nowListening: California by blink-182

All lyrics and music by blink-182, not me. Clearly.

Growing up, my mom was a big fan of heavy metal and grunge rock, while my dad mostly listened to country. I think there’s a degree to which we inherit tastes from our parents—like most things—so for a long time I listened to what they listened to. I didn’t strike out on my own into the musical world until I was 11 or 12. I could write countless pages about the countless hours I spent with a Walkman or a radio, mostly listening for something I recognized, until I started to recognize new songs, things I hadn’t inherited from anyone else. This was somewhere around 15 years ago now, but one thing I remember vividly is that my first actual favorite band ended up being blink-182.

I don’t remember the first time I heard them, or probably any of the earliest times. I know I heard of them long before I heard them; one day in 6th grade a lot of my classmates were giggling and making a general hullabaloo about the whole nudity thing. What ended up sticking with me was their music. I remember how catchy “What’s My Age Again?” was, and how I always listened to it on low volume or with headphones, because I knew my parents wouldn’t like the lyrics. I remember falling in love with their more serious-ish songs like “Dammit” and “Adam’s Song,” more catchy tunes with “The Rock Show” and “All the Small Things,” and mostly I remember how “Stay Together for the Kids” immediately became one of my favorite songs of all time.

Despite all this, I didn’t own any of their albums until I was in high school, when a friend burned me a copy of their untitled album. I knew “Feeling This” and “I Miss You” from the radio, and eventually I’d fall in love with the album as a whole. If I had to pick an album that was the most important to me in the formative years of my musical tastes, this would be it.

It didn’t take long before the infamous hiatus, and while I enjoyed both Angels & Airwaves and +44, none of their work meant as much to me as untitled did. Needless to say I was thrilled when the band reunited, and I love Neighborhoods for what it is. The second split didn’t hurt as badly, especially since it didn’t take long at all for the band to start playing shows with Matt Skiba in place of Tom DeLonge. I was never a huge fan of Alkaline Trio, though I did enjoy quite a few of their songs, but I’ve always loved Skiba’s voice, so this was exciting. It all paid off for me when the band released “Bored to Death.”

I pre-ordered California as soon as I was able to, and I’ve played little else since putting it on my iPod.

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“Cynical” works as a fun opener, with Mark Hoppus dropping the band’s classic angst-ridden lyrics before being interrupted by Travis Barker’s famous drumming; the man is easily one of the best drummers of all time. Following is about a minute of (literally) unapologetic pop-punk, as Matt Skiba furiously belts out “What’s the point of saying sorry now? Not sorry, not sorry, not sorry, I’m not sorry.”

“Bored to Death” was a fantastic way to introduce the band’s new sound, with Skiba and Hoppus trading off verses and choruses.

Save your breath, I’m nearly
Bored to death and fading fast.
Life is too short to last long.
Back on Earth, I’m broken
Lost and cold and fading fast.
Life is too short to last long.

—blink-182, “Bored to Death”

Hoppus takes over for a cleverly worded bridge, and then Travis Barker drives the song home. By now it’s clear that Matt Skiba is a good fit for the band. His voice doesn’t contrast with Hoppus’s as much as Tom DeLonge’s does, but his guitarwork is right at home for blink-182.

Track three, “She’s Out of Her Mind” is another piece of classic pop-punk, with a catchy pre-chorus declaring “She’s a-a-a-antisocial, a-a-a-she’s an angel.” In the second verse, Matt Skiba proves he can provide a more classic blink-sounding flat vocal style as well as his louder, more melodious singing. After this is “Los Angeles,” easily the darkest song on the album. Barker brings his hip-hop drum style while Mark Hoppus and Matt Skiba set each other up for vocals, tossing the song’s lines back and forth until Skiba takes over, leaving Hoppus to tunefully shout out some “ohs” that hit a spot most instruments wouldn’t do justice.

“Sober” provides an interesting contrast to “Los Angeles,” being far more light-hearted and playful. It’s catchy as hell, with a thick chorus of vocals shouting out some of the words to the pre-chorus sections. “I can do bad, and you can do better” is a good example of the kind of fun, simple, yet clever lines found throughout the record.

All 15 seconds of “Built This Pool” were released well before the album. It’s a joke song, and if I had to pick one track to cut, it would be this one. It’s cute and classic blink humor, but it’s the kind of thing that probably made a lot more sense in the studio than out, and for some reason just sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s that it’s the only track that doesn’t feature vocals from both singers, or just that the tone is off; it’s more of a joke than “Sober” and far too casual for the next track, “No Future.”

Speaking of: This one is fun. Barker’s drumming is on point, and while some of the lyrics are sort of mashed into their rhythm, this song has the perfect balance of playful and serious. The random bass note before the first chorus always catches my ear, and Skiba’s verse is insanely good; it’s not the best writing ever, but he pours his soul into singing these lines.

She said that it’s too late to try,
Someday I’ll smile and say goodbye.
Every night that you fight every demon in sight,
Sleeping on the floor.
Wide awake from the dream with a shake and a scream,
Hope for so much more.

—blink-182, “No Future”

The song leads well into California‘s major ballad, “Home is Such a Lonely Place.” I’m a sucker for ballads, and this is a good one. Its surprisingly simple lyrics get the job done without trying too hard, with lines like “I hold on tight, but not enough to hold you back” and “Wish I could slow down time, but not enough to slow you down” reflecting the desire to keep someone close forever, but realizing they need their own space to grow and move.

“Kings of the Weekend” is probably my least favorite song on the album. I just don’t care for the lyrics, though musically it’s solid, in particular the riffs following each chorus. “Teenage Satellites” is one of the bigger-sounding songs, with the now-classic blink space theme going on. Hoppus smoothly cruises through the first verse and provides sturdy backing vocals throughout, while Skiba dominates the choruses and owns the second verse. I absolutely adore his voice, especially when he’s crooning lines like “Then you kissed me like a storm at sea / Like I’m the only one you’ll ever need.”

After this is “Left Alone,” which starts with more spacey-sounding keys before being taken over by a flowing, melodic guitar section and Barker’s intense drumming. This quickly became one of my favorite songs in blink history, let alone on this record. Hoppus and Skiba split the song 50-50 vocally, trading off lines of each verse. The pre-chorus finds Mark Hoppus frantically asking “Can you remember the last time” followed by a hardly-there Matt Skiba contributing a memory, and the whole thing comes off as a bittersweet mixture of fondness and frustration, boiling down to a simple question: “Are we halfway gone, or halfway there?”

Then the chorus explodes, with Matt Skiba belting out some of the heaviest, loudest, most intense singing I’ve ever heard from him. It sounds like nothing the band has done, yet an entirely natural progression from their untitled and Neighborhoods eras. Lines like “Break me down, I’m not afraid of you” become album highlights.

“Rabbit Hole” was the second full song released, and is much faster  than “Bored to Death.” It’s a fun tune, with Skiba’s verse lyrically playing with Hoppus’s, a simple and catchy chorus of “I won’t fall down the fucking rabbit hole,” and a great vocal chorus for the outro.

“San Diego” tones things down, beginning slowly with Mark Hoppus reminiscing, clearly about the band’s past. Oddly enough, Matt Skiba sings a majority of the song, but his voice fits the tone perfectly, keeping the song from sounding bitter or too serious. The bridge is one of the best moments on the record, and I’d be interested to know who wrote it, as it’s one of two moments on the whole album that sound more at home with Alkaline Trio than blink-182 (and I don’t mean this in a bad way).

I never needed to hear
All of the pain and the fear
Your secrets filled up my ears like the ocean blue.
I never wanted to know
How deep these cuts on you go
And like a river they flow to the ocean blue.

—blink-182, “San Diego”

“The Only Thing That Matters” is one of the fastest songs on the album, and among the most playful. It’s classic blink through and through, except the second verse, which is the second moment that, to me, smacks of Alkaline Trio, but with the casualness of blink-182.

“California” closes the album as the last full song. Matt Skiba is mostly in the background for this one, which is a softer, ballad-y tune covering the ups and downs of modern day California. It’s one that hits close to home for me, because I was born there, lived there for years, and visited several times. Barker’s drumming is clever as ever, but quiet, along with Skiba’s guitars, letting Mark Hoppus’s vocals take control of the tune.

Two little kids out on the lawn,
Once we had love, now it’s gone
Good things haven’t happened yet
I’m empty as a movie set,
It’s what I’ve always wanted.

—blink-182, “California”

The song slowly escalates toward the final chorus, where the trio play and sing their hearts out, bringing the album to a fitting close, if you don’t count the next joke song, “Brohemian Rhapsody,” which would’ve been better off as a hidden track. After the first listen, there isn’t much worth going back for, except maybe Skiba’s epic lead guitarwork.

California is a good record for introducing the band’s new sound. It’s not going to oust the untitled album as my favorite, but there are some unforgettable tracks here. Good luck getting me to ever shut up about how much I love “Left Alone.” It’ll be interesting to see where the band goes from here—these three re-inventing themselves with a more serious sound à la the untitled record would be a welcome direction, and it might be fun to see the band move on as a four-piece with Tom DeLonge back in the mix, if even just for a song or two. Whatever the case, this band has a lot of history, for me and in general, and I’m excited to hear what happens next.

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nowListening: Strangers to Ourselves by Modest Mouse

All lyrics by and property of Modest Mouse.

Modest Mouse is another of those bands that I hated at first. I remember when “Float On” invaded the airwaves, and played approximately every five seconds on every single radio station, and it just plain grated on my nerves.

Then a DJ at my local alternative station decided to break the mold and play “Bukowski”, which I found interesting. After that, “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Bury Me With It” replaced “Float On” and cemented Modest Mouse as one of my favorite bands. In time I would even come to like “Float On”.

I like bands that don’t sound the same with every album they put out. I like Good News for People Who Love Bad News, I like We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, I like The Moon and Antarctica, and I like various other songs from their past discography that I’ve heard over the years. I love the ironic, clever lyrics and titles, the anger present in Isaac Brock’s voice even when the accompanying music ventures into zany, even goofy territory, and I love Jeremiah Greene’s complicated, addictive drum beats.

There has always been, however, a strange duality to Modest Mouse’s releases. I tend to absolutely love about half of each record and not really care for the rest. In an even weirder turn of events, I do like those songs I don’t care for—while I’m listening to them. It just usually takes some out-of-the-ordinary turn of events to get me listening to them.

Eight long years went by without a new release from Modest Mouse, so I hoped they were working on something special. Finally they announced Strangers to Ourselves, which I promptly pre-ordered; Modest Mouse is one of a very few bands whose music I can easily pre-order without hearing a note of, because I know I’m going to get something good out of it.

What I got was probably the first Modest Mouse album where I love almost every song.

Strangers to Ourselves

The album starts off slow, with “Strangers to Ourselves”. Honestly, it’s a little boring for an opener; I’d like it a lot more as a minute, minute-and-a-half tune, but it lingers for three and a half. It stands in stark contrast to other openers; “The World at Large” is a slow and lethargic song, but I love it for its clever lyrics and playful melodies strewn throughout the track. “March Into the Sea” is a fun opener for how loud and angry it is, and “3rd Planet” is the song that turned me on to the band’s earlier discography in the first place. “Strangers to Ourselves” just doesn’t pack the same punch as any of them.

The album takes a sharp turn for the better with “Lampshades on Fire”, a faster, upbeat tune that sets the environmentalist tone found through most of the album. It’s a good example of that irony I mentioned earlier; the song sounds happy and upbeat while Isaac Brock belts out frustrating, angry lyrics like “Pack up our things and head to the next place / Where we’ll make the same mistakes.” After this is “Shit in Your Cut”, an odd song that reminds me of something off of Brand New’s Daisy. It’s darker and slower but just as much fun.

If “Shit in Your Cut” is like a Brand New song, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” sounds like the band’s attempt at a Nine Inch Nails tribute. A quick Google of the title suggests this song is probably about the formative years of a certain serial killer. “Ansel” continues the theme of upbeat-sounding songs with dark, disturbing meanings, this one about how Brock never patched things up with his step brother before he died in an avalanche.

“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” is another fun one. Lyrically, it reminds me of the “beauty in nature/science” themes found on The Moon and Antarctica, at least partially, as it seems a little bit more sinister toward the end. I love the lead guitar and the multiple male/female vocal chorus, something present in a few songs on the album. The addition of feminine vocals in general to Modest Mouse’s sound is a refreshing and welcome one, and it works well.

If I had written this post a week ago, I would probably mention how much I dislike “Coyotes” right about now, but it ended up growing on me. I’m not fond of the lyrics for the verses basically being the same thing but in reverse order, but I do love the brief bits of acoustic guitar that pop up before the chorus. “Pups to Dust” is my current favorite. The first time I heard the main vocals arguing with the backing vocals I laughed out loud and it has that flowing, airy lead guitar I’ve always loved in Modest Mouse. “Sugar Boats” is another favorite of mine; if steampunk has a sound to it, it’s this song. “Wicked Campaign” slows things down again, while “Br Brave” is one of the few songs I don’t particularly care for. It’s all right while I’m listening, but it’s not one I’ll go out of my way to listen to.

Well I’m not a doctor, but I’ll sell you an itch
I could apologize, but then a bit more nothing’d exist
So the world’s got plenty of good and bad liars,
But our lies should come with chariots and choirs!

—Modest Mouse, “Wicked Campaign”

“God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is a funny little interlude set before “The Tortoise and the Tourist” which is probably the most important song on the record. Every Modest Mouse record has at least one song I’d argue has an almost literary quality to it, and this is it on Strangers to Ourselves. It’s heavy and dark, very cynical, it’s a good thing it’s sandwiched between “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” and “The Best Room”.

There was this tortoise, its shell was covered with jewels
And had been since time began
It knew the world through all its histories
And the universe and its mysteries
One day it came across a man

The two were talking,
The tortoise offered to tell him about the future and how the universe ran
Oh, the man killed the tortoise, took its shell, and with a song on his lips, walked off again.

—Modest Mouse, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”

Speaking of, “The Best Room” is another fun one, a heavy criticism of western culture. The last minute or so escalates into a crazy, fast summary of the entire song preceding it, accompanied by a wild lead guitar part and a sudden dropoff ending the song.

“Of Course We Know” closes the album, and it’s another one I don’t really go out of my way to listen to. I love the theme of it, the lullaby-like tone accompanying a criticism of complacency, but the song is very long and repetitive. It’s one I have to be in a certain mood to listen to.

On the whole, Strangers to Ourselves is critical without being preachy, it’s dark but fun, it has a strong theme that it carries through to the end. It’s easily my favorite Modest Mouse album. It was worth the wait, but I still hope the next one doesn’t take quite so long to come around.

Go reckless, unharmed
The shut-ins they’re well-armed
Well we all led the charge,
‘Til we ran aground in our party barge
Every little gift was just one more part of their grift
Oh yeah, we know it.
The best news that we got
Was some dumb hokum we all bought
Let’s go reckless, feeling great
We’re the sexiest of all primates
Let’s let loose with our charms,
Shake our ass and wave our arms,
All going apeshit.

—Modest Mouse, “The Best Room”

nowReading: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to assign a star rating to this one. On one hand, “it was amazing” is an understatement. On the other, “I liked it” is accurate.

The Dispossessed features sprawling moments of brilliance, pure genius word after word, big ideas delivered one after another. The book doesn’t preach; the characters and even some of the ideas are wrong or don’t pan out at times, it’s as critical of itself as everything it else it criticizes, which is quite a lot. It’s easy to say some of my favorite quotes going forward will have been discovered here. My mind was blown again and again.

It’s not a philosophy book but a work of fiction, and Le Guin has, as always, done a good job keeping the story in front of its moral. As far as her Hain books go, however, this one isn’t all that physically exciting. The page-turning comes from a yearning to take in all of the ideas happening, while the actions of the characters are sometimes downright boring. There are (in my copy at least) an unfortunate amount of typos, and certain areas where the writing itself feels like a rough draft. Some things read more as a summary of events than actual events, there are a lot of lists given, and the chapters are too long for their own good. The decision to split each chapter between past and present is smart, but the chapters are so long it can be difficult to remember where the last time frame left off. Shorter chapters would’ve been easily accomplished without breaking the pattern. Too often things are explained as soon as or even right after they’re relevant to a conversation or action; Chekhov’s gun kept firing before it was hung on the wall or, sometimes, even assembled. More things are placed exactly as they should be than not, but the ones that weren’t are noticeable.

It’s a long read, and sometimes a hard one. There’s a lot to take in. Lots of philosophy, lots of symbolism (the last line blew me away). Less physical action yet more lore than any other Ekumen book, it’s possibly the most important in the series, as well as being an important work of American literature.

It’s amazing. I love the book, even if I only like the story.

View all my reviews

nowPlaying: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer/reviewer at cubed3.com. The reviews I post here on my blog are original and don’t necessarily reflect the views of that site.

Screenshots were taken by me, using the 3DS software and Nintendo’s Miiverse connectivity. All content in them is obviously Nintendo’s, not mine.

Allow me to play the Song of Time and take you a little way back along my timeline.

When I was a little kid, sometimes I would sit and watch my uncle play an old game on his NES, The Legend of Zelda. Try as he might, he just couldn’t find the entrance to the 7th dungeon. I tried to help in whatever way I could, which, looking back, probably wasn’t much. This was before the internet, before walkthroughs and GameFAQs and what have you. I don’t think we ever found that dungeon. Not back then, anyway.

Flash forward a few years. I have an NES (and even a Super Nintendo!) of my own. Nintendo has recently released their brand-new system, the Nintendo 64. While at the grocery store with my parents, I found a Nintendo kiosk with a playable game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I remember thinking “Hey, they made a third Zelda!” (Much later I would come to learn this was actually the latest in a whole series of them.) I tried to play it, but I didn’t know how to work the controller, and I couldn’t get Link to jump. I thought it was strange, and I gave up and left to catch up with my family.

More time went by. I Got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and eventually I had my own copy of Ocarina of Time.  As far as fiction goes, there isn’t a lot in this world that I can easily say “changed my life” but this is one of them. Everything I thought I knew about video games, everything I thought I knew about fiction was turned upside down. New fields sprawled out before me, all thanks to an elf-looking kid in a green tunic.

Then came the next console game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This time I was ready and waiting.

It was a long wait.

All the Time

I got the game, but it required a new accessory, the Expansion Pak. We couldn’t quite afford it, but the local video store did have them available for rent. So I played the game a little bit at a time, each a few weeks or months apart, until I finally got an Expansion Pak.

This game changed things as much as Ocarina did. Ocarina of Time invited me to a world I could play in. Majora’s Mask brought me to one that desperately needed saving; every NPC wandering the streets of Termina had their own fate that I could track over the course of three in-game days, a time loop that required attention and timing to get right.

The game became my favorite in the series, and still is. The series is dear to me, but no game after this one made me care so much. Sure, Midna is one of my favorite characters ever, and Wind Waker and Skyward Sword re-defined the titular Princess Zelda, but on the whole, NPCs and side quests are entirely skippable. The sense of urgency is gone, the trippy, otherworldly location of Termina remains unmatched.

While I eagerly await the next game in the series (which will hopefully arrive this year), the long-speculated Majora’s Mask 3D remake came out recently, and of course I showed up at midnight to pick up a copy.

Overall, the game has stood up to time well. Seeing these characters brought back to life is wonderful, and once again I find myself lost in that three-day time loop, struggling to help characters I know aren’t real, but boy oh boy does it feel like seeing an old friend from my childhood again.

A Band

Certain parts have been dumbed down or made easier, but they aren’t forced on you, and enough of the game has changed to keep things interesting. After all these years, the Kafei and Anju sidequest remains probably my favorite sidequest in video game history, and a certain moment toward the end, before the final boss, is as beautiful and breathtaking as it was the first time I experienced it.

Still, a certain sense of regret came from how much I already knew how to do. part of the game’s legend is in the mystery, in living each three-day cycle over and over, taking note of what happens, where, and when, until you can finally put things right. That doesn’t happen so much on subsequent playthroughs. There’s nothing to be done for it; a poster on reddit once said something to the effect of “If I could, I’d erase my memory of Breaking Bad so I could enjoy it for the first time again.” I would, too! But while I was at it, I’d throw a round of Majora’s Mask in there.

I don’t know where this series is going. I’m not even sure I know where I want it to go. But if, in the future, Nintendo decided to give Majora’s Mask a spiritual successor (the way they made A Link Between Worlds a spiritual successor to A Link to the Past), I’d welcome it. You know what they say: Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever.

nowReading: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The time has finally come. A journey of a few years, which began with me picking up a magazine lying around in the bathroom, has come to a close. Well, a rest stop, at least. I’ve finished reading The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

(Those wondering what in the world I’m babbling about will find the answer here and here, but the short version is this book’s title caught me by surprise, roped me in, and forced me to sit down and read.)

As I do with most of my reviews, I want to get the bad out of the way before I focus on the good. What can I say? I like to end on a high note. To make a long story short, which is to do absolutely no justice to the complexity that comes from reading a novel, the book didn’t quite live up to the hype I created upon seeing its title. It reads almost like a first draft; lots of lists, lots of descriptions, things are a little sloppy. Characters will drop everything they’re doing and give their entire species’ life story, often times for no apparent reason. Other times, important things happening directly to our main character, September, are glossed over in a sentence or two. Everything is more or less there, but some things feel like they’re in the wrong order, or given the wrong priority. There were also a few typos, and things appearing out of nowhere that probably should’ve been mentioned sooner than they happen.

Another issue I had was in how convenient certain things were. It was like September was never in any sort of danger or peril—a magical person or item would always bail her out at the last second. The real danger of the story, and one that threatens all of Fairyland, isn’t made present until over halfway through the book. In the end it becomes clear why this was intentional, but I’m not convinced it was always justified.

This leads to the main issue I had with it: The first half to two-thirds of the story are a little boring. It reads like a history of Fairyland and Fairyland-Below, but not so much like a story about a girl who has just been spirited away to the underworld of a fantasy dreamscape.

When it does finally pick up, it’s relentless! I couldn’t put it down, I read the last third or so of the book in two sittings, stopping only to sleep. That last bit is as wonderful and magical and heartwrenching as the majority of the first book was.

This leads me to my last comment: It’s worth it, and not just for the third act. Even when giving off random lists or colorful descriptions of things that don’t really matter, there’s so much heart and spirit in the writing. Characters’ histories are interesting and wonderful, even if they’re not immediately important to the story. I wonder if this would have been better as a novella, and if it were accompanied by an actual history book regarding Fairyland, I would pick that up in a heartbeat. But again, to make a long story short: Even when it’s bad, it’s good.

I also found a lot of joy in reading the book’s two afterwords, and, if I might be so bold (and I might; this is my blog and I’ll do what I want!) I would say they are as important to aspiring writers as Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. They’re not as much about the how of writing but do a fantastic job detailing the why, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re required reading for anyone who takes writing seriously.

On the whole, it’s a good book, even if it could’ve used a little more polish.

On to the next one!

nowPlaying: Alien: Isolation

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer at Cubed3. The reviews I post here on my blog don’t reflect the opinions of Cubed3 and are written on my own time.

All pictures taken by me using the PS4’s share features.

The horror genre is very close to me, and nothing has ever scared me as deeply or profoundly as the titular creatures from the Alien franchise.

I couldn’t tell you when the first time I saw Alien was, but I know it was a long time ago. I’m sure I watched it with my parents, and most likely, my dad had me cover my eyes every time the alien appeared. (Looking back, I wonder if I imagined things far worse than what appears in the movie. More likely, this is the one series that I couldn’t.)

H. R. Giger’s iconic aliens have a beauty and an aesthetic that remains unmatched. No reboot or redesign has ever been needed (or, as far as I know, so much as wanted); the aliens are as ethereal and frightening today as they were when they were first brought to life by designer H. R. Giger, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott, and actor Bolaji Badejo. Nothing has ever starred in more of my nightmares, and those are always the worst; I’ve had dreams where the creatures are only mentioned and they’ve caused me to wake up sweating and afraid.

As connected as I was to the films growing up, I never really played any of the games. As a big fan of Borderlands, I was excited to hear that Gearbox Software would be making a video game set in the Alien world: Aliens: Colonial Marines. Then the game actually came out, along with a firestorm of controversy, finger-pointing, and disappointed gamers.

I eventually rented the game after a few patches and updates had dropped, and it was more or less playable. While a few parts were fun in their own right, it wasn’t exactly the Alien experience I was hoping for.

Along came Alien: Isolation. Sega took a big risk in even planning another Alien game so soon after the disaster of Colonial Marines, but it’s one that paid off. Just by looking at the game, you can tell it’s something special.

Alien: Isolation

The game looks like something right out of the movie. Just about everything aboard Sevastopol is faithfully recreated, from the clunky, 70’s-inspired vision of future technology to the oddly invasive manual input, like huge levers and parts of the ship that have to be physically cut away to gain access to certain areas.

The concept of the game is an immediate winner for me: Set on a space station called Sevastopol, Alien: Isolation ditches the more action-oriented concepts behind the previous game in favor of the more subtle horror the first film had.

I was so excited to get into this game, but playing in a dark room with headphones was almost too much. Here was the creature from my nightmares, presented to me in an interactive format like never before. At times I found myself hiding just to catch my breath, afraid to move like when I first played Outlast. In some ways, Alien: Isolation almost feels like an Alien mod for that game.

And, as much as I loved the game at first, things quickly went south. By the fifth mission, I was getting tired of rushing from locker to locker, wasting most of the game just hiding. It seemed like as soon as I lost the alien, it was right on my tail again, and I could spend an hour just traversing a hallway.

Alien: Isolation
Not to mention dying again and again. And again.

The game’s fifth mission almost sank the ship. Taking place in Sevastopol’s medical bay, which is a huge, multi-room area, it seemed absurd that the alien would follow me from chamber to chamber, hallway to hallway, supposedly unsure I was there but somehow miraculously always within a few yards of me. The motion tracker seemed like it was toying with me—at one point I watched the alien enter a room across from me, and I pulled it out only to see the thing tell me the alien was somewhere behind me. It was clear the game’s mechanics weren’t quite up to the task with its presentation. This culminated in nearly two hours of winding my way along this hall, only to have the alien come down from the vents overhead right as I was about to reach the door that led to the end of the mission. I quickly ducked under a table to wait for it to leave, and watched as the alien rounded a corner only to somehow spot me, despite absolutely no input on my part, and return from around the corner and kill me. And this was on easy mode!

At that point I swore I was done with the game, but I couldn’t keep myself away from it. It felt like I had come too far to just give up. It was personal now: That alien had to die. No way was it getting the best of me.

I went in with a new mindset. I decided the game was most likely not as logic-based as I was assuming, and it appears I was right. For example, the ambient noises aren’t always the alien, and even when they are, they aren’t often indicative of its position. A noise to the left doesn’t mean the alien is over there. The same was true for distant footsteps; as soon as the alien rounds a corner, there’s a good chance he’s not even there anymore. Assuming he’s prowling that same hallway is an exercise in futility, and a great invitation to spend the rest of Amanda Ripley’s life in a locker.

Alien: Isolation
Get used to this view.

 

I still died a time or two in the medical bay, but this new philosophy proved fruitful, and I made decent progress through the game. The cat-and-mouse bits still caused me anxiety, and sometimes were more annoying than they were frightening, but I was having fun again, and a lot of it.

The game changes pace once the player gets the flamethrower. No longer entirely defenseless, the alien still can’t be killed, but it can be scared off, so long as you see it before it sees you.

On the whole, this might be the most frightening video game I’ve ever played. I found myself dreading it, hoping each thing I had to do would be the last. There are very few ways for the alien to “get” you, only a few death animations, and while they’re very well done (and expertly touch on the franchise’s body horror elements) they also become repetitive. Still, I was constantly afraid of the alien, especially at times when my flamethrower ammunition was dwindling.

I had an odd determination to finish the game, akin to facing my fears. Alien: Isolation is well-crafted and gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. Xenomorphs have always been indestructible to me, especially in my nightmares, and I respect how much effort was put into this game to recreate that aspect of them.

Alien: Isolation
Oh dear.

Alien: Isolation has its flaws. Sometimes it seems like the writers had no idea where to take the story next, so they just borrowed scenarios straight from the films. I appreciate longer games, but this one has a very select few enemies and ways of dealing with them, so more diversity in mission objectives, enemies, or avoidance techniques would’ve done it justice. On the whole it was fun, terrifying, and gorgeous. Unfortunately, the ending seems like it looked great on paper, but passes by as a ten-second long cinema, and just looked weird and unfulfilling.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play this game again. I think once was enough. That weird ending did leave things wide open for a sequel, and I’m conflicted about that. I’d love to see this team expand on their ideas, but I’d prefer to see them do it with a new story instead of painfully dragging out the one they have. If nothing else, Alien: Isolation proves that there is a treasure trove of storytelling and scares to be had in this franchise, something that hasn’t been successfully tapped into in a very long time. In a lot of ways, this game is a true successor to the films, and is better than most of them. The last thing I want is for it to careen down the same path that brought us the likes of Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and Colonial Marines.

nowReading: Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Following is my review of Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. You can read more of my book reviews on my Goodreads page.

Line after line is clever, funny, tragic, or some insane mixture of the three. I had no idea where the story would lead me next, but I’ve seldom been so excited to find out. It’s interesting how relevant the book is over thirty years after it was first published, yet so ahead of its time in other ways.

Still Life With Woodpecker transcends the boundaries of its pages in a fashion similar to House of Leaves, where the physical appearance of the book is itself a reflection of the themes found within. This, however, is more of a comedy (though both books boast a good deal of philosophy).

I was reminded of Wes Anderson’s movies and of Arrested Development; things seem ridiculous at first glance but are actually carefully-placed, often sparks lit to ignite later fires. The ones in Still Life With Woodpecker just happen to have dynamite at their ends.

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.

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.