Archive for the ‘ Opinion ’ Category

The Music Scene vs music scenes

The power and importance of music in everyday life is hard to deny. It inspires, it unites, it creates, it expresses; and most importantly it’s always evolving. One genre grows out of another one consistently, or the barriers between them blur so much that you have no idea where one ends and the other begins, even though you’re completely sure that they do. Blues gave us rock and roll, which gave us heavy metal, which gave us death metal, and I’m sure death metal will at some point give us something even more extreme (although the prospect of that scares me somewhat…). Now blues and death metal are so far removed from each other in sound and style that to compare them seems ludicrous, but without people like Robert Johnson and later Chuck Berry you wouldn’t have bands like Obituary and Cannibal Corpse. That’s the beauty of the Music Scene: you can never tell what will spring from what, who will draw inspiration from who and exactly where the next new thing is going to come from. The potential for cross-pollination between genres is immense and that allows the growth that we see as bands continue to push music forwards. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you think of the results of this growth (personally listening to Obituary reminds me of listening to a grinding machinery) but it matters that this growth is taking place.

The problem is that the creation of all these genre’s doesn’t take place just within this theoretical realm of the music scene; it also creates smaller scenes within itself, and here is where I think the problems associated with musical growth and creativity develop. There is a certain mindset amongst people that says one thing is better simply because those people view it to be so. Now people are clearly welcome, and should be encouraged, to like and support whatever music they want to, but when they start to become sectarian in the granting of the support it starts to form the kind of elitism that can only ever damage music, both as an industry and as a creative process. Case in point, I recently went to see the band A Day to Remember at Brixton Academy. I think they’re a great band, and evidently so do many others as the venue sold out well on advance, and you could tell the love people felt for them by hearing what people were saying (it doesn’t count as eavesdropping if they’re a foot away from you and you can’t help it!) and also in how they acted during the gig. This is great, exactly what we want from music fans, but my problem came before when the support band, Bayside, came on to play. Now Bayside are nowhere near as heavy as A Day to Remember, but they are certainly not so removed in style as to be considered an insane choice of support. The problem for me was that people booed them. Now if they were a terrible band, or illogical choice of support fair enough, but this wasn’t the case here. Bayside are a very talented band, and people recognised that by the end as the booing had died down. My logical assumption then is that they were just booing them on principal: I don’t know them and they’re not exactly like the band I want so they deserve abuse. This is elitism of the worst kind, a my-way-or-the-high-way approach which has no place in artistic creativity. A friend of mine said to me, with sarcasm so dry a camel would find itself dehydrated, “If I can’t windmill to it I’m not interested,” and someone nearby turned around and, without any hint of irony, laughed and said “hell-yeah.” That’s a complete disregard for absolutely every kind of music beyond one ridiculously small niche, and that’s an attitude that should not be encouraged by anyone.

It’s not the case just in that particular scene either. Punk music fans have derided bands for selling out because they didn’t keep playing the exact same style of music throughout every album; some pretentious indie fans condemn anything with pop elements in it as being without deeper meaning
and artistic merit; even something as mainstream as pop creates an attitude where the only acceptable music is one that you love straight away and forget instantly. This is not a good approach to have. There is no inherently bad music. There are inherently bad performers; those who can’t sing or play, or who just create something that just destroys what they seek to venerate. This is not the music’s fault, it is the people using it. Anyone who can’t at least attempt to understand why someone else likes something rather than just condemn it as being without merit for being different commits a form of musical snobbery, and music is supposed to be one of the great equalisers in the world.

You can argue about why; decline of the music industry, rise of digital sharing, over-commercialisation of bands etc; I won’t go into it here because I’ve ranted enough. However, we need to remember that if we only venerate particular scenes within music we’re hurting ourselves. Music needs to evolve continually or it becomes stale; that’s why particular bands come in and out of fashion so quickly. It’s fine to like a particular genre but people need to be open. If we love the Music Scene as a whole, rather than just individual parts of it then who knows where it might take us in 10 years time.


Article: Shadowrun – A defence

It’s difficult to try new ideas, to try to bond disparate methods into one cohesive whole. So many times they’re doomed to failure before they even begin, as anyone who’s ever tried a chocolate and tuna sandwich can attest to. But when they work, when the distillation of two separate parts is in perfect harmony, then you’ve got something special. By popular consensus, both commercial and critical, Shadowrun is not one of those combinations. It tried a variety of new ideas, and had the noblest of intentions in many ways but just failed to deliver. It never even managed that jump to cult phenomenon like so many under-selling gems such as Beyond Good and Evil and American McGee’s Alice. Yet here I stand, one of the lone few who revel in Shadowrun as a unique and enjoyable take on the stagnant FPS genre, against the onslaught of criticism, and the important thing which I have to stress here is that I’m right! And I’m going to tell you why.

Shadowrun never had it easy: the sheer principle would prove to be problematic on a whole host of levels, many of which continued to dog the game long past its release. The Shadowrun brand itself, although essential to the game, placed the developers, FASA, in a difficult situation. It was well-established, with a small but devoted following but it was very much a niche brand. This meant the game was unable to use it to successfully infiltrate the mainstream consciousness as the mainstream was completely unconscious of it. On the flipside of the this was the small cult following that the pen & paper RPG had built up who had expectations of what any game baring the Shadowrun moniker should be. Basically, not an FPS. The game was already an RPG, with an in-depth and tactical system and the traditional devoted crowd bemoaned the dumbing down of its beloved brand into an FPS ‘for the masses.’ And when it comes to ‘core’ gamers, opinions like this can spread like wildfire over the internet, and the worst thing in the eyes of that particular group is the dilution of the essence of old-school videogames to keep the mainstream happy. Essentially from the word go, it was not guaranteed any support from either camp.

But still a good game can win over many of the sceptics, but upon release the response to Shadowrun was lukewarm at best. One huge criticism stemmed from an area which had the potential to really set the game apart: it’s PC/console platform linkup. Shadowrun allowed Xbox 360 players to play against PC players, a move that has yet to be repeated by another game, and while many championed the attempt to bring two historically antagonistic FPS groups together, the old antagonisms reared their ugly head just the same. Console players weren’t happy with the lack of an aim-down sights, something that only Halo is still managing to persevere with in the current climate, but more importantly PC players complained that the targeting system favoured console players with it’s semi-automatic aim lock-on. While it did allow this, it was a fine-tuning balancing act because of the less-responsive nature of a controller, which is something that will always be a problem for console and PC connectivity, and to be honest until that issue gets addressed I really can’t think of a better way to do it, although obviously I’m not a designer. The cross-platform functionality was fundamentally flawed for one main reason; something that was not the fault of either FASA or their game. In order to play on the PC you need to have Games for Windows Live. All arguments about the current state of the platform aside, in 2007 it was a mess, and almost no serious PC player would use it. So that takes away a huge potential customer base and also destroys one of the game’s main potential selling points.

There was also criticism of the lack of variety. Well yes in a very strict sense I suppose that’s true. There was only three game types, and nowhere near enough maps, plus at only 8 the weapon count is significantly down on games like Call of Duty or Halo. Let’s be honest though, how many of the guns on a game like COD do you actually use. Personally on Black Ops I stick fairly religiously to the Commando and occasional sniper rifle because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Not only does this make the others redundant but it makes me judge them relative to my norm, and often somewhat unreasonably. Case in point, on Black Ops I hate the FAMAS. Using that inaccurate hose-pipe of a gun I couldn’t hit a barn-door, but it’s a tried and true favourite of several of my friends for its accuracy. The difference is probably negligible, but it enforces huge stereotypes that discourage experimentation because people are comfortable with what they know. And with the exception of the majestic Borderlands, can anyone name a single game which has been made better just by the addition of more guns? Thought not. But despite all this there is variety in Shadowrun, it just doesn’t come from traditional sources.

My love for Shadowrun can be explained by a multitude of reasons, but the crux of it can be summed up by one simple idea. In other shooters of that period, and even now to a large extent, if you were caught out you were dead. In COD, a murderous rampage can be cut short simply because you happened to walk past a doorway 2 seconds too early. That’s it: you’re just dead, through no fault of your own, through no skill of your enemy, through nothing but blind luck. In Shadowrun if someone catches you from behind you can use a swift blast of wind to gust them away and mess up their accuracy, before teleporting through the floor to end up behind them and finally cutting them in the back with a katana and watching with glee as they gradually bleed out. What other game lets you do that?! In many ways the games various magical and technological abilities were precedents for Call of Duty’s perks, but active rather than passive. In essence this was the first console shooter with a customisable load-out system, and it was far in advance of anything else around; still is to this day in many ways. This was the variety. You fought in completely new ways, using completely new tactics with combinations that people hadn’t even considered. This was the variety that gamers craved, but no-one saw it because there’s only one type of SMG so clearly there’s no variety. Well maybe there was only one kind of SMG compared to the 6 in Call of Duty; but Call of Duty didn’t let you summon a demon to chase your enemies around while you pick them off with a high calibre sniper rifle.

The variety was there, just in ways that people didn’t expect to see, and so didn’t look for. And the innovation was completely lost on them. The cross-platform functionality didn’t work properly, that was true, but so many of the other new ideas did. Most importantly, the technologies and magics effected not just how you fought the enemy, but how you managed and traversed the terrain, how you co-operated with team-mates and how you balanced the risk-reward of different possibilities. And under it all, as any review you can find will tell you was a fundamentally well-made FPS with all the right check-marks one would hope to find in all the right boxes.

Maybe it tried too much, maybe it didn’t try enough, maybe both of these are true in different areas. However, for some reason the enjoyment I got out of the game wasn’t found by others. It didn’t help that the vast array of play-styles and abilities were baffling to newcomers. Several of my friends who started after my recommendation couldn’t get into it because after six months or so, there was only the devoted few left who had already perfected the games intricacies, providing the steepest learning curve. The lack of a single player campaign as a training ground damaged it here, as it probably did in many other ways too. Indeed I can certainly see some strength in the argument that it maybe should have been released at a lower price point. But none of these are to do with how good a game is to play. Sure you can forgive more for a lower price point, and expect more for a higher one, but fundamentally a good game is a good game. And Shadowrun is a good game, maybe even a great one, but you need to approach it in the right way. It’s not like Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield or any other FPS. It tried something new, but more than that it managed to create a gameplay experience unlike any other available at the time. Perhaps so much so that it was destined to be left out in the cold, and doubtless it was edged closer to the door by a lack of support across numerous fronts, and technical difficulties that were always going to be hard to avoid. So out in the cold it seems destined to remain, and barely any of the spawn-campers in Black Ops will care. Still it’s a shame, because I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again, and every time a new approach fails, it’s another nail for the coffin of creativity. I for one am not looking forward to that funeral.

Article: A History of Grand Theft Auto

Back in 1997, a small Scottish developer named DMA, previously most famous for Lemmings, released the original “Grand Theft Auto” on the PC to relatively little fanfare. A simple top down viewpoint disguised a game-play style that was to revolutionise the way video-games worked. Instead of a linear progression, players were now free to pursue their goals in any manner they saw fit, completely ignoring typical missions if they so wished. Two years later, the sequel was revealed on Playstation and PC, retaining much of the original’s style, content and game-play. One key new feature was the introduction of shifting allegiances. Like its predecessor, “Grand Theft Auto 2” was a successful game but in many ways remained a sleeper hit. This was all to change in 2001 with the release of “Grand Theft Auto III”.

Released on the platform that introduced gaming to the general public, the Playstation 2, and adopting a new 3D perspective, the game proved a huge success, selling over 14.5 million units in its lifespan. It retained the freedom of its predecessors, allowing people to either follow the story completing the missions or simply storm through Liberty City, killing, robbing and generally creating havoc on the streets. It was this feature of the game, combined with its larger coverage, which led to the critical backlash from the conservative media. There had been some controversy with the earlier games but nothing approaching the level of GTA III. To a certain extent it was the beginning of the investigation of the supposed link between video-games and teen violence, represented by a $246 million lawsuit filed by the families of the two murdered victims against the newly renamed developers, Rockstar North.

The huge success of GTA III on a purely gaming level meant expectations were high for the sequels, but both “Vice City” and “San Andreas” surpassed them with consummate ease, selling close to 40 million units combined. Retaining everything from their predecessor and upping the ante in terms of scale, story and graphical enhancements, they are seen by many as the pinnacle of sixth generation gaming. But, once again, the mainstream media overlooked much of this and controversy continued to rage. This time claims of racism were added to traditional criticisms, as Cuban groups were offended by “Vice City’s” representation of Hispanic communities, and there were forced recalls of “San Andreas, following the Hot Coffee controversy which allowed those who installed the correct mod to instigate a mini-game simulating sex (although the term ‘simulating’ required the loosest possible definition).

But none of the criticisms seriously damaged the series, in fact they are probably part of its success, and now just days away from the release of “Grand Theft Auto IV,” a game anticipated to be one of the greatest of all time it seems the series will continue to represent the best that console gaming has to offer as well as the most controversial.