a few words from the sad guy, plus some new (old) songs

So I’ve been kinda fucked up lately.  With the news.  Like, really kinda fucked up.  As in, I am really needing to go to therapy on Saturday.  I want to clarify:  I’m not in a dangerous place.  But over the last few weeks, with news shit really starting to get, like, absurd, I’ve been aware of my face having the sort of thousand-yard stare that can accompany the late stages of devastated, turn-out-the-lights-and-listen-to-Disintegration-over-headphones teenaged heartache.  There’s really no other word for it than sad.  But in a really deep, really fucked up, please get me offa this thing sort of way.

We all have different coping mechanisms.  I’ve been too frazzled to play video games lately, which is frustrating.  I’ve been reading very escapist fiction, but only a chapter or two at a time – and I’m also reading two collections of short stories, and alternating between all three or four at any given time.  I can’t focus, is what I’m saying.  I get home, I put Henry to bed, I kiss my wife, and then I get just sad and also perhaps a little or a lot very stoned in my basement while I listen to music or try to think about maybe one day writing lyrics to songs that I haven’t finished recording from three years ago.

SUDDEN TANGENT:  You know what, fuck it.  It’s killing me that I haven’t finished this album after all this time, and so I need to do something about it.  All these tracks have been slowly burning tiny holes in my iPhone since 2015.   So rather than release a B-side of a B-side, I’m gonna throw on one of the stuff that I actually really like and still intend to finish.

So this thing right here is a loop I recorded on a 4-track through my looping pedal in, like, 2001.

 

So that’s a thing I’ve always kinda liked.  I later reworked into a bridge section for a latter-day Good Evening song in 2006-7, and then I kinda just kept it in the back of my mind; when I signed up for the RPM challenge in 2015, and for lack of any better ideas, I decided to revisit it and see if I could fit it into something new.  I never did find a definitive beginning and/or end to it, but the section itself still sounds quite lovely to me:

 

And then this other thing, which is just a fun doodle of an idea that is perhaps too-obviously informed by The Forms, also happens to be the most recent substantial thing I’ve recorded here in Maplewood, (but again, that only means November 2015):

 

OK.  You are now the first people in the world (aside from 3-4 beta listeners from three years ago) to have heard that.  Thank you for indulging me.  I HAVE PLENTY MORE AND WILL PUT THEM UP, PERHAPS LATER IN THIS VERY POST THAT I AM PROCRASTINATING FROM FINISHING.

[END TANGENT]

So I’ve been sad, is the thing, and it’s frustrating as all hell, because it’s a sadness that exists beyond me; it’s not a sadness that I can control.  It is a sadness of the very reality that we are currently living in, more specifically the cruel feeling of hopelessness about it all, and that even with the amazing and surprising and good-heart-feeling election victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it’s immediately driven back by the 1-2 punch of the SCOTUS mess and the mass shooting at a Maryland newspaper (which, I want to make clear, I’m writing this at 9:23 while very stoned and don’t yet know if a motive has been uncovered – the more important issue is that, in the words of @igorvolsky, “any motive + easy access to firearms = death & horror.”

And so anyway, about half an hour ago or so I went upstairs to pee and get some ice cream because I’m sad and binge-eating and munched out and I was looking at Facebook and saw this video.

Now, look.  I think Donald Trump is, perhaps, the most dangerous man in American history.  He is vile and repellant and morally unfit and profoundly unethical and we all know it.  There isn’t a day that goes by lately where I don’t spend my day within a deep and disturbing dread that something truly awful is about to happen.

But the thing I find most loathsome about him – despite his endless blustering and bravado and chest-bumping – is that he’s a fucking coward.  This shooting in Maryland is tragic and horrible and he is so scared about having to deal with a real crisis that he just keeps on walking.  He’s the President of the United States, don’t tell me he didn’t yet know.   He absolutely knew.  And he was too scared to speak to the press to offer any words of condolences.  He has no empathy for other human beings in pain, and so there is nothing for him to gain out of offering solace to the grieving.  So he just walks away.

I was going to get into a whole big rant about it.  I was gonna just vent and spew and vomit all over the internet.  This is a very small and insignificant part of the internet, the whole of which you’d never call pristine, but whatever – now I’ve just covered my little tiny part of it in venom.

Then I decided to not do that.  Maybe I’d write about not writing.  Because even though I’m hurting, I don’t know that throwing my hurt onto you is the right thing.  I’m not saying I should be keeping this to myself – like I said above, I’m really looking forward to Saturday morning’s therapy session.  And so I worry about having my only contribution to this shrieking nightmare to simply be another lonely howl at the moon.

I think what I really needed to do is just tell you guys that I love you.  Times are fucking terrible right now, man, and it fucking sucks.  But you’re not alone.  I’m not alone.  We’re not alone.  I love you guys.  I need to remember to love you guys more.  I need to remember to keep love in my heart.

(And then, after some cleansing breaths, I say:  if they go low, continue to kick them in the face.)

How The Hell Is It June Already

There are any number of reasons why it’s taken me so long to get back here; none of them are terribly interesting.  Suffice it to day that sometimes there simply aren’t enough hours in the day; and sometimes, when there are, those hours are best spent taking a nap.

I will say this, even if it sounds corny:  I am trying very hard to only put positive stuff out into the world.  And sometimes that means not saying anything at all.  I know I’d said not too long ago that this blog might turn into something a bit more LiveJournal-y, but to be honest I think I’d rather keep that stuff between me and my therapist.  I don’t want to use this space to whine or complain; it’s not fun to write, and I’m sure it’s not interesting to read.  So I’m gonna try to… um… not do that.

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It’s been almost a month since I’ve been here, so let’s dust off the cobwebs and get up to speed.

BOOKS:

In my last substantive entry I wrote that I was halfway through volume 3 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive.  I finished it shortly thereafter, and I’ll say this for it:  the series is great, but it’s also exhausting, and I’m probably not going to re-read anything before volume 4 comes out.

And in the intervening time I’ve also read:

  • Agents of Dreamland, Caitlin Kiernan
  • Black Helicopters, Caitlin Kiernan – I’d read Agents last year, and remembered loving it, and wanted more of it because it was so short.  Black Helicopters has nearly the same cover art, and so I thought it was a sequel; it’s not, and the two books are only very tenuously related.  You can read them in a few hours, for whatever it’s worth.
  • The Dark Dark, Samantha Hunt – I thought this was going to be a collection of horror stories; it’s not.  But it’s still very good, and certainly there’s more than a few stories that got under my skin.
  • The Outsider, Stephen King – Tangentially related to his Bill Hodges trilogy, this is more of a supernatural mystery novel than anything else; it’s also much better than the Hodges books, and largely devoid of his usual tics and mannerisms.
  • Dead On Arrival, Matt Ritchel – Great premise, super-shitty writing.
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro – I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this, but I did, and it’s great.  It didn’t necessarily knock me over the way it has for friends of mine, but it’s still a marvel.
  • The Thief, Fuminori Nakamura – A very short philosophical meditation on pickpocketing, power, and fate.  Illuminating, though slight.
  • Clockwork Boys / The Wonder Engine, T. Kingfisher – I’m not sure what prompted me to pick these up; I’m not sure I’m going to finish them.  It’s almost as if the author conjured up an unlikely band of misfits based on standard fantasy tropes and then decided to write fan fiction about them.

MUSIC:

My last post made a loose promise that I’d start livestreaming from my basement the next time I started writing music.  Ha ha ha ha ha, no, that didn’t happen, and it’s probably not going to until I re-learn how to use all my software.

I am listening a lot, though, which is usually a good sign that I’m going to start working again.  Spotify’s Neo-Psychedelic Rock playlist is really, really good.  The new Neko Case is also really good, as is Oneohtrix Point Never, Wooden Shjips, Ryley Walker, and Stephen Malkmus.  However, I’ve mostly been listening to Peter Gabriel, now that most of his catalog is back on Spotify.  I’ve been wanting to do a cover of “Digging in the Dirt” for 25 years, and I’m only now starting to get an idea of how to approach it.


GAMES:

I’m gonna be honest – I’m a mess right now, game-wise.  I have a backlog that is too intimidating for me to deal with, and an attention span that can only handle about 30-45 minutes at a time, and shooters are starting to feel distasteful again.  I picked up OnRush and Vampyr, and they’re both very conceptually interesting, though somewhat rough around the edges… and I’ve been dabbling in DLC for Assassin’s Creed Origins and Far Cry 5, and I’m not necessarily feeling those…

The one thing that I have been playing – and enjoying quite more than I ever expected to – is Yoku’s Island Express, which is a 2D platformer that uses pinball mechanics.  It is lovely and charming and gorgeous and totally the sort of whimsical escapist adventure that I need right now, and I cannot recommend it enough.  I liked it so much that I bought it for both my X and my Switch – it’s a perfect handheld game, and it’s also beautiful on a big TV.

I don’t have any E3 predictions to offer up, and there’s only a few things that I’d like to hear are coming:

  • release date for Psychonauts 2;
  • the existence of Portal 3;
  • any news whatsoever on whatever Rocksteady Studios is working on; rumors point to a Superman game, which, meh.  But I’m willing to check out anything they’re working on, if only because their Batman games are so phenomenally good;
  • and also Diablo 3 on Switch.

self-care for the self-aware

 

In these troubled times, it’s important to take time out for self-care.  Self-care comes in many different forms.  For me, lately, one of those methods has been to do some serious heavy-duty organization of my digital media.

Last night, I spent almost two hours curating smaller playlists out of my gargantuan “Favorites from the Spotify Discovery” playlists.  While I appreciate that Spotify’s algorithm knows me so well, it’s made my “best-of” playlists untenable; until last night I’d simply been putting my favorite tracks into a mega-list for each year, and by year’s end I’d have 150+ songs, and so when I’d start a new list for a new year I’d stop listening to the previous year, and so there’s dozens of songs that I’ve kept that I haven’t had a chance to really absorb.  This is nonsensical, I know, but you have no idea how nice it is to know that all the weird space jazz that Spotify feeds me can live in one readily identifiable place.

There’s a lot that I don’t miss about my high school / college / post-college years, but one of the things that I do miss quite terribly is that back then, it was very easy for me to carve out a solid chunk of hours to obsessively listen to music.  I don’t have that luxury any more; my commute is too short, I can’t listen to music at work, and my evening hours are hit-or-miss.   There were a few moments last night while I was in the midst of this curation session when I’d say to myself, ooh, that’s an album I want to spend some time listening to, I’ll get to it later… and then I’d realize, wait, when exactly is “later”?

Anyway.  I know it’s ridiculous, but I sorta have to do this organizational stuff in order to streamline my creative process.  My new computer arrived last week, and it’s awesome, and everything works the way it’s supposed to, and now I have to accept the fact that I haven’t done anything creatively as far as music goes in far, far too long.  (Hell, I need to remember how some of my software actually works.)  And I know that the first few times I sit down to start composing, I’m gonna be rusty and turn out some stupid shit.  But rather than beat myself up about it, I need to make sure that I’m showing up to my sessions in a good mood, and that means I need to listen to inspiring stuff.  And so while it’s fair to say that this could be seen as a highly contrived excuse for procrastination, it’s also productive and useful.


Similarly, I spent a very satisfying hour last week sorting my PS4 Pro’s game library into folders – Sony Exclusives, PS VR, Indies, Multi-Platform.  I sincerely hope that Microsoft lets me create folders for the X, someday; they sorta do this already, in terms of how you can sort your library, but it’d be nice to be able to further customize those categories.

Look, I know this is a super-ridiculous thing but I love it and it makes me very happy.


So last week I took a much-needed (though not terribly satisfying) staycation, and I played a bunch of stuff.

1.  Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.  I’d gotten this on PS4 last year, got stuck, and then forgot about it; but I figured I’d give it another go on the X – I was, if nothing else, curious to see how the X shaped up to the PS4, and the developer happened to mention that if they sold a certain amount of units, they’d be donating a certain amount of their proceeds to certain mental health charities, and that felt like a worthwhile thing to contribute to.  So, yeah – this game is fucking amazing, and it looks extraordinary on the X, and I’m really glad I finally finished it.

2. Yakuza 6 / Ni No Kuni 2.  You couldn’t pick 2 more different games to start playing at the exact same time, but here we are.  Of course, these have been put to the side because of God of War, but I’ll get to that in a sec.  I really like both of what I’ve played of these two, so far, though, and I hope to get back to them in a bit.

3.  Far Cry 5.  So I’ve beaten 2 of the 3 sub-bosses, and I’ve done a fair amount of side stuff, and I’m honestly not sure I need to 100% this.  When I’m goofing off and exploring, it’s fine; when I’m paying attention to the story, everything sucks.

4.  God of War.  Well, look – this is gonna be the main thing I’m playing until I finish it, and even then I don’t know that I’ll want to put it down.  It’s an extraordinary experience on nearly every level.  This is the clear frontrunner for Game of the Year until Red Dead 2 comes out later this year, and the bar for RDR2 is very, very, very high.  I don’t really want to talk about it until I’m done with it; it needs its own post.  Just get it and play it and enjoy it and love it.  And also hug your children.

Ambient Humanity

My son turns 5 on Saturday, and that is ridiculous.  There’s no way he’s already 5 years old.

Have you ever fallen in love with a song so much it made you cry?  It happens to me all the time.  And it happened to him this weekend.  He fell hard for this song from the end credits in the Captain Underpants movie – and yes, that is a weird thing to fall in love with, but far be it for me to deprive him of a cathartic response to art; the heart wants what it wants.  We listened to it in the car on the way to swim class, and when I went to get him out of the car I noticed that he was sniffly and sad, and I asked him what was wrong, and he said “Daddy I love you”, and that the song made him “happy sad”, and he said he loved me again and he gave me a big hug and dried his eyes on my shoulder, and my heart melted all over the parking lot of the West Essex YMCA.


We have our basement back!  And it only took 2 weeks!  The longest and most stressful 2 weeks of our lives as homeowners, but still!  I can’t begin to explain how relieved I am to have everything back up and running again.

Of course, there are still some things that need to be replaced.  My computer desk(s) got kinda fucked up during the renovation, and my computers are still busted (though not due to the flooding), and so on and so on.  But the point is, you can hang out down there again.   Which means I’ll have more stuff to write about here.


I’ve been feeling more and more like it’s time for me to finally pull the plug on Facebook, even though it’s really, really difficult to suddenly cut myself off from pretty much everyone I know.  (And my family would kill me if I suddenly deprived them of photos of my kid.)  I’ve sorta had it in the back of my mind that I’m gonna keep my account right up until I finish this stupid album, and I can get the word out, and then after that’s run its course I’ll shut my account down and spend more time over here.

And it’s gonna be a while until this album gets finished.  So there’s no real timetable just yet.

In any event, I came across this Kottke post that resonated pretty heavily with me – not just because I used to be a die-hard Livejournal user, but because even after all these years I’ve never felt quite as part of a community as I did over there.  There’s no question that WordPress is a better platform for creating stuff, but it’s awfully tough to foster friendships and connections here.  Facebook (for me, at least) was never about meeting new people, it was only ever about reconnecting with people I’d lost touch with.  Twitter (for me) is almost entirely about reading what other people have to say, because anything I write there barely ripples the water’s endless surface.

AOL IM 4eva, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, the post inside that Kottke thing is here, and it’s great, and this pull-quote is hitting me exactly where I live.

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.


So:  Far Cry 5 comes out this week; my rental copy of Ni No Kuni 2 should be arriving today; I’m continuing to move along in QUBE 2, which is a Portal-esque first-person puzzler that breaks my brain in interesting and very satisfying ways; and there’s some other indie puzzlers that I’d like to get back to, when I have time, which I don’t.  But now that the basement’s back, I can at least make the attempt.

The Final Post of 2017

1. Since finishing up my Books of 2017 post, I ended up finishing 3 more:

  • Denise Mina, “The Long Drop”, which I’ll give a B; it’s a fictional retelling of a true event (i.e., the events leading to the hanging death of Peter Manuel, a brutal serial killer in Glasgow in the 1950s).  Quite absorbing and dark, and also GODDAMN those people can drink.
  • Mohsin Hamid, “Exit West”, which earns an A; a beautiful and melodic love story as seen through the eyes of refugees, and also there are magic doors.
  • Patty Yumi Cottrell, “Sorry To Disrupt the Peace”, which gets a B; I don’t know how to describe this book at all, except it’s a remarkable look at mental illness from the mind of someone who probably doesn’t realize that they are incredibly mentally ill.

And now I’m reading Daryl Gregory’s “Spoonbenders”, which is long enough that it’ll almost certainly end up being my first finished book of 2018, and which can probably best be described as a book version of The Royal Tenenbaums, but about a family of psychics.

2.  Due to a sudden and unexpected influx of Amazon gift cards, I, um, bought a 55″ 4K HDR TV.  It is not the best 4K HDR TV one can buy, and indeed the transaction happened so fast I didn’t even have time to properly make sure I was getting what I actually wanted (I probably should’ve waited to do some actual research), but it was (a) available and (b) cheap and (c) it showed up on Tuesday.  So that happened.  Now I just need a decent sound bar and my gaming room will be complete.

3.  I still don’t know if I’m gonna do a Games of 2017 post.  I’m looking over what I played this year and despite other people saying that this was the best year in games since 2007, there’s only a handful of games that I can say are worth a damn.  Or maybe it’s just me.  I played a lot this year but I don’t know that I enjoyed very much.  I still can’t get into Breath of the Wild, which is probably heretical to admit, but there it is.  If I had to round up a top 5, it’d probably look something like this:

  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Assassin’s Creed Origins
  • What Remains of Edith Finch
  • Gorogoa
  • Super Mario Odyssey

There’s a ton of stuff I didn’t finish, and there’s even more stuff that I never even got to.

4.  Similarly, I don’t think I’m going to do a Music of 2017 post, but for wildly different reasons; I got turned on to a ton of amazing music this year, but I can’t necessarily say I listened to all that many new albums.  My Favorites from the Spotify Discovery playlist is at least 150 songs deep, though.

5.  And I didn’t watch nearly enough TV or film to even bother pretending to make lists for those things.  I think I can safely say that Baby Driver was the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in years, and the best shows I watched were DarkStranger Things 2Legion and… hmm… I’m forgetting something, I know it.  (I only made it 3 episodes into Twin Peaks.)

This is almost certainly my last post of 2017, and given that I’m restless, I may end up doing a redesign over the next few weeks or so.  In any event, here’s hoping you had a lovely holiday, and I hope you have a much better 2018.  Indeed, I hope we all do.

a sort-of cure for the hopelessness blues

I have been feeling somewhat weird lately, for lack of a better word.  (As I look at the titles of my most recent blog posts, I realize that they’re all a bit down-trodden, to say the least.)

I continue to be politically despondent, and I don’t know how to combat that.  As I’ve noted before, my day job has turned off a great deal of internet access but I still have Twitter and the news, and the TV in the kitchenette is turned to CNN, and every time I look up something horrifying is happening and, just as horrifying, nothing is being done about it.

So I turn to – what else – retail therapy.  I went a wee bit bananas during the Amazon Sale.  I now own a Bluetooth record player, some very nice Bluetooth headphones, and a Kindle Fire (for some reason).

It’s funny – when I’d heard that the iPhone 7 was doing away with the headphone jack, I, like most people I knew, was pissed off.  And now that I actually own an iPhone 7+, I was confronted with the realization that using wired headphones was a pain in the ass.   So now I am free from the tyranny of small wires and dongles.  I got these bad boys and they are delightful.

The record player… well, you knew that was coming.  We got it set up last night and christened it with two of my favorite albums – my mother-in-law’s original copy of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends”, followed by my sister-in-law’s copy of Yes’s “Fragile”.  [EDIT:  I have just been informed that it’s actually my wife’s copy.  Sorry, dear!]  And as my wife and I sat down on our couch and the music started playing, I realized that it was the first time we’d both sat down and listened to music in years.  And that’s kinda the awesome thing about actual, tangible records.  There’s a ritual to getting an album set up to play that simply isn’t there when you’re firing something up on Spotify.  You browse through your collection to find the album you’re looking for; you remove the disc from its sleeve; you carefully lay it on the platter; you press “Start”, and in this case the needle automatically finds its way onto the record.  You sit down, you get comfortable, you listen.  You also have to pay attention because you’ve gotta flip the record over, which is something I hadn’t had to pay conscious attention to since I switched from cassettes to CDs (say, 1992-93).  And then you consider the album as a whole, rather than as a collection of songs; you pay attention to sequencing, how the end of Side 1 and the beginning of Side 2 are their own definitive statements as well as the songs that bridge the album as a complete thing.  (Yes, I might’ve been a little stoned.)

Anyway, I bought the Sgt. Pepper and the OK Computer reissues today.


I have finished Part One of Five of the massive new Neal Stephenson novel “The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O.“, and it is exactly what I wanted to read right now.  (Until David Mitchell gets around to releasing his new one, whenever that may be.)  I’m a little surprised that nobody’s talking about it; I did notice that it’s unusually pricey, even on the Kindle side of things, but I had Amazon credit and bit the bullet.  It’s easily one of the best things he’s done in years, and that very well may be because it’s co-written by Nicole Galland.  In any event, the sci-fi stuff is very cool, but the characters are also very cool, and as Part One came to a close I found myself very, very excited to know that I still have another 600 pages to go before I’m done.


Why did I buy a Kindle Fire, besides that it was on sale for like $50?  I don’t know.  I already have a Kindle Voyage, which is the best e-reader I’ll ever own.  I also own an old iPad 3, which I haven’t really been using but which at least has a ton of apps on it.  It was an impulse buy driven by anxiety, and so if nothing else I get to offer the first “Thanks, Trump” of what will probably be many.  I only hope that the world ends before my credit card debt is past due.

 

Revisiting Watch Dogs 2

The wife and I have been talking about buying a record player for a while now, and I’m pretty close to pulling the trigger – especially since my mother-in-law just gave us a whole bunch of her old albums.  But I haven’t yet bought one, and there’s a couple reasons for that.

One:  we don’t listen to music very often in the house.  Now, part of me feels like I’ve failed as a parent because I, as a musician, haven’t exposed my son to enough music.  But the truth is that my wife and I like somewhat different things, and while the Venn diagram of our respective tastes does have some overlap, my son’s interests lie completely off the map.  Yes, he’ll listen to the Beatles in the car, but he’ll also want to listen to the “Sing!” cover version of “Shake It Off” a thousand times in a row.  And when we’re home and hanging out, he’s very insistent that we listen to no music at all, because it affects his ability to stack dominos.

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The other reason is that… well… it’s a very slippery slope for me as far as record-buying goes.  Because if I buy one, I’ll buy a hundred without even blinking.  I’ve even been going through my existing collection wondering what might sound better on vinyl.  I mean, yes of course I want to get the new Sgt. Pepper remaster on vinyl, and the OK Computer remaster, and then I’m sure the new Fleet Foxes album sounds amazing, and then the next thing you know I’m $10,000 in debt and my floors are sinking because my vinyl collection is too physically heavy.

So I’ve gotta be careful, is what I’m trying to say.

*   *   *

I think I’d mentioned not too long ago that I’d been diving into some of my gaming backlog, and I realized that I’d made two notable omissions.  One is a replay of Wolfenstein: The New Order, because killing Nazis is particularly life-affirming in this current political climate, and the other is a revisit of Watch Dogs 2.

I don’t think I wrote about Watch Dogs 2 when I first started playing it last year; and if I did, I can’t seem to find it.  I can’t recall why I stopped playing it, either, beyond probably just being overwhelmed by my backlog in general.  (It’s entirely possible that I bought it in the middle of a gigantic Xbox sale, and so I was playing a dozen different things at once, and one of them ultimately won out.)

In any event, it’s a weird game in all the ways that Ubisoft open-world games are weird, but it’s also strangely compelling in all the ways that the first Watch Dogs wasn’t.  This doesn’t necessarily forgive it for its narrative sins, nor does it absolve it for its bizarre sense of morality, nor does it get a pass for making me feel like a very, very old man.  But I’m continuing to play it, which means there’s something there that’s keeping me invested.

WD2 is ridiculous and wildly incongruous in terms of its tone, but I think it’s at least supposed to feel that way.  It’s silly and goofy and while it still has moments where it’s attempting to be earnest – i.e., that you’re part of a rag-tag group of hackers with a Robin Hood ethos – you at least don’t feel weird when your quiet attempts at hacking go awry and you end up having to shoot everyone in the face with machine guns that you build with a 3D printer in your hacker base.  And even though you’re hacking for the greater good, you’re just supposed to ignore the fact that you not only steal cars all the time, but you steal all the expensive stuff that’s left in the cars, and you’re also constantly stealing people’s money out of their digital accounts – you can’t help yourself, because the game conveniently highlights them in blue and makes it very obvious that they’re ripe for the picking.

The game’s biggest sin, of course, is that it makes me feel like a very old man who wants to yell at kids to get off his lawn.  I don’t know if this is because Ubisoft has accurately portrayed youth/hacker culture, or if a similar group of old men think they accurately portrayed youth/hacker culture, but the point remains the same – Marcus and the rest of the DedSec crew are annoying and ridiculous and I kinda want to punch them all in the face.  The game’s got a pseudo-version of Instagram in it and if you take selfies in certain spots you get rewarded with more selfie gestures (which sounds ridiculous when you type it out like this), and your friends make the DUMBEST FUCKING COMMENTS underneath each photo, and the whole thing is just so absurd.

And yet I must confess that in spite of this game’s desperate desire to be cool and hip and relevant to whatever millennial audience they’re hoping to attract, and thus it has alienated me utterly and completely, I apparently also don’t seem to care all that much because I’ve been playing it for most of the last two weeks; and so while I’ve stopped paying attention to the narrative, I have at least continued to remain interested in the tasks I’m asked to perform.  They are repetitive, as all these things tend to be, but at least they’re different.  As in the first game, it can be immensely satisfying to come across a group of bad guys and find a way to take them all out without even setting foot in their space.

Frankly, it can be just as satisfying to just cruise around and see what’s going on – the digital San Francisco in this game is quite fascinating to explore.  Indeed, one of the things I most appreciate is that unlike other Ubisoft open-world games I could name, the map isn’t that cluttered with ridiculous things, and the hidden things that you do come across are actually quite useful.  Those Instagram selfies I mentioned earlier?  They help you level up and earn followers – followers are basically XP, and the more XP you get the more Research Points you can earn, and those Research Points help you unlock perks and powerups and such.  And so if I need a break from the story (such as it is), I’ll just go hunting for Research Points.

I’m a little surprised that Ubisoft didn’t mention the Watch Dogs IP during their E3 press conference – or maybe they did, but nobody remembered – and perhaps it’s just as well, given that it’s hard to know what this game is meant to accomplish beyond being a more tech-savvy and less blatantly misogynistic Grand Theft Auto clone.  That being said, WD2 is certainly engaging enough to check out – and given that it’s been on a sale a lot lately, you may want to give it a look.

 

The Year That Was: 2016

Ugh.

I just don’t have it in me, you guys.  It was all I could do to recover from George Michael, and then it was Carrie Fisher.  And these celebrity deaths, while temporarily distracting, still can’t thwart the nightmare that is the impending Trump presidency.

And yet:  all things considered, 2016 wasn’t that terrible for me, personally speaking.  Yes, I am a bit more in debt than I’d like to be, and I’ve put on a few pounds (the “Suburban 15”, as I’m calling them).  But life in the ‘burbs is quite nice, and my kid loves it there, and my wife and I are as happy together as we’ve ever been.  My office moved downtown which makes my commute a thousand times easier (even if it makes the rest of Manhattan a bit less accessible); and my day job itself is a thousand times less stressful (for a variety of reasons that I can’t get into in this space).  If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t finish my album.  At some point I will have to figure out how to get into a creative routine.  But that’s for another post (or blog, possibly).


As per usual, I can’t crown a Best Film, because I hardly saw anything beyond the big blockbusters that lingered in theaters long after their opening weekends.  I can say that Dr. Strange, while not my favorite Marvel movie, is certainly the most spectacular 3D experience I’ve ever had this side of Avatar, if only because 3D filmmakers have finally figured out that interior depth is more intriguing than random shit flying into your face.  Rogue One is terrific enough to seriously upend my wife’s desired viewing order for our son, when he’s old enough to start watching Star Wars.  Hell or High Water was great – and did quite a lot to show a side of America that us liberal elites in our cultural bubbles don’t often get to see.  I have not yet seen Arrival (though I did read the short story it’s based on); nor have I seen Moonlight or La La Land or any of the other likely Best Picture nominees.


I listened to a ton of terrific music this year, and for that I have Spotify’s Discovery Playlist to thank.  I have a lot of issues with internet-based algorithms, especially as the ones on social media tend to ignore the concept of linear time, but Spotify knows what I like and gives me a lot of it.  I don’t know if I could properly order a Top 10 list of albums, but I know they’d include A Tribe Called Quest‘s “We Got It From Here…”, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard‘s “Nonagon Infinity”, Steve Gunn‘s “Eyes on the Lines”.  I have custom playlists for my Favorite Songs of 2016, my Favorite Songs from The Discovery Playlist, and I also have Spotify’s curated Top 100 Songs which is a pleasing mix of both of the above, plus a few songs we listened to in the car that my son likes.


As for books:  I did read quite a lot this year, though as said elsewhere in this blog I feel that the number of books doesn’t reflect their inherent quality; I read a lot of short genre fiction because I was feeling pressured to hit my Goodreads number, and so while I enjoyed a lot of what I read, I don’t know that I read good stuff.  I’m not going to be doing a Favorite Sentences of 2016 post, in other words, because page-turners don’t often include beautiful turns of phrase.  That said, I’m looking at my spreadsheet, and I gave high marks to a rather fair amount of stuff.  The best of the best would include:

  • John Wray, The Lost Time Accidents
  • Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
  • Daniel O’Malley, Stilleto
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me
  • Paul Tremblay, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock
  • Ted ChiangStories of Your Life
  • Nathan Hill, The Nix
  • Tana French, The Trespasser
  • J.M.R. Higgs, K.L.F.: Chaos Magic Music Money
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate

Special credit to Drew Magary’s The Hike, which was an enjoyable enough read but whose last 2 pages provided one of the most stunning endings to a book I’ve ever read in my life.


And as for games:  boy oh boy, I have no idea how to write about this year.  I felt relatively unengaged with what I played throughout most of it – even as I finished a lot more games than usual – and then, probably brought on by a big of self-directed depression around my birthday in early December, I went on (and am still somewhat in the middle of) a gigantic spending spree primarily in an effort to boost my Xbox Achievement score past 100K.  The difference in my gaming attitude before this spree and after cannot be overstated.  I stopped keeping track of it in my spreadsheet, because it simply became too much to handle.

I don’t even know how to break this down, but here goes.  I’m going to separate the games I finished from those I did not, and I’ll leave some room at the end for all the shit I accumulated in December that I simply haven’t had time to finish/start/digest.

GAMES LEFT UNFINISHED, in roughly chronological order:

  • The Witness (ps4) – I’m just not smart enough to get very far into it.
  • Klaus (ps4) – I bought this because of a Kotaku recommendation, I think, and never got past the 2nd or 3rd level.
  • Broforce (ps4) – picked this up as a PS+ freebie and couldn’t make it past the first level.
  • Far Cry Primal (ps4/xb1) – I’d rented this earlier in the year and found it intriguing but also wishing it was freed from having to be a “Far Cry” game; then it was on sale for Xbox for a stupidly-low price and I decided to give it another shot.  It’s pretty good!  Still working my way through it.  I should also add that I also bought Far Cry 4 at the same time, also on Xbox, and I like that game a lot better the 2nd time around than I originally did.
  • Hitman (xb1) – I have played the first episode and liked what I played, but haven’t gone back to it at all since then.  I should also note that I finished the first episode with a walkthrough, because that is the only way I can play Hitman games.
  • Unravel (xb1) – a very charming but also fiendishly difficult platformer that became frustrating.  My kid loves watching it, though.
  • Ori Blind Forest DE (xb1) – I have every intention of finishing this at some point; I think I put it down right only because a bunch of stuff that will appear in the next category suddenly showed up.
  • Dirt Rally (ps4) – I love the Dirt games; it might very well be my 2nd favorite racing franchise behind Forza Horizon.  But this one did absolutely nothing for me, and I’m not even sure I finished the very first race.
  • Dangerous Golf (xb1) – possibly the most disappointing game I played this year, if only because it’s made by ex-Burnout people and there was a lot of fun potential.  The game simply feels like an unfinished and unpolished tech demo, with endless loading screens and finicky controls and cameras.
  • The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine – possibly my greatest regret of the year, that I haven’t finished this.  I actually went out and bought the complete Witcher 3 on Xbox One (even though I already own it on PS4) just so that I could replay the entire game again and then approach this specific bit of DLC with a fully-levelled and customized Geralt.
  • Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst –  I rented this on PS4 and found it dull and inspired; I downloaded it for free on XB1 and am willing to give it a few minutes here and there.
  • The Magic Circle – I’d heard interesting things about this when it came out for PC; the xbox port is kinda shitty and I lost interest.
  • Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens – this might very well be the last Lego game I attempt to play, sadly, at least until my kid is old enough to play without assistance.  I’m getting very tired of how broken these games are, always in the same ways.
  • I am Sestuna (ps4) – I would’ve played this more, I bet, if there’d been a Vita port.
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – I made it almost to the end before realizing that I had to make a decision that I couldn’t have cared less about.  I think I want to give it another shot, though.
  • The Turing Test – I made it pretty far into this one before hitting the proverbial wall, sadly.  A pretty good puzzler, though, even if the narrative flails a bit.
  • Gears of War 4
  • Forza Horizon 3
  • Mafia 3
  • Battlefield 1
  • XCOM 2
  • Dragon Quest Builders
  • Dishonored 2
  • Watch Dogs 2
  • Final Fantasy XV
  • Steep
  • The Last Guardian
  • Stardew Valley
  • Dead Rising 4

That last bunch is all stuff that seemed to piled up all at the same time, most of which I’m still poking around with.  (I did send Dead Rising 4 back, though, because I don’t give enough of a shit.)  I’m not far enough into any of them to feel comfortable giving them a review, though I have every intention of giving all of them a fair shot.

I should note here that I still do not own a Playstation VR, and I’ve been checking every major retailer’s site at least once every few hours.  I need it.

I should also note that I did rent but did not enjoy Overwatch, and I will also note that my lack of enjoyment is simply a matter of personal taste – I suck at team-based multiplayer shooters, and I have no desire to learn how to play them better, and it is what it is.  I gather that it’s at the top of the lists for most other critics, and that’s fine.

GAMES THAT I DID ACTUALLY FINISH, also in roughly chronological order, including my informal scores from the spreadsheet:

  • Lego Marvel Avengers: C+
  • Firewatch: B+, and it’s only grown on me since I finished it
  • Superhot: B, and I would LOVE to play this again in VR
  • The Division: B, and I liked it a lot better than I expected to.  Never got into the PvP stuff, but that’s par for the course around here.
  • Quantum Break: C, the perfect justification for having a Gamefly account.  Spectacular to look at, and some of the time manipulation stuff is actually quite fun, but the overall experience was dreadfully shallow, the TV show half of the thing was super-dumb, and the final boss battle is one of the most frustrating I’ve played in years.
  • Ratchet and Clank: C-
  • Uncharted 4: A.  I understand there’s something of a critical backlash about this game at the moment, but I think that’s kinda shitty; I had a blast with this game, and if this is indeed Naughty Dog’s last run with it, they left on a very high note.
  • Doom: A.  I’ll confess that I finished this on easy mode, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of it one bit; I want to go back and play it on every difficulty, all the time.  This one’s stuck with me much more than I expected it to.
  • Trials of the Blood Dragon: C+.  I like the Trials games quite a lot, but the on-foot stuff was super dumb and broken and the whole thing felt rather uninspired.
  • INSIDE: A-/B+.  I gave this high marks after I finished it, but as time goes on I find the ending more and more… dumb.  That said, it’s still an engrossing experience, and one of the more engaging games I played all year.
  • Headlander: B.  Loved this game, and I should get back to it and try to 100% it (I’m currently at 88%).
  • ABZU: ?  I don’t know how to grade this.  I was not as smitten with it as I’d thought I’d be, nor did I find it as gorgeous as other people did.
  • Valley: B-.  There was an onslaught of intriguing indie games this summer, as you can see, and this one had some positive word-of-mouth.  It was… OK.
  • Picross 3D Round 2: A+, and one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played.  Has to be in my top 3 for the year; I couldn’t put my 3DS down for the entire time I was playing it.
  • Virginia: ?  I suspect I’ll need to replay this again and see if anything changes.
  • Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare: B.  The grade is just for the campaign, of course, because that’s all I care about, and I’ll be goddamned if this isn’t one of the most fun Call of Duty games I’ve played since, well, Modern Warfare.  Had a blast with this, although it’s overshadowed by…
  • Titanfall 2: B+, and this would be the shooter of the year if not for Doom.  Hell, I might have to replay them both and see if this one gets the nod.

NOTABLE iOS GAMES:

  • Swapperoo
  • Train Conductor World
  • Solitarica
  • Reigns
  • Mini Metro
  • Human Resources Manager
  • Loop Mania
  • Sky Force Reloaded
  • Microsoft Solitaire (yes, really)

the end of things

1. Whether we like it or not, all things must eventually come to an end.  We’ve all had that experience where we’re reading a book that we love so much that we never want to put it down, or a song that we can’t stop listening to… but eventually we do, and we have to, because we don’t want to ruin the thing that we love by wearing it out.

This is why it’s sometimes hard for me to stay engaged with a game once it’s outstayed its welcome, and especially when the game in question doesn’t actually have an official finish line.  I’ve put in probably close to 30 hours in The Division by this point; I’m level 23, I’ve only got a few more main missions to go before my Penn Station base is completely finished, but I’m starting to grow weary of the game’s repetitiveness.  The side missions and encounters and diversions are all identical except that tougher enemies take more bullets.  I’m no longer wandering the streets looking for collectibles, since I know that once I finish all the side missions they’ll automatically pop up on my map anyway.  I was hoping I’d stay engaged long enough to hit level 30 and do a little cursory exploration of the Dark Zone, even though I don’t care about PvP; now my goal is simply to make it to 41st Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, to see if my day job’s location is accurately portrayed.  (Spoiler alert – it most likely isn’t; with a few exceptions here and there, the NYC that’s portrayed in this game bears little resemblance to the actual NYC.  I’ve already glanced at the map and immediately noticed that there’s no exit/side-street for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, which bisects 4-5 blocks between 2nd and 3rd Avenues; then again, the game also features a 2nd Avenue subway, so perhaps this near-future Manhattan has done away with the tunnel altogether.)

This is not to say that I think The Division is a bad game; frankly, compared to Ubisoft’s other recent offerings, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable to play, and in many ways it reminds me of what Watch Dogs could’ve been.  But I find myself turning my brain off the longer I go; I ignore cutscenes and narrative beats because they’re meaningless at this point.  I finish a mission and they show me recovered video of atrocities committed by the game’s “enemies”, but I find it hard to care considering that I just killed hundreds of people single-handedly.  All I’m doing is moving from waypoint to waypoint, mowing people down, hoping they drop something useful.  This was fun for the first dozen hours, but it’s growing monotonous; there’s no depth.  I continue to hide behind cover and pop off shots here and there, the same way I did 30 hours ago, but now I have a portable turret.  I spend too much time agonizing over the relative merits and statistical improvements of different kneepads.  Do I sell?  Do I deconstruct?  Is there any point in engaging with the Advanced Weapons Dealer in the Ops Base before hitting level 30?

I need more co-op time, I guess.  That made the game a lot more fun to play, because suddenly I could think tactically instead of simply rushing from cover to cover; my friend and I could consider locational positioning, and work on flanking and suppressing.  Granted, this too eventually gets repetitive, but at least we can still talk to each other instead of simply listening to the horrible, horrible stereotypical New Yorker voice acting of each safe house’s side-mission giver.

Then again, I’m not necessarily in any rush to get it out of my house; if my rental Q is to be believed, I still have more than a week before Quantum Break and DiRT Rally show up.  But I do need to put it away, soon, because otherwise I’ll just feel like I’m wasting time.

2.  Oculus Rift reviews are dropping all over the place, and they all seem to be saying the same thing:  “a key to a new era of entertainment“, “like nothing you’ve ever experienced before“, “It [has] changed how we think of games.”  I guess this is good?  That hopefully this isn’t a fad?  I have no stake in this tech one way or the other; I think I’ve said this already, but in case I haven’t, right now the only VR set that I’ve got any eyes on is the PSVR, because my gaming PC is more or less busted and I can’t afford a new one right now, much less a new one AND a Rift.  I’m curious, I suppose, but until I actually experience it I will remain skeptical.  (I also wear glasses, and I suspect that wearing glasses underneath a VR headset is problematic.)

I’m also a little skeptical of Sony’s ability to make their VR unit compelling for more than, say, the initial launch quarter.  Considering the horrendous support that the PSP and the Vita have gotten, it’s hard to have faith that PSVR will be worth the investment – especially since it sounds like any PS4 owner would have to upgrade to the PS4.5 in order to get the most out of the VR setup.  As someone who’s owned multiple iterations of iPhones, of course I’m going to upgrade to a more powerful PS4, irrespective of my decision to jump on the VR bandwagon, but not everyone can make the same jump, and the more I think about it, the more of a mess it becomes.

3.  Regarding the aforementioned “all things must end”: I’m currently reading Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” and it is slow-going; it’s beautifully written but there’s tragedy on every page, and it’s the sort of thing where I have trouble sticking with it, if only because there’s only so much Chechen atrocity I can handle in one sitting.  (There is a section describing the plight of teenaged refugees being kidnapped and executed, and the remaining family members asking for portraits of their missing loved ones; and while it is poetic and beautiful to read, it’s also gut-wrenchingly devastating; I was reading this on the evening commute, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting out in sobs.)

4.  I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” over the weekend.  I’m… I’m not sure how I feel about it.  It’s impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so I might make a separate post about it.  I’m glad I saw it, and I’m sure it would make one hell of a play, but I’m also wondering if I’m starting to get a bit weary of QT’s tics and mannerisms.  (It also didn’t help that the film’s opening credits introduce the film as “The Eighth Film from Quentin Tarantino”.)

5.  I was going to wrap this post up by talking a bit about Corey Feldman’s IndieGoGo campaign, but I don’t feel like mocking him.  I mean, if you click on that link, most of the mocking is already done for you; you will cringe and recoil in horror involuntarily, whether or not I prepare you for what you see.  Frankly, I have no business making fun of him; I have an album of my own that I’m trying to finish, and while I’d love to raise some funds to be able to hire my friends to play on it and have it recorded and mixed by a guy who actually knows what he’s doing instead of me simply dicking around on my Macbook, I’d be lucky to get even half of the pitiful amount he’s raised.  If you’re making art, and you’re sincere in your desire to make something that you believe is important and beautiful, I don’t want to make fun of you.  I’d rather be angry at myself for not working as hard as I should, because I at least have some measure of control over it.

So instead, let me leave you with maybe the best remembrance (of many) of the late, great Garry Shandling.

“Make the spiritual search more important than the problem,” he told me once. Better than anyone I know, he understood that the search was the destination, that messiness was better than tidiness, that the complexity that makes us suffer also is the source of all beauty.

disconnection

I’m feeling a little disconnected lately, which might explain why I’ve been quiet here.

The biggest problem I mentioned in my last post – that of my almost-3-year-old son refusing to go to bed – is starting to wind down, so that’s something positive, at least.  Of course, my wife is sick, and the kid has a bit of a cough as well, and I’m very much feeling on the verge of catching something, too.  We’re all falling apart, is what I’m saying.

That said, I’m feeling guilty about whining.

I’m trying to tone down the amount of whining I do on social media, which is actually a bit easier than I expected, given that almost all forms of social media are driving me crazy right now and make me far less inclined to post than I normally would be.  Facebook keeps hiding posts from friends; Twitter is a garbage fire; Tumblr is filled with ads and every once in a while a random naked person will show up, unannounced and uncalled for, and so that’s off-limits.

I’m also starting to reach critical mass in terms of the upcoming election.  I’m disgusted and anxious and not at all prepared to move to Canada.


 

And, of course, I’m disconnected from the things I normally talk about here.

Book-wise, I’m re-reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I’d been thinking about recently (especially after reading Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master), and which I felt obligated to pick up in light of Eco’s passing.  It’s one of my all-time favorite books, and yet I’m having trouble fully engaging with it this time around for some reason.

Music-wise, I’m still struggling with writing lyrics, and in the meantime I’m not listening to anything particularly inspiring.  On a related note, I have to say that my weekly Spotify Discovery playlists have been awfully lackluster this year; the ratio of hit/miss is way, way off, especially as compared to last year.

Games-wise… I’m a big pile of “meh”.  I’m very much intrigued by The Division, and I’m looking forward to playing it in co-op, but I’m also wary of it; the beta showed off a lot of high points as well as a lot of lows – the writing in particular is just awful, and a lot of the mission designs felt very familiar (i.e., the final encounter in the Subway Morgue is a very typical “hold your ground for an arbitrary length of time”, and I was tired of that kind of mission in Destiny).  I tried playing a little bit of Fallout 4 last night, given that it’s been patched up quite a bit of late, and… yeah, I still don’t give a shit about that game.  I’m inching along in my NG+ of Witcher 3, but the Hearts of Stone expansion is for level 61+, and I’m still only at 43 or so; that’s an awful lot of ground to make up, and as much as I love that game I’m not sure I have it in me to repeat it.  Later this week my rental copy of Far Cry Primal will arrive, and as I’ve been lukewarm on that franchise for the last few iterations, I’m not sure that I’ll be fully engaged with it – even if the Stone Age setting is novel.

So, yeah.  I’m scared of American politics, I’m culturally out of sorts, and I’m physically falling apart.  I hit the trifecta.