Monday, October 1, 2012

Ralphie’s Gripe with the Game (or How I Started Worrying and Began to Hate Clichés)

Ralphie is a simple man. He enjoys Wizard Hats, wide animal themed shirts, and properly developed cannon. And now, horror of horrors,  Ralphie’s favorite MMO is in danger and this brings him now to the pulpit of our generation: NEOGAF forums. Ralphie cannot rectify his complex lore fascination with the terrifyingly awful decision to put Hobbits and Dwarfs on horse back in the Lord of the Rings Online. “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!?!” he rages among piles of empty microwaveable Hungry Man microwaveable meals. “DO THEY NOT KNOW HOBBITS ARE FAR TOO SHORT TO PUT ON A HORSE. THE GALLANT AND CHIVALROUS MERIDOC BRANDYBUCK HAD TO BE ON THE BACK OF NOBLE EOWYN WHEN RIDING INTO PELENNOR FIELDS. THEIR LEGS AND ARMS ARE TOO SHORT FOR HUMAN HORSES”. He takes to the forums, knowing, feeling, the masses must be informed.

When Ralphie receives scorn, he does not back down. He does shirk away. He meets the challenge head on, like the wolves on his shirt were born to do. Rebuttals like, “But that decision would not allow half of the population to not participate in the new mounted combat” do not decelerate the Ralphie train. “LIKE ALL OF OUR LOTS IN LIFE, WE CANNOT GO BACK AND GET A NEW START. JUST AS I AM NOT DESTINED TO FIT IN AIRPLANE SEATS, THOSE WHO HAVE ROLLED A HOBBIT ARE NOT DESTINED TO FIGHT UPON HORSE BACK”.  Irksome hesitations and misgivings, such as “well it’s just a game, not everything has to 100% accurate” are not given the time of day to even cross Ralphie’s consciousness. “THE NOBLE ROHIRRIM GAVE THEIR LIVES TO SAVE US FROM THE EVER EXPANDING SHADOW AND YOU WOULD DO THEM THE DISSERVICE OF NOT HONORING THEIR MEMORY!?”, he seethes into the text submission box.  “GIMLI CANNOT SWING FROM HORSEBACK, AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU! HE WAS A NOBLE PRINCE AND YOU BUT A LOWLY ADVENTURER. IF HE COULD FIGHT FROM FOOT, YOU CAN TOO”.

Ralphie knows that with a loud enough voice, anyone can be heard. So he will be heard. He will be the eagle in the night, the owl in the day time, the lone wolf in the pack of wolves. He will campaign and crusade until Turbine see the error of their ways, lest he be content with a subpar product. He WILL NEVER PLAY WITH THIS INJUSTICE until he buys the game, just to login and complain to his fellowship that so much lore breaking is going on, it’s hurting his gullet, or maybe he’s just hungry. “YOU MUST STAND UP FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN,” he can be heard wheezeing over the Ventrilo server, pausing only to suck in saliva from the outer regions of his mouth, as he shouts over the deluge of water “WITHOUT IT WE ARE NOTHING”. He mounts up on his hobbit to explore the newly released Riddermark, hopefully he will get to Hytbold so he can upgrade his top tier raid armor.

HE WILL NEVER FORGET THE WRONGS COMMITTED THIS DAY until we do and then when Helm’s Deep is released Ralphie will rally the cries “THE WALLS OF THE DEEP WERE AT LEAST 3 AND A HALF INCHES TALLER”.

Depth of Interest: Revamp

So back in the summer of 2008, before I was a fresh-faced first year at University of California Santa Barbara, I wrote this article on my video games blog. It was about the depth of games, what makes games fun, and how they hold our interest. I wanted to revisit the entry, for I thought it contained some pretty good nuggets of truth, as well as some predictions that I can re-examine and can follow up on to see how true they ended up being. I'm going to rewrite a lot of it. Please use the link to read the original. 

I use to think that I knew what it meant to play a game for a long time. When I wrote the first version of this article, I had at least 634 hours in World of Warcraft. My main character at the time, Akoris, a level 70 Paladin had about 20 days of play time, which is about 480 hours of playing. I never really stopped playing World of Warcraft and continued to play through Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. The sun is set on the Cataclysm era, and I've racked up about 100 days of play time now. I have 6 level 85s, and a level 69. I think most people would say that I have spent a lot of time in that game. Crazily, there are people who've played this game more. When Pandaria launched, a lot of people who had been veterans returned to the game and they were talking in general chat and one guy said he had 200 days of play time on a warlock and a 50 days on another guy. That's more time than I've spent in total on all my guys, they've spent it on one guy. I have to say that I don't think this guy is alone in this kind of commitment. World of Warcraft USE to be joked about as the game that sucked out all the time out of your life. I can't remember where I heard about it (it was on a podcast, either Gamers with Jobs, Rebel FM or WoW insider, and I can't remember which one for the life of me), but I heard somewhere about a guy playing Guild Wars for about 10 hours a day since the game has come out. That's some outrageous commitment. It really says something about the game when it can hold a person's interest for that long. This leads me to a simple, but very important question: why do games strive to hold our interest for such a long time? For a game like WoW, there is a monetary incentive for it: the longer people play, the more subscription fees they collect. Yet that isn't the case with a game like Oblivion, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fallout 3, etc which are entirely offline, single player games. Going back even farther, there was a time when Donkey Kong, a 2D platformer, was the pinnacle of gaming, and a huge factor in the success of it was that it is easy to pick up and quickly, very fun.

Why do we strive for depth in our games? Maybe the obvious answer is because we like to have fun as long as possible before going to do something else. But different games go about "having fun" in different ways. "Fun" is a contentious term, but I want to define it as "you are enjoying the game for the sake of playing the game". What it means to "enjoy" a game vs be driven for rewards is a topic that should have a longer space to do it justice and should be discussed elsewhere. Returning to the topic , having fun isn't about just shooting people over and over and over. Sure that can be fun for a little while, which is why Geometry Wars can be fun. It is a certainly different experience to fly around shooting shapes as compared to an MMO or an FPS. Yet, that doesn't remain fun. The game eventually introduces different modes in the game, different guns and more shapes and more enemies. However, that game loses it fun rather quickly because it is largely always the same game. It's an arcade style console shooter. Without offering new and different experiences to the player, the player will eventually lose interest in the game and go find something else to do. However, what the player does is up for debate. He could play a different game, or he can play the same game in a different way. Smart game designers will design games to be played in different ways, if they want to retain a player base for longer than 2 or 3 hours.

This tendency of human beings is the same one that WoW capitalises on to get its fun. There is always more. More areas, more spells, more levels, more dungeons, more fights, more gear and more quests. What asked my readers back in 2008 was, "Is this truly fun, or is all this new stuff just renewed novelty? Is depth just renewed novelty? Just an effort to give us new stuff all the time?". Now, after going to college and reading some Baudrillard, Hegel, Hume, Locke, Joyce, and other theory and literary critics, I'd have to say, I don't think I can answer this question. This question is too sweeping, too generalizing and tries to cover too many topics. But I think what I can do, is try to at least look at World of Warcraft, and see how it uses "renewed novelty" to stay fun. I think I made an error in judgment when I wrote this article because I don't think I understood WoW as much back then. A lot of the lower level experience is to prepare the player for the end game. I didn't know how deep the game went until I went through college, because that's when I really delved into the the number crunching aspect of theory crafting. The whole game you have to play with mastery, expertise and hit rating add a whole other aspect to the game. The lower level experience introduces new skills for your characters so you can learn them one at a time, and develop habits for using them. It also adds boss mechanics so you can learn them one by one as well. What I did not understand is that the game changes as it progresses. But I also think this redesign is recent to World of Warcraft. After Cataclysm, the whole 1- 60 experience was redesigned to flow better and to make more sense, so I think that this carefully crafted curve is a result of years of quest design and research.

World of Warcraft does a very good job at keeping a player entertained. With Mists of Pandaria, it added several new things to do with the game. It is avoiding the pitfall of constantly recycling and representing game mechanics in order to try and trick the player into having fun. The game changes and morphs into a different experience as you level, as this keeps people playing. By allowing us to play differently, it is encouraging player to stay with the game and to keep playing. Here's a short,  non exhaustive list, of ways they've introduced to keep us playing differently: Dungeon and Raid Finder, PvP for experience, pet battles, farming, Transmogrification, guild perks and experience, mounts at 20, Real ID grouping, and account wide achievements. These are all activities that were not traditional MMO affairs until WoW did them, and they are ways that Blizzard has come up with to keep us playing. They are allowing us to play how we want, and that is allowing them to remain relevant and it is the reason that people are still playing the game.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Diablo 3 Review

So, I have to admit, I was not that excited about Diablo 3. I had played a lot of Diablo 2, the original. I hadn't really played the expansion. But I had lost countless hours of my 7th-8th grade years doing Mephisto and Diablo runs on Nightmare and Hell. Those were great times. But I wasn't sure I wanted to repeat this whole experience. I figured, how could a game that was more or less the same game be fun a second time around? I played Torchlight earlier this year and got pretty far into it. I got close to finishing it, but not all the way. It honestly got kind of repetitive after a while. It was literally just going deeper and deeper into the dungeon. You never came out and went to a different place. The environments changed, but you just kept going deeper. Regardless, I enjoyed it, but I wasn't super pumped to play Diablo 3 or anything. I knew the internet was though.

However, when my friend Marc decided that the game would be more fun if played with friends and offered to pitch in to buy it for me, I was hesitant to say no. "I mean, it might be really fun with friends", I contemplated, so I decided to take him up on his offer. And boy am I glad I did. This game is the most fun  I've had playing a game for a long time. It's addicting, engaging and accesible while being surprisingly complex and deep. Blizzard could have produced a game that coasted on the phenomenal success on Diablo 2's name and sold millions of copies regardless if the game was good or not. However, they not only matched the success of Diablo 2, but I think they have surpassed it. The fun polished final product suggests that the creators and development team really took the time to study what made Diablo 2 work so well and along the way they fixed a lot of what was wrong with it and created a fantastic game that will raise the bar for both Action RPGs and sequels in general.

One of the best parts of Diablo 3 is the whole aesthetic appeal of the game. The art direction of the game is simply incredible. The look of Azmodan, Diablo and the whole High Heavens are just really really cool looking. The atmosphere is incredible in this game and one of the ways they achieve this is through the graphics. They are warm, detailed and add a lot of depth to the game while not being a simple gimmick. Your character progresses through a variety of environments even in the first Act and one of the things that I really liked was the detail they put into the space outside the explorable map. You know, the place that you can't get to. They fill it with rich textures of swamps, mountains, dungeons and a variety of other background pieces. It really helps add to the feeling that you are a part of a living, breathing world, and immersion is one effect Blizzard achieves with flying colors. What is also great is that the game actually sorta scale. I know that when I get home to my real desktop computer, I should be able to crank the graphics up and play it beautifully, but I can play it pretty well on my Macbook Air. I do get frame rate slowdowns when in particularly busy fights, but nothing that I can't handle.

When I said they did not simply piggy back off the success of the old game, I wasn't kidding. Underneath, it is still the same game as it was before, and Blizzard even subtly acknowledges this. In Diablo 2, you went from Tristram to a desert level from Act 1 to Act 2 and this is the very thing you do in Diablo 3. It's a subtle reminder that this is still the game you know and love. However, they have corrected many of the problems that plagued the original Diablo 2. Firstly, they have now moved on to everyone getting their own loot in multiplayer. No longer are the people with slower internet connections and slower computers at a disadvantage when the boss dies. Everyone will get something. However, they left in the system of being able to drop items to trade. Without that feature, the game probably wouldn't feel like Diablo. Additionally, they decided to do away with Scrolls of Town Portal and Identity. Some will say that this was part of the game, but I want to commend Blizzard on it. That is a feature that was characteristic of the series, but not in a good way. There were few things that were more annoying than when you were out in the wilderness and you realized that you had forgotten to buy Town Portal scrolls. They made an executive decision and it makes the game much more fun. You spend less time doing tedious activities and more time slaying hordes of monsters, which is the most fun aspect of this game.

The choice to include health orbs was a wise one as well. It makes the game less about collecting potions and rewards killing monsters instead of buying stuff. It adds to the fast paced nature of the game and keeps your character moving forward, never losing momentum. The pacing of this game is superb as well. The acts go quickly enough that you do not get bored, but they last long enough to finish in an extended sitting. This all helps the momentum of the game never really stop until you finish the game on normal setting.

In the Original Diablo 2, there were 5 classes, with 2 more added in the expansion. With 12 years of development, Blizzard surely could have come up with some more classes. Instead, they opted to make each character have a variety of play-styles. Good news is, is that this gamble succeeded. Each character has about 15-20 spells, but only 6 can be actively at one time. What this forces the player to do is to think about what sort of role you want to fill. As a Wizard, I could either be a living bomb, opting to pick spells that AOE out from my character, or I could choose to be a single target ranged killer, or a AOE at range role. However, these are all decided on the fly and leads to incredible depth to the classes. Not only can you only use 6 spells of an available 30, each spell has about 7 different runes for each one. And you guessed it correctly, you can only have 1 rune per 1 spell. This leads to thousands, if not millions, of different combinations that are possible for each class. You unlock the available 6 slots for actions by level 10 or so, providing good time for you to experiment with the interactions between all your spells as you level and take on more monsters. The game is easy to pick up, but provides incredible depth and complexity if you choose to partake in it. And what is great, is that the spells you unlock first stay relevant throughout the game, as the damage scales based on weapon damage, not a set number. This means the spell you used at level 1 is going to be roughly just as good as the one you get at 30. There will simply be situational differences that dictate their use instead of numerical ones. Too often do games pick up a mechanic and ditch it later on because something new and fancy came along. Diablo keeps all of its content fresh consistently, and this is a considerable feat.

All of this great gameplay works well playing even by yourself. But where the game's most fun times are to had are online. They say bad pizza is great with friends, and so it comes to no surprise that great pizza is incredible with friends. Multi-player online with Diablo 3 are an absolute blast, and are among the best times I've ever had playing a game online, rivaling the days of Halo 2, Team Fortress 2, WoW and Gears of War. When you get 4 players into a game and you are all hacking and slashing your way through hordes of enemies, they are few things that have made me as happy. And since everyone has their own loot, there is never any fights over loot, only better chances that someone in your party got something that your character can use.

What is going to be impossible to predict of this game is the legacy of. No review could have anticipated the massive overwhelmingly positive reaction to the online play of Diablo 2. The game has inspired millions of people, in multiple ways. It inspired a bunch of kids who grew up playing it to make games like that when they grew up. It also inspired industry designers who saw the success of Diablo and looked to copy it. It paved the way for games like Torchlight and Titan Quest, even if Diablo wasn't the original Action RPG. It made it marketable and the proof of that is in the sales numbers and longevity of its continued play. Will Diablo see such continued play for the next 10 years? Or will it be a flash in the pan game that people cease to play after the hype dies down. There is no way to tell.

Diablo 3 makes extremely good use of a limited amount of material. They re-use astonishingly well. They use a limited number of levels, classes, skills and stories, yet they make it continually fresh. They have delivered a game that is accessible, simple, complex, addicting, beautiful, and social without departing radically from the Diablo franchise. Blizzard has raised the bar yet again with this iteration of the series and has proved once again that they, along with Valve, can consistently put out high quality, polished games, even if it takes forever. It really makes me feel like it was worth the wait.


  1. Diablo 3
  2. WoW

Technical Mechanisms, Video Games and Art: A Reflection on Reviews

The industry of reviews has an ongoing debate, perpetuated by the nature of the medium, about how much a good video game review talks about the technical mechanisms of the game it reviews. Shawn Elliot (ex-GFW and current Irrational Games) contests (in the GFW show of October 25th 2007) that in any other medium of art criticism, a good reviewer very rarely talks about the medium itself when discussing the merits of the piece of art. He said that most video game reviewers get really caught up in the technical aspects of the game and forget to add if they liked the game or not. I initially whole heartedly agreed, but after some thinking, I revised my position to say that I agree with him to a certain extent. In the kind of review he is speaking of, they describe the game itself and then they decide that the piece is good enough of a "review" fit for publication. It isn't.

A good review, whether it be music, movie or an event, will describe the thing firstly with objective facts. The aspect that separates an average review from a good review is whether or not the reviewer will then turn around and describe their own subjective reaction to those facts. There is nothing wrong with being subjective. As humans, everything will be biased in one way or another. It is impossible to avoid this reality. What we can do then is recognize that we will all be biased and write subjectively. It is then the duty of the reader to know that the review is subjective and take that into account when reading it. However, I think that Elliott makes a couple missteps in his statement. Firstly, I believe a good reviewer considers the form of the art medium in a good review and comments upon it. Secondly, I also believe that video games are an unique art form, as their existence predicates itself on the existence of technology, therefore rely on it working correctly, and because of this, the form of video games can have a significant influence on the content of it.

To start off, it is important to define what I mean by the term "technical mechanisms". In the broadest sense, they are they systematic pieces that frame the game, and allow it to be engaged. They can be easily observable parts like controls, video resolution, frame rates, and graphics quality, as well as more intangible aspects like, delivery methods, menu layout or how the multi-player system is setup. These can be considered "form". The other side, we have "content". These are things like, story, game mechanics or level design. These two aspects, form and content, constitute all art in the world, across all mediums. They are in books, movies, music, dancing, architecture, painting, sculpture and any other art form you can imagine. However, some of the difference lies in how much you can separate the two from each other. It's a largely fruitless exercise (since form cannot exist without content, and vice versa), but it may help it understand what can be considered form, and what can be content. For a book, the form is the page layout, the font type, the sentence layout on the page, and the placement of words upon the page, among other things. The content is the story. Now, the tricky part comes when you try to separate the two. Is there story without chapters? Does the story change when you change the page layout? The more important question would then be, "Does your experience change?". If you look to an art like dancing, it is impossible to see the dance without the form. You cannot separate the form of the dancer from the content of the dance. But that doesn't mean both form and content don't exist in this medium. It just means that the two appear differently in each different medium and affects the experience of each medium in different ways. Now, how does art use that form to create meaning?

A lot of good artists utilize the medium itself in order to convey meaning and to not discuss this is to miss some of the message they are trying to convey. Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer in particular that uses the medium of the printed book to create a subtle, multi-layered message. James Joyce uses this as well in Ulysses (the last chapter is five sentences long, spanning 50 pages, mirroring the stream of consciousness style of thought). Arguably, sentence count and length could be considered a "technical" aspect of the book. If you read, "this chapter has 5 sentences and they are 30 words in length", that is pretty similar to hearing "there are 10 levels in the game" and hearing, "the graphics are using Unreal Engine" is close to hearing, "the book has a 12 point font". These are both instances where the form of the medium can be used to shape the content of it. If the font of a book uses Times New Roman versus Sandscript, there is probably a reason behind it. The printer had to decided which one to chose, so it's not an accident. Additionally, while books are regionalized and can be printed on a variety of page sizes and font sizes, consider for a moment if that wasn't true. What if there was only edition of the book, and the font was small and hard to read. This would greatly impact the experience one has with the book. If the "great review" looks to explain your experience with the art object, mentioning that it was physically hard to read would make that experience different. Video games only have one graphics engine, one controls scheme and one frame rate. It is impossible to distinguish form from content in the medium of video games for this reason. If the story and mechanics was transplanted into another "shell" of a video game, maybe it would be different and better, but most of us would consider that a different game. The form of video games is important for the experience.

This is similarly experimented with in other art modes. Great filmmakers tinker with the format of film, changing color filters, film speeds, sound qualities and other aspects that can greatly influence how we experience the film. Music does this as well. When Elliott says that great reviewers don't talk about the technical aspects of the medium, I think he is mistaken. I believe they do. I just think it's in a tone that is different from the tone we usually get when reading about scholarly things like music and movies. Those are art forms that are widely recognized and accepted, so consequently, there are statistically going to be more mature writers who write on the subject. Video games journalism and critique is still in its infancy and still has a long way to go. Video games have traditionally been a field dominated by male, immature nerds. Not until recently has it been cool to play video games. And even now, most of the people who are devoted enough to video games are not usually the ones who write about them. This may be an unfair characterization, but I feel like most of the people who play video games go into Math and Science fields, though that demographic is changing. Because of this, I think that the pieces that we traditionally get written about video games reflect that trend. They tend to be more technical and structured and tend to talk more about objective facts more than subjective interpretations.

While I think this is not the way to get the video games industry taken seriously, I think we should recognize that the form (re: technical aspects) of the video game influences the medium of video games more than most other forms of art. If a movie was hard to play for your DVD player, or the CD also skipped at a certain moment, you would mark it down. Consequently, if a video games' graphics make it hard on the eyes, or if the frame rates are not good enough to beat a level because it lags too much, its going to make the game less enjoyable. There is a level of nit pickiness that goes in video games journalism that is unacceptable, but I think that it is fair to mark down a video game if the graphics are truly abominable and they influence the game experience. Half Life 1's graphics now are not the best, but they do not hinder the game play in any way. You can still play that game and enjoy it, even after playing games in the modern era. But if you got a game on Xbox 360 (a system you cannot upgrade) and it cannot play the game smoothly, the game should not be forgiven because the mechanics behind those graphics might be clever. Like I said, in many instances, the form of the medium influences the content dramatically.

Don't get me wrong though. I think Shawn Elliott is a very intelligent guy and his views on video games are sorely missed, as he now works in the industry and cannot comment on them much anymore. I do agree with him in that a lot of reviewers in industry pass off paltry attempts for reviews, dwelling on petty technicalities and pretend to be objective. Those reviews will never move past 10th grade high school level. The guise of "objectivity" will severely limit the writers ability to express the experience of the game itself. The review is suppose to tell you if a game is good or bad, not a rap sheet of technical bullet points, so by its very definition, it will be subjective. However, I think that a good review will mention these technical aspects, but will comment upon how the developers use those technical mechanics to create atmospherical aesthetic and captivating gameplay. I think that a careful line must be walked between these two, as failing to mention the interaction of form and content will miss some of the message that the artist is trying to convey, and therefore will not accurately reflect the experience one has with the art object, be it music, movies or video games.

What Blizzard Needs to Do

What Blizzard needs to do with World of Warcraft is similar to the thing that the music industry needs to do in order to become profitable again. World of Warcraft is arguably, being ruined by the fact that we can fly. There are a couple conclusions that I stumbled upon that I would use to reinforce my argument, like the fact that having flying makes us consume content at a faster rate, makes the game easier, and detaches us from the immersion in the world itself. It allows us to pick and choose our battles for the most part, and this leads to a detached feeling from the world. When we were ground bound, it took longer, because we had to get there. It's weird going back to an alt without flying, because actually getting there is like half the battle until level 60. What Blizzard has also done, that has made this game easier, and therefore more boring (to some. not me, but some) is they had reduced the number of items required for something, like material gathering quests or kills for reputation gains.

Now that the game is easier, how will Blizzard sustain its playerbase and not lose people because they either dont like it or run out of things to do? Blizzard will have to innovate. It will have to make content interesting enough that we will want to experience it. And so far from what I have seen, they are. They make quests that make intricate use of the flying mount, and I can tell you it's really fun to be able use my flying mount for the quests. But they have to create new game mechanics that are entertaining and engaging enough that are not the old style MMORPG quests. I don't know if I can think of another MMO that uses flying like WoW. WoW is an old school MMO at heart, at least when it began. It took a turn after Burning Crusade and the release of flying mounts. At first, flying mounts were hard to obtain, but because of the nature of expansion packs, they became the norm. By nature of expansion packs, I mean,  by being an expansion pack, one assumes that the characters will be advanced in level beyond the level cap of the previous game. So, when Wrath came out, everyone needed to get to level 80. If the flying level is 70, its necessary that everyone who experiences new content will have obtained flying at some point. So, therefore, flying becomes normal. If flying makes the game easier, that means that everyone will have an easier game. After everyone experiences this easier game, no one is going to  want to go back to the hard game. You can't go back. It will always be seen as a downgrade, and not up to the game's full potential.

What Blizzard needs to do is make us want to play the game for other reasons than the traditional MMO reasons. The tradition of old MMOs is wanting to collect something for the purpose of being a compulsive collector. What WoW needs to do is make the MMO fun. They need to make you want to collect things, but for different reasons. They have to make us want to keep playing after we've collected the things. That is something that the Star Wars: The Old Republic and (probably) The Elders Scrolls MMO haven't figured out yet, and this is why they failing. WoW is making it easier to play (Dungeon Finder, Mounts, PvP queues from anywhere, less reputation for factions), so that if you want to collect, its so much easier. We've all been trying for so long, we should just be given what we want. Why make it hard?

I don't have any suggestions really for how to make it better. But I do think that Blizzard recognizes this fact and is acting upon it. Like I said, I think their questing mechanics reflect this trend. Deepholm makes good use of flying mounts, as does the Twilight Highlands. Especially the parts with the city on the rock, The Krazzworks. They use vertical space well, and they make it useful, but not impossibly easy to complete the quests there. I think adding fighting to flying would make the game a lot different. It would add that sense of danger back into the game. It would make it so you can't AFK in the middle of the world.

Of companies I know that may be up to the challenge, Blizzard is one I expect to rise to the occasion. They needs to innovate, and that's what I see them doing. But I think most importantly, they have to deal with this flying problem.

Murder to Excellence; an expose

"When the hook("whole lotta money in a black bag. black strap you know what thats for") is repeated at the end of the song, the line “black strap, you know what that’s for” segues into “Murder” (part of “Murder to Excellence”), which discusses black-on-black crime." -Rap Genius 

Murder to Excellence, the tenth track off of Kanye West and Jay-Z's storied "Watch the Throne", participates in the artist practice of the form of the art matching it's content. Murder (the first part of the song) has a gritty beat, with instrumentation and tones matching a more urban, harsh theme. The backing vocals create a driving force for each of the rappers, pushing them on, creating an aura of tension and giving the feeling of almost being hunted. This element is regarded as form, as it is the structure of the song; it frames the song and provides a skeleton that the content, or the lyrics, is laid over. The content of this section is about how black people murder each other, how black culture is self destructive, how murder is a manifestation of symptoms of a system that discriminates, oppresses and drives black people to murder each other. It's a mature approach to race relations, as it places blame on both black people ("It's time for us to stop redefine black power, 41 souls, murdered in 50 hours") and on the system (the same line Dan pointed out, "What's the life expectancy of black guys? The systems working effectively, that's why"). It challenges the community to move past violence and become more sophisticated ("If you put crabs in a barrel to insure your survival/You're gon' end up pulling down niggas that look just like you/What up, Blood? What up, cuz? It’s all black, I love us "), and as Rap Genius points out, "Jay uses the 50 Cent line “What up, Blood? What up, cuz?” to demonstrate that he is talking to all young black folks (“Blood” refers to the Bloods gang, and “cuz” is a common Crip salutation), and to remind them not to get caught up in gang violence, but rather to feel pride in their race. "

Excellence (the second half), has a cleaner, loftier rhythm. It's sounds sophisticated, and classy. The voices that made "Murder" ominous and threatening sounding shift and make it now sound high class. There are comparisons that can be made here between these vocals and gospel music. Gospel music could be considered one of the shining beacons of hope for the black community, as it has existed through hard times, through slavery and civil rights, and has remained a major part of the community through all its hard times. It has remained an unwavering force for good, and more importantly, a force for wanting to be better. There's a sense of hope in it, that they can push past this life full of hardships and misery and achieve a better one in heaven. The verses here talk about moving up in society, and how black people aren't really involved in high society (because of structurally imposed racism on black people dating all the way back to the middle passage). This song has a hope that blacks will rise up and join their equals in positions of power and influence. Hope that black people won't be stopped by police, for our society will have stopped demonizing black people to the massive extent that it does today. There's the clever line "Domino, Domino, only spot a few blacks the higher I go". If dominoes and black with white dots, the higher the number, the less black you will see. I'm not sure if this is what Jay-Z meant, but true art is something that gets us to ask questions, and whether or not the artist "meant" it does not matter as much as much as we think (for more on this, read Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author").

The participle "to", when used here, indicates a movement from one place to another. This is what the song does. It moves from one aspect to another, and not only in terms of moving from one topic of discussion to another. The song carries the overall theme of hope, and in this same vein, The Throne hopes that African Americans can move from Murder to Excellence. In this way, by uniting form (rhythm, tone, the aesthetics of vocal parts) with content (the lyrics), Kanye and Jay Z have created a masterful piece of music. This uniting is commonly found in good literature (most commonly in poetry).

Who ever said hip hop wasn't art?

HAH?! - The Aesthetic Appeal of Music

"It also features this great Kanye moment, "Doctors say I'm the illest because I'm suffering from realness/ Got my niggas in Paris, and they going gorillas," followed by a sample of Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory talking about how awesome shit doesn't have to mean anything." - Pitch Fork Review

"Got my niggas in Paris and they goin' gorillas, hah?!" There it is: hah?! Go ahead. Say it. Out loud. It's fun. And there's nothing that summarizes the wonderfully obnoxious platinum-crusted one-percent-ness of Watch the Throne better than Kanye West's go-to ad lib. Hah?! is funny, memorable, annoying, dumb, genius, earth, water, sky-- it's the entire known universe in one impossibly indignant syllable. Nobody knows what it means because it means everything.--Ryan Dombal -Pitchfork, Track of the Year

"Awesome shit doesn't have to mean anything". It is this phrase that I latched onto when reading this review and one which stuck with me. Why do cool things need to have a reason behind them? Maybe there's value in things that appeal at face value. When we think about why or why not we like something, we try to think of reasons for that; that the lyrics are meaningful, that the music sounds good and that the people in the band are good people. But why do we look for answers? I think it's because we like to think that we can justify our taste to others, and maybe a little, to ourselves. But do we need this? Why can't we just like things that appeal to us?

Ultimately, all music does is give you feelings. Music affects you and when we hear it, it makes us feel a certain way that cannot be put into words a lot of the time. We can get close. We can say "oh I like that bass line. The way it sets up expectations and breaks them, coupled with the pitch and timbre, produces an enjoyable experience for me. Then, when used with the guitars that play notes at the same time, produce a harmonizing effect that I really enjoy." Or, if I knew more musical technical terms, I could say, "It was in 7/4 time in the key of A, uses whole note steps, uses rests, blah blah blah". However, neither of these descriptions really give you the feeling of listening to the songs. When someone describes a painting, or a sculture, depending on the piece of art in question, you can sorta get a glimpse into what it's like to be there. Now, as being a person who has been to the Sistine Chapel (which nothing can prepare you for), I know it's not the same as actually experiencing the work first hand. However, you do get some idea into it. With music, that isn't true.

When I read reviews of new CDs coming out, I never really know what it's going to sound like. Despite the reviewers best tries (well maybe that's their attempt), I am still surprised when I hear a CD for the first time. Calling the drums on "Niggas in Paris" gigantic turns out to be really descriptive after I've heard the song. But before, who knows what that could mean? And, more importantly, reading that they are gigantic is nothing close to actually hearing them boom out of your speakers (hopefully with a lot of bass). It gives you a feeling. It makes you feel awesome, larger than life, or annoyed, depending on who you are. But there is a gut reaction there that one can't really explain. A sound engineer can tell you its frequency, height, length, you name it. A musical theorist can tell you if its off key, in a minor key, major key, and so on. But, there is no "if it's in this key at this frequency, everyone will like this beat". You could find something that everyone would hate probably (siren sounding erratic noises come to mind), but whether or not you could find something everyone would like is a different story. People have a gut reaction that can't be measured and differs from person to person. And when you ask people why they like something, there's nothing more really any average person says other than "I like that". "I like that it's raw" or "I like his voice" or "I like that beat". But there really isn't a solid, quantifiable measurement about why one would like it.

This gets down the difference in mediums that language and music occupy. In music with lyrics, we can describe why we like lyrics a lot easier than we can describe why a piece of music is good. I believe this is due to the difference in senses. We use language to frame our world and use it as a way to understand it and classify it. Without language, we cannot move past simple understanding of the world. There was a girl who was found chained in a basement for 17 years and we were unable to get her to move past simple construction of language. Language is not something inherent to us, and our society constructs it. This girl, because she couldn't talk, could not understand concepts, analyze them (using words) and expound upon them. But, we all use different languages to think about the world. I think of the bathroom as "bathroom", the English think "Water Closet" and the Spanish think of it as "Los Banos". There is nothing inherent about any word that lends itself to describing an idea. It is only our agreed upon meaning that gives it authority to describe an object or an idea. When I hear a Spanish sentence that I do not understand, there is no way I can even begin to unpack it. I can't look for anything inherent about it, other than words that coincidentally mean similar things in English or French. But music defies this. A good beat is good no matter what language you speak. And every language is going to have a different way of attempting to describe what they hear and how it makes them feel. But just as "The bathroom" to me is actually "the toilets" to the Spanish, our language will limit us in how we can describe why we like it to others. There is a French phrase that goes "Comme ci, comme ça", which means "a little of this, a little of that". However, they use it in the sense of "How are you?". While "a little of this, a little of that" may translate to "some good, some bad" or "Alright", it doesn't do that in French. It retains itself as a phrase. There is an idea that accompanies saying "Comme ci, comme ça" instead of another phrase like "Bien", even though to us, they roughly mean the same thing. There is an idea that you can't describe, but it's there.

This leads to why you can't describe how music makes you feel. There's a feeling that you get when you hear music. It's something else. Our words can encapsulate our emotions to the best of our abilities, but its like trying to translate from one language to another. There is something lost when trying to "translate" the beats of "Niggas in Paris" to the sentence "Niggas in Paris" rides an impossibly propulsive synth riff and gigantic drums ". It makes sense to us after we hear the song, but that's only because we can go back to our memory and remember what they sound like. If someone were to say, "this song sounds like this", they are using a comparison to illustrate their point. They are asking you to think in the language of music to go back to something so you can actually get a feel of what they are trying to describe. Otherwise, its almost like trying to describe a smell without using the word "like".

So, if all music boils down to "liking" one aspect because of a gut reaction to a certain element of the music, why do we need to justify our taste? Do we need to say "this is better than this" if all it comes down to is a feeling you get when listen? So what if it's Justin Bieber's "Baby" or Sleep's "Dopesmoker"? Different people like different feelings. Some like being active and accomplished and others like being lazy. Some like the feeling of metal, feeling badass, aggressive, pessimistic or angry. Others like pop, feeling happy, sugary, or naive. Others prefer music that's raw, because it sounds like real emotions and they connect with that. Others like refined music because the feeling they get when they recognize an artist participating in artistic tradition is one of admiration. When others hear that same artist doing the same thing, they balk at and ask themselves, "why didn't they think of something new"?

However, intricacies of music genre and taste aside, it all boils down to Kanye West. Does awesome shit NEED to mean something? I say NO. Since all music boils down to emotion, if there is something that appeals to your emotions right away, I say, go for it and like it. There is absolutely room for music that "means something" in what you listen to, but every single thing you listen to doesn't have to mean something. I think some of it should be HAH!. It should mean nothing, and everything. It should be a flash of emotion. One that doesn't have to be described to be appreciated. It should have face value and you should revel in it. It should splash over you like a wave of ecstasy and let it just take you. Screw what anyone else says. I'm gonna like the Biebez, whether anyone likes it or not, because the bass line in Boyfriend slaps.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" -Martin Mull

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Childish Gambino and Innovation

I was reading pitchfork's review of Childish Gambino's Camp on Pitchfork. They gave it a 1.6. When I read the article, I realized I got the end of it and had no idea what they were talking about. I couldn't recall a simple reason why they didn't like it. There was no point to the article. They mostly said he copied Kanye West. OK. They sound similar, I give you that. So he's going with a style of art that is proven to be good. He puts his own spin on it, and takes it to new places. Furthermore, what else is he going to do? Should he go with a failed model? Maybe he should come up with something new? But I do want to point out, that most of the things that we consider "high art", such as painting, classical music, plays, novels, poetry, opera, sculpting and cinema, are very infrequently the first of their respective "genre"s. They all copy pieces that come before them, and put a spin on it. That eventually leads to further inovation. "People don't write from the moon" as my professor would say. Meaning, you don't create something masterful without influences. So don't criticize Glover for not being crazy innovative. 

Some people complain that shit talking on the internet is annoying. That it's unnecessary and pointless.  But the literary community has been writing contrary pieces for ages. In fact some of the most influential essays on critical theory have been responses to essays that were published in journals, Henry James' The Art of Fiction to be specific. It was a response to and essay that no one reads anymore. We feel a need to criticize what others do. The difference now with the internet is that all of it is recorded and saved. We can go and look at it all now. Before it was just word of mouth between commoners. Not until recently did the average person know how to read and write.

Reading and writing is power, I guess.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Turning Stains Into Stories

Thief - Hotel - Camera

He had always hated that camera anyway. He was glad it was gone. The Five Seasons hotel wasn't proving to be any help anyway. They said they couldn't do anything to cover lost valuables and their security footage was useless, at best.

So maybe he should just move on then? When he had gone to sleep, the Nikon had been sitting on the counter next to the TV as he went to sleep. When he woke up, it was gone. But the door wasn't broken into and hadn't been opened. He was sure of it.

That meant - it had to be the window. The thief must have entered through the window and taken only the camera. That's what didn't make sense. Who only takes a camera? Was the thief a photographer? Did he happen to know how un-valuable that camera that was? He had had it for 10 years and everytime he tried to use the flash, it would take at least 3 or 4 times before it would go off. This was very hard to explain to people he was trying to candidly take pictures of. "Please, can you just go back and not notice me? I was trying to take a picture. I swear, it'll work this time."

Maybe the thief had seen him taking pictures of the empty alcohol bottles next to the pool. Maybe the thief had thought he was doing something else and was suspicious and wanted the film taken out of the camera. Who knows? He didn't think he had been taking any pictures of any consequence, merely having "fun" with this instrument he had grown to loathe.

The short, squat hotel with it's two stories had made it easy for the thief to get in. It was just an easy hop from the gate that surrounded the premises to his balcony. Ironic that the thing trying to keep people out just made it easier to get in. And who would have guessed that the security cameras had been pointing towards the alley way, conveniently facing the external wall of a Chili's. Lots of wrong doers on that wall.

At least now he had an excuse to get a new camera. He was too cheap to ever replace something that wasn't broken or stolen and the camera had been walking the former line for quite a while. Good to know it had jumped off. He wanted to see where it would land...but oh well. Digital's are pretty cheap now a days, right?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Too Fond of Backstory

He couldn't remember if he had set his alarm or not. He couldn't remember if he had set the alarm to wake him up in the morning so that he wouldn't be late for work. He wondered what time is it was he groped for his alarm but seemed unable to find it. He reluctantly opened his eyes to a bright world and realized that it was about mid morning. But what he didn't realize was that had forgotten his name!


He also had forgotten where he was or how he had gotten there! Did he have a job? What would it have been? Where would it be? What college did he attend? Did he even go to college? Who was this strange woman lying next to him? Who's apartment was this? Where was it? What was the mortgage? Where there leaks in the bathroom? Was the pool gate closed?

All these questions raced through his mind. He needed to know the answer. He dashed out of the room wearing nothing but a half pulled over Barenaked Ladies Band T and his gym shorts. His gym shorts! Maybe that would hold the clue to his identity! He stopped abruptly in the hall and looked down at his shorts.

"Prop of Lair of the Bear"

Was he a slave? Did he wake up in a world where the bears ran the world and issued out commands for their fortified lairs? How had they won? Was is a spontaneous mass take over or a gradual winning of public favor? Oh God these were dire times!

No. This was foolish. It must be a place, he thought. He dashed around the house, finding answers to questions he didn't know. A television he didn't recognize. An answering machine that he didn't know the password to. Two small sheep gently "baww"ing around his ankels, asking for milk politely.

"Marvin, what are you on about?" The woman spoke! She sleepily walked out of the room he came out, which he then surmised was the master bedroom.

"Who are you?"

"I am you!" and then he pulled off his mask he was darth vader all along.


The sidewalk wasn’t quite straight.  It listed a little to the right. His feet carried him along it as he thought about how the builders who made this sidewalk planned it to do this. Everything that was built was planned. One way or another. All those people who planned all these buildings were children once. They had been little kids too. They had had birthday parties, proms, girlfriends, houses, TV shows, favorite cereals. They all had first grade, second grade, sixth grade, gym. They all had people they liked. People who they didn’t like. People who didn’t listen to them. People who they thought had been for them. They had went to college. They had had a hard time concentrating. He had a hard time concentrating. His mind wandered. So he matched his brain and his feet. His hands plunged into his pockets; the cold couldn’t get to them there.

The sky had been clouded for sometime. It made the grass greener, he thought. If only there was some other way to really appreciate it. The sand was darker though. Maybe that’s why it seemed greener. Iceberg plants always looked like green potato wedges.  His feet stopped. Too much sand to walk in his shoes. He looked back. There never was a line where the concrete stopped and the sand began. There was always some sand on the concrete. Even on the stairs. No place was pure.

His toes dug into the flesh like sand. He had been here before. He’d seen this ocean. The white tips of waves had always peaked out at him. The blue water had always had a cold look to it. He dwelt over his life. This ocean had been here when he was child. When he had gone to kindergarten, the waves had lapped against this beach. When he was in junior year of high school, these rocks had been here. Those plants had been there last year. He knew that as he looked out at the horizon, that the sun would set every day. The light would always make a fan shape on the water, right as the sun kissed the water and would illuminate the clouds with brillant pink and yellow highlights. It had done that since the dawn of time. It would continue to do that. Nothing that he did, big or small changed that. The problem was, everyone already knew that. He wasn’t special. He had been here before, but so had everyone else. This sand had erased all other footprints with the waves. The waves continued to wash everything away...

You should get on with it.
Put on your shoes.
Go back up the stairs.
Go home.