Why We’re Recording a “Game of the Year” Podcast

I sit down to write this listening to the soundtrack of my podcast’s past Game of the Year, Fez. Disasterpeace’s work on the game is as stunning as I remember; melodies are accented and transition in register and dynamic range with expertise. Fez was a game primarily about learning, but also about nature, science fiction, the life cycle, space, God, loneliness, community, the Internet, childhood, accidents, and its designer, Phil Fish.

I regret how little time we spent discussing Fez on last year’s Game of the Year podcast. Most of the panel had spent less time with it than myself and were complacent to crown it, preferring to debate the runner-up spot between Mass Effect 3 and Journey. An hour of impassioned anecdotes, defenses, analyses, and even attacks defined Journey’s #2 placement. The same was true of 2011’s Game of the Year Deliberations, consisting of a battle between The Witcher 2 and Bastion before crowning Saints Row: The Third.

It’s not that I dispute these choices; Saints and Fez were “my” games. But the process of discussing Game of the Year is focused upon relating to people’s experiences. That’s why we put out a podcast rather than writing a lengthy feature; essays about these games can be written outside of this context, but assessing individual experiences and relating to each other as a collaborative group can only be accomplished through conversation. We failed to engage upon our most beloved titles, and I resolve to correct that issue this year.

What we’ve come up with is a verifiable fleet of lovable games to represent the best of 2013. They represent a diverse spread of experiences possible with the medium; from minimal, humanist storytelling, to innovation in both storytelling and gameplay, to pure excellence in a known format, the games selected struck out to our panel as especially vibrant and viable. With the possible exception of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, the expansion to the incredible Wings of Liberty, each could stand as an effective introduction to games.

Perhaps most meaningfully, I look at this list and have no idea which title will stand apart as our Game of the Year, inspiring me to believe we’ll have some amazing conversation.

And there’s still so many great games we’re not talking about, simply because they didn’t jump out at us quite as much as these 25 (not that there was a hard limit.) We’re not talking about Gunpoint, despite the fact that it reevaluates stealth design and excels in creating combat mechanics with personal weight that reflect their main character. We’re not talking about Guacamelee, even though it’s a very well-designed game that reflects gamer culture the way Borderlands 2 strove to achieve. We’re not talking about Studio Ghibli’s entry point into video games, Ni No Kuni, just because none of us had time to play it this year.

So, when our Game of the Year Deliberations come out, and we’ve reached our final top ten list, take it all with a grain of salt. The ultimate list part of this process is relatively arbitrary; it’s really about engaging with why we’ve chosen these games.

GAME OF THE YEAR 2014 NOMINEES

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Antichamber

Bioshock Infinite

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Depression Quest

Divekick

DmC: Devil may Cry

Dota 2

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Gone Home

Grand Theft Auto V

Metro: Last Light

Nintendoland

Papers, Please

Pikmin 3

Pokémon X/Y

Rogue Legacy

Saints Row IV

StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

Super House of Dead Ninjas

Super Mario 3D World

The Last of Us

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Stanley Parable

Tomb Raider

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The 20/20 Experience Review

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THE 20/20 EXPERIENCE
Justin Timberlake
2013
RCA
Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, et. al

I’ve read few pieces criticizing The 20/20 Experience. Negative reviews from NME and The Guardian summarize its worst aspects – namely, the songs are all about three minutes too long, and the lyrics are poor throughout. But there’s still so much to say about The 20/20 Experience that it justifies a four-month late reflection.

 

The most interesting thing about 20/20 is the way it revises JT’s supposed strengths. It poses him as a playboy with an endless falsetto and a secret, vulnerable well of heart. His vocals have transformed, R. Kelly impressions rather than his classic N*SYNC formula. And the notable arrangements are stuttery Timbaland stoner jams (“Don’t Hold The Wall,” “Tunnel Vision”) and Luther Vandross throwbacks (“Suit & Tie,” “Pusher Love Girl.”)

 

But this belies the true story; before JT and 20/20, Justin sought to bridge the difference between love songs and sex jams on FutureSex/LoveSounds. The most marked difference between the two albums is the positioning of Justin as a romantic lead. On 20/20, he’s the star; he objectifies the woman, positioning himself as the one who brings pleasure to “you.” But on FutureSex, he’s obsessing over the girl; even when he’s bringing “SexyBack,” he does it in shackles, not in a suit and tie. The most he used to muster was humming the opening of his old rivals’ “I Want It That Way” in an outro; now, the girl is a reflection of his own worth rather than his idol. His persona, lyrical strengths, and voice all fit his old style better; he’s far more interesting as a sub than a dom, and his voice doesn’t compete with the crooners who he imitates on 20/20.

 

Conversely, the arrangements on FutureSex empowered Justin as a songwriter. JT knows a lot about arranging for a capella. Every song I remember from FutureSex features several layers of Justin beatboxing, singing along to the instrumental track, or, best of all, the “gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp, and sigh” of “Sexy Ladies” and “LoveStoned.” But, instead, Timbaland owns most of the arrangements on 20/20, the focus moved to Justin’s lead falsetto and Timbaland’s instrumentals.

 

Neither revision is ubiquitous. “Pusher Love Girl” and “That Girl” both strip JT of his power. The psychedelic repetition on the breakdowns (“J-j-j-j-junkie for your love” and “You are, you are, the love, of my life”) are all a stoner haze away from Justin’s a capella, even if the down-pitched vocal effect is a bit more Timbaland. In fact, on “Mirrors,” the breakdown bares sincerity.

 

There are some great moments. The Timbaland spoken word breakdown on “Don’t Hold The Wall” is a fascinating groove; the bossa-nova coda to “Strawberry Bubblegum,” is fun even through lyrical insipidness. One more: “Blue Ocean Floor” is the strongest lyrical work on the album. The imagery of parsing a lover’s voice through endless static is sold sincerely. Its arrangement, half “Revolution 9” and half Frank Ocean, recalls the “What Goes Around/Comes Back Around” interlude and makes for a sweet and compelling ending.

 

Yet 20/20 never coheres to anything singular. Multiple songs fall short; “Spaceship Coupe” fully fails to deliver Justin as a sexually compelling icon. Containing lines like “And with the top down we’ll cruise around/Land and make love on the moon” it falls into the same puerile traps songs like the original “Ignition” fell into years ago. “Let The Groove Get In” is an interminable take on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” that adds nothing to the conversation. Both “Tunnel Vision” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” run three or four minutes simply content with being pleasant before becoming interesting.

 

On most albums, a series of “fine” songs would be saved by the presence of a few classics. But on this 70 minute album, those songs seem to last forever. And the “classics” are more remarkable for pop craftsmanship than ambition or innovation. To put it another way, the best songs are more “Bump N’ Grind” than “Trapped In The Closet,” more Usher than Frank Ocean, more “Let’s Get It On” than “What’s Going On.”

 

Brevity wouldn’t have made 20/20 a “great” album. But at its length, it’s a hard album to even recommend; so much runs too long, and most of its best songs gain little from the album format (sorry, “Blue Ocean Floor.”) Those that are open to closing your ears to Justin’s lyrics and simply letting the groove get in may find a lot to like, but most people will probably get antsy waiting for Justin to get out of his seat.

 

3/5

HIGHLIGHTS: “Pusher Love Girl,” “That Girl,” “Mirrors”
NOTE: While there’s a radio edit for “Mirrors” already, the most interesting portion of the song was cut. Get the full version.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Tunnel Vision”

CATALOG CHOICE: FutureSex/LoveSounds

NEXT STOP: Write Me Back, R. Kelly

AFTER THAT: Never Too Much, Luther Vandross

 

Thoughts On “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and Character Humanization

When I saw Into Darkness about a month ago, I expected I’d enjoy something else less by this point in the summer. But, due to my failure to see some of the summer’s larger “disappointments” (again, I haven’t seen them,) Into Darkness remains my summer bummer.

 

To be blunt, large parts of the movie are still pretty cool. Aside from the moments where Dan Mindel properly conveys thematic statements through cinematography, it’s the parts where characters just talk to each other. Whether comedic or dramatic, it’s usually very, very engaging. The characters that receive focused are well executed and generally well acted. They’re snippy, funny, and have fantastic chemistry, and they’re occasionally capable of engendering some real pathos.

 

Shining amongst the examples is an early scene where Kirk winds up in a long elevator ride with Uhura. They’re about to set off on their primary mission for the film; Uhura, off-handedly, asks the captain if everything’s all right; everyone else thinks he looks kind of exhausted. Even before the tragic events that lead to the mission they’re embarking upon, Kirk was drinking himself into a stupor; Kirk has since been “put upon,” to underemphasize things. He says he’s fine.

 

Then, he doubles back to say “no, I’m not okay.” He explains that one of his beloved crew has quit and that he’s full of self-doubt and grief and has no idea what he’s doing; we’re witnessing the makings of an anxiety attack or depressive breakdown. It’s a fascinating moment in a film thus far bereft of these deeply emotional scenes. To top it all off, Kirk is arguing with Spock, who Uhura is dating at the time. She vaguely implies that she and Spock aren’t exactly sailing smoothly either. Kirk takes this as a moment for his own bravado, joking about the idea of having a lovers’ spat with Spock.

 

This is the last we will see of Kirk’s self-esteem issues, grieving, or anxiety. In fact, apart from a follow-up conversation in regards to Spock’s fight with Uhura, this is the last deep angst we’ll see out of any of our characters that doesn’t come in the form of a right hook.  Somewhere, a writer had a pathological arc for Kirk to become the bold captain we know him to be, but all traces of it but this one scene are struck from the script.

 

On the one hand, I want to congratulate them for even including a hint of that level of complexity; on the other, I chastise them for not making the more interesting film. What’s even left to beg for? Apparently, Iron Man 3 offers multiple nervous breakdowns that don’t facilitate the plot, and The Dark Knight Rises gave Christian Bale more screentime with a broken back than he got wearing a cowl. Prometheus, a film filled with ambition, made its budget back more than threefold. An ambitious, cerebral, empathetic megahit is entirely possible.

 

It’s not like J.J. Abrams is incapable of making something with heart; Super 8 is a perfect example of his repartee on full steam, without a massive budget to bog him down. And when Into Darkness abandons its more seriously interesting character arcs, it becomes a lot harder to forgive the empty plot, ridiculous fanservice, marginalization of all non Kirk/Spock/Cumberbatch characters, boring action, and truly awful ending. Delving into that stuff would require seeing the movie, and, unfortunately, I don’t plan to make that happen any time soon.

I’ll leave on a hopeful note, though. A similar note of humanity come in an early scene in which Spock accepts his oncoming (and subverted) demise. The score and cinematography aspire to the same heights Prometheus achieved last year. These short bursts of pure empathetic filmmaking reminded me of what the Star Trek film series can be; hopefully, with the somewhat unremarkable performance of Into Darkness domestically, a scaled back budget will force the Abrams understudy who takes over to really study what truly works about these first two films.