally wedged into the back of the vehicle, she contemplated the steps that led to this point as she ascended.

Marie was a vlogger. She made videos and posted them on YouTube. She shared them with friends and--while she hoped they enjoyed them--had no expectation that they would become popular, which they didn’t. She had no way of tracking how many people were actually viewing her videos (view counters can’t be trusted, you know), and she really couldn’t care less. She made videos for her own personal pleasure. Sometimes she reviewed a movie she saw, other times an album. She even dabbled a bit in sports. But her true passion was with cooking. She would share basic instructional videos of her tastiest concoctions on the sole hope that someone watching would get a kick out of the video and maybe try their hand at making.

After several years of consistent posting, she volunteered to post on a shared video channel specifically for cooking on YouTube. She wasn’t doing it for views or fame or anything of that nature. She just saw it as an opportunity to continue doing what she was doing, and more people with a shared interest could interact. It meant a little more work than she was used to, and her supervisor was a bit of a dope, but that didn’t matter to Marie. She had finished school, so she had the time to make an extra video here and there, and she got over her inane supervisor with some slight complaining. Now, she could certain cooking videos to this larger network, while keeping her personal video channel alive with other creations.

One afternoon, Marie was preparing to make another video. She knew she had included some information in a previous video that would be helpful to her and her viewers in this new one. So, needing to refer back, Marie did what any young adult would do to quickly retrieve information: she turned to Google. A quick query turned up not one of her videos, but several. There was hers, of course, but it was about halfway down the page. The first result was video with the same title posted by EXO Cooking, one of the many subdivisions of the enterprise. The second, third, fourth, and many others were repostings of the link from EXO. ‘Hmm,’ she pondered to herself. ‘What are the odds of my video sharing a title with this one?’

She opened the video and was shocked by the similarities. ‘This feels like something I made,’ she thought. ‘In fact, it is exactly what I made.’ Excitedly, she looked around for her name somewhere on the page, then tried a different link and then another. All of the videos had attribution to someone; yet none of them were Marie. It was difficult to categorize her thoughts at that moment. Sure, she was flattered that a huge corporation like EXO would showcase her ideas, but a little miffed that they didn’t give her any credit. She shared it with her friends, who reacted with the predictable combination of annoyance and amusement. Finally, she arrived at the decision. It couldn’t hurt to contact EXO.

After some digging on the nigh impenetrable website, she finally found a lone contact email address. With a carefully worded message, Marie explained that she was flattered to find her video on the EXO Cooking webpage but a little surprised not to find her information anywhere on the page. Doing her due diligence, Marie enclosed a link to her original post as well as the link to the EXO page. Satisfied with the missive, she clicked Send.

Three days passed and still she did not hear back from EXO. Not that she was shocked, it was a multi-million dollar entity after all. She continued to joke with her friends, and it ceased to bother her. Then one day, her phone gave an insignificant vibrate. Illuminating the screen she read the one-line message.

“Miss Swift- you are welcome to come on Boiling Point to dispute your claim.”

Boiling point was quickly becoming one of EXO’s flagship web-series. Marketed as the “Spiciest Seat in Cooking,” the premise was thus: two celebrity chefs, Debbie Falstaff and Katherine Jacobs, sit opposite each other and loudly yell about topics in the culinary world, making such extravagant claims as, “I’m telling you, if you ever use a spatula with an cast-iron pan, you’re doing it wrong!” and “It is simply impossible to cook anything with fewer than three whisks!” A diminutive man--Matthew or Marcus or something--sits between the two powerhouse women, futilely trying to keep them on topic. To tell the truth, Marie had never watched one of the shows; she always collapsed with laughter, pointing at the screen whenever she forgot to turn off autoplay and the program began.

Boiling Point seemed like such a sham, Marie had no problems agreeing to go on the show.

When she got off the elevator on the thirty-seventh floor, Marie was recognized immediately (from her video, she assumed) and hurried down the hallway to the dressing room. As her makeup was hastily applied, a haughty woman explained the rules to her: “We’ve received your complaint about… ah… the proper credit, and it will be disputed on this show. If you successfully pass the ten minute mark, you can have your credit.”

“That’s it?” questioned Marie.

“Don’t be so sure of yourself; these women are sharks.”

Marie stepped over to the studio, brightly lit and surrounded by gawking people. As it were, Marie only had to go up against Katherine Jacobs. Debbie Falstaff was out sick, or so an intern claimed. And the whole charade was, remarkably, very easy. The moderator, Marco (or whatever his name was) started off with a softball, “Marie, why are you here?”

Marie began, “Well, to get credit for --”

“The real problem with split pea soup, is that the peas are already split!” launched Katherine Jacobs. “If I’m making split pea soup, you’d better believe I’m splitting the peas myself!”

The woman was insatiable, jumping from point to point with no rhyme or reason. The boy--for he really was just a pawn in this game--ceased trying to steer the conversation and pulled out his iPhone. Clearly, he’d done this before. Marie sat back, halfheartedly trying to offer agreements or counter arguments. Jacobs went blithering on, growing more shrill and belligerent by the second.

“You got lucky,” the haughty woman barked after the show. “If Falstaff was here, you would have been crying.” Marie doubted this, as the intern inside had told her all of them turn out like this. If nothing else, the plagiarism, Boiling Point, and the whole experience made for a really dumb story for her friends.

Marie arrived home, opened her ancient laptop where she did most of her work, and navigated to the EXO YouTube channel. Finding her video, she opened it up and expanded the additional information below the window. There, in tiny print, was her Twitter handle, “@MarieSwift1991.” She closed the laptop lid and smiled. This was all she wanted.