nowListening: Hope by Manchester Orchestra

Hey guys! I haven’t posted here in a while; I’ve been pretty busy with my NaNoWriMo project. I’m almost finished with that, and you can follow my progress here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/crackedthesky/novels/novel-704342/stats

In the meantime, here’s a nowListening post I’ve been meaning to get to.

In this world of streaming music, digital downloads, physical copies becoming collector’s items, and bands touring nearly nonstop to compensate, it often feels like surprises are hard to come by. Still, now and then an artist finds a new way to shake things up, if even for a moment.

One of my favorite bands, Manchester Orchestra, did just that in September, when they suddenly and immediately released a new album called Hope.

Hope is a re-imagining of their previous album, Cope. Most of the songs are now quiet, stripped-down and acoustic, but Hope still has some curveballs to throw. Lyrically, some songs are word-for-word the same, and others have kept hardly anything intact. Musically, the songs are re-arranged, sometimes transposed to other instruments, shaken up and moved around, sometimes all but unrecognizable.

Manchester Orchestra Hope

The cover art is a stark contrast to the simple black-and-white, text-only cover of Cope. At the time I criticized it, but in retrospect, it makes sense paired alongside Hope, and serves as an immediate admission that the two albums are going to be very different.

The songs appear in the same order with the same titles as on Cope, starting off with “Top Notch”. This was one of the heavier songs on Cope, but its Hope counterpart is an acoustic, palm-muted rendition of the song that sets the tone for the album to follow. The chorus, a once-shouted “All that I know, there’s no way to fix it” is instead melodically droned out, giving it a haunting, lingering vibe that carries the song to its close.

“Choose You” offers the first major lyrical diversion from Cope. In my post about that album, I mentioned this song had one of my favorite opening lines, and much to my surprise, the same rings true for Hope, even with the lyrics changed:

Cope version:

The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck
I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck

Hope version:

The intention of your trip was to intentionally wreck
I tried to talk you off the ledge but pushed you off the deck

—Manchester Orchestra, “Choose You”

Following this is “Girl Harbor”. The Hope version is a slow, acoustic version of the song, and a bridge that was one of my favorite moments on all of Cope serves the same purpose on Hope, but with an entirely different sound. On Hope, Andy Hull reminds us that he can sing, with the accompanying music suddenly dropping to a single guitar while he belts out line after line, his voice confident and controlled as it wavers between notes.

“Girl Harbor” by Manchester Orchestra.

“The Mansion” calms things down, remaining the sort of trippy, spaced-out rock song it was on Cope. Afterward is “The Ocean” which is almost unrecognizable; the lyrics haven’t changed, but the main guitar riffs are instead rendered on a piano while Andy Hull softly sings lines that were loud and explosive on Cope.

“Every Stone” echoes “The Ocean” with a keyboard replacing the main guitar, and continues the quieter tone Hope has carried for several tracks in a row. “All That I Really Wanted” shifts the focus back to the acoustic guitar and sticks with it through much of the song, while more layers of more instruments are added as the tune carries on, making it reminiscent of something from Andy Hull’s side project, Right Away Great Captain!

“Trees” is a darker song on both albums. There’s something creepy about it, but the Hope version dials this up all the way, even in the lyrics:

Pick from the bloodline tree,
It’s green with envy.
It’s okay to lose a limb
When they get too heavy.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Trees”

Following this is “Indentions”. Probably the fastest-paced song on Hope, its main riff sounds like a palm-muted rendition of one that appears only briefly at the end of the Cope version. I always loved the riff on Cope, and I’m glad to see it come back so prominently on Hope.

“See It Again” diverges the most from its Cope counterpart. On Cope, the song is driven by heavy drum beats and palm-muted guitars during the verses while it explodes for each chorus, reflecting the frustration the narrator appears to be experiencing in the song’s lyrics. On Hope, there are no guitars or drums; there are no instruments at all. The song’s lyrics are almost entirely different, sung along to a vocal chorus, making the song into a shiver-inducing church hymn.

The album, like the one before it, closes with a song called “Cope”. This version is set to two clean electric guitars, reverberating each note and giving it a grungy, echo-y tone.

All in all, Hope is a beast of a different flavor. It’s experimental in its sound, delivery, and creation; Andy Hull said in an interview that the band had wanted to do an alternate recording of their previous album, Simple Math, but never found the time. I wouldn’t mind seeing them repeat the idea for future records, or even going back and doing the same for previous ones.

Advertisements

nowPlaying: The Last of Us Remastered

As previously mentioned, these nowPlaying posts are going to be rare from now on. I’m a staff writer at Cubed3, where I post news and occasional reviews. The reviews I post directly to my blog are done on my own time and don’t reflect the views of Cubed3.

This review won’t be spoiler-free. I’ll try to leave the biggest things out, but if you intend to play this game knowing next to nothing about it (as I did and heavily suggest you should), please don’t read on. The Last of Us is an experience I don’t want to rob you of. Go ahead, I won’t mind if you stop reading.

All screenshots taken by me, using the PS4’s share feature.

Growing up, I had a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo. I always liked the Nintendo more, but even then, part of me understood that great games can’t be confined to a single platform. This is true now more than ever.

The downside of this truth is that most people can’t afford every gaming platform available at any given time, at which point marketing takes over, with various game companies trying to sway gamers to buy their device.

The last generation of gaming found me with a Wii (I’ll always opt for Nintendo first; I need my Zelda and Super Smash). That part was easy. Picking between the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 was more difficult. The PS2 had won handily a generation before—Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus had seen to that. The idea of a third Kingdom Hearts and another masterpiece from Team Ico sold me on the PS3, but when neither came to fruition, I sold it, eventually picking up an Xbox 360 for series like Halo and Left 4 Dead.

Toward the end of the PS3’s lifespan, a game called The Last of Us showed up on my radar. I watched a few trailers, looked into gameplay videos, read the previews; it was pretty clear that The Last of Us was always going to be the one that got away. Here, finally, was the PS3’s killer app. It definitely wasn’t too little, but it was certainly too late.

I wasn’t concerned. Pretty much everyone knew a PS4 port was imminent, and it was only a matter of waiting. So I waited, and I avoided all spoilers from the game. (This wasn’t difficult to do, and I suspect the game’s fans are a large reason for this, so to them I extend my thanks for not spoiling the game for those of us who didn’t get to play it the first time around.) Finally, Sony released The Last of Us Remastered for PS4.

Going in, I knew almost nothing about the game, other than it was a post-apocalyptic adventure/survival game. The very first cutscene made me uneasy: The game opens with a little girl, who we soon learn is the daughter of the main character, Joel. I had seen pictures, trailers, the cover of the game—this was not the same little girl I saw on those. Joel was accounted for, but his daughter, Sarah? Nowhere to be found. Not good.

Then the game’s first major roundhouse-kick-to-the-feels comes when the cutscene ends and control reverts to the player. I found myself not playing as Joel, but as Sarah. Oh boy. Sarah wakes in the middle of the night to a series of strange occurrences, all the while looking for her father.

"Oh, this is bad."
“Oh, this is bad.”

It doesn’t take long for events to careen out of control. It also doesn’t take long for the game to inspire awe. There’s an unparalleled sense of realism in the game’s opening, whether it’s wandering the house half-asleep as Sarah, or switching to Joel, carrying the wounded child through a crowd of people all pushing and shoving to escape the frenzied infected among them. The characters have a sense of weight to them, like they actually interact with the digital game world presented on the screen. Everything feels real. This is something I didn’t quite notice until I played The Last of Us. Most games are games, no matter how intuitive their controls. The Last of Us feels more like I’m using a controller to tell an actual person somewhere what to do, and he immediately does it. I wish I could explain this better.

The opening isn’t physically difficult. You really only have to keep moving forward. It’s what you can feel yourself moving toward that makes each step harder than the last, that nagging feeling that this little girl you’re trying to save is not the girl you see with Joel in all of the promotional material. And then you find out why, and the game cuts to its opening credits.

I could tell it was going to be a heavy story before I even played it, but the opening scene, which culminates in something I knew was coming, was still hard to digest. I could only imagine what else was going to happen in the game, how far it could take me, how heavy it could become. This didn’t turn me off in the slightest; I was ready to press on.

The game’s realism only gets better. Using a health pack during the tutorial resulted in an actual bandage that stayed on Joel for the rest of the playable portion. More of that realism. Characters change and develop, they interact with each other and the world around them. You craft new items to use, you get ammo (very little of it) and scavenge houses. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Somehow, I did. It felt like I scoured every inch of the game world, yet I found something like 40% of the game’s hidden collectibles by the time it was through. The world is bigger than it seems, the post-apocalypse holds many secrets.

Tess helps Ellie and Joel climb onto a platform.
Tess helps Ellie and Joel climb onto a platform.

Little by little, more game mechanics revealed themselves: Placing ladders, throwing bricks and bottles to distract enemies, sneaking, swimming, climbing, helping others climb, moving furniture; the possibilities seemed endless. A lot of work went into this game, but this is all superficial. This is just the presentation. I’ve always cared more about the story.

That same depth extends beyond the gameplay. The story unfolds little by little, characters come and go and leave their mark on the world. I was surprised to see that Joel and the girl from the cover, Ellie, get off on the wrong foot. The way wrong foot, as in she-tries-to-stab-him-and-he-can’t-wait-to-get-rid-of-her wrong foot. There’s little left to the imagination here; you know what the characters feel. You can hear it in their voices, you can see it in their eyes. You’ve probably heard plenty about what an amazing job the actors have done, but words don’t do it justice. I’ve never seen performances like this in a video game.

It was particularly weird for me because (hipster mode activate!) I was a fan of Troy Baker long before he was the main character in every video game ever, back when he was Action Bastard in Shin-Chan, back when he was Excalibur on Soul Eater. It wasn’t until he voiced the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins that I realized he was capable of so much more than I’d heard, and even that performance pales in comparison to his role as Joel in The Last of Us. Of equal talent is Ashley Johnson, who at the time I recognized only as Gretchen from Recess, portraying Ellie.

Ellie is a character that could’ve gone so wrong. A single mistake with this character would’ve sunk the whole ship; while you play as Joel, Ellie is the character most important to the story. If she had been annoying, if she had been portrayed wrong, if she had been in any way unlikable or unbelievable, the whole game would’ve dropped to a level that could hardly be described as more than just solid. It’s only because I loved the character that the story makes sense, it’s only because I dreaded seeing the credits and knowing my time with Ellie (and thus, this story) was almost over that every victory in the game was also a defeat, that every minute of playtime was an experience I could never have again.

Ellie in the midst of a harsh scolding from Joel.
Ellie in the midst of a harsh scolding from Joel.

A talented supporting cast moves the game forward. There’s Bill, the lovable asshole who likes tripwires and talking to himself. There’s Tess, the brains to Joel’s brawn, and clearly the only reason he’s still going in this world. Marlene, the leader of the enigmatic Fireflies, is charismatic where Joel is on autopilot. There’s even Ish, a character you meet only through handwritten notes he left behind, but whom you grow to love and know and feel for when his world eventually falls apart around him.

This isn’t to say the game is perfect. The infected, while interesting, are underused. The vast majority of your enemies are uninfected people who are just so deliciously evil, you can’t help but laugh as you blow their heads off. Now and then they’ll say things that project them as real people with their own motives, but there just isn’t as much thought given to these characters. They exist to be fodder for Joel’s gun, and most of their dialogue comes across as a tacked on “feel for me, damn it!” that tries to push itself on you, whereas the rest of the game invites you into whatever emotion it’s trying to convey.

Bricks can be thrown to lure enemies away—Or strike them directly.
Bricks can be thrown to lure enemies away—Or strike them directly.

There is an exception to this rule in one of the game’s later protagonists. While what he does is cliché and easy to spot from far off, you can’t help but like the guy, almost even understand him, and that’s a kind of horror all on its own.

All of this pushes you toward an endgame that’s never quite what you think it is. The goal posts keep moving, the objective keeps changing, until the game reaches its climax.

Here I’ll split my post onto another page. If you haven’t finished the game, don’t read past here. I’m going into full spoiler mode, because a lot of things happen at the end, and I want to give my own interpretation of what they are, and welcome discussion from those who might not agree. If you’re aware of the game’s ending, feel free to continue to the next page.

WIBUT 9/7/2014

I have another nowPlaying post in the works, but I thought I’d break those up with an update on what else I’ve been up to as of late. Before I get to that, I should say the nowPlaying posts will probably be rare from now on. I’m excited to announce I’ve been taken on as a writer over at Cubed3, where I’ll occasionally post news and reviews relating to video games.

nowReading

I’m about halfway through Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. I’m enjoying it; its style reminds me a lot of Wes Anderson’s movies, as well as Arrested Development. Lots of humor, lots of irony.

I’m also reading Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I found it annoying at first (for reasons I’ll detail when I write a full review), but it’s quickly growing on me.

nowWatching

The Leftovers on HBO. I love Damon Lindelof, I loved Lost, but I have to admit that the show lost focus at some point and never quite got it back. I fell in love with the trailer for The Leftovers and knew I’d give it a chance, but it looked like the kind of show that could go anywhere.

There’s a lot of mystery, but it’s a lot more self-contained than Lost was. Unlike the magical island, there are limits to what can and can’t happen, but that doesn’t stop the show from constantly pushing those limits a little further each episode. It’s riveting, it has an attention to detail comparable to that of Breaking Bad (but not quite the character development, not yet anyway). It’s one of few shows that keeps me on the edge of my seat, constantly wanting to know what comes next.

What I’m Working On

Things have been exciting for me on the writing front. I’m maybe 85% finished with a project I’ve been working on for a long time now. It’s a horror novel, and I can’t say much else about it, other than that I will most likely self-publish it sometime next year.

I’m also still working to get things published traditionally. There are certain projects that are better suited for self-publishing, and certain projects I’d rather do the traditional way.

I have a few other things lined up, one of which I’ll talk more about pretty soon here.

This all leads me to a major project I’ve been working on. I was hesitant to get this one out in the open because I’ve never done something like this, so keep in mind there’s a slight chance the following might never come to fruition. I’d like to introduce my project, tentatively titled Let the Moonlight Give You Wings.

That’s quite a mouthful! So what exactly is it?

First and foremost, it’s a game I’m making in RPG Maker VX Ace. I love games, and I’ve always had ideas for my own, but nothing ever really took off. I’ve worked with engines like Unreal Development Kit and Unity, but I’m not good at making models or scripting, so I always reached the limit of what I could do pretty quickly.

RPG Maker, however, is a little more suited to people like me who are more reliant on GUIs, and it’s also easier to make a game without a team of people working on it. RPG Maker also has an amazing community of people behind it for those moments when a single person runs into some trouble during development.

My sister bought me a copy of RPG Maker VX Ace during Steam’s summer sale. I started playing around with it, and eventually a story began to develop. It’s very loosely based on a fantasy novel I’ve had on the backburner for a while, but it’s different enough that I’m willing to consider it its own story.

Because of this, I’m planning on writing a novel based on the game. The current plan is to release the game for free or under a pay-what-you-want model (with a portion of each donation being forwarded to a few people whose scripts my game wouldn’t work without), and completing the game will give you a coupon to get the book at a discount.

Keep in mind, everything from here out is subject to change.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings is the story of Emery, the oldest child at an orphanage. It’s a hard life for Emery, as she helps take care of the other kids between chores and school. Emery often daydreams about a fantasy world full of magic and mythical beings, and one night, Emery goes to sleep only to wake up in a world not unlike that of her dreams.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings
As currently planned, the game will transition between day and night, and character armor will change depending on what’s equipped.

All dreams must end, and when morning comes, Emery finds herself awake in her old life. Much to her surprise, however, when she goes to sleep that night, her dream picks up right where it left off.

Emery is caught between a world that desperately needs her and one that seems as though it doesn’t want her, and embarks on a journey to save them both from disaster.

The game itself will have a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone, for the most part. I want to pay homage to all the games I grew up with, but bring something new to the table as well. There’ll be quests, side quests, puzzles, and a lot of backstory told only to those players who seek it out. I like being rewarded for exploration, and my game should reflect that.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings
Four members of the party explore a cave.

A large emphasis will be put on the game’s characters. I currently have a system in place that randomizes most of the game’s conversations. Put simply, pressing the action button on certain objects, characters, signposts, etc. brings up dialogue and comments from the game’s characters, but it’s randomized. You might get a different conversation every time you play it. Having certain characters in the party will make different dungeons and puzzles easier or elicit different responses from NPCs.

There’s also an affinity system in place. Leveling up certain characters will unlock special conversations with them, and eventually allow them to tap into their full potential.

This is a lot of work. Writing out a single event can take all night, but so far, it’s been worth it. My main priority with this game is to tell a story that can only be fully realized in video game form, though I’m still going to try my hardest with the novelization as well.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings
An in-battle screenshot.

I wish I could give a timeframe for release, but it’s way too early to tell. Certain things I think will take a while to finish end up taking a few hours, other things I think will take a few minutes end up taking days. There are a lot of variables involved (pun intended) and there’s just no way to say when this’ll be finished, and even then, I have to have people playtest it, look for bugs, etc. I do, however, think it’ll be a few months at the most (knock on wood!) before the bulk of the game is finished.

I’ll hopefully talk more about the game as it progresses. Certain things aren’t set in stone yet, but for the most part, the core of the game is. I’m hoping to eventually devote full posts to some of the game’s cooler features.

And that rounds out some of what I’ve been up to lately. It might not seem like it, but this is mostly backburner stuff. My current major project is coming along nicely, but I’m saving it for its own post, coming up pretty soon.

nowPlaying: P.T.

I try to make my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but there is an aspect to this game that can’t be ignored, yet I don’t want to spoil. For that reason, I’ll include the spoilery parts under a “read more” link for those who aren’t aware of what P.T. really is.

All screenshots were taken by me using the Playstation 4’s share feature.

Last week, at Sony’s Gamescom conference, they debuted a trailer for a new horror game called P.T. The playable demo for P.T. launched immediately after, available for download on the Playstation 4 store.

As it turns out, P.T. was harboring a huge secret that only took the internet about an hour to figure out, after which news broke everywhere. I went into P.T. after reading the headlines, so I knew what I was working toward. I did not, however, have any idea what I’d be working through.

P.T. Intro
The opening shot of P.T.

P.T. is a horror game. You’ve probably seen my thoughts on the horror genre in video games on this blog before (if not, I touch on them in my Outlast review here). In short, all of the horror classics have either gone on hiatus, or have shifted genres until they’re not really horror games anymore. Many indie games have come forward to fill the gap, but a lot of them are too short for their own good (and let’s be honest, a lot of them are also ripoffs of Slender).

P.T. pays homage to recent works of indie horror. Played from a first-person perspective, you wake up in a grungy basement, complete with cokcroaches. The basement has only one exit, so you take it, and find yourself in a hallway.

Immediately noticeable are the game’s stunning graphics. While the anti-aliasing is almost nonexistent and screen tearing is present at times, the lighting sets the mood. Things are perfectly reflected in the hallway’s polished floor, the lights bounce shadows down the hall as they would in real life. It looks like a real hallway.

The first hallway you find yourself in. It won't be the last time you see it.
The first hallway you find yourself in. It won’t be the last time you see it.

Walking down the hallway reveals a messy house. Food and empty beer cans litter the floors and counters, cockroaches scurry across all surfaces. Rain hits the windows from outside, a rusty hanging light groans as it swings back and forth in the foyer.

There’s a radio near the front door that blasts a news report about a father who snapped and killed his family. He’s the latest in a rash of similar events. The report is staticky but audible. When it’s done, you try the front door and the hall door. Both are locked. There’s one more door, down a set of stairs, leading to the basement. Yes, the basement you just came from.

So you try that door. You swing it open, and beyond you find the same dirty hallway, the same lights and cockroaches and rain. It’s a sight you’ll want to get used to, because every trip through that door leads back into the same hallway.

From here, the ambiance takes over. Musical cues and sound effects become just as important as the lighting. Playing with headphones is a must, and this hallway comes to life.

P.T. is a psychological adventure, so I’m not going to spoil all of the fun things that happen along the way. There are many puzzles to solve, most of them extremely difficult. This is not an understatement; the game’s creator recently said he wanted this thing to take at least a week to solve, and require teamwork from people around the world. This is evident as flashes of text in multiple languages pop up on the screen, and the events that play out are randomized—how one person solves a puzzle can be completely different from how another person solves it. If you ever played video games before internet guides existed, you might remember your friends at school swearing that if you do some quirky thing or another, something special will happen. “Stand right here, spin around three times, press A-B-A-B-X-X-Y-Y and you get the ultimate weapon!”

P.T. conjures echoes of that, with people on the internet swearing by certain events that produce no results for others who try them. The psychological creepiness of this game extends far beyond the game itself.

There’s another aspect to the horror of this game. It doesn’t take many trips through the ever-looping hallway before your character begins to be followed, and then directly haunted by an ethereal being. This creature will persist through the rest of the demo, and can get you at any time. Sometimes she’s harmless, other times she kills you, sending you back to the basement (but with all of your progress intact). Oh, and don’t make the mistake of feeling safe on the pause screen.

When this clock strikes midnight, all bets are off.
When this clock strikes midnight, all bets are off.

Atmosphere is the main source of scares in P.T., which is exactly what the horror genre needs. It can be frightening to see a horde of creatures approaching you, it can impose a sense of impending doom that makes you sweat as you try to off the nearest ones or simply run away successfully, but I think it’s more frightening if a game manages to give you that sense of impending doom without any visible cues at all. “Something’s going to get me pretty soon” is always trumped by “Something’s going to get me and I have no idea what, how, or when.” P.T.‘s essence is the latter.

Keeping with its psychological undertones, P.T. is more than it seems. Beating the game unlocks a post-game trailer that reveals all. If you want to unlock it yourself (and have somehow avoided all of the news spoiling it), you should stop reading here. Otherwise, feel free to press on to the next page.

nowPlaying: Destiny (Alpha)

The following screenshots and impressions were created during the Destiny Alpha phase, and may not reflect final game decisions. The game enters its beta phase on July 17th, 2014.

I won’t go into detail about the way the Halo franchise changed video games. I’m assuming anyone reading this who has even a passing knowledge of video game history probably noticed it. Keeping it to a minimum, Halo redefined online multiplayer, paving the way for first-person-shooters for years to come. On the campaign front, it didn’t have the most original story (which isn’t to say it had the most unoriginal story either; the game was perfectly average in that department).

Behind the first three Halo games was a studio called Bungie. Bungie wasn’t new to the video game world, and while they saw moderate success in games like Marathon and Oni, it was Halo that established the studio as one of the most prominent developers in the industry. Bungie’s work on Halo would end with a game called Halo: Reach, a prequel to the series.

Some fans of the series found the changes to Halo: Reach’s multiplayer unwelcome. I don’t hate it, but it’s a different experience from Halo 3. With that said, Reach is my favorite game in the series for its campaign. Creating my own Spartan made the story a lot more personal, and the emotional impact of the game is present from the beginning: The first Halo game begins with the human race becoming nearly extinct. Halo: Reach takes place before that. You know from the gate it isn’t going to end well, yet every comrade who falls along the way takes its toll on you as a player, until that final moment when you provide cover fire so the humans, along with one Master Chief, can escape Reach. A post-credits scene puts you in control of your Spartan one last time, and ends only when your health is depleted and you’re overcome by enemy forces.

I found Halo: Reach impressive in terms of graphics and story, with a solid multiplayer component as its backbone. After Reach, Bungie could’ve done a lot of things. For a long time, fans of the studio waited to see what they would come up with next. After a few years of little to go on besides industry leaks, Bungie’s next game was revealed in 2013: Destiny.

For a lot of us, having Bungie behind the game is the only hype we need. Others aren’t so easily convinced, and early screenshots and videos showed what almost looks like a Halo skin for Borderlands. That in itself isn’t a terrible premise for a game, but compared to Halo, it was hard to see Destiny as an industry-changing juggernaut.

That changed during E3 2014, when Bungie unveiled a pre-release Alpha phase, inviting PS4 owners to play a small part of the game before the upcoming Beta phase. Anyone with a PS4 could sign up, and I made sure I was among them.

“It’s just a game,” I thought over and over again in the days before I received my invite via email. On the one hand, what if it sucked? If the game were terrible, it would easily become the biggest flop in video game history.

But what if Bungie really could pull another Halo?

Sometimes a work of art is more than its medium. Some movies are more than movies, some paintings are more than paintings, some songs are more than songs. The same can be said for video games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shadow of the Colossus, and Half-Life 2 come to mind. Halo was close; if not for the lackluster story that seemed tacked-on in comparison to the multiplayer element, it would be there. (Halo: Reach had the opposite problem: A fantastic campaign with a multiplayer element that wasn’t quite up to snuff compared to its predecessors.)

The pre-release information on Destiny sure made this seem possible. Bungie promised a world in which single-player and multi-player aren’t two incompatible selections on a main menu, but a perfectly blended media through which an epic work of science fiction would be told. But promises are wind; I was told I could step on a flower in Fable and it would butterfly-effect my entire game, I was told I could approach anyone in Skyrim and ask them to go on a quest with me. Neither ended up being true, and those things seem easy compared to what Bungie had promised with Destiny.

I signed in. I created a character. I wished there were more customization options; it seemed like I had a choice between five or six faces and maybe ten hairstyles I was willing to use. The only customizable part of your Guardian is their head. You can pick a gender and one of three species, and change those parts of the head I mentioned, but it’s all but in vain: Your character will almost always be wearing a helmet. Some customization in terms of body size and proportions would’ve added to the immersion. But this is all superficial, a tiny part of the game.

The Destiny Alpha threw me right into the story, on what I surmise is chapter 3. Out of how many, who knows. I was dropped into a map many times larger than the largest Halo map, my Ghost (a robotic companion voiced by Peter Dinklage) gave me a few clues on what to do, and then I was on my own.

The game's layout and style will be immediately familiar to fans of Halo.
The game’s layout and style will be immediately familiar to fans of Halo.

Well, not quite. Two other people were dropped into the world right next to me. The three of us set off, unfortunately in different directions. This is likely to become one of the biggest criticisms of the game, I think. Much of the game revolves around the idea of forming teams of three players, but unless you’re playing with friends or get matched with people willing to cooperate, you might as well be playing alone.

Not that playing alone detracts from the game. It certainly didn’t for me. It was always interesting to be exploring on my own and run across another person (or several) who were engaged in a fierce battle, drop what I was doing and help out, and then go on my way. It’s also nice when you’re in a pinch, expecting to be taken out any second, and then three or four Guardians show up out of nowhere and turn the tide of battle.

Exploration was fun. There are always things to do, whether it’s fight enemies, collect items from the environment (there was only one type of collectible I noticed, I’m hoping there are more in the final build of the game), or just summon your vehicle (which could use a more specific name, in my opinion) and ride around the terrain.

This story mission offers only a peek into what’s going on: There are two factions of aliens fighting each other and you. As a Guardian, your job is to defend the last living humans.

The story has a lot of potential, and Bungie appears to have circumvented one of the biggest problems you’ll find in gaming. When a game mixes single-player and multi-player elements, it’s difficult for any player to feel special. There are games like those from Bethesda, where your character is special and no other human-controlled player ever enters your game. There are others like Pokemon, where your character is special and you can play with others only in a select mode in which they’re little more than passing strangers, a step above NPCs. Then there are games where you play with as many people as you want and nobody is special, or NPCs refer to you as though you are when you’re really not; there are a thousand other “chosen ones” running around next to you.

In Destiny, there isn’t just one Guardian. There are many of them, so the presence of other players makes sense. When you enter an area that would make your character unique, the game un-loads other players. They see cinemas and events on their screen, but they don’t see you, and vice versa. This makes you feel like you’re not alone in the world, but that your character is actually a person experiencing things other people aren’t. It’s very interesting, and I’m excited to see just how crazy the story gets.

The game itself is immediately familiar to anyone who has played Halo. That “Borderlands with a Halo skin” analogy works to an extent, but only insomuch as the game’s controls. I never felt like I was playing Halo or Borderlands; it was clear I was playing something new.

Something else stood out from the beginning, this one negative. It’s almost hard for me to type this, but Peter Dinklage’s voice acting is… sub-par. It’s actually shocking. I love the guy on Game of Thrones, and I know he can voice act, so I don’t know what’s going on. I keep hoping there’s some logical reason behind how bored he sounds (he is, after all, playing a robot; but there’s monotone robotic voice, and then there’s actor-is-half-asleep voice, and Destiny very abrasively has the latter). There are a few possibilities. I was dropped into the game on chapter three, so maybe the beginning offers some kind of explanation for the droning, unexcited tones Ghost speaks in. It’s also the Alpha build, and the playable part of the game was shown over a year ago, so it could also be a sort of rough draft. There is also the possibility that Dinklage, his voice director, or some combination of people involved just plain dropped the ball. In the end it’s no dealbreaker, but I was very excited to play through an entire game with Dinklage’s inimitable voice accompanying me, and the Alpha defeated much of that excitement.

UPDATE: After playing the Beta, it’s clear that the Alpha included a very rough version of Ghost’s voice. The Beta includes re-recorded and enhanced vocal effects to give ghost a more mechanical sound. The flat audio from the Alpha appears to have been a deliberate choice after all, and the end result is much better. I’ve left my original complaints in the article to reflect my reaction to the Alpha, but the Beta has very much cleared all of my doubts about this part of the game. Props to Bungie and Peter Dinklage; I love the character already.

Once the story mission was finished, I was taken to an overworld menu. Here it’s clear what Bungie is doing in terms of gameplay. You select a planet, then a part of a planet, and then you’re given three choices in missions: Story, Explore, and Strike. Story missions progress the main story behind the game. Exploration drops you into the area and lets you roam, but it’s also full of little blinking boxes that, when found and activated, give you sub-missions, such as defeating a certain type of enemy, scouting an area, or finding supplies. Strike missions are sort of a mix between the two, and require teams of three to complete a more linear series of goals.

Aside from those three modes is The Crucible, which is the player-vs-player mode. This will again be familiar to fans of Halo: Two teams compete in deathmatch, capture-the-flag, or various other modes.

The Crucible loading screen. Each ship represents a different player on the same team, and while they all appear the same in this screenshot, your ship is customizable and will appear so on such screens.
The Crucible loading screen. Each ship represents a different player on the same team, and while they all appear the same in this screenshot, your ship is customizable and will appear so on such screens.

Where it differs from Halo (and just about every other FPS) is that it doesn’t take your things away. You aren’t given a carbon-copied mannequin to play as; you get your Guardian, complete with their armor, weapons, special abilities, everything.

This is a concept I’m sure every FPS player has thought about, and one that usually looks better on paper. After all, when you have a game as customizable as Destiny, where each player has different weapons, armor, and abilities, how do you create a fair fight?

I can’t answer that, but somehow, Bungie pulled it off. I never felt like I was being overpowered or that I was dominating; almost every match came down to the wire. Neither team was ever far ahead of the other, victory was never squarely in my grasp. The matches were fast-paced and fun. Since I was never sure I was going to win or lose, I found myself not even caring, and just playing the game. I don’t know of any other game that does that for me. And this is just one PVP mode; there are a handful, but only one was available during the Alpha.

A standard PVP results screen.
A standard PVP results screen.

There’s also the Tower, which is the hub of humanity. To my surprise, when you enter the Tower, the game switches to third-person mode. This is the only area (in the Alpha, at least) in which your character doesn’t wear their helmet.

The tower, with my character sans helmet in the foreground.
The tower, with my character sans helmet in the foreground.

The Tower is full of NPCs that run shops, give missions, manage items, and deliver mail. It’s an interesting area, though the third-person controls are a little rusty (think Fallout 3 as compared to Skyrim), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Tower is, essentially, a main menu that makes you walk to each selection.

On the flip side of that, other players popped in and out of the Tower, and a few emotions were available, such as waving and dancing. This led to a lot of humorous shenanigans between players, and makes the Tower a worthy addition to the game. At one point I found a guy sitting on the edge of a skyscraper looking out at the Traveler, that iconic gigantic white orb at the core of Destiny’s story. I sat my character next to him, and a third guy joined us. After a little sightseeing, the three of us stood and danced for a while, after which the two of them jumped to their in-game deaths. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at something in a video game.

Enjoying a night at the Tower.
Enjoying a night at the Tower.

 

Also, dancing.
Also, dancing.

It’s that inter-personal connectivity that makes Destiny what it is. You’re playing alone and with others at the same time. It’s easy to see why the game took so long to complete; everything just works. Playing the Alpha was everything I thought it would be: It’s like when you’re younger and you have all of these awesome ideas for a video game, and as you get older you realize how impossible it all was, how so many different nuances and elements couldn’t possibly work together. Destiny has the potential to be that game you always wanted to make, and Bungie made it work together. I don’t know how, I don’t want to know. I’ve never played a game like this, and I can’t wait to see the finished product, and what the projected sequels have to offer.

The Destiny beta begins on July 17th for Sony consoles. I play on PS4, where my username is crackedthesky. Feel free to add me and play along in the beta.

nowReading: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

I first mentioned this book in a post I wrote about good titles. To summarize the relevance: In the back of some magazine or another, I found a review for a book called The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. It’s not unusual for me to be captured by a good story, but just by the title? That was new to me. I learned this book was a sequel to a book with an equally captivating title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The story could be about anything, it could take me anywhere. I had to pick it up.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and I suppose the same should be said for its title, no matter how magical, captivating, awe-inspiring. Fortunately, from the first page, the story is as captivating as its title. Nearly every line is full of magic and wit, nearly every scene is crafted as a vehicle to propel the story forward. This is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read.

It isn’t without its flaws. September, our twelve-year-old heroine, doesn’t sound like a twelve-year-old girl from World War II-era Nebraska. She sounds like a young woman from England, to be honest. Well-read or not, she seems much older than she actually is, except for her naivety. This is a small caveat, and one that is easily overlooked.

I was slightly disappointed by the near irrelevance of the title I fell head-over-heels for. After several chapters of pure magic and heart, it’s a little disappointing to find that the titular ship of her own making takes all of a paragraph to make, and isn’t really a ship at all. The circumnavigating also takes only a few pages, and compared to the events before and after it, comes across a little threadbare. However, this is also easily overlooked, as it almost seems like a joke played by the author; the same kind of trickery the inhabitants of Fairyland often pull on September.

I found the cast wonderful. September is likable without being overtly good, almost inhumanly flawless, as some heroes and heroines are. A-Through-L is a fantastic companion, and even meek Saturday, who is barely present, plays a large enough role to stand out. Some characters are also found where you wouldn’t expect them. Sometimes they’re inanimate objects, and not even magical ones. A certain green sweater plays a prominent role in the book, despite September’s inability to interact with it in any traditional way.

Perhaps my favorite character, though, is The Marquess. She’s this book’s Queen of Narnia, or Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts. The Marquess is, however, far more interesting. She’s frightening but oddly charming, and where Catherynne M. Valente could’ve given us a carbon-copy “pure evil” villain, she instead crafts a character who is human, tragic, and more deserving of this story.

At its heart, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a children’s story, and the kind we need more of. It’s important for children to grow up seeing the world not in black and white, but shades of gray; not as good and evil, but as different viewpoints. This isn’t to say that nobody is ever right or wrong, just that right and wrong sometimes take an adventure to come to. Valente treads a path set before her by the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Hayao Miyazaki, but still carves out her own place, her own reason for being in it. (While I’m here, I’ll mention that this book would make a fantastic Studio Ghibli film.)

I had so much fun reading this. Books like this are what made me want to write in the first place: A wonderful, magical story from the first page to the last, and beyond the back cover.

NowPlaying: Outlast

All screenshots were taken by me from the Playstation 4 version of Outlast, and may contain graphic imagery.

I have a long history with the horror genre. Nearly all of the short stories I wrote as a teenager were horror stories. I loved horror films as well, and it’s no surprise that my fondness for the genre eventually extended to video games.

It started with Resident Evil, as it probably should have. I bought Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero for the GameCube, in time to play through them before the then-impending release of Resident Evil 4 (which I still consider one of the greatest video games ever made). Eventually I’d move on to other genre classics like the Silent Hill series, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, you name it.

I think the horror genre works particularly well in the world of video games. The added layer of interactivity video games provide gives you a sense of peril not possible in film or literature. It’s not impossible for a book to be frightening (I can easily refer you to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin) and you’re even more likely to find a frightening film, but video games have an innate ability to hit the fear sweet spot.

I grew up on survival horror video games, but the last few years have yielded a drought for the genre. Resident Evil is more about action now (and I liked Resident Evil 5 and I liked Resident Evil 6 even more, but the horror element is barely present). Silent Hill sees few releases these days, but the series has gone more or less the same way, and while Dead Space 3 tried to strike a balance between action and horror, it mostly abandons all attempts at fear after the first third of the game.

I must not be alone in my yearning for the survival horror classics of the past, because indie developers have stepped up to fill the void most major publishers seem to be ignoring. Games like Slender, Underhell, and Amnesia bring a lot to the table and prove survival horror is alive and well, but my favorite slice of this indie survival horror pie has to be Outlast.

Outlast

The Blair Witch Project didn’t invent the found footage genre, but it did propel it into the mainstream. A few attempts have been made to translate it into video games, but Outlast does it the best. You play as Miles Upshur, a reporter who receives an anonymous tip about atrocities being committed at Mount Massive Asylum. Armed only with his video camera, Miles breaks into the asylum. The video camera plays an integral role in Outlast, being Miles’s only ally within the walls of Mount Massive.

The anonymous tipster wasn’t joking, and Miles immediately becomes trapped in Mount Massive, wandering the dark and bloodied hallways, using the camera’s night vision mode to navigate dark corridors and sneak around pursuing enemies. Night vision isn’t unlimited, and Miles must keep a stock of batteries to power it as he tries to record the events unfolding in the asylum, or just find a way out.

A few survival horror games put you in the role of a defenseless protagonist, relying on stealth and running away rather than confronting enemies head-on. Outlast is interesting in that not everyone in the asylum is trying to kill you–some of the inmates will actually aid you, some will ignore you, and some will aid, ignore, or attack you depending on their mood.

Outlast Locker
Outlast features no playable combat, forcing you to rely on stealth and hiding to avoid enemies.

There are no ghosts or monsters in Mount Massive, only mentally disturbed people. While some have an inherent propensity for violence, others only mistake Miles for another “doctor” arriving to further torment them. This human aspect permeates the game, and even extends to Outlast’s primary antagonist, Chris Walker.

Walker is an ex-marine committed to the asylum long before Miles’s arrival. Easily the largest inmate, Chris stalks the halls grunting about completing his mission, rattling his chains, breaking down doors, and occasionally ripping off people’s heads. He has a particular interest in Miles Upshur, and if he catches you with low enough health, it’s an immediate game over.

Chris Walker
Protagonist Miles Upshur tries in vain to defend himself against Chris Walker.

Other characters (like Father Martin, Doctor Trager, and the twins) give the game a sense of personality. They’re well-written, oddly charming, and create lingering presences that keep you on your toes throughout your stay at Mount Massive.

The story behind the events at the asylum unfold through documents and in-game dialogue and graffiti, all pointing Miles toward one thing: The Walrider. I won’t spoil what the Walrider is, other than it’s the one inhuman thing in Mount Massive, and Miles will eventually come face-to-face with it.

A lot of the game’s events are scripted, and the layout and level design are genius. While you’re rarely not in control of the protagonist, the building is designed to make sure you’re looking at the right places at the right times to see exactly what you need to to progress the story, or just to frighten you.

Outlast had me on the edge of my seat, but the game’s ending left a lot to be desired. My largest gripe with the horror genre is the way many works end. Often they’re predictable, ambiguously grim, and usually avoidable scenarios that feel more like the writing team checked out early than actually sat down to wrap up the story they created. Outlast was no exception to this rule. At least, not until Whistleblower.

Outlast: Whistleblower

Outlast: Whistleblower is a DLC prequel/interquel/sequel to the main game. In it you play as Waylon Park, the anonymous tipster who first alerted Miles Upshur to the events at Mount Massive. The two stories heavily intertwine, which is apparent from the beginning: Your first objective as Waylon Park is to send the email Miles Upshur receives in the main game.

While it starts earlier than Outlast, Whistleblower is meant to be played after. As Waylon Park, you’ll experience echoes of Miles Upshur’s actions throughout the game, which leads to several Easter eggs and clever encounters with old enemies and allies.

Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life--and Miles Upshur's--forever.
Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life—and Miles Upshur’s—forever.

Whistleblower doesn’t rely entirely on the old, however. The DLC introduces new characters equally as creative and frightening as the ones found in Outlast. Dennis, Frank Manera, and Eddie Gluskin almost make you wish you were being hunted by the twins or Doctor Trager again.

Outlast and Whisteblower touch on the “body horror” subgenre made popular by works such as Alien, The Thing, and Dead Space. As far as subgenres go, body horror is one of my favorites. When you can all but feel what’s happening on the screen, the horror becomes more visceral, more effective. Again, I don’t want to ruin the fun, but neither Miles Upshur nor Waylon Park will emerge from their time at Mount Massive entirely intact.

Outlast Operating Table
Inmate Eddie Gluskin’s operating table.

Whistleblower is a much shorter experience than Outlast (my first playthrough of the main game took almost seven hours, while Whistleblower hovered around two) but it remedies all of my qualms with the game’s ending.

Both Outlast and Whistleblower come with a layer of social commentary (the former on mental health and treatment of those suffering from disorders, the latter on the titular concept of whistleblowing) but it never gets in the way of the game’s main intention: Telling a story. A very disturbing, frightening, and totally fun story.

The team at Red Barrels consists mostly of former employees of Ubisoft and Naughty Dog, and proves that a game doesn’t need a huge budget or a large studio to be as good as the $60 discs you’ll find on store shelves. Outlast is a lot of fun and one of the best survival horror experiences I’m aware of. I’m excited to see what else the studio has to offer, not to mention any future entries they might have in the Outlast vein.

The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can't help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.
The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can’t help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.

nowListening: Cope by Manchester Orchestra

My favorite band is Brand New. I have a list of reasons far too long for this blog post, but one of them is their tendency to introduce me to other great bands, through covers, tours, or the occasional “This song is called ‘Go See Explosions in the Sky.'”

One of Brand New’s most famous tours was a series of shows they played with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. You can find some high-quality videos from this tour on YouTube, and I recommend doing so. All three artists and their opening acts gave fantastic performances.

Kevin Devine and members of Brand New and Manchester Orchestra covering “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, another of my favorite bands.

That’s how Manchester Orchestra appeared on my radar. Eventually I would hear their song “Wolves at Night” on the radio. I thought it was okay, but my second radio experience with Manchester Orchestra fared much better: It was the song “Shake it Out”, and from then I was hooked. Fast-paced guitars and explosive vocals culminate in a noisy but still melodic refrain, before the song suddenly drops into a quasi-acoustic, quiet interlude:

I felt the Lord begin
To peel off all my skin.
And I felt the weight within,
Reveal the bigger mess
That you can’t fix.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Shake it Out”

The loud-quiet-loud structure of the song reminded me of something off of Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and not long after, the band released the title track of their then-upcoming album Simple Math for free. It was another quiet-loud-quiet introspective song, so I picked up a copy of Simple Math (and went back and bought Mean Everything to Nothing and I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child as well).

The three albums (four if you count the unreleased Nobody Sings Anymore, which I do, since “Slow to Learn” and “Girl With Broken Wings” are some of my favorite songs) were enough to cement Manchester Orchestra as one of my favorite bands. Between Andy Hull’s angelic voice (and legendary beard; you have to mention the beard), drums that aren’t afraid to leave the hi-hat and snare, bass you can actually hear, guitars that get noisy but never reduce themselves to noise, and Chris Freeman playing like a dozen instruments at the same time, the band has everything I love about music.

The wait for new material after Simple Math was a long one. Now and then a new song came up during a live performance, and the band released a handful of singles, but after two years, Manchester Orchestra played a set featuring several new songs. For a few months nothing else happened release-wise, and during a show Andy Hull even joked that their new album was “apparently never coming out.”

Thankfully, their new album did eventually come out, incidentally enough, on April 1st.

cope

The first thing I noticed about the album was that I wasn’t fond of its artwork. While I’ve since come to accept it, at first it struck me as bland, almost lazy. That’s a superficial part of what makes an album, though, and didn’t deter me from pre-ordering the album, much less listening to it as soon as it arrived.

I was already familiar with the opening track, “Top Notch”, as the band released it on the internet months before the album’s release. The song sets the tone for the album to follow: Loud and angry. Where Simple Math gave way to orchestral instruments like strings and horns, “Top Notch”, like many of the songs on Cope, instead offers flavoring with sporadic guitar shreds. Lyrically, the song is classic Manchester Orchestra, blending storytelling and metaphor into a message that is cryptic but oddly relatable.

So the first kid says in his temporal tone,
“I don’t think there’s a way to resolve it.
We should wrap up these towels around our blistering palms,
And wait it out in the closet.”
His brother looks him up and down and prophesies how all of it should end,
He says, “We’re buried underneath the yard, and no one ever listens.
Or visits.”

—Manchester Orchestra, “Top Notch”

Before “Top Notch” has a chance to exit the stage, “Choose You” comes in with feedback leading to a fast-paced chorus of guitars, eventually giving way to one of my favorite opening lines on the record: “The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck.” This song is more upbeat than “Top Notch”, but just as loud and angry, and many of the songs on Cope will follow its example.

The third track, “Girl Harbor”, quickly became one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra songs. One of the band’s signatures is their ability to be loud without sacrificing melody. I’ve touched on this already, but “Girl Harbor” is one of the best examples of this talent. Andy Hull’s brutal but somehow not unkind honesty shines in the song’s lyrics.

You always talk so loud,
And you never notice.
I don’t mind the sound, but you
Have re-arranged the pieces of your life
So many times, you’ve burned out the parts.

I don’t want to believe, but I want to believe you.
I don’t mean what I say, but I say what I mean to.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Girl Harbor”

Following this is “The Mansion”. One of Manchester Orchestra’s greatest influences is Built to Spill, and this song makes it easy to tell. I’m a sucker for songs with palm-muted verses that explode when they get to the chorus, and the trippy lead guitar and catchy chorus made this the first song from the album to get stuck in my head.

“The Ocean” is another great example of the angry-but-upbeat tone embedded in Cope, and the following track, “Every Stone”, is almost like the other side of the same coin. I don’t know what it is, but the two songs strike me as being related to each other. Where “The Ocean” is more flat and angry, “Every Stone” is calmer and more melodic, and both songs touch on the subject of letting things go.

That boat will not float,
It’s the last in its class, I’m the first one to know.
That bed is never made,
I’m the last of my kind, fucking tricked by my training.
I, I’ll give it to the ocean.

—Manchester Orchestra, “The Ocean”

 

You might just miss the mark
If you’re keeping everyone away
You didn’t mean to, you didn’t want to.
Well it might just leave a mark
If you don’t give anyone a say
You never want to, you never mean to.
Every stone I’ve thrown has gone away, it’s gone away,
It’s gone away.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Every Stone”

“All That I Really Wanted” is another showcase of that brutal honesty I mentioned before, while “Trees” almost feels like an epilogue to it. “Trees” has some cool moments, but I don’t love either song. I feel bad writing that, because Manchester Orchestra’s songs have a habit of creeping up on me and becoming favorites out of nowhere, so I can’t exactly set an opinion in stone, but for now I find the two underwhelming.

“Indentions” offers a welcome change of pace. It’s another fast favorite of mine. The bass and keyboards stand out on this one, the second verse has a really cool pre-echo effect on the vocals, and the last chorus is followed by a brief but very cool electric guitar riff. The chorus is simple but powerful: “I won’t leave indentions of me. I won’t leave intentionally.”

“See it Again” is probably the most unique track on the album. It starts off dark, with a faint vocal chorus to accompany heavy drums and a palm-muted guitar track, and the lyrics offer another storytelling session. This one isn’t so cryptic; the song deals with the narrator losing someone he cares about. The verses take us from the narrator’s front door before his loss, to uncertainty in a hospital waiting room, to deciding what does and doesn’t matter in life once he gets to the morgue.

Every Manchester Orchestra record contains at least one song that conjures a vivid depiction of some stage of death and grief. “See it Again” takes on this task for Cope, and it does a fantastic job.

The album closes with the title track, “Cope”. It’s another of those loud-quiet-loud songs I like. “Cope” is one of Manchester Orchestra’s shortest closers (“Colly Strings” and “The River” clock in at almost 6 minutes each, and “Leaky Breaks” ends up over 7) but it’s one of their strongest, in my opinion.

If I do echo, I hope you never see
There is no one there who’s waiting after me.
And I hope if there is one thing I let go,
It is the way that we cope.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Cope”

All of Manchester Orchestra’s albums have a unique sound, but Cope exists on an entirely separate plane. Sometimes, the album reminds me of the cover: Plain in black and white. There isn’t a lot of color here, but somehow, the band made it work, and with a few exceptions, each song becomes its own entity and stands out. Cope isn’t the album I asked for and it certainly isn’t the album I expected, but it’s one I welcome gladly.

All lyrics and the album artwork belong to Manchester Orchestra, not me.

nowListening: Rooms of the House by La Dispute

All songs and lyrics belong to La Dispute, not me. I’m just here to share my own interpretation of and experience with them.

This isn’t meant to be a review per se, it’s meant to be an analysis. It gets personal at the end. I’m not trying to bum anyone out or make anyone worry about me; I’m generally a happy person. My intention is to share why this album is so close to me, especially in those moments when I’m not.

The more avid readers of my blog will recall I recently wrote a post about La Dispute’s 2011 album Wildlife. At the end of that post, I linked to the band’s YouTube, where they had posted the first single from their newest album. I had listened to it once or twice, but only casually. I prefer to take my La Dispute albums in their entirety.

Rooms of the House by La Dispute

Rooms of the House hasn’t been out long, but I’ve given it enough thorough listens to write my thoughts on it. Sometimes these came in the middle of sleepless nights, sitting awake and listening to the album. Sometimes it was on the band’s YouTube page, where they’ve provided every song, complete with lyrics, in a seamless playlist. Once, I lay on my back during a panic attack and listened as I felt my heart rate increase and my breaths fall short for no readily apparent reason. And, of course, I gave it several listens while walking, either on the treadmill or around town.

The first thing I noticed about the album is that it’s shorter than their previous releases. Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair consists of 13 tracks totaling 52 minutes. Wildlife upped the number of tracks to 14 and clocks in at 58 minutes. Rooms of the House, on the other hand, contains only 11 tracks, and rests at 42 minutes.

At first I was worried that I might not be in for the same kind of intense roller coaster ride of a narrative the band usually puts out, but I pushed these thoughts aside. It’s not the length of a work that matters, but the impact it has on you. I wanted to be free of any preconceived notions when I listened to the album as a whole.

It’s immediately clear why this record is shorter than their past LPs. From the first second of the opening track, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, you can tell the band is much more focused, almost more frantic, like they’re dying to get their sound out and do it now.

“HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, the opening track of La Dispute’s Rooms of the House.

The opening track tells the story of a couple who are temporarily split up. A woman takes her son to her parents’ house in Terre Haute, Indiana, while her husband stays in Hudsonville, Michigan, until his week-long shift at the furniture mill ends and he can join them. Instead, a storm rocks both cities, knocking out the phone lines and leaving both parties unable to contact each other.

The song intensifies as its thematic storm does, sounding more frantic and chaotic as the narrative progresses. One of my favorite moments on the whole album comes when the storm has passed and the couple finally get into contact with each other, yet the song doesn’t calm down, instead escalating to new heights, and we catch a glimpse of a much more dangerous, internal storm our characters are weathering:

I remember those nights I couldn’t get through to you when
Quiet storms came, rattled the window panes
I couldn’t keep a thing the same way
When the storm blew in, and the furniture rearranged
I could see lightning there,
And a funnel cloud.
And your mother said,
“I swear I saw lightning in your eyes
When that call got through to the other side.”

—La Dispute, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”

After this, we reach the calm after the storm. The song drops in volume and tempo, slowing to a crawl while vocalist Jordan Dreyer reads off the lyrics more like a list than a song, reflecting tattered thoughts, both profound and inconsequential things that cross one’s mind after an internal conflict, like leaves and branches scattered after a heavy storm: “Wires snap. Metal gets twisted. There’s the rattle of the window glass bending in. Take the kids down. Terre Haute. Coffee. Thanksgiving. Stay calm. Keep down…” While the music and the vocals drift apart and settle into discordant remnants of the song, we’re given the final line: “There are moments of collapse.”

These moments of collapse, that internal storm and separation itself serve as repeating themes on the record. I’m not sure if Rooms of the House is meant to be a concept album in the strictest sense, but there is a heavy theme: These songs all serve as rooms of a house, they all serve as pieces of a whole that can be something or nothing, depending on how they’re filled.

The next track is called “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice” and tells the story of two people who go for a walk on a frozen lake. Our narrator is distracted by his everyday problems (“Had I cut my hair short? Had I grown my beard out long? … There’s a leak in the basement, stupid permanent estrangement, casement windows need glazing, hinges and arms need to be replaced.”). These problems disappear for a moment when the ice collapses below him, resulting in a brush with death.

“Don’t panic” I could hear you
Saying as I fell through
Blackness complete down,
Waiting until my feet touched ground.
At the bottom, they finally did
First reaction was “This is it.”
Next thought was “Just stay calm,
Kick up and save your phone.”

—La Dispute, “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice”

Despite being one of the band’s shortest songs, “First Reactions” is one of their more vivid pieces. Imagery doesn’t always work in songs, but here it becomes personal; we hear first-hand the narrator’s plight, the everyday things still eating at him even at the bottom of a lake, the panic and the bargaining that accompany a moment of fright.

After this comes a change in pace. “Woman (in mirror)” is a quiet, slow tune, and one of the support beams that holds this metaphoric house together. The narrator begins by explaining the house: “Where a bookshelf goes, or a throw rug, how you shape any common space, and the language you make out of looks and names, all the motions of ordinary love.” The bookshelf mentioned here is a prominent symbol on the record. It’s as the first track says: “There is history in the rooms of the house.” Objects like this make up part of the history currently being laid out by our main characters.

In this song, our narrator watches his wife get dressed for a dinner party. It seems like a simple action, but the band expands it into an entire song, and not without reason. There are hints of trouble for the characters involved, but on the whole the song represents one moment.

And I watch you, your reversal
It’s an honest thing when there’s no one there.
Some days, they feel like dress rehearsals,
Some days I watch, and you don’t care.
There’s a dinner, Thanksgiving
Dress up nice, make a dish to bring
There are moments here, only yours and mine,
Tiny dots on an endless timeline.

—La Dispute, “Woman (in mirror)”

One of the song’s final lines is perhaps the most important to its narrative: “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” The song fades away soon after this, but later on in Rooms of the House, we’ll find out what it means.

“SCENES FROM HIGHWAYS 1981-2009” is a song about people driving away from their problems. This isn’t a new topic in the world of music (this song even mentions a few classics like “Born to Run” and “Running on Empty”). La Dispute takes the song down a different path than some of their predecessors; what we’re given is the story of people trying to drive away, but always returning home in the end.

“For Mayor in Splitsville” follows this by setting up jokes about how much of a pain marriage can be. Our narrator is reflecting on this while he considers his own marriage. He and his wife have just returned from their road trip, unable to drive away from their problems and ending up back home. They make promises to change their lives and their living space, but this does little to help: “But I guess in the end, we just moved furniture around.”

After this is the song “35”. Our narrator is sitting up late one night when the news comes on the television. A bridge has collapsed, cars have fallen into the river, and a rescue is underway. Our narrator enters a dreamlike state; he feels sorrow for the people involved in the accident, and by the next morning, he feels like his life is a bridge that collapsed under him, and wonders if he can still kick out the window and swim to safety.

This is followed by “Stay Happy There”. Here our narrator imagines parallel universes in which he ended up happy. He sees images of a world in which the bridge in “35” didn’t collapse, visions of him and his wife talking through their problems, living on a coast instead of the Midwest. He also imagines other, less hopeful ones: “Somewhere I’m up past dawn, until / Somewhere you live here still / Somewhere you’re already gone.” Meanwhile, all the things he and his wife have filled their house with, all of the things that carry history weigh heavily on him: “Doesn’t it seem a bit wasteful to you, to throw away all of the time we spent perfecting our love in close quarters and confines?”

Following this is another of these objects that carry history. “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963” begins and ends with a lamp, and the story in between is one of a group of young girls who come home from school one day to find their parents sitting at a table, with a shoebox full of things that would have belonged to their youngest sister, had she survived her birth. The girls are perhaps too young to understand exactly what happened, but they understand very well the weight and sadness their parents are experiencing, so heavy that both parents refuse to ever say the child’s name.

You watched while Father held her,
Said, “Some things come, but can’t stay here.”
You saw a brightness,
Like a light through your eyes closed tight,
Then she tumbled away.
From here, someplace
To remain in the nighttime shadows she made
To be an absence in Mom, a sadness hanging over her
Like some Pentecostal flame
Drifting on and off.
She was “sister,”
Only whispered.
Sometimes “her”
Or “the child we lost.”

—La Dispute, “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963”

Next is “Woman (reading)”. The title hearkens back to “Woman (in mirror)”, and this is no coincidence. In the latter, our narrator was watching his wife put makeup on in her mirror. “Woman (reading)” is set later, when the end of their marriage is all but imminent, and our narrator sits in his office struggling to write, instead watching his wife reading in the other room.


“Woman (reading)” by La Dispute.

I could probably write a blog post the entire length of this one just about this song. From the first listen, it became one of my favorite songs. I’ll only go into detail on a few of the reasons.

There’s a clear contrast between both “Woman” songs. In “(in mirror)” the titular woman is putting makeup on. She’s getting dressed up to leave. She and her husband are going to a dinner party. They appear content, but it’s only an appearance. The cracks are present, but the characters have put makeup over it. In “(reading)”, there’s no more illusion. Things didn’t work. But we’re given another tiny dot on this endless timeline, and our narrator gets a final look at his wife, not dressing up or putting makeup on, but sitting and reading. This is who she really is, and he’s trying to figure her out, knowing it’s too late. She’s aware he’s watching, and that’s where our moment ends. Everything is out in the open: No makeup, just a woman reading, and a man unable to read her.

From here the song proceeds into the future, after they part ways.

And I pause where I am for a second when I hear your name
Sometimes I think I see your face in improbable places
Do those moments replay for you?
When I’m suddenly there, and then won’t go away
When you’re sitting in your living room
Reading for the afternoon
Do you put your book down, look and try to find me there?

—La Dispute, “Woman (reading)”

Our narrator reflects on how, together, they turned the house into a home. He goes over local landmarks, like a wine stain on the couch and scratches in the floor, sometimes not remembering whether he and his wife created them, or they were already there, and seeing history in them regardless.

Earlier we were presented with the line “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” It’s possible to see “Woman (in mirror)” as the smallest sound, and “Woman (reading)” as the echo it leaves.

“Extraordinary Dinner Party” moves forward in time. It’s the morning after a snowstorm, and our narrator digs his car out of the snow and goes to work. Throughout the day he sees images of all the stories told so far, reminders of the dinner party, the bookshelf, a man driving away from his problems. History has repeated itself, and our narrator has done nothing to stop it, as he says: “Because I was afraid to change. But that’s not an excuse to stay.”

The last few seconds of the track break the fourth wall. You can hear the band begin to practice the next track, mess up, and laugh it off before starting again. It provides a small bit of respite from the otherwise heavy record, a break from the weight of the previous songs, and the next one.

“Objects in Space” closes the album. Music accompanies a spoken-word poem; there’s no singing here, only speaking. Somewhere, at some time, our narrator gathers all of these things from around his house. He spends hours looking them over, thinking of their stories, and then trying to find something to do with them, somewhere to put them. Melancholy guitars guide us through the track, providing a chord progression to serve as the chorus, while the bass and the drums keep the song nailed down, serving as a structure for the narrator to weave through. This is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Defeat is audible in Jordan Dreyer’s voice, the guitars drip with resignation.

Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair begins with silence, an amp being turned on, and then a slow guitar progression. It ends with a similar song fading away. Wildlife begins with a distant, twangy guitar playing a tune for a while until the rest of the instruments come in, and ends with vocals fading away while the guitar drones on a few more times.

In contrast, Rooms of the House began with guitars and vocals in the first second of the record. I mentioned before that it’s shorter and more focused, and “Objects in Space” is no exception. We’re given our story, and then the record ends as promptly as it began. In terms of sound, there’s no lingering, no echo; just a tiny dot on an endless timeline.

My head is another story. The music bounces back and forth across my mind, the lyrics echo in the everyday things I see that remind me of my own tiny dots: My guitar on the wall, still missing its A string. The hat I made and never leave home without. Tickets to a concert I never went to. A letter someone wrote me (and I never wrote back). Figurines line every shelf of my desk, some of them found, some bought, some given as gifts, some I don’t like looking at. I have shelves full of books I’ve read, and boxes full of books I’ve written.

I’ve never lost someone to a stillbirth or a bridge collapse. I’ve never sat and watched a woman I love put makeup on, or sit and read. I’ve never driven down the highway to forget my problems, only to find them waiting on the porch when I get back. These are things I’ve experienced only vicariously through Rooms of the House, but there’s something cathartic about that. I wouldn’t know for sure, but maybe the guys in La Dispute have never walked home at four in the morning with a panic attack after telling someone you don’t love them. Maybe they’ve never stayed in a hotel after losing a house, then heard someone die in the next room over. Maybe they’ve never had nerve damage that calls into question whether they’ll ever write another word, let alone a song or a story or a book. I haven’t experienced what they have, and maybe they haven’t experienced what I have, but we all have our echoes to live with, and sometimes it’s nice to share them, to create a mutual understanding with another person. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to someone else’s echoes, and let them drown out your own for a while.

nowWatching: The Wind Rises

I hope the more avid fans of Miyazaki and anime will forgive me for using the English titles in this blog post; they come more naturally to me and, I assume, most of my readers.

The image that appears later in this post was taken from the Ghibli wiki at nausicaa.net.

Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my biggest influences, not just in my writing, but in my philosophy. From the first time I watched Princess Mononoke, I was in love with the animation and storytelling. I’d never seen anything like it before. I still haven’t. Even the other Studio Ghibli films (all of which consist of unparalleled quality, and all of which I thoroughly enjoy) aren’t quite on the same plane as Miyazaki’s personally-directed projects. (Credit must be given to Isao Takahata, whose films come close, and special mention to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose film The Secret World of Arrietty is wonderful; as well as Gorō Miyazaki, who directed Tales From Earthsea, one of my least-favorite Ghibli films, then went on to direct From Up on Poppy Hill, one of my favorites.)

I don’t know that I had ever cared for fictional characters as much as I cared for the ones in Princess Mononoke. It was particularly interesting to me that I was not presented with a “bad guy”, but with a large cast of characters who happened to have conflicting agendas, and sometimes do bad things. Even one of the central characters, Ashitaka, has a momentary lapse in his otherwise peaceful, nonviolent nature: “If it would lift the curse, I’d let it tear you apart.” The film’s characters are more than believable, they are alive.

Spirited Away made a big splash in America, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. This film is probably the best example of one of the things that makes Miyazaki’s films so enjoyable. Taking place in a bathhouse for spirits, you can watch the movie a hundred times, and every time, you’ll notice something new, some minuscule detail placed in the background or hiding within a few frames. Hundreds of spirits go about their daily lives, and when you watch the film you can piece together countless untold stories. The film is a snapshot of characters that, while fictional, never cease to be real.

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorite Miyazaki films, and I bought Ponyo the day it came out on DVD. Despite all of this, I had never seen one of his movies in the theater until last night. I’m glad to have had the experience; The Wind Rises is currently slated to be his last.

Kaze Tachinu official movie poster. Image taken from nausicaa.netI’m not going to say a lot about the movie. One reason for this is that it just came out in America last night, and not a lot of people have had the opportunity to see it yet. The other reason is that I don’t believe I can adequately convey my experience in watching the film. For every time I laughed, every glint of light across an airplane’s wings, every flake of snow drifting into a young woman’s sleeping bag, every puff of smoke blown from a character’s cigarette, one thought kept coming back into my mind: This is the last one he’ll make.

Almost every film Hayao Miyazaki has directed features a scene where characters take flight. It’s only fitting that his last film carry the wind as a theme. More than this, the wind is an ever-present character in the movie. It appears in almost every scene, drifting smoke or curtains in the background, or carrying a parasol and changing a character’s life forever.  I think this speaks to Miyazaki’s talent: The wind is invisible, but that couldn’t stop him from making an animated movie about it.

I would like to see the film in its original Japanese someday, but I’m thankful for the care and talent put in by the English cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better person to carry the film. John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, and Mae Whitman round out the supporting cast, and each does a fantastic job giving a voice to Miyazaki’s wonderful characters. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom has done a fantastic job on the English adaptations of many Studio Ghibli films, and I’m thankful that such care is taken to bring the movies into a new language while keeping the story and interactions between characters intact.

I can’t describe the joy I would feel if Miyazaki were to again come out of retirement and announce a new film. It wouldn’t surprise me; some people never quit. They slow down, they take breaks, but they’re always working on something, there’s always another thing calling to them, begging to be shared with the world. Hayao Miyazaki strikes me as that type of person. But if it never happens, if The Wind Rises really is his last film, I can accept that. With a heavy heart but a smile on my face, I would understand and accept it.