The Terrifying Saccharine of Dreaming Mary

    

 Here is the thing that not a lot of people know about me, Alice in Wonderland always has and will continue to seriously creep me out. On its surface Alice was bright and happy, it was childish and fun, and it was also dreamlike and otherworldly. But it was also dark and oppressive at times and that was just what made it disturbing as a story (that and Lewis Carrol was probably a weird pedophile). Dreaming Mary, a game lead by developer accha, seems to take this otherworldly feeling and firmly cross a line. Before we actually go into what makes this game so fantastic I want to give a quick warning. This review is split into two parts, the first part is mainly a critique of the game’s mechanics, art, music, and atmosphere (nothing new there). But the second part is an analysis of the story and themes of Dreaming Mary. There will be spoilers, and you will be warned ahead of time if you want to avoid them. The game can be found here.

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There was a point during Dreaming Mary where I questioned just what type of game I was actually playing. Nothing matched up, the images on the screen weren’t corresponding to what I was feeling. Everything just seems a little off and that uncanny feeling of weirdness couldn’t really be pinpointed early on. This can be (and probably is) my overreaction to the theme and general feeling Dreaming Mary provides. Mainly, I don’t trust things that are overly happy. An individual or place that is always happy is not necessarily “real” or “right” and often is the opposite of what is surface level. This atmosphere of uncanny uncomfortableness that the game provides is phenomenal. Something that is even more impressive when you realize that the game was coded using the RPG Maker VX engine (an engine that has a reputation of putting out more crap that gold, see Kickstarter anything). From a thematic and artistic standpoint the character sprites are detailed and bright, if not limited in animation. Dreaming Mary’s color pallet ranges from the bright and very simple and very pink of Bunnilda’s room to the warm red complexity of Foxxanne’s room. Additionally, the characters are obviously heavily influenced from Japanese anime and western story books. Each character is well designed, and the hand drawn art for dialogue boxes is very well done.

 Musically, Dreaming Mary’s soundtrack does its job extremely well. As a music nerd, I love seeing games follow a specific motif throughout its entirety. Generally, I won’t go into detail as to why this is so great, but needless to say the music fits the theme perfectly. But the standout of this games soundtrack is its title theme. The title theme brings a sense of sadness and foreboding, there is not a single note in its entirety that can be construed as happy. It is as propulsive and extremely out of place for what you are getting into. This is starkly contrasted with the menu screen which is smothered with the color pick and cute animals. The song’s vocals are, well they serve a purpose, let’s leave it at that. If Dreaming Mary is to be at fault for something (let’s face it, there is no “perfect” game) it is in its gameplay. At its very core, Dreaming Mary is a horror adventure game with puzzle elements thrown in here and there. You are given tasks or puzzles in the three rooms, you solve the tasks, you move on. It gets, stale as you progress forward to the end game. The steps to get all of the endings, are extremely vague at best. Normally vague is good, particularly when working out puzzles. But not when hidden doors are found but just randomly checking down a hallway or when keys that are traditionally used once and only once can be reused. At many points I had to use a guide to find the “true ending” out of  frustration with the game’s pacing. Eventually however the gameplay elements can be forgiven, it is free after all (which coincidentally is always a good price).

**Below is where the spoilers are. But it is also where we get into what makes Dreaming Mary so great. If you haven’t played the game yet, and wish to do so, do it now. Slight disclaimer, below is my interpretation of events in the game. It is an interpretation that coincides with the general consensus of both the game makers and forums I have read, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. Take it with a grain of salt**

 Dreaming Mary’s surface level narrative serves to uncover a disturbing truth underneath the thick layer of happiness. Let’s get the story out of the way first, Mary (or Mari in the real world) is a girl whose family have the ability to create literal worlds when they dream (it’s heavily hinted that this ability comes from her mother’s side). Mary creates a world populated by friends every time she dreams. There is Boaris the boar, Bunnilda the bunny, Penn Guindel a penguin, and a fox named Foxanne (go figure). As her mother dies from an unnamed disease and she is left with her wealthy father, his two servants, and an uncle who often visits her. Thematically, each of those characters coincide with characters in the real world, Bunnilda is the maid, Penn Guindel is Mary’s beloved uncle and so on. The eventual end game is to gain access to a door inside a tree at the end of the hallway. To do so you have to gain the “red seed” from each of your friends in a sort of final challenge sequence. If you fail a test the player is still given the “seed” but you also lose one of four white lily pedals received at the start of the game. You then proceed to the tree, the tree opens, you receive end credits, and are asked if you want to try again. Simple game, simple in premise, simple in execution.

Except that it isn’t. We won’t go into detail as to just how exactly you get to this point, but the player eventually ends up in an alternate world, only this world is dark, brown, and terrifying. But it is also identical in layout to the world you just finished exploring. A journal simply tells the player what button allows them to “run” and simply that “if you keep moving he can’t catch you”. Threatening messages aside, the next room is just as unsettling. On a torn couch are the physical representation of your friends, a fox pelt, a skinned rabbit, and a stuffed penguin. At the end of the hallway a head of a boar that just stares at the player. Excluding the boar head, each tells you how to successfully complete the final challenge (something that is pretty much impossible without this guidance). As the player successfully gets the “seeds” from her friends you return to the dark room and hallway to see the representations of your friends ripped to shreds with three brown keys. As the player picks up the final key a voice starts chanting “he is here” and a shadowy figure quickly starts chasing you. Of course, the only way to get away from it is to run back to the safety of the dream world. If this is your first time playing in this area more than likely you will run directly into the shadowy figure on accident. The player is then treated to what is possibly the most disturbing ending of this game, or as disturbing as these things can get. A grainy static picture of a face appears on the screen, only it’s not static it slowly (and I mean slowly) comes towards the screen. The game over screen simply states “sweet dreams” and you are booted out to the menu. It’s with this ending that the player finally realizes just what this game is about, the rape and molestation of a child.

Rape is a difficult subject to cover in any medium. Let alone video games (or a horror video game for that matter). There are points in the game’s narrative that are a little too on the nose. The “seed” is literally seed in the biblical sense (and we’re not talking trees here). What is probably the most depressing aspect is that Mary’s “friends” are more than likely complacent or completely unsympathetic to Mary. Each time you “fail” one of the challenges, and are forced to give up a white lilly pedal (the symbol of innocence in this game) your friend’s demeanor changes. Bunnella who is mainly sweet and airheaded suddenly becomes mocking and malicious, Foxanne who normally is cool and collected suddenly becomes aggressive towards you. Which would make sense under the assumption that these two are the servants of Mary’s father. There is one friend that is probably the most tragic of all, Penn Guindel. Mary’s uncle is the only person who Mary loved to be around in the waking world, he is the one who reads to her and teaches her like her mother used to. Additionally, it’s hinted in the radio broadcasts that he genuinely cares for the girl. But he is also either restricted by family loyalty or is blind to what is happening to his niece. As a result Penn Guindel is the only character who is saddened if you fail at the test, he is the only one who’s portrait does not become aggressive like Bunnilda or Foxanne. Boaris is a different story, he is the only character who offers his “seed” without you needing to complete a challenge, and he’s the only one who you can refuse to accept it from. All the player has to do is give him a lily pedal as payment. If the player refuses him he gets more and more aggressive until you eventually accept to progress to the ending. Boaris is the only friend whose evil world counterpart gives you nothing, and it’s the only location where the shadow appears. Boaris (and by extension the shadow) are heavily implied to be your father, a point that is only driven home during the “true ending” when Mary is locked in her room by her father.

In the disclaimer for Dreaming Mary there is a trigger warning. For those who are not aware, a “trigger warning” is warning that there could be content that could trigger a PTSD like response from someone. This is a warning that has lost its meaning in recent years, so much so that it is hard to take seriously when used on the internet anymore. In Dreaming Mary’s case however it is clear that the warning was not needlessly thrown around. Given, recent events, the topic of rape has come up quite a bit and is uncomfortable regardless of who you talk to. But that is what makes Dreaming Mary’s story necessary. It brilliantly uses the horror genre as a way to make the player empathize with rape victims. Even I have to have to admit, for a brief moment, there was a feeling legitimate terror as that grinning face slowly advanced toward you. You can’t escape it, it comes at you slowly and relentlessly. There is however, no victim complex in Dreaming Mary. Mary actively searches for a way to escape both her dreams and her father, and as a result she tries to take control of her life. The game’s narrative does not pander to its user base by creating a skin deep progressive narrative that ultimately does no good. Under its vainer of saccharine sweetness there is a very real terror. Something that many rape victims must feel on a regular basis as they move on with their lives. But it does not blame those who had no part in it and shows the tragedy of those who are cannot help as well as the villainy of those who can, but choose not to. In the end that is what makes Dreaming Mary so important to the narrative of video games as a whole. Dreaming Mary tackles a very real and very touchy subject in near perfect subtle narrative execution. And subtle is what is key here, the execution is both smart and powerful, something that cannot be said about other titles covering similar subjects. Unfortunately, it will more than likely go ignored in the sea of other mediocre “progressive” titles and agenda pushing. An aspect that simultaneously saddens and infuriates me. In the end, the public wants what it wants.

The Insanity That Is: Dan Deacon’s “Woof Woof”

I feel like I should be on acid when I listen to Dan Deacon. Or at the very least some other insane drug that makes the walls look like they are trying to eat me. And that’s sort of what makes Dan Deacon kind of amazing. The man has some amazingly weird songs in his discography (“Crystal Cat” comes to mind) but he also has some amazingly good songs as well (see “True Thrush”). However, my first introduction to Dan Decon is probably the most interesting (in addition to being one of my favorites). So strap in boys and girls lets dive into the insanity that is: Dan Deacon’s “Woof Woof”.

Stylistically the song is fascinating in its weird choices. It’s chaotic from start to finish, but it’s also a layered chaotic. Primarily there is a bass line that is, to me at least, the standout feature of the song. It sounds weird, it makes you feel weird, and it’s played while Casio piano makes barking noises (Gene Belcher couldn’t have written this mess). Lyrically (yes, this song does have lyrics) the song unrecognizable without having them in front of you. The second verse is literally the first only played backwards. It builds to a cacophony of noise and chaos before suddenly switching to a calm that is almost immediately gives way back to the chaos. Finally, the music video sees the road to bat shit crazy town and skips happily down it. Of course, anything that involves puppets, a dude in a tiger suit (who is also Dan Deacon), and an awful green screen is bound to be crazy. The video itself is a practice in extreme patience as the actual song doesn’t start until a full six minutes in. When you take it all in as a whole it becomes an auditory embodiment of a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s an experience which, in all reality, is not meant to be listened to over and over. And that’s just fine, now if you excuse me the walls are trying to eat me.

Music for Nothing

It’s raining outside and has been since probably about five this morning. But then again this is Oregon in the dead of winter, so the weather isn’t really surprising. I putter around the house for a bit as sixteen year olds are want to do when they’re bored during the weekend. Eventually I end up with the records I had inherited from my father a couple years earlier. Four hours later I come out of my music induced coma, the day was gone and I was ok with that. The next day I discussed my new findings with my friends on the way to school. They didn’t care, I don’t think they ever really cared either. Which is strange since they almost always carried an iPod with them everywhere they went. For some reason music had become just something you do, it had become cheap for some reason.

This is an extremely unpopular opinion to have on the internet but screw it here we go, Napster destroyed music’s value. In all reality mainstream music had probably started its trip on the slip n’ slide to a pop culture hell a decade previously. But let’s be real here, Napster was the kid who greased up the mat without telling anybody. We all know the story here, Napster offered a way for people to upload and share music online. This created the ability for individuals to cherry pick which songs they wanted from any specific album. All of this was for the low, low price of free. Record companies (and a few artists) took exception to this and Napster was eventually shut down. But what was done was done, people had been introduced to the notion of experiencing songs a la cart which arguably is a positive. But what is key here is not the simple fact that Napster existed, but rather that it introduced the notion that music should be free. This if course cheapens music as a whole. When someone can get their hands on the latest bands without paying a cent it makes any artist relatively worthless. I should note that the larger music publishers had a strangle hold on the industry and as a result jacked up the prices. Additionally, the artist should have had more autonomy when it comes to the sale of their music (i.e. the more independent acts receiving more money for their work). But what ended up happening is that the artist and their music became cheap to the consumer. As a result, there was an over saturation in the music market when it came to music. The internet both opened people’s mind to new music. But it also closed them off to paying for it.

“Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye is simultaneously one of the best and worst songs of 2011 (and I suppose 2012).  Lyrically the song is about two deeply bitter people after a messy breakup. Nobody is ‘right’ and nobody is ‘wrong’ but neither will let the relationship go. And what makes the song is the palpable hate these two people have for each other. From an instrumental standpoint the song is slow and subdued, that is until the chorus which picks up tempo only to slow again (the whole thing is very Phil Collinse-sque). Unsurprisingly, “Somebody That I Used to Know” became the number one played song in 2012 and was immediately played to death (as radio is so wonderfully known for). So how was this song simultaneously the best and worst song of that year? What became popular was not the original song, but its remix. A DJ named of DJ Mike D (who will go down in history has having the most original DJ name ever) added the ever popular digital clapping in step with the original. The end result was a dance focused bastardization of the original with no redeeming quality. What had been an angry and bitter song quickly became a skin-deep dance hit, the message of the song was, and is, now completely ruined. I love “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, but I hate “Somebody That I Used to Know” by DJ Mike D. What happened is that a song became popular not on its own merit, but because society decided it needed it to have a backbeat. Gotye is, and will more than likely continue to be, a one hit wonder. Not because he is talentless (“Easy Way Out”, “Eyes Wide Open”, and “Save Me” are all great songs on Making Mirrors) but because he wasn’t the one who made his song popular. More than likely anything else the man does will be compared to something that destroyed his original message. This perhaps is nothing new in the music world, but it does cheapen the original creation when it’s shoddily created remix surpasses the original. Most people won’t ever hear the original version of “Somebody That I Used to Know” and at the end of the day most won’t care.

It’s no secret that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a joke. An institution that claims to honor the “pioneers” of rock yet only just inducts Alice Cooper and KISS last minute will always be suspect to me (and that doesn’t include the whole Hip-Hop thing, but that’s another story). However with that said, there is something to be said about the recognition that the bands get for their work. For the most part the Hall of Fame (or HoF) has been pretty consistent with its rules of induction:

  1. Inductees become eligible after twenty five years from their first album
  2. Inductees must have some impact on their specific genre of music
  3. While the HoF doesn’t necessarily state this, Inductees have to be somewhat popular

I can’t help but wonder what bands from my era (mainly 2000s upward) will be inducted. The Decembrists are definitely out (1. Yes, 2. Yes, 3. No), as is Modest Mouse (1. Yes, 2. No, 3. No) and in the Hip Hop world there’s MF Doom (1. Yes, 2. Yes, 3. No). So, with our knowledge of modern music we can already see issues with rules two and three. Namely, impact and innovation does not equate to popularity as it once did prior to the mid-90s. Consequently, that’s the problem with modern music or at least music that has been produced in the past decade. Those who outright deserve to be the recognized for their deep songwriting or melodies are openly pushed aside for those who are only skin deep. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some awful pop music (hell I make no bones of my love for 80s pop) but I don’t claim that it is in anyway innovative or even good (again, subjective music critic is subjective). Of course this is no different from the payola deal that radio stations go through and always have. But in a way music has become cheap, and cheap music is surface level at best.

*Slight disclaimer, I am not completely innocent of this either such is the music culture we live in.

The Transition of Pop Culture: Adoption and Decay

I am in a black hole of neon and hairspray. To my right is Madonna and Flock of Seagulls, to my left is Van Halen and Poison. Billie Jean plays in the background and I enjoy every second of it. Leaning back in my chair and letting the music from an era a decade before I was born wash over me I come to a sudden realization; I would have hated this music. Hate is a strong word, but make no mistake some (if not all) of this music truly is abhorrent, and I love every second of it. Which begs the question, how could music so hated by a child of the ‘80s be so loved by a child of the ’90s (or ’00s)?

There are worse things that a five year old could be listening to on a long four-hour car ride. That being said, I am almost certain The Completion Backwards Principle wasn’t on the list of recommended listening for impressionable minds. Being a five I had no idea what of SushiGirl and Talk To Ya Later meant, but damn did I love those songs. The corruption of awful ‘80s bullshit (disregarding The Tubes of course) only deepened the following week when I was introduced to The Goonies at a cousin’s house (see Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough featuring Cyndi Lauper and the late great Captain Lou Albano). Here is my point, I was steeped in ‘80s music before I knew what pop culture was. Of course this obscure knowledge of ‘80s pop music comes in handy in idiotic trivia games (I.E. I can identify and hum Paula Abdul’s Straight Up when the situation so often calls for it, my $40,000 education at work baby!). While friends could barely name two songs in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City I had Flash FM completely figured out. There is a sort of adoption that comes with music (or pop culture in general) when you exposed to it at an early age. My father’s favorite era was the ‘80s and naturally this love was transferred to me. Popular culture (in this case music) is transferred from one generation to the next. This transference is almost fundamental for the next generation to form their own opinions. And that my friends, is what we call progress.

Lucky Star by Madonna was most likely played on the radio every hour for months on end. Consequently, there were probably individuals who quickly punted their radios after the fifteenth time the song was played. But you know what? I am listening to that exact song as I write. Over time there is a sort of “decay”, songs that were once irritating cliché piles of awfulness (see We Close Our Eyes by Go West) slowly become representatives of their respective eras. Ideally the pop culture zeitgeist should be fluid as well as referential in a way. What is old hat and cliché in one era should be just fine in the next (this is what we call being “retro”). A perfect example of this fluid transition is Paradise by Wild Nothing. At first listen there is no way to tell were this song was produced in 1982 or 2012. And that is the point, it is referential to a specific sound of an era. Something that, in my opinion, is extremely difficult to do let alone do well. So with this in mind it only stands to reason that current Top 40 radio hits will become the classics just a decade later. Make no mistake, my hate for songs such as Dark Horse and The Lazy Song burns with an unbridled passion. But I will concede one central fact, I can’t stop how time treats the popular culture of yesteryear. And until then I guess I’ll just see you around.

Death of the Old Guard: The Shift of Pop Culture Relevancy

 

I have never watched a single episode of Sailor Moon.

Ok that’s a lie, but I like to think that I didn’t “watch” the show during that thirty minute wait for Dragon Ball Z. The show was, well it wasn’t for me (in the off chance that I enjoyed it my prepubescent man card would have been instantly revoked anyway), but I understand the conceit and characters of the show. I quickly moved on to whatever the hell Goku and/or Gohan was fighting that episode (or episodes, the pacing of DBZ was notoriously awful). That was fourteen years ago, my tastes have changed, I have changed, but my nostalgia hasn’t. As much as I hate to admit it I still remember the characters and the vapid plot lines, Sailor Moon is a part of my nostalgia via association.

NPR’s pop culture podcasts tend to be a certain level of pretentiousness that borders on the obnoxious. And I love every second of it. One podcast in particular named Pop Culture Happy Hour, is an hour long (go figure) show that discusses different pop culture news and topics (again, go figure). This week’s topic: long dead franchises that are being revived in 2014 and beyond. Their primary example of new wave corporate shilling was the reboot of Sailor Moon and the Boy Meets World sequel Girl Meets World both airing this summer. Normally I don’t care (still sort of don’t actually) but something happened as the hosts proceeded to complain about the shows and their resurgence. To them it was all a soulless cash grab (it is) and has no merit to the current popular culture zeitgeist (it does). Even if they weren’t outwardly belittling the shows I grew up with you could hear that oh so familiar condescending tone in their discussion. I started to feel that small twinge of irritation in the pit of my stomach. As the show progressed, they began to call out more of my own childhood shows (namely Pokémon). As the show progressed even further I began to take these hosts less and less seriously. What I was listening to was the beginning of the end of their relevancy to pop culture.

Traditionally, the drivers of pop culture tend to range from the ages of 20 to about 40 (give or take five years). Primarily, the main consumers of pop culture tend to be on the younger to mid side of that scale. They dictate youth culture and are the ones who make sure certain movies are made, books are written, and games are made. As time progresses the general pop culture sphere begins to shift from one generation to the next. Transformers in its flashy horribleness is the product of the Generation X (those born between the 1960s and early 1980s) and their production of pop culture within the United States. This dominance is evident with the previously mentioned Transformers movies as well as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which is an oddity in its ability to span across different generations) or the more recent Godzilla. Gen Xer’s have dictated the musical soundtracks for the past decade (arguably even as early as the past two). Videogames have gone from being viewed by the Baby Boomers as the pastime of children to be accepted as the mainstream by Generation X. The 80s is now the nostalgic and the dominate source of many different production companies. Most, if not all, comic book movie storylines came from this era (Days of Future Past, The Infinity Gauntlet, Batman: Year Zero). This is the generation that have been our pop culture surveyors, the vast majority of notable movie critics, pop culture analysts are from this generation. But with all its positivity comes a scoffing and general hate of the next generation’s culture and characterizes that the transition from one to another has already begun.

Pacific Rim is basically a Power Rangers movie. People in special suits get in giant robot, giant robot fights a giant monster, and the giant robot wins. A time honored Power Rangers formula perfected in the final ten minutes of every episode. The movie did well, internationally as well as domestically (as well as people assumed it would do I suppose). So imagine my surprise and disappointment when the announcement of an actual Power Ranger movie was met with apathy or even hostility. My friends and I watched the hell out of Power Rangers when we were little, going as far as to pick our favorite (Blue Ranger, just in case you were wondering). There is no one around my age who hasn’t heard of or didn’t at least watch one episode of Power Rangers. But those who live within the realm of popular culture, while are identified as my peers, are not within my age group. And that group would be the millennial generation (those born between the mid-1980s to late-1990s) and that creates a sort of disconnect of culture. What Pacific Rim was to me was a sort of soft transition from Gen X to Millennial in terms of those who consumes and dominates pop culture. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is another example of a soft transition with little risk as the franchise is loved by both generations (well maybe not this one, the turtles have lips, which sort of weirds me out). In the realm of cartoons (a particular passion of mine) some of the most interesting shows are being created by millennials (see Steven Universe). Of course the transition hasn’t fully occurred yet, and most likely won’t for a little while longer. But it’s interesting to watch (in a sort of schadenfreude way) the slow slippage of the previous generations grasp on their relevancy to pop culture. For some that relevancy is everything, it’s the representation of their youth. When their culture is no longer relevant then they officially become “the man” (or even worse, their parents). With the new Sailor Moon and Power Rangers reboots the market has begun its slow but inevitable shift to the next generation. It’s something that is both beautiful and terrifying, a sort of sobering fact that one day our culture will be taken over by the one after us. The question is will we scoff and dismiss their culture when it overtakes ours? Probably.

Disclaimer: I wrote this in may when this news was, you know, news.

 

A Case for Simplicity

 E3 has been over for about a week or so now, and I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the whole deal. Arguably this year’s presentations had the sole distinction of creating noteworthy buzz over their consoles (and in Microsoft’s case, soul crushing PR idiocy). With both trains in full “lets steam roll everything” mode you would think that I would pick up on at least a few new games that interested me, but there were none. Every game shown, while graphically stunning, had an air of the painfully familiar about it. RYSE ended up looking like God of War and Call of Duty had a very pretty, but very muddy and very bland love child. Sony’s The Order: 1886 was nothing more than a steampunk first person shooter with muttonchops and corsets being the order of business. As always there were exceptions to the rule, Mirror’s Edge 2 a game that I loved for its colorful dystopia and ambition being a prime example. But that was a sequel to an already solid game, something that I didn’t need to be sold on. I wanted, no yearned for something new and interesting. Then I came across the trailer for Hohokum. With its colorful pastels and mellow music the game became an instant ‘I have no clue what this is, but I have to buy it’ game for me. But this also gives me pause, why is it a game that easily could have been made in this generation (and as it turns out is coming to the PS3 anyways) more compelling to me than the other, flashier titles? Has the market become oversaturated with the mess that is games such as Call of Duty and *insert sports game*? Or is it simply, its simplicity.

 Thomas was alone. Thomas is also a small red square that has no visible emotions whatsoever. In fact Thomas pretty much jumps from platform to platform with other quadrilaterals with varying size, shape, and color. So why do I care so much for Thomas and his friends? Why is it that a game that is literally about squares and jumping on platforms more compelling that the last few months of AAA titles from any major studios? What it comes down to is the game’s combination of narrative and pure charm that lasts for the entirety of the games five or so hours. It’s a story about friendship, sacrifice, and self-discovery that is so well done it’s hard to come up with an analog from recent games. Thomas Was Alone is so simple yet it’s deeper than any game I have played in recently (with sole exceptions of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us). And did I mention the games characters are once again, squares and rectangles? And that’s the key point here, by focusing on the story and narration you become emotionally invested in characters that are featureless. It’s almost like reading a book, you have an image of the characters in your mind, and it may be different from the same person who read the same book. But that image is yours, and you identify with that unique image that you created. Through its simple visual style and a focus on the narration and story I looked passed the bland gameplay to just experience the characters and their interactions with one another. Simple style with a complex narrative. And did I mention that Thomas is a small red square with no visible features?

 ‘Press R to Restart’ is once again pulsating in all its neon fury on the screen. I should be frustrated, it’s probably the 10th time I have seen my masked pixelated character virtually get his brains bashed in. But I’m not. I hammer on the R key and continue the never ending bloodshed. Hotline Miami is a game I have written about before. I absolutely love this game in all it’s over the top 80’s neon action movie glory. On the surface level the game is graphically simple done in the style of the early GTA series. But its gameplay is what makes this game complex. What is obvious is you have to clear a room full of what I think are Russian mobsters (given the white leisure suits and my knowledge of the 80’s I’m probably right) but how you do so is all up to you. You can burst through doors and Arnold Schwarzenegger your way through each of the rooms. Or the option is there to quietly and meticulously carve your way through each room in a way that would make Jason proud. The choice is yours all the while the glitzy music pulsates in your ears. It’s an experience that’s for sure, but it’s also simple in style and scope. The whole thing really boils down to just room clearing but that is the key here, Hotline Miami’s focus on gameplay with options makes it almost infinitely repayable. Simple premise and simple visuals and a complex as you make it gameplay sets this game apart for me.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, The Last of Us is both stunning visually and compelling from a narrative standpoint. Bioshock Infinite makes an interesting commentary on racism and it too has an interesting story. But from what I have seen and experienced in the past year from the larger companies I have come out disappointed. And this year’s E3 only compounded that disappointed outlook with very little that actually caught my attention. I can’t help but notice a recent trend in games to go bigger and brighter (or at least more lens flair…y) with the overall narrative or gameplay taking a back seat to the experience. In all fairness there is a place for these grandiose games as there is for grandiose action movies. And by no means are they incapable of delivering a complex narrative or interesting gameplay (there is a reason Call of Duty sells so many copies, much to my chagrin). Notice as well that I do decry the level of graphical fidelity that games are coming to now. But that should never be at the forefront of a discussions of what games should be. And in all honesty the games I have used as examples are pretty much ‘art-house level’ of snobbery. With that being said there has to be a next step, something that I believe has been ignored in recent years. The games that take that step are ignored by the gaming public, they die miserable deaths, what does that say about our medium?

*Side note: I had planned to do a section on music, but this topic has been covered before by better more qualified people I.E. this video *

Empire of the Sun: Ice on the Dune (A.k.a I have No Clue What the Hell is Going On)

Empire of the Sun is one of those weird complex bands that really should have taken off, but didn’t. A collaboration between Luke Steele lead singer of the Australian band Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of electronic duo Pnau (both of whom I admittedly had never heard of) Empire of the Sun made their debut in 2008 with Walking on a Dream. The album was, interesting to say the least. In the end the entire album ended up being a half love, half hate experience with me. And songs like the other-worldly title track Walking on a Dream and the damn near perfect We are the People ended up being in heavy rotation on my iPod. But that was 2008 and very little has come from the band since, and in the end I had assumed they had faded with other one note bands. Then in typical over the top fashion (Elton John and Kiss be damned) the band released a hype trailer in early March of this year, and I was hooked. Ice on the Dune was announced in a flair that you rarely see in mainstream music these days (although Daft Punk seems to get it, having done the same thing with Random Access Memories). All I had to do was wait four more months to listen to it.

So here we are, five years later and somehow things feel a little cheapened. Ice on the Dune is by no means a terrible album, it’s the opposite actually. What it does well it does well resulting in a very solid electro-pop album. Take for example DNA as something that Empire does right with its dreamy laidback build-up to a solid electronic hook it all feels very ‘80s to me (and I love me some ‘80s music). The album in its entirety feels like a seamless single track. I’ll Be Around has a mid to late Fleetwood Mac feel to it and Surround Sound is classic Empire with a little Daft Punk scattered in. But despite my love for songs like Ice on the Dune and Awakening they end up lacking a certain level up substance that Walking on a Dream had. And that’s the core of the issue here, the lack of substance. We have a band whose lead singer comes up with as complex and weird story that would confuse even Coheed and Cambria only to have very little of that story present. It’s clear that the duo is desperate to break into the American pop music scene. Paired with the bands impeccable timing on releasing their albums (Ice was released on the exact same day as Kanye’s Yeezus) it seems the duo is destined to be shelved once again. Which to me is a shame, Ice on the Dune is a solid album when priced at $7.99. Does it have its issues? It sure as hell does but it’s fun and while the songs run together, they create a great experience.

3/5

Empire of the Sun

iTunes

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