Edit: I received a response from Reinhold Behringer which cleared up various questions regarding the specific nature of the performance. Be sure to read his rebuttal at the end.
This August, Hartford, CT will become, according to the press release, only the second location where Wagner’s “Ring” cycle can be seen on a regularly, yearly basis. The Hartford Wagner Festival, the brainchild of former Met Opera artist Charles M. Goldstein, will feature a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” the first in a four-year journey through his entire “Ring” cycle. This will be achieved through the unconventional, and quite controversial, utilization of a digital orchestra. To be specific, the entire opera will be performed using samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library, an Austrian company described on their website as an “innovative, research-driven music software and sample library developer."
A cursory glance at the festival’s Facebook page shows an outcry of public disdain. As of this writing, 265 individuals have taken the time to “rate” the festival they haven’t attended yet, and 259 of these individuals chose to give it a 1 out of 5 star rating. All this negative backlash is directed at one thing: the festival's intention to replicate the Opera's performance using a digital orchestra. “It’s amazing that a [Opera] company would have the audacity to use a digital orchestra,” laments one commentator. “This is an abomination.” “This is an affront to opera and to Wagner, and disrespectful of musicians past, present, and future.”
Let’s take a second and look at the straight facts. The Vienna Symphonic Library are virtual instruments, or software instruments, sampled from “more than 100 excellent musicians.” Their website takes great care to explain the painstaking process of recording these samples — musicians working long hours, mics set up appropriately in state of the art studios, editors taking shifts at the console — all of which purportedly makes the samples sound authentic to the naked ear. In my experience with this sort of thing, the general purpose of software instruments, especially sampled instruments made to replicate acoustic instruments such as an orchestra or chamber ensemble of some kind, is to allow for a greater flexibility and authenticity of sound when composing using computer software.
However, the idea of arranging an existing orchestral work — in this instance, Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” — with the express purpose of “performing” the digital piece with a small modicum of singers for a paying audience — does appear to be profoundly misguided.
The website for the festival purports that this performance is a “bold and totally new concept” complete with a “multimedia presentation.” Now, I am a champion for electronic music and computer music in general. The iPad alone is a liberating and empowering tool for a serious contemporary composer in the 21st century. The integration of digital aspects of performance into jazz and classical music is exciting only when we are discovering something new — something that couldn’t be achieved without the combination of analog and digital. On her Volta tour, Bjork toured with an 11-piece brass band as well as an electronic musician who performed using a reactable, a kind of touch-screen synthesizer surface instrument. The point is, Bjork was creating something original with this unorthodox ensemble. Digital performance technology didn’t replace the acoustic players, but instead co-existed on the same stage and resulted in something brand new.
The Hartford Wagner Festival, however, is the antithesis to this kind of creative performance.
What Goldstein and his crew are doing sounds too ridiculous to be true once you get right down to the facts. Apparently Goldstein, with the help of some other semi-prominent music educators including Jonathon Field, the “Head of the Opera Department at Oberlin College and a noted ‘Ring’ Stage Director,” want to “produce an entirely new multi-media production of the ‘Ring.’” This will involve them arranging the opera on a notation software, probably Finale or Sibelius, and pressing ‘Play’ when the curtain rises, while still 3D images sit against a blank backdrop. A seat in the center orchestra will set you back $100.
There are instances when having a great orchestral sample library is appropriate. Say you’re a singer, or any classical musician really, and you want to practice your parts for the upcoming concert. A good sample library and a good song arrangement can help you reproduce a fairly authentic recording to use as a backing track while you practice. Or maybe you’re a keyboard player for a metal or prog rock band and want a patch on your synth that sounds like a large violin section in Carnegie Hall — done.
What you don’t do is press play and charge 100$. And that’s what this festival feels like. I don’t pretend to understand the political machinations at the top of the music educator hierarchy, but I do know a thing or two about computer music. It is here to stay and can be used in such awesome ways if we decide to. Why not compose and arrange a brand new orchestral piece using the Vienna Symphonic Library and perform that with all new multimedia bits? Here’s a crazy art school idea — arrange the opera for electronic synthesizers that use the samples from the Vienna Library and then have musicians perform the music live. I grew up as a trombone player and I can echo those sentiments which fear the death of the performing musician. If we can just replicate the opera via digital signals, why worry about hiring musicians ever again?
Another issue I think is the importance of honoring history. Wagner’s “Ring” cycle is a seminal work, and it is true that performing it today is a difficult feat. I think this adds to the allure and prestige of the music, though. As a society we have to know when to stand up and refuse to accept certain changes, especially in regards to the arts, which are dwindling enough as it is. We have to be the ones to refuse to pay to see a holographic representation of a performance, especially if it pretends to be the real thing.
The festival has taken to responding to some of the criticism as of late. “The project … was originally conceived to use a digital orchestra and was never intended to use a live orchestra. There was never an opportunity for instrumentalists to be involved in the first place and consequently there is no loss of work for them.” Oops. Clearly, the decision to choose digital instruments IN THE FIRST PLACE involved the loss of an entire orchestra’s worth of work. The decision-makers behind this don’t seem to grasp that concept. What if every summer concert series this year simply decided to choose a digital orchestra?
The main problem here, I think, is one of perception. The founders of the Hartford Wagner Festival don’t perceive that they are doing anything wrong. They argue that critics simply don’t understand the original scope of the project. Yet even here the festival is at odds with itself. What is, after all is said and done, the point to this whole production? Is it to give the singers another notch on their performance resumes before they travel abroad? Is it to showcase the new digital sample library you bought but don’t know what to do with? Are there political machinations at play behind the curtain (i.e. is Vienna Symphony Library making any direct profit from this)? Is it to perform some kind of experimental modern art performance melding old and new genres and mediums?
Whatever the original intent, it has certainly been lost on me. I have to agree with the majority of naysayers on this one who lament the existence of this “festival.” It all comes down to that price tag — charging an audience for an imitation of a product is shifty at best and criminal at worst. I could understand if the music department of a university compiled a digital playbook of songs for the singers to practice with, and perhaps these tracks end up serving a part in their juries come the end of semester. But to present this type of product to the paying public as a some kind of multimedia reinterpretation of an opera is laughable and, ironically, rather tone-deaf.
I am always amused when I hear the local barflies at Paddy's (the bar below my apartment) lament the state of popular music. "They just don't make 'em like they used to" is a common refrain. If only they realized how exciting things are in the music underground today. With mainstream music the dullest and most commodified it has ever been, more and more people are reaching to independent and underground music to satisfy them.
The music I surrounded myself with this past year was an odd balance of nostalgic favorites (I'll admit to perhaps indulging a bit with Green Day's newest lengthy excursion) and brand new artists. Without the aid of a radio show to force me to discover new talent and artists, I became dependent on services like Spotify and Soundcloud to spread the love. Here is what I have been listening to on repeat over the past year or so, and what I loved best.
15. Efterklang - The Piramida Concert
Efterklang are a Danish group that have been around for about a decade, surviving through various incarnations and lineups. I've been with them since their debut full-length Tripper was released back in 2004, and over ten years the band has morphed from moody, electronic post-rock into a bombastic mixture of chamber rock and orchestral pop. I caught them live in 2007 after the release of Parades, and by then the number of performers on stage had swelled to nine in total, with secondary percussionists, keyboardists, and multiple horn players. A decent entry-level comparison point would be a grander, slightly more morose Arcade Fire, or a more amorphous Grizzly Bear.
For the recording of Piramida, the band's solid 2012 album, the group was trimmed back down to only three members, and they shacked up in the Arctic Circle taking field recordings that would eventually blossom into these compositions. This past year the band collaborated with the Copenhagen Philharmonic to perform Piramida live, morphing the grey scaled minimalism of the studio album into a more theatrical production. They mix catchy indie pop fare like "Apples" with more experimental excursions like "The Living Layer," or droned-out exercises in texture like "Sedna." The kids used to call this stuff post-rock, but Efterklang weaves a tapestry of different sounds and feelings that to me defy categorization.
14. Disclosure - Settle
Disclosure consists of two brothers from Surrey, England, who have been passing around mixtapes and growing steadily in stature in their home country over the past few years. This year saw the release of their debut, Settle, and it is the perfect amalgamation of all the various styles and sounds that the brothers Lawrence have seemingly mastered, all at a rather young age. From minimal UK garage to four-to-the-floor house to techno, Settle touches on several dance styles but surprisingly remains cohesive as an entity, part of which could be attributed to the exemplary guest list. AlunaGeorge absolutely kills it on "White Noise," while London Grammar is responsible for the most heart-wrenching moment of the album, the exceptional closer "Help Me Lost My Mind." Drenched in minor key filtered pad sweeps and stark, spare percussion, Settle is at once both stripped down and brimming with ideas. In a way, it shows a lot of the veteran artists how sometimes a return to the basics is the best way to reset the stage, and to revisit what makes these genres of music enjoyable in the first place. I look forward to see where these guys go in the future.
13. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
Growing up, my conception of what Nine Inch Nails represented was unfortunately skewed in a negative direction. The types of kids at my school who wore those black t-shirts with the NIN logo plastered front and center were not people I would normally want to associate with. Without even hearing a bar of music I already perpetuated an entire conception of an artist based on some fans in my school. It was a shame, too, because ever since reading up about Trent Reznor's recent forays into classical film score composition, only to return to Nine Inch Nails with guys like Adrian Belew and Lindsay Buckingham, my interest in this strange electro-industrial behemoth piqued. While I can't necessarily speak to how "Hesitation Marks" fits within the band's greater discography, it remains a captivating, dark, densely orchestrated experience.
I am a sucker for intricately produced electronic music, and "Hesitation Marks" contains some of the densest and strangest sound palettes I've heard. Often it is difficult to pick out where the guitar sounds end and the synthesizer sounds begin. Strange, dissonant scraping and grinding will gave way to chunky, power-chord riffing, before transitioning to floaty, dream-pop soaked refrains. It's a complex, complicated atmosphere, and it does begin to show it's length about three quarters of the way through. But Reznor, in an interview I read a few months ago in NPR, made clear that the goal was to write music that would continue to reveal itself after many listens. In this, he succeeded.
12. Bonobo - The North Borders
Bonobo produces a very calculated style of minimal electronic music, but a casual listen to his newest record, "The North Borders," wouldn't immediately suggest this. His music seems almost too chill, too laidback, to be appreciated on any kind of dynamic level, and yet there's an undercurrent of momentum and energy to his productions that keeps things from getting too stale. The atmosphere and vibe of "The North Borders" is reminiscent of Bonobo's previous record, "Black Sands," insomuch as there are enough signposts within the production to recognize both coming from the same artist. But the songs here are more difficult to pin down and dissect. They are very mood-based and pastoral, containing many small flourishes and embellishments to the melody or beat that modulate over time. Various singers pop up on several tracks, notably Erykah Badu on the swirling Heaven for the Sinner. It's an album to listen to during the comedown, at 2 or 3 in the morning after the party has ended but the buzz hasn't quite worn off.
11. Phoenix - Bankrupt!
Phoenix are a French indie rock and pop band most known for the excellent album "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." Released in 2009, and arriving just at the height of the indie dance pop craze, tracks like Listzomania and 1901 are now ingrained in most of our brains. Phoenix can write some damn catchy tunes, and if "Bankrupt!" doesn't quite reach the same levels of earworm excess as their previous record did, it's nevertheless a smart, clever, and surreal record. Layers of chintzy synths dominate many of the tracks, a departure from the more bare-bones rock approach of "Amadeus." But singer Tom Mars remains at the forefront with plenty of replayable choruses and nonsensical English vocabulary. I am not quite sure how campy it knows it is, or wants to be, but either way it's very enjoyable. Tracks like The Real Thing and Trying to Be Cool have so much swagger and power and melodic goodness to them. And the title track is just stupendous - a 7-minute crazy workout that begins as a Philip Glass-esque exercise, complete with arpeggiating synths, eventually morphing into a grand ballad finish. All in all, perhaps not what most casual listeners were expecting, but any fans of Phoenix that have been around for the long haul, as well as those that like catchy, well-produced, yet harmonically dense indie pop should fine plenty to love about this album.
10. Bad Religion - True North
Bad Religion have been kicking it for about 30 years now, which is ancient in punk rock years. But whereas many of there peers have either fallen by the wayside after years of torpor (Lagwagon, Pennywise), continue to chug along aimlessly into irrelevance (NOFX), or have hit the circuit as a greatest hits group (Blink-182), Bad Religion continue to make socially relevant, exciting pop-punk that seems to exist in a hermetically-sealed universe of its own design, not bound by the laws of aging. Perhaps it has something to do with the subject matter. Greg Graffin, lead singer and chief lyricist, draws from religion, current affairs, social politics, and psychology, resulting in some truly brilliant wordplay and, quite often, the need for a thesaurus during listening. "True North" touches on these usual subjects, but musically the band is in the pocket in a way they haven't sounded in almost a decade -- since 2002's "The Process of Belief," still a high water mark in their career. After several records exploring more experimental and sonically challenging paths (relatively speaking), "True North" represents the best of what Bad Religion have to offer -- fast-paced, rollicking punk rock with a conscience, energetic and catchy as hell.
9. Coheed and Cambria - The Afterman: Descension
With their original drummer back in tow, Coheed and Cambria have returned to their exciting, odd brand of experimental rock after a few years trolling the metal circuit and opening for bands like Heaven and Hell. As far as rock music is concerned, 2013 wasn't exactly a watershed moment, but very few bands born out of the emo/post-hardcore boon of the late 90's and early 00's have managed any sort of longevity. The dude who used to sing for From First To Last is now Skrillex. I'm not sure what Thursday is doing nowadays, but they were the first band to make David Fridmann sound like an amateur producer. Coheed doesn't sound like these bands to be sure, but they were often lumped in together, when Alternative Press magazine considered any artists with long hair, tattoos, and power chords a part of whatever underground elite scene was en vogue.
Claudio Sanchez is the mastermind behind Coheed and Cambria, a sprawling entity that includes comic books, orchestral versions of albums, and a science fiction narrative that spans the band's discography. As a fan of Star Trek and generally all things science fiction, it was only a matter of time before this band won me over. Claudio sings in a very peculiar timbre that comes off a little grating at first -- think something along the lines of the dude from the Mars Volta, Cedric Bixlar-Zivala, filtered through a talkbox that sounds like Geddy Lee. But after a few songs you realize how technically talented he really is, throwing out melodic verses and phrases and harmonies all over the arrangements. "The Afterman: Descension," the second part of a two-record suite, contains some of the band's funkiest and most rocking work to date. This can be attributed to Josh Eppard's return, the addition of a new bassist, and an overall sense of liberation and invigoration in the band. It's a fun rock record, and quite a return to form.
8. Pet Shop Boys - Electric
In a year filled with dubstep and trap gobbledegook clogging the airwaves and giving electronica a bad name, leave it to the eldar statesman of 80's synth pop to show us what you can do with dancefloor music. Pet Shop Boys began their long and illustrious career in the early 80's when they released a string of wonderful albums that perfectly encapsulated the synth pop movement of the time, yet retained a sense of intricacy, complexity and irony. Since then they've broadened their palette considerably, churning out record after record and incorporating elements of trance, disco, house, and ambient music into their quirky pop. After the somewhat tepid "Elysium," "Electric" is a roaring and rambunctious record, brimming with enthusiasm and soulful, digital energy. The amount of tonal and color shifts in the opener, Axis, alone should put most contemporary DJs and electro artists to shame for repeating the same 16-bar build over and over again.
A lot of music listeners I talk to, especially musicians themselves, find themselves hesitant to jump into the deep abyss that is modern electronica. To be true, much of what exists in the electronic underground is derivative, lo-fi, or otherwise uninteresting, but the best artists, as in any genre, find a way to transcend the limitations of their instruments and their technology. Pet Shop Boys produce a very vibrant and visceral style of electronic, especially on this album. Synths rise and fall and warble in and out of tune dynamically, while multiple drum machines hammer away at roto-toms and house percussion. They take the basic tenants of modern club music (four-to-the-floor drums, the build-up and release of dubstep, mantra-like vocals) and filter them through their own brand of warped, postmodern sensibility, creating one of the best pure dance albums of the year.
7. Kayo Dot - Hubardo
Kayo Dot are an experimental music collective based out of Brooklyn, NY, headed by crazy musical genius Toby Driver. The band arose from the ashes of the avant-garde metal outfit Maudlin of the Well and continued in much the same stylistic vein -- long, drawn out sonic passages reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, touching upon elements from black metal, progressive rock, jazz fusion, and post-hardcore. It's unique, yet incredibly demanding, and does require a certain level of attention and focus to truly have some understanding of what's occurring. For those with the patience to stick with it, however, the prize is "Hubardo," a complex and rewarding listening experience.
By any standard of measurement, the opener, The Black Stone, is a difficult song. Minimalist drones build to a spoken word segment done in a totally exposed death metal growl. I will admit to bursting out laughing the very first time I heard it. This is in fact Jason Byron, the original screamer for Maudlin of the Well, and his return to recording after a decade is supposedly a big deal. In a very odd choice of sequencing, The Black Stone represents the harshest and least likable section of the album. Once you're through, though, you're golden, as the second track, Crown-in-the-Muck, rocks right out of the gate and goes throw a plethora of progressive changes over it's nine minutes. The record hits its stride and continues through shades of screamo metal, free jazz, progressive metal, and post rock. The whole thing consists of 11 tracks, with all the longest and most badass saved for the second half. Once the horns and violins come in during the beautiful, soaring intro to The Second Operation (Lunar Water), any attempt to categorize Toby Driver's music proves completely inadequate. Whilst still containing many heavy, brutal passages (notably the crusher Floodgate), the second half of the album drifts into some gorgeous harmonic territory, as Toby's clean and malleable voice takes center stage with layers of string and guitar drones and flourishes holding him up.
I'm a little lost on the concept of the album, which revolves around an artist or poet of some kind who discovers a meteor crashed to Earth (The Black Stone) and somehow goes crazy over the course of the rest of the songs. At almost two hours, there is a generous amount of music on display here, and given its eclectic and daunting style, can seem even longer. But for fans of deep, well-composed avant-garde rock and metal, Kayo Dot is in a league of its own. And for fans of the band who may have fallen off the wagon with the difficult "Coyote" album will be pleased to know that "Hubardo" is easily the most diverse and expansive set of songs Toby has ever released, with influences and sounds culled from the entire discographies of both Kayo Dot and Maudlin of the Well. It's his defining work.
6. Mayer Hawthorne - Where Does This Door Go
Mayer Hawthorne is the stage name for Michigan native Andrew Cohen, the multi-instrumentalist and super-talented dude behind this crazy, soulful project. He started out as a wannabe rapper, recording tapes and demos and pimping his brand around Cali. While the rapping was purportedly pretty weak, the instrumental tracks he was producing, steeped in late 60's soul and funk, started gaining him some notoriety. Over the course of a few albums, he's successfully transitioned from meek producer to a confident rock and roll frontman with style and swagger. The music, too, has shifted gears considerably. Whereas his previous album, "How Do You Do," aped the musical stylings of Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, "Where Does This Door Go" opts for a broader sonic palette and shoots for Steely Dan's "Aja" both in terms of sleekness of production and soft-rock overtones.
If all of this sounds a little hyperbolic for a white kid from Ann Arbor, rest assured that he has the chops to pull this sort of ambitious project off. His years of production experience come to fruition here, as clean jangly yacht rock guitars and organs sit comfortably against bubbling bass lines and shifting hi-hats. His voice has just the right amount of edge and warble to it to sound a little raw, balancing out the sheen of the rest of the instruments. His falsetto is strong, and his ability to transition from falsetto to tenor is admirable. His tenor sounds oddly similar to Donald Fagan, and often his lyrical turns of phrase attempt the former's clever, observational wit. Despite the majority of the songs only revolving around a handful of interrelated subjects (girls, girls at the club, hooking up with said girls), there's enough variety in the grooves and melodies to keep the album fresh all the way through its hefty track count, a great feat. Crimes includes a killer Kendrick Lamar verse (aren't they all?), and Reach Out Richard sounds like an honest-to-God outtake from "Katy Lied." But Cohen never comes across like he's poking fun at this genre or era of music; instead he manages to lovingly recreate the best moments and vibes from these scenes in an original and appealing way.
5. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
It's been a pretty exciting year for Boards of Canada, the Scottish electronic duo responsible for spearheading the minimalist IDM scene that sprung up in the early 00's. After several years of keeping a pretty low profile, the group returned this year with an eerie and bleak album quite unlike anything they've produced. Many of the same pillars are in place: cyclical, glitched out drum loops; subtle synth melodies that fade in and out; disarming, reverb-heavy vocal samples. Yet on "Tomorrow's Harvest," these elements are stretched to their breaking points. The result is a dark odyssey through an apocalyptic digital landscape.
Boards of Canada produce a style of electronic music I can only describe as 'organic.' What I mean by this is that despite the electronic and digital instrumentation, the inclusion of real-life samples and an intense focus on maintaining a nostalgic, retro vibe results in a very naturally-sounding mix. Whereas other electronic artists (such as Pet Shop Boys) embrace the digital in their sound, Boards of Canada maintain the analog buzz and hum of acoustic music. They are another band that requires patience and a certain level of understanding when it comes to ambient electronic music. Small changes and embellishments can be defining turning points in an arrangement, or whole songs may contain only a handful of chords and a three note melody. But somehow it still feels like quite a meditative listening experience. Drones will fade in so slowly you'll barely recognize they're there until they've completely taken over the mix. Songs routinely get lost on their way to the end and go through many shifts in color and synth textures, adding arpeggios and pads all over the place.
It is a very brave move to release an album so obtuse after so many years out of the game, and on their new label home, the electronic superheros Warp Records. And yet it retains the best facets of what makes Boards of Canada so great. A unique balance of the past and the future. Ambiguous feeling and emotion, plugged into a sampler and drenched in reverb. It's music to put on when going for a hike, walking around the city, taking the train, or contemplating your life.
4. Arctic Monkeys - AM
Arctic Monkeys are one of the great rock and roll workhorses currently dominating the international music scene. It may seem like a strange thing to say considering the band's roots. Four teenagers from Sheffield singing catchy and amusingly literate songs about getting wasted at the pub, riding the wave of popularity the European power pop scene was experiencing at the time (remember when Franz Ferdinand and The Bravery and The Kaiser Chiefs were ubiquitous?) Over the years, Alex Turner and crew have assuredly grown from spastic rockers to national treasures, orchestrating some of the downright coolest, catchiest and solid four-piece rock in the country. Ever since shacking up in LA and becoming buddies with Queens of the Stone Age matriarch Josh Homme, the band's sound has veered away from their initial style through many different shades of rock, including grungy, stoner psychedelic ("Humbug") and afternoon-FM alternative ("Suck It And See"). With "AM," the band tries on a darker, groovier and more minimal swagger to fantastic effect. It's one of the best pure rock records of the year.
The key to the Arctic Monkeys continuing success is the high caliber of all four musicians. Alex Turner gets a lot of the limelight as the sexy lead singer, spinning intricate yarns full of metaphors and long-winded descriptions that would make Oscar Wilde blush:
"Arabella's got some interstellar gator-skin boots / And a helter-skelter round her little finger, and I ride it endlessly / She's got a Barbarella silver swimsuit / And when she needs a shelter from reality, she takes a dip in my daydream."
His lyrics are always literate and interesting to pick apart, and his voice has matured into a deep, oaky croon over the years. His command of melody is outstanding here as always. The rhythm section is just as imperative to the overall sound, with bassist Nick O'Malley and drummer Matt Helders providing a hip-hop inspired, drugged out boom-bap beat across these tracks, the most spacious and eerie sounding of their career (in a different way than "Humbug"). They also provide omnipresent falsetto backing to Alex's tenor, an incredibly effective harmonic tool that heightens the sense of sexual tension and drama. And Jamie Cook continues to rock understated solos and squiggly lead lines behind Alex's power chords.
For no-frills rock and roll it's hard to beat these guys for pure strength of songwriting.
3. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing
Porcupine Tree are one of the great unheralded acts in rock music. They've existed through various permutations since the early 90's, when frontman and head songwriter Steven Wilson was composing electronic weirdness to tape, through stages of psychedelic Pink Floyd-infused rock ("The Sky Moves Sideways"), sunburst experimental alternative rock ("Lightbulb Sun"), and contemporary progressive metal ("Deadwing"). Steven Wilson is a well-read music aficionado, a clear fan of the boon of progressive rock in the early to mid 70's, and incorporates many styles and shifts in tone into his music. He surrounds himself with some of the best musicians around -- current Porcupine Tree drummer-maestro Gavin Harrison is regarded in rock circles today as one of the great living players, and keyboardist and soundscape purveyor Richard Barbieri is partially responsible for my continued obsession with sound design in music -- and continues to compose and perform stellar work by his own rules. That he's managed a consistently expanding and rapid following of fans and supporters despite never breaching the mainstream is another testament to the quality of his music.
"The Raven That Refused to Sing" is his third solo album, following the 80's electro-cum-industrial stylings of "Insurgentes" and the sprawling, floaty prog rock of "Grace For Drowning." This one culls together an impressive band of musicians, including the great Guthrie Govan on guitars, Marco Minneman on drums (providing a much different vibe than Gavin), prog veteran Theo Travis on reeds, and the legendary Alan Parsons, who contributes various production tricks and guitar tracks. It opens with Luminol, barreling out of the gate with a pounding bass riff, a distorted organ solo, and a series of bombastic prog hits, and continuing on through various verses and phrases, touching on a flighty acoustic section, harmonic singing in the round, another wild, raucous guitar solo courtesy of Govan, all before wrapping up at around the twelve-minute mark.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a conglomerate of the worst prog stereotypes, but trust me that it is anything of the sort. Wilson's music is immaculately composed, produced, and conceived, with constant shifts in key and tone and plenty of interesting harmonic movement with a reliance on minor and diminished chord progressions. He's been quoted as saying that his inspiration for much of his recent work has come from film scores, and it is easy to recognize that influence here. He makes use of a wide dynamic spectrum, in contrast to most other popular music, so songs routinely start very quiet, to the point where you might risk turning up your volume, only to end up seven minutes later at a fortissimo level with a broken eardrum. This gives the music an almost classical quality in its presentation. Wilson's reedy voice leads the vocal passages, and though a bit on the nasal side and without an enormous range, he nevertheless plays to his strengths as a musician and fits in perfectly with the soundscape he's crafted around himself.
The rest of the album is a swirl of groovy, dark progressive rock, full of energy, great melodies, and instrumental prowess. It stands among Wilson's most assured and rewarding work.
2. Classixx - Hanging Gardens
Another brand new electro duo on the scene, Classixx hail from LA, and you can hear it in every summer synth, bubbly bass, and windswept pad across the twelve wonderful electro tracks that make up "Hanging Gardens," the group's debut album. Utilizing an array of synthesizer tones and samples piled high, these guys have quietly released the most stomping, grooving, and chilled out electronic album of the year.
Michael David and Tyler Blake have very keen ears for melody, piling riff after earworm riff onto their sprawling dance odysseys. It's the kind of music that works equally well at 11:30 on the dancefloor and at 3:00 A.M. on the buzzed ride home. Pastoral synth pads and subtle electronics swell and crash during A Fax From The Beach, while a lone agogo bell hammers out a tropical percussive background beat. Jozi's Fire and Holding On make excellent use of a couple of perfectly placed and manipulated vocal samples. The best tracks, however, are those featuring some very talented vocalists, including Nancy Wang's cheeky turn on All You're Waiting For, and Junior Senior's Jeppe pouncing all over I'll Get You with the wacky refrain "Do you like bass?" uttered over and over again. In theory it sounds awful; in execution is positively enlightening.
The tones and samples bring to mind early disco, 80's synth pop, and Kraftwerk, filtered through a modern sheen that gives everything an added layer of pop and sizzle. Instead of sounding over glossy and commodified a la Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" (another excellent album that requires no introduction), the instruments retain a certain rawness and personality to them. I would be interested to hear where they've culled this sound palette from. In any case, "Hanging Gardens" is an excellent debut album, grand listening for any occasion or any mood.
1. Of Montreal - Lousy With Sylvianbriar
Kevin Barnes is the troubadour in charge of the band of minstrels that come and go and make up Of Montreal, one of my generation's great rock bands. Over a career spanning fifteen years and counting, Barnes has explored the fringes of experimental pop and rock music to exceptional effect. Beginning as little more than a muse for Barnes to sing and strum acoustic guitar over, Of Montreal has steadily morphed and grown into an entirely different entity. Comparisons to the likes of David Bowie and Prince, I think, are completely justified. He boasts a catalogue of music ranging from burlesque dancehall pop ("Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies," my personal favorite) to wild, unbridled synth pop ("Hissing Fauna"), to modern classical, drone, and music concrete (their previous album, the underrated "Paralytic Stalks"). Barnes has an absolute command on chord progression and actively takes his arrangements in unexpected directions, regardless of the genre style he chooses to indulge in at the time. In this way his songwriting reminds me often of Brian Wilson, the stalwart head songwriter of The Beach Boys' most artistically compelling music. Coincidentally, both musicians are incredible bassists.
From the first few bars of opener Fugitive Air it is clear that, yet again, Of Montreal have chosen a distinctly new direction to take. This time Barnes has jumped headlong into the electric-tinged folk rock of the 60's and 70's. He's mentioned in several interviews surrounding the promotion and release of the album his love for Bob Dylan, particularly "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde," and this inspiration bleeds through the amplifiers directly into the mix. There's a freewheeling, rollicking swing to tracks like Belle Grade Missionaries and Hegira Emigre, as if the band were all in the room together jamming live. Much of the recording of the album consisted of as few takes as possible into an 8-track tape recorder, in order to maintain the spontaneity of the performances. In Obsidian Currents, Barnes' vocals are untreated, front and center, and their starkness and intimacy work well on top of the vaguely psychedelic swirls of synth organ and bass underneath.
The arrangements are reigned in from the spastic electro-funk of "Skeletal Lamping" and the sprawling experimentation on "Paralytic Stalks." All the songs reside in the 3-6 minute range, very easy to digest for newcomers to the group, yet they retain Barnes' signature complex melodies, lyrics, and structure. Rarely have Of Montreal come across as so loose and free, and it looks good on them. While the return to a simple instrumental palette might make you think they've returned to their roots styles, this isn't exactly the case -- "Lousy With Sylvianbriar" rarely evokes memories of "Cherry Peel." The lyrics are often cynical and cold, as Sylvia Plath served as another primary inspiration during the record's conception.
With an insane live show consisting of multiple projector screens, costumed dramatic skits and paint and blood being splashed around, Of Montreal show no sign of showing down. With another fantastic record to add to their satisfying and immense discography, they have every reason to celebrate. Highly recommended to anyone who likes music.
(Music video is NSFW)
In the shadow of Hollywood-style releases like Grand Theft Auto V and whatever iteration of Call of Duty is most current, a slew of independent development companies -- many consisting of only a handful of artists and programmers -- quietly unveiled several grand underground video games to the world. Contrary to their bigger-budgeted, mainstream cousins, these video games are truly artistic. With the advent of softare such as Unity -- a modestly-priced video game development tool -- amateur and independent video game creation is on the rise. Players now share an active role in the development and production of video games, as evidenced by Steam's booming modding community and the Steam Workshop. Many games allow users to create their own levels, rules, and playstyles, and share them with the game's community. Sometimes, developers will release their games in various Alpha or Beta stages, allowing players to try out the mechanics and give their own feedback.
This democratization of the process of games' development results in greater freedom to produce something special and unique. The best games effectively incorporate narrative elements, technical achievement, visual artistry, and a rich sound world. These ten games exemplify the potential of independent production teams and the future of the video game underground.
Note: A couple of these games may have originally been released in 2012. I have a Mac desktop through which I play my games on Steam, and as far as I know they were all made available for this particular system over the last twelve months -- or at the very least, have received an update or expansion pack during this time.
15. The Cave
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Made up of ex-LucasArts employees (I think -- it's been ages), Double Fine is responsible for some of the quirkier story and personality-based games over the last decade. My favorite is the classic 3D platformer Psychonauts, in which you play a kid named Raz who attends a summer camp for children with psychic abilities, only to uncover a sinister plot by one of the characters to take over the world! The levels consisted of various characters' brains, each reflecting the mental state, interests, and fears of its host. Early levels include a free wheeling amusement park and party mansion in the mind of a young hippie woman, while later levels all take place within the confines of an abandoned mental asylum and the warped denizens that live within.
All of which is to say that Double Fine tends to spend most of its time perfecting the eccentric personalities and minute details of the characters rather than the actual gameplay mechanics. Their background is in PC point-and-click adventure games, and The Cave is a solid, if mostly inconsequential, throwback to that style. You'll choose a party of 3 characters from a pool of 7. Much of the press surrounding the game revolves around the grim and unique backstories of these characters, and they certainly play a large part in the overall narrative. Depending on which characters you choose, different pathways will open up for you as you descend down into the cave, all while a voiceover narrator (The Cave itself, supposedly), makes snide and often humorous remarks. Whereas the production and voice work in something like Borderlands 2 comes off as heavy-handed and smug, the narration in The Cave, by The Cave, is really quite excellent.
Gameplay consists of rotating among the three characters and utilizing their unique abilities to progress through various point-and-click puzzles. Hard-to-reach icons and banners will net players special artwork telling the tales of the respective characters falls from grace. It will only take a couple of afternoons of playthrough, but think of it as an extended Saturday morning cartoon. Reliably amusing and witty, colorful, engaging, and over soon enough to get on with the rest of the day.
14. Surgeon Simulator
Developer: Bossa Studios
I'm still not sure what to make of this game. It is incredibly frustrating yet impossible to put down, gross and disturbing yet utterly hysterical. Bossa Studios have gone out of their way to level the playing field for their game Surgeon Simulator by introducing a "realistic" control system that involves turning and twisting the mouse whilst carefully manipulating each finger on each hand individually. As you can imagine, this system is tricky at best and punishing at worst, and that is part of the charm of this game: you are almost guaranteed to be quite terrible at it unless you spend significant time invested in learning its mechanics.
I have only progressed as far as the second level. The first level requires you perform a heart transplant. This requires you to chop away gently at the patients ribcage and innards, careful not to sever anything that may bleed the sucker out and subsequently lose the level for you. The physics are floaty and strange, and often result in you accidentally sending tools and body parts flying across the screen and off the operating table. The whole thing is such a strange experience, but definitely worth the asking price during one of Steam's ridiculous holiday sales, where you can nab it for a couple of dollars.
13. Toki Tori 2+
Developer: Two Tribes
Don't let the cheery, Pixar-esque graphics fool you -- Toki Tori 2+ is anything but a meek child's platformer. Two Tribes, developers of the excellent puzzle games RUSH and EDGE, instead have crafted a challenging side-scrolling puzzle game to rival some of the hardest stuff you'll play this year. There are no weapons in the game -- unless you count the various ways you manipulate the various other denizens of the Toki Tori universe. With a limited arsenal of only a handful of moves, your little birdlike creature must navigate its way across the screen using wit, timing, and cleverness.
The lush graphics and simple, chirpy tunes help to make the whole experience somewhat meditative, alleviating some of the frustration that eventually rears itself. The game uses a botched overworld mechanic to connect levels to one another. Exploring the world on your first journey is fun, but travelling from place to place becomes confusing and cumbersome once you've visited the entire map. This does, however, lend itself to the hardcore nature of the game, which throws you into the proceedings with no tutorial or goal.
According to IGN, apparently the Two Tribes team took so damn long developing this game that the entire company had to downsize, resulting in dozens of employees getting sacked and an entire redirection of the company's philosophy and future plans. Toki Tori 2+ effectively destroyed Two Tribes, which is pretty hardcore if you think about it.
Developer: Richard Parrin
I find myself speaking a lot, to those who aren't necessarily 'gamers' or game enthusiasts, about the meditative quality of certain playing experiences. I don't mean zoning out to a ten-hour Halo 4 playthrough, but rather games that have the ability to impact the emotional state of the player, in the same way a great album or painting may effect you. Kairo is billed as an 'exploration' game, and this is a keen way of describing the nature of the gameplay, if you can even call it that.
The world of Kairo is built up of monolithic geometric structures and a stark, neon palette. You traverse the environment in first person and may only interact with a handful of carefully placed objects and pieces of the landscape. The soundtrack consists of cavernous ambient music, dark and looming and varying in degrees of presence and dynamism depending on the room you happen to be in. I honestly felt like I was viewing a postmodern art exhibit at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow.
11. Electronic Super Joy
Michael Todd Games
Set to a suitably bombastic heavy electro score, Electronic Super Joy (technically released in 2012 but with considerable additional content added within the past couple of months) represents the pinnacle of contemporary hardcore 2D platforming. Much like Super Meat Boy, its spiritual successor in many respects, ESJ requires precise controlling, focus, and patience.
Your set of moves is rather limited and fluctuates over the course of your adventure, requiring you to adapt to many different play styles and move sets to manage the increasingly insane levels. Strobe lights will flash and obscure parts of the landscape while rockets and creatures attack from every angle. It even reminded me of some of the older Mega Man games, like 2 or 3, in its reliance on precision and timing. Very difficult but very rewarding.
Developer: Minor Key Games
This is a weird one. Purportedly inspired by various H.P. Lovecraft mythos and the spirit of the increasingly popular "roguelike" genre -- a style of gameplay that involves procedurally-generated levels and permanent character death -- "Eldritch" gets by on pure minimalist charm and a heavy sense of dread. The graphics mimic the style of "Minecraft," that sandbox game you see posters of at the mall and at the dollar store, in that the environment consists solely of super-blocky textures and shapes.
"Eldritch" is not a long game. There are three main levels -- or "environments" if you prefer, as they never regenerate quite the same way twice -- as well as a bonus final level (which I haven't even gotten to yet) and an expansion level, the wintry "Mountains of Madness" dungeon. You have to descend down several levels of surreal pyramids, housing complexes, banks, stores, altars, and caves as you battle jumping fish people, cloaked cultists and strange beasts, all rendered in this intriguing graphical style. Resources are limited and consist of several kinds of weapons, artifacts (the currency of the world), keys to unlock secret areas, as well as several varieties of food and health-restoring items. It is all very sparse and uncluttered. It is not for everyone, but Eldritch provides a chilling and unique experience.
9. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing
A ridiculous name for an admittedly pretty awesome game. Van Helsing is, at it's core, your typical action-RPG. Your character can assume the powers of a standard hunter, a thaumaturge (magic-user), or an arcane mechanic (a cool steampunk magic/tech hybrid) and level up various skills, talents and abilities as you progress through the game's settings, or dungeons, or whatever you prefer. The leveling system, always a primary factor in my enjoyment of any RPG, is quite deep and enjoyable. Stat points for various traits may be applied to your health, defense, damage, etc., while you learn and perfect other, stronger abilities. The inventory system is a little muddled but enjoyably retro.
While the production values don't come close to something like Skyrim (one of the all-time greats), the game's tone in quirky and unique. The banter between Van Helsing and Lady Katrina, a ghost character bound to Helsing for reasons I can't recall, is hammy and amusing, and the voice acting serviceable.
The combat consists mainly of hacking and slashing hordes of various beasts, animals, undead, and mythological beings. You'll have to accept various missions from the townsfolk to keep the narrative going, and there's a fair number of side quests as well. All in all, it's a relatively rougher, but slightly more charming version of Diablo III.
8. Endless Space: Disharmony
Developer: AMPLITUDE Studies
Endless Space is another title originally released in 2012, but several expansions have been released in 2013, including the excellent addition "Disharmony" which adds a new playable alien race. Endless Space is essentially Civilization in outer space. You choose one of about a dozen different alien races, all with distinct strengths and playing styles, and attempt to command, colonize, and otherwise conquer the known universe. You start by spreading your civilization across a few nearby solar systems, engaging in the occasional duel with a gang of space pirates. Eventually you'll amass an empire spanning several galaxies.
Endless Space uses a standard turn-based process of gameplay, allowing you as much time as necessary to control the plethora of variables you'll need to monitor, including your planets' natural resources, your race's scientific abilities, the army and its soldiers and pilots, and many more. The graphics and sound convey an appropriately grandiose atmosphere to the whole thing, a pretty srong feat considering much of the 'action' so to speak takes place in number-crunching, leveling up stats and resource management.
In any case, Endless Space is hugely enjoyable if you want to live out your fantasy of galactic conquest, but prefer pouring through tables, charts and data as opposed to charging headfirst into a first-person shooter battlefield. The learning curve is considerable because of all the information contained within the game, which is admittedly a little daunting, especially if turn-based strategy is new frontier for you.
7. Kentucky Route Zero
Developer: Cardboard Computer
More of an interactive story than an actual game, Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero nevertheless manages to draw you in to its strange little world despite an almost complete lack of actual gameplay. The story, the setting, the dialogue, and the visuals are all quite hypnotic and surreal, lending an air of mystery and the supernatural to the whole proceedings. It is very effective.
The closest point of reference is the classic point-and-click adventure game, in which the player simply scours the computer frame for objects and events to interact with. There are no real puzzles to speak of, however. You cycle through various conversations and may choose alternate branches of dialogue to allow the story to play out differently. The scenes will still continue in much the same manner, but choosing particular dialogue stems will flesh out your characters' personalities and relationships to one another. Cardboard Computer is wise to to keep the story and theme ambiguous enough to allow the player to incorporate their own reactions and story elements.
Eerie, mysterious, and compelling, Kentucky Route Zero is worth the seemingly hefty price tag of $24.99. The first two 'episodes' of the game are currently available, with an additional three parts supposedly being released over the next year or so.
6. Trine 2
Trine 2 is a puzzle platformer set in a familiar sword and sorcery universe. Your party consists of three characters who you may switch among at any time, allowing for complex combos and maneuvers to be performed. Goblins and sea creatures will attack. Platforms will require timing to cross correctly, and buttons and switches will need to be operated. What really sets this game apart, though, is the stunning art design.
Every level of Trine 2 consists of a beautifully rendered panoramic landscape, with gorgeous, sprawling vistas and visceral, colorful creatures and baddies. They look tremendous on a nice HD screen, especially with a 1920x1080 resolution. Even the lighting and shading is realistic, so the environments feel vibrant and alive rather than static.
The most recent iteration of Trine 2 includes an expansion pack, Goblin Menace, with several additional challenging levels, one inside the belly of an enormous beast. Your characters will occasionally spout dialogue, bantering with one another about the quest, while the levels themselves are bookended by a narrator reading the story from an illustrated book. The presentation is all very clean and efficient, effectively drawing you into its fantasy world despite its many cliches.
My only caveat is the music. As with most platformers, the music loops endlessly while you attempt to complete a puzzle over and over again. The problem is that the music, a timid replication of some idealized medieval-style midi orchestral fluff, grates after awhile. I suppose one could argue that the style fits perfectly with the tone and vibe of the game, but I would disagree. Trine 2 is fantasy in technicolor; the music is greyscale stock footage. Regardless, the game is a great time, with plenty of levels and puzzles to keep you occupied.
5. Bit.Trip Presents ... Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
Developer: Gaijin Games
The Bit.Trip series by Gaijin Games has been going strong for a few years now, following the adventures of Rhythm Alien as he travels across the screen either avoiding obstacles, destroying baddies or both. Games like Bit.Trip Fate or the original Bit.Trip Runner take place in a technicolor pixel world, a replication of 80's arcade sprite style but in smooth HD. Runner 2 is the first game in the series to deviate from this paradigm. The visual design instead goes for a Studio Ghibli-cum-Adult Swim vibe, and it works very well.
Runner 2 is a rhythm game at its core. Your character is in perpetual motion across the screen; you must make him jump, duck, attack, or otherwise avoid the myriad obstacles in your path. Interacting with your various movements tends to happen in time with the beat of the music, encouraging you to tighten up your button pressing and play in tempo. Botched button rhythms will play stray dissonant notes in the melody or send you hurdling back to the level's entrance gate. Timely button mashing results in a pleasing musical arrangement. Hit all the power ups over the course of a stage and listen as the song adds layers upon layers of additional synth textures and melodies.
Level themes range from a dockside beach town resort to a alternate universe forest to "The Bit Trip," a geometric computer wonderland. The presentation and production values are pristine. Amusing narration and odd commercials for fake products punctuate the gameplay experience, lending the game a weird meta vibe. The humor and visual design, again, are reminiscent of something you'd see on Adult Swim -- eccentric, drugged-out visuals mixed with clever and artistic thematic elements. Gaijin also routinely post on their social media and seem like hug dorks, which is great.
4. Don't Starve
Developer: Klei Entertainment
This game caught me by surprise. Don't Starve falls in line with other roguelike games in that its environments are procedurally and randomly generated. The environment in Don't Starve is a weird combination of Tim Burton-esque gothic visual design and a weirdly hallucinatory 2D graphical style. Just as the title suggests, the main crux of the gameplay is to stay alive, but in a world as harsh and unforgiving as this, that is a lot easier said than done.
The opening of your first play through drops you into a barren grassland where you must explore and hoard items and objects you will undoubtedly need to fashion into survival tools. As time goes by, your character stats for hunger, strength, and mental sanity will slowly decrease. You must constantly remember to feed yourself, heal your wounds, and stay sane, all of which will require the careful management of resources and a keen understanding of your geography.The first time nightfall occurs, your character will immediately die unless you have built a fire to stave off the unknown evil that lingers in the darkness. As the days progress, packs of hounds will routinely attack, a walrus family will hunt you for sport, pig men and fish men will battle it out over who gets access to the berries -- all while you continue to cultivate the land, setup a base camp, explore the wilderness, kill spiders and ent-like tree monsters, and essentially, don't starve.
Death is permanent, so the goal of the game is to survive as long as possible. The first few playthroughs are daunting to say the least. Not much is given to the player in the way of a tutorial, so it will be up to you (and a rather extensive Wiki community, to be fair) to figure out for yourself how to combine certain items and elements into useable tools or edible food. But that's all part of the challenge and fun of Don't Starve. After a few tries dying within a few days, I began to figure out which resources were most important to have nearby, which creatures I should stay away from, which parts of the day were best for exploring, how to preserve meat for longer, and how to survive the cold weather of winter and not freeze to death.
The developers, Klei Entertainment, play an active role in the Wiki community for their game, which is admirable. The modding community is overflowing on Steam, with dozens upon dozens of alternate characters with varying stats and playing styles, environment and interface changes and updates, and other general tomfoolery freely available, allowing the player the power to customize their game to their preferences. I think this is a brilliant model for contemporary indie game design. A rolling counter is perched on the title screen indicating the number of days until the next game update; Klei routinely adds additional gimmicks and significant changes to Don't Starve, including the vast underground Cave levels and a scary Halloween subplot game. Highly recommended.
As of today (January 8 2014), Starbound is only in an Early Access Beta stage of its development. Considering the vast amount of content and shear creative overload on display thus far, I have every reason to be stoked about the potential of the full version of this great sandbox game. Starbound is much more than a Terraria clone set in outer space; it's a fully realized, randomly generated, pixellated universe.
At its current stage, the "narrative" portion of the gameplay only lasts a short while, guiding the player through the various mechanics of the interface and showcasing tips and tricks about interacting with the environment. Terraria is the obvious reference point here. You'll find a pickaxe or ax quite soon and begin hacking away at trees and digging into the earth. The excitement begins when, after exploring for a bit, you begin to recognize and appreciate how vast the universe Chucklefish have created here is. The deeper down you dig, the stranger the monsters, the rarer the minerals, the scarier the dungeon. Gather enough materials, build a small house, repair your spaceship's engine, and warp to another planet. Steal the furniture and posters from the village inn and smithy. Build weapons at a forge. You get the idea.
After a very difficult battle with space penguins (yep), the campaign ends, and you're left to explore the universe in its current iteration. It seems that many players have expressed dissatisfaction with the necessity of having their characters erased over and over again while the game goes through its many stages of development. Such is the double-edged sword of beta testing. Despite this, though, there's still a great deal of fun to be had in the Starbound world. I travelled to a half a dozen or so different worlds, gathered a variety of instruments and strange furniture, built a weird wooden house on an alien world, went climbing crazy towers and destroyed legions of bird men and robot creatures, and dug deep enough to uncover a secret lizard shaman selling groceries outside of a dilapidated dungeon.
Chucklefish release a newsletter routinely with updates and fan-curated stuff. There's already a culture surrounding this game, which is pretty impressive. Everything about the production reflects the intense love and passion the developers have for this title. They were clearly gamers who grew up with the original 8 and 16 bit consoles, and they've used that world as a springboard to create something massive in scope and overflowing with content. I continue to find completely new background landscapes, architecture, towns and villages, and songs as I explore.
Supposedly the finished version will contain some sort of campaign mode where you follow a seriers of quests and adventures, with possibly a leveling system, or maybe just access to cooler gear and environments. Whatever happens, I dig this game. There is a ton of potential, especially when you consider that, just like Don't Starve, the modding community is active and well. Servers have already started to pop up, providing a seemingly endless number of different methods of play and infinite replay ability. The sounds and images of Starbound are very stimulating creatively; ambiguous enough for you to inflict your own themes and narratives upon your character. Why are you traversing the universe? What is your story? What kind of creature will you be?
2. Papers Please
One of the first video games I remember playing, back in elementary school, was the Oregon Trail. There were many versions of this game out at the time, but the one I procured came housed in a sturdy wooden box -- the developers' idea of authenticity, perhaps. While consisting primarily of prehistoric pixellated text and minimal art design, the game still delivered an incredibly tense and nerve-wracking experience because of the strength of the narrative. Would all your children survive the next river crossing (spoiler alert - nope)? Should I have chosen oxen instead of mules, like the guy in town told me? And the feeling of reaching Soda Springs with close to a full party - complete elation.
Papers, Please, in what I am aware is a bit of a slanted comparison, retains much of the same surreal aura and narrative strength of games like the Oregon Trail series. By limiting itself to only a handful of screens and gameplay mechanics, the game can focus on other means of drawing you in. The concept is simple: You are an immigration official at the newly opened border of Arstotzka. You are charged with the task of admitting or denying immigrants based on the validity of their documents, strength of their excuses, and goals of the day. This begins innocently enough -- all foreigners are turned away, then simple name checks are required -- but soon enough, you're comparing multiple documents, height and weight, and counterfeit stamps, while detaining suspicious looking individuals and terrorists.
You are a desk jockey and get paid a paltry salary by the government, so every day it is a struggle to afford all the amenities required to survive. Each "level" consists of between 8 or 12 or so immigrants (it will vary depending on how fast and good you are). You only get paid for people who are correctly screened, so if you allow any unsavory characters in, or if their is any kind of discrepancy you can verify, it'll bite you in the ass at the end of the day. This leads to a lot of moral pickles. Do you let in the wife of the gentleman you just allowed through, even though she doesn't had an ID card? What about the guy who keeps coming back every day with a fake passport? Or the lady who claims she's a diplomat and a friend of your boss, but who's passport is expired?
The surreal atmosphere that the game cultivates as the levels trudge on is remarkable. Characters will enter the loose narrative occasionally, like a guard who agrees to split his bonus with you if you detain more people than necessary, or a prickly head of security who never seems pleased with your performance and questions your loyalty. Other countries will react to your treatment of their citizens. I eventually found myself in a position when I was shooting a tranquilizer at terrorists who had slipped over the fence and were racing to blow up the booth. All these actions are performed with the mouse at first, but as the game progresses you may upgrade your booth with additional hotkey bindings, allowing you to process people more efficiently and quickly, a method that definitely comes in handy later on.
There are also 20 different attainable endings to the main campaign mode. I have experienced maybe five or six of them. Your actions do have consequences in the grand scheme of the campaign -- certain people you help may have enemies who wish you harm, or your shady dealings with an underground organization might accidentally become known. This gives the game a tremendous amount of replay value. Reaching the final conclusion -- surviving long enough to the final day and not being thrown in jail -- opens up an Endless Mode where you can enjoy toiling away at document management for as long as you like. All in all, an incredible game, one that has mass appeal, requires no prior gaming knowledge or expertise, yet delivers a unique and unsettling gaming experience.
Fez has been around a little longer than most of the other games on this list. I believe it debuted a year or so ago elsewhere in computer or console land, possibly as early as 2011. But it wasn't until the tail end of 2013 when this gem of a game finally became available for Mac. Fez is a bonafide piece of art and deserves to be experienced by anyone who appreciates what great gaming is all about.
Fez begins innocently enough, as you awake in your pretty pixel town where the denizens pontificate and shout at you about how much they love their quiet, simple 2D world. It isn't long before your character discovers that there is, indeed, a third dimension ready to be explored. In the grand style of Flatland, your character experiences a sudden shift in consciousness, resulting in his ability to shift the perspective of the landscape on screen on a whim. This expands the field of play tremendously. Your character not only travels across the screen from left to right, but can shift the camera around the pillars and buildings that make up much of the environments to align various platforms and doorways in different ways.
You do not have a health bar or stats of any kind; a fall into the abyss or a careful tumble from too high a platform will simply bring you back to the point of attack. This keeps frustration to a minimum and allows you more time to explore the rich and complex open world. As you progress through the first few levels, you'll be able to see how they are all connected in the overworld, and where you can find other doorways and pathways. The maps will indicate when they have been scoured and cleaned of valuable and secrets, so you can have a clear picture of where to go next. There are a couple of warp points throughout the world, but part of the fun of Fez is figuring out all the strange corridors and pathways that connect levels. I use the term 'level' loosely. Various screens may consist of only a handful of platforms and a doorway; enter the door and watch as the environment pulls towards the screen and the camera floats into the distance, landing on some architecture you could only see in the background from the previous level. In this way the entire world is integrated together, giving it a feeling of vastness and connectedness.
It is hard describe all the little things that Fez does so well that make it such a glorious experience. Simple platforming and a keen eye are all that is required to complete many puzzles. Secret codes and languages are hidden throughout the game, forcing you to go exploring all the back rooms and hidden levels throughout the world to decipher their meaning. You start by collecting standard cubes, then their harder-to-find cousins anti-cubes, as you gain access to more and more prestigious new doors and levels. These secrets and hidden puzzles are incredibly satisfying to decipher. Nothing is spoon fed to you in this game. You could take the easy way out and write down what a certain seriers of symbols means by reading the game forums and cheating, but it is so much more rewarding to scour your village, scour the nearby restaurant, and finally find a classroom with a series of pictures on the wall that seem to associate certain directional keys with various alien symbols.
The strange and bewildering setting, comprised chiefly of smooth neon pixels and future-retro architecture, is heightened by the soothing, ambient electronic score that washes and pulsates throughout. The backgrounds are like those old Windows 95 backgrounds that you could tile and repeat into oblivion on the desktop. Like Kairo, the entire vibe is meditative and relaxing. In this way, Fez truly feels like a love-letter to games. Hidden codes and languages, mind-bending puzzles, incredible art and sound work, and a trippy, contemporary aesthetic all combine to create one of the most purely enjoyable gaming experiences of the decade.