What’s the appeal of pixelated 8-bit graphics and linear gameplay? Well, maybe they’re an escape from Internet-only dystopian shooters (seriously, how many of these can the average gaming bro play through). A respite from “free-to-play.” A break from “Read Phone Status” permissions. They’re decisive proof that progress isn’t something that just moves forwards. It goes backward all the time (see also: the move away from albums and toward standalone singles and streaming music).
I mean, this says it all. And I would remiss to mention that I am so looking to Shovel Knight for Wii U/3DS at the end of this month.
Until then, I’ve been tiding myself over with Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U. “8-bit” is a monomer here, though, as the game draws inspiration from the SNES’s color palette (plus the blonde haircut and glasses of protagonist Max is more than a little reminiscent of Jeff from Earthbound).
Mutant Mudds Deluxe sets out to do just a few things and it does all them all as well as Scrooge McDuck bounces on a cane. Max has a jetpack and a water cannon. His jump never feels quite high enough, weirdly – maybe it’s the sheer necessity of having to jetpack-blast your way up through all the CGA-Lands (cute IBM reference) that makes the normal jump seem unimportant to the game. In this way, the game resembles 8-bit classic Bionic Commando, with its deemphasis (well, downright obviation) of jumping in favor of claw grappling.
There’s unlimited ammo, as you would expect from a golden/silver age Nintendo platformer. Difficulty is sufficient – tricky moving/disappearing platforms, weirdly positioned enemies – but not back-breaking like Castlevania III or Defender (or as latter-day gamers call it, Flappy Bird).
You can tell that this game began on the 3DS (sans the “Deluxe” moniker). Its usage of depth-of-field effects is clever, but feels awkward on Wii U, where there’s tons of real estate that feels wasted by shrinking Max into the background. But the widescreen effect does bring some major improvements over the mobile version, which would often not show enough of the screen for you to avoid having to make a blind jump.
At only $10, Mutant Mudds Deluxe isn’t cheap compared to the F2P garbage out there. But like the astonishing Out There, it feels like a bargain for how much craftsmanship is crammed into it.
A while back several writers made a big deal out of committing to write 500 words every day. How much is 500 words? It’s about 1 page with default font size and spacing in Google Docs.
Creating a daily routine like this one is appealing, but what’s the cutoff point for an acceptable amount of words written? 500 feels like a big number, and for linked-list blogs such as Daring Fireball, it’s positively epic.
It’s also quite large if one compares it to how many words various famous authors averaged while writing works such as The Lord of the Rings (245 words a day over 11 years – the entire saga is 670,000 words). At 500 words per day, churning out a similarly huge volume of work is just a matter of course.
When I was in college getting an English degree, I idolized these committed writers, whom I imagined likely waking up early in the morning to begin the hard work of sculpting a masterpiece. Maybe they ingested some opium, had a productive flurry, and then took a long lunch to reward their labors. I thought I wanted to be like that, but struggled to think that I had the imagination or willpower to produce at such a clip.
Last summer, I began a full-time writing job. Before that, I had written – for software companies, for the odd educational site here or there, and for this blog and my Tumblr. I didn’t know what writing was, though.
Since starting, I’ve written about 4,000 words per day. For the nine months I’ve been working, that ends up being a staggering 720,000 words, minus maybe a few thousand for days off and lower daily volumes at the end of the month. But, still: most English-language Bibles have “only” about 774,000 words.
Yes, yes: But what about quality? Perhaps I’m not writing The Return of the King every couple of months (scratch that, I actually don’t think the Lord of the Rings books [or movies] are that great; let’s just say I don’t churn out a Great Gatsby every 1.5 months), even if the overall volume is similarly staggering – and done on a much tighter schedule, with deadlines.
My other college degree was in Classics. I wrote a thesis on Plato (The Sophist, in fact) and spent years in depth with Aristophanes, Herodotus, and Aristotle. There’s a odd tendency among classics concentrators – we often don’t think of the writers we love as real people, if only because they lived so long ago.
Instead, they’re names on pillars, or busts to be contemplated. The idea of them putting in work or taking time out to eat is hard to digest. They seem to set an impossible standard, precisely because distance makes let them seem like tireless automatons whose work was predestined and distinct from any laborious process.
Putting in 6-7 hours of nonstop writing each day – blog posts, landing pages, news articles, white papers – has finally killed this notion for me. It’s not only possible to write thousands of words per day, but the ritual becomes easy with time.
I’m hardly the only person who has done it – there are plenty like me who slake the SEO gods’ unquenchable thirst for
content writing. They’re living, breathing people who will write more than Tolkien, Fitzgerald, or virtually any famous author ever wrote, more than any grad student, professor, reporter or 500-a-day blogger, and it won’t even be close.
But there won’t be any pillars or busts of them for posterity.
I used to read Pitchfork religiously. It was a formative experience for me, as it broadened my musical taste and taught me the ropes of writing a music review. Much of my dabbling in music writing owes a debt to Pitchfork and similar sites such as the now-defunct Stylus Magazine.
For a while, reading their daily ledgers of albums reviews was like reading Homer. I don’t mean that it was like reading mellifluous dactylic hexameter, but that it was like reading something that didn’t seem to be the product of a single person, despite each chunk of text having, unlike Homer, individualized by-lines.
It’s hard to overstate how much this layer of abstraction – the idea that music sites were akin to an academy, rather than the sum of their individual writers’ biases and abilities – made me trust the site’s sentiments. It’s the same sensation, I expect, that many readers get from reading the Bible as “the word of God” rather than the output of human beings. For this reason, I’m slow to criticize religious fundamentalists, since I can see how text and the abstraction of authorship can shape the mind.
At some point, a friend who couldn’t stand Pitchfork finally told me that these music writers were “just people who go here” (one of Pitchfork’s writers did actually go to our college) and not members of an ivory tower or heirs to an ancient tradition, and my trust in the site declined thereafter. It was an obvious realization, I think, but it required lowering expectations and disavowing belief in gods – religious and secular.
Once one stops believing in the total righteousness of institutions – magazines, websites, canonical texts – then what does she do about individual writers, about her conceptions of their works and habits? Do they become more humane, more mundane and less cordoned-off as Great Writers or Timeless Texts?
The seemingly bottomless pit of writing that I and some many others have to do has changed how I look at literature and the “greatness” of the humans who write it. Prolificness is valued in some contexts (a prolific musician, such as Frank Zappa or Robert Pollard, seems to earn prestige by the simple fact of his prolificness) but I’m not sure how much it matters in writing.
A prolific author might, in his entire career, write fewer words than a full-time SEO writer churns out in a year or two. Maybe his work is more “timeless” – though I don’t think such an attribute even exists – than the reams of optimized content that others churn out in obscurity, but the perceived gap between great literature and Web writing has rapidly closed for me.
This role has made me think about, for instance, the conditions under which writing is produced (e.g. was the author wealthy and able to afford a comfortable environment?) and the feedback that is destined to face. Some writing is seemingly bound to face no resistance – the result is anti-literature such as the writings of Karen Russell or Tao Lin. At the same time, other writing faces an enormously difficult life as it’s cut up by questionable copy edits, client reception, and taunting feedback. That distinction is often lost.
Writing too much has been rewarding. It was exhausting for a while, but if one can stand it, she’ll realize that the gap between being a halfway consistent, everyday writer and having the attributes of a great literary writer isn’t that significant. Quibbling about quality is mostly a political and sociological exercise – the sheer ability to produce words on such scale, far beyond that of even the recognized greats in a field, is an under-appreciated achievement.
Moreover, it’s enormously liberating to realize that there are no gods among us, that even accomplished writers from the past had to go through daily rituals and processes and that even at their best they probably couldn’t keep pace with the thousands who toil in obscurity. It’s also confirmation that writing has become something akin to manual labor – essential to the functioning of society, but not well rewarded by capitalism.
I realize that my paragraphs are getting progressively longer here, so that’s my cue to stop. 1200+ words will have to do, on top of the 3800 from earlier today.
An honest Android game is hard to find. Most are “free,” except with in-app purchases. It’s like buying an apple “for free” at a supermarket and then paying $0.85 to eat it – what’s “free” about that? Free-to-play, free-to-eat, whatever – the mobile gaming world is full of cutthroat pirates obsessed with the word candy and unconcerned with your experience. Every now and then you get lucky with something like Plants vs. Zombies 2, only to see its makers experiment with pay-to-win lawn mowers.
What a weird feeling it is then when you find a game that doesn’t have any IAP – especially when it so easily could have implemented them to squeeze for you $50 here or there. The cross-platform Out There is at once a throwback to a different type of gaming business model and one hopes a foreshadowing of what’s possible for high-quality mobile games. It only costs $3.99, and despite its labeling in Google Play, there aren’t any IAP.
Out There is exquisitely made. The graphics resemble a comic book, with lushly colored sci-fi landscapes. The soundtrack is creepy and beautiful, or basically what you would expect for a deep-space survival adventure. It’s the 22nd century and your character has awoken from cryogenic slumber (having fared better than Ted Williams, apparently) and has to make his way from one galaxy to the next.
Right from the start, Out There has that feeling of there being a long quest ahead, which I don’t always get from mobile games that seem not to look beyond what you’re going to do 5 minutes from now when you run out of rubies/coins/donuts. There’s a dot way across the galaxy and you’ve got to get there, overcoming all sorts of hazards and misfortune along the way.
Your ship has several main resources – hull strength, fuel, and oxygen. Each one of these depletes as you travel from star system to star system. See what I mean about there being a golden opportunity for IAP here? But Out Here splendidly doesn’t take it. Instead, you can only acquire each element (H/He for fuel; O for oxygen; and Fe for hull and equipment repair) by harvesting them from stars and planets. How novel.
There’s a lot of risk/reward calculus in Out There. For example, you can drill into a planet’s surface to get iron and other metals, but doing so uses some fuel and carries the risk of breaking your drill, in which case you’ll have to use iron (what you were likely trying to acquire in the first place) to repair it. Your cargo hold is limited, with only a few slots and a cap of 20 units on each of the essential elements. It’s possible to dismantle equipment to make room and harvest elements, but doing so could leave you missing a module you’ll wish you had later on.
Traveling through the lonely cosmos of Out There is dangerous. In other words, prepare for a lot of game over’s. You might spin off course and take a bunch of hull damage, or your light speed warp between worlds may fail, leaving you short 20+ fuel and no further along in your quest. The game also has a choose-your-own-adventure element to it, in which you pick one branch on a path and never really know if a choice will net you a nice resource bonus or end your game prematurely.
Out There is exceedingly difficult and unpredictable, and you’ll need a lot of luck to get through it safely. But this isn’t Candy Crush luck – you won’t make it all the way to your destination without putting in some dedicated planning.
It reminds me of all the hours I logged as a kid playing Space Quest V: The Next Mutation, another tough trek (heh) that owed a lot to classic sci-fi and burnished its loopy puzzles with gorgeous artwork. Out There isn’t an adventure game per se, but its long-form, challenging characteristics make it feel like an adventurer gamer’s take on Faster Than Light or Mass Effect.
Ungainly title, but here goes. In my post/job application for Basecamp, I mentioned that I had been using the company’s project management software to work on some album reviews. I took that approach in order to give a more structured feel to my reviews, one that incorporates research, and to see how planning impacted composition – would it result in more or less revision, and would the results have a different timbre than my past work? My first stab is this retrospective on Zomby’s “With Love.”
Zomby’s “With Love” and the importance of physical media
Zomby’s “With Love” is a double album by a dubstep artist known for recording 1- and 2-minute shuffles. How did this happen?
I ask this while holding a gatefold triple-vinyl edition of “With Love,” which is apropos. The history of physical media, especially the relationship between vinyl and CD, explains how even artists given to brevity have been pushed to make expansive epics.
By 1984, the writing was seemingly on the wall for vinyl LPs. The Compact Disc, introduced a few years prior, promised higher fidelity sound in a portable size, although it would take a while before CDs became a truly on-the-go format. Large home stereo systems were still the name of the game – if you were rich enough to afford CD playback equipment, why not go all-out?
But did CDs really sound better than LPs? That’s up for debate, and listeners will hear what they want to hear. The CD did have at least one decisive advantage – its maximum playing time, which at 74 minutes easily outstripped the 40-50 minutes typical of an LP. The greater length opened new artistic doors even as the CD’s single-sided nature closed others (no more per-side themes), and throughout the 1980s artists pushed the boundaries of the album format, with the Red Book spec as their key enabler.
They added content that would have been nixed in the past to keep the album under 50 minutes. It was possible to make a single CD with an amount of music that only a few years before would have required 2 or 3 LPs. And releasing 2-3x LP (a double or triple album) wasn’t something that bands did lightly. Pushing 60+ minutes of content on the public was a statement.
The Mother of Invention had unleashed Freak Out! in 1966, a four-sided monster with an atonal collage on side four, and two years later The Beatles brought sprawl into the mainstream with the 30-track, 90-minute White Album. While the latter still requires 2 CDs, Freak Out now comfortably fit on one disc, which takes some of its grandeur (two LPs! side 4 is all noise!) away.
During the transition from LP to CD, artists previously known for their restraint began to dabble in longer-form projects. The punk label SST Records was a microcosm of what was happening with recording at large. Husker Du finished the 70-minute Zen Arcade in 1984, an expansive work that inspired (or perhaps kindled the envy of) labelmates The Minutemen. Only a few months later, The Minutemen recorded 45 songs – padded with stripped-down covers and instrumentals – that lasted “only” 81 minutes. Their Double Nickels on the Dime was a double LP that still hasn’t been pressed on double CD.
While the Huskers-Minutemen rivalry was the impetus for these epic works, the changing of the guard in physical media format enabled their largesse. The Minutemen may even have gone too far in swallowing up the possibilities of the CD era, much like video game developers went bananas for full-motion video after the CD-ROM displaced the floppy in the mid-1990s (the 6x CD The Beast Within is still the best example of this excess).
In 2014, we’re seemingly long past the point at which CDs became obsolete. Streaming music services and digital purchases are more convenient, if not more profitable. Still, the CD lingers, but it barely resembles its 1980s self. Today’s CDs come with bonus discs, bonus tracks, bonus everything – anything to push that 80-minute barrier. At the same time, the double CD album has become less of an oddity than a fact of life – whether it’s the studio album + a live disc, or two studio discs, recording more than 80 minutes of music is cliche.
I’ve already looked at one of last year’s double albums – Shaking the Habitual by The Knife – and in that entry I mentioned Terre Thaemlitz’s excellent work on the growing disconnect between album length and performance length. He skewered the divide with his 30-hour album Soulnessless, which shipped on a microSDHC. But I’m not surprised that an artist as ambitious as Thaemlitz would do that. I am surprised, however, that Zomby made a double album at around the same time, a time when MP3s have essentially made it possible to record a never ending album.
With Love: The gritty details
Zomby’s style would seem unsuited to long form media. There are few lyrics, so telling a long-winded story is pretty much out of the question. Similarly, there are no exceptional instrumental chops that would justify, even if tenuously, extended jamming and progressive rock pretentiousness. Sure, Zomby is not heir to these traditions of rock music, but his style forgoes even the most excessive aspects of the more stylistically germane electronica genres, such as the extended remix (trance), the sprawling soundscape (drum n’ bass), or the mashup (EDM).
What does Zomby sound like? There’s a lot of plinky keys and synths, as well as 1990s R&B samples, which is de rigeur for dubstep. In dubstep, the 1990s are ancient history, with a historical relationship to the present-day akin to that of the 1960s British Invasion to modern pop and rock – Zomby’s breakthrough album was, after all, called “Where Were U in ’92?” and closed with a dizzying sound barrage punctuated by samples (“Sonic Boom!“) from 1990s cultural hallmark Street Fighter II. It was one big long send-up to rave.
With Love isn’t a similar single genre exercise. Rather, it has inspiration, variety and length that seem rooted in the ideal of a compilation album. There’s a little bit of chiptune, some jungle, a dusting of ambient, and a lot of trap. Opener “As Darkness Falls” is so chiptune that it reminds me of another double album, Hella’s 2005 opus Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard, which was essentially two separate albums, with the superior half consistently echoing Nintendo Entertainment Sytem-era boss battle music (the other was an unlistenable menage of Boredoms-esque drum noise). With Love follows similar logic. One of its halves is trap-dominated, while the other is more stylistically varied.
There’s a consistent, melancholic veneer that tries to tie With Love together. Though it moves between genres, there’s always a certain distance, a particular darkness that emanates from the music. It’s this theme that makes With Love a real heir to the epic album because it insists that the proceedings are more than just a collection of songs, that there’s a singular logic holding it all together despite the apparently unfocused running time. Taking such a stance is a cliche, as it is literally the raison d’etre of the artist album, but it’s necessary all the same because advances in physical media capacity has enabled works that seem destined to be unfocused.
“Soliloquy” may be the best track on With Love, with lightly whirring rhythms, punchy bass and overlapping melodies that interlock nicely, drawing the listener in even as the iciness keeps them at arm’s (ear’s?) length. Vocal samples are rare, but the ones in “It’s Time” recall 1990s-era Goldie and maybe hint at trip-hop, a suggestion strengthened by the track’s beat.
With Love has the length and scope of a trance compilation, but the singularity of purpose of Zen Arcade. While it’s hard to call anything the “last” of its kind, With Love feels like the send-off for the double album. It exhausts the listener across six sides of vinyl/2 CDs, its every machination under pressure from both the growing expectations around how much material an artist should churn out in the MP3 era and the need to “tie it all together” and make it more than the dreaded Just a Collection of Songs.
It’s not the most extreme example of a product forged under these dual pressures. Pan Sonic’s 4-CD Kesto, not to mention Thaemlitz’s aforementioned SD card-album, push the envelope further, but by doing so they become something alien, something that’s barely recognizable as an album that can be packaged, enjoyed in one sitting and replayed. But With Love is still relatively traditional. IT paradoxically feels extremely long – 33 tracks will do that – while being short for a double album, much like Double Nickels on the Dime nearly 30 years ago. It does long form in the only way that the brevity-minded dubstep genre can do – as a glorified mixtape, roughly transitioning form one burst of notes to another. Only the thematic darkness keeps it together, as if midnight were approaching for the album’s Cinderella run.