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.

A quick peek through the mental fog

I’m in a bit of a blur, and not just because of the allergy medication I had to take a little while ago.  I’ve been so focused on writing this freelance piece – currently at a little over 5600 words, and a bit of a jumbled mess at that – that I’ve totally put all my other creative stuff on hold.  The album I was hoping to finish is still going to be finished at some point, but in the meantime I’m going to be turning some of it into a 5-song EP – and some of those songs still need some tweaking.  Which I need to find time for.  Which is time that I simply don’t have.

I think I’d mentioned that I’ve been able to carve out a bit more reading time of late, which has been nice; the morning/evening trains are very conducive to reading without interruption or distraction.  And so it is that I finally finished My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgard this morning.  It is not the brilliant, earth-shattering book I’d been expecting, and it does tend to meander and wander from time to time – he (or his translator) is very fond of long sentences separated by commas – but it is insightful at times, and certainly very poignant, and his descriptions of places and times is downright novelistic in its specificity and clarity.  I suspect I will get around to the other volumes at some point, but I think I need a palate cleanser, so now it’s A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.

I won’t talk about Metal Gear Solid V here – because that’s what the freelance piece is about – other than to say that I’m enjoying the moment-to-moment gameplay far more than I thought I would.  The story is still garbage but I find that I don’t particularly care all that much; I’m not paying attention to it.  I don’t find myself needing any particular narrative motivation to get from point A to point B beyond trying to execute a mission as well as I can (though I don’t beat myself up if the stealth falls apart and I have to get physical; and I did resort to wearing the chicken hat just to get past a mission that I was too far into to bother restarting).  Is it the greatest stealth game of all time, as most of the internet seems to think?  I don’t know, and I’m certainly not far along enough to even begin to grasp what my eventual answer might be, but I’ll say this – I do aim to finish it, even if the freelance piece comes first.

I’m very much wanting to play SOMA, though I’m also a bit of a chicken shit and may end up waiting for some sort of PS+ promotion.

Beyond all that, life is good.  My allergies are a mess but everything else is good: the job is busy but not inducing panic; the house is always good to come home to; my son cracks me up every time I see him; my wife is the best.  I feel good.  That’s the important thing.

Weekend Recap: the lovely outdoors

With every passing day I become more and more happy that we made the move out of the city and into the ‘burbs.  I know our house isn’t in the most desirable part of town, and there’s a lack of kids Henry’s age that live near us… but it’s only a 3-minute drive to get to the nearest park, and any time we go to a playground we end up meeting parents with kids around his age, and in any case it’s just nice to be able to do things again.  Something in me has changed since we moved; I’m not paralyzed with the same sort of anxiety that made it so difficult to leave the house back when we lived in the city, and so we as a family can go out and do stuff that we couldn’t necessarily do as easily (or as willingly) before.


I don’t know if it’s my memory that’s shot, or if it’s simply that I keep thinking I’ve written something here but didn’t (you should know that even if I’m not posting here every day, I usually spend have a “new post” tab open for most of my available computer time, and more often than not I’ll trash whatever it is I’ve written) but in any event please forgive me if I’ve already said this:  Spofity’s personalized “Discover Weekly” playlist has turned me on to more good music since it started than I can possibly hope to count.

As a musician, I suppose I ought to be more conflicted about using Spotify as my primary music service.  I used to spend between $600-$1000 a year on new music; now I spend $120/year for my monthly subscription.  I know that the artists earn a tiny, tiny fraction on each stream instead of what they’d get in a straight-up album purchase, and that Spotify’s equity disbursements are not actually doled out the way they ought to be (i.e., you’d think that the artist you listen to gets paid based on what you stream, but instead “Spotify doesn’t pay on a “per song stream” model, exactly: the total royalty pie is split among all rights holders based on the percentage of total Spotify streams their songs garner“, and this royalty rate is not necessarily split equally between artists and the labels, and it’s certainly more favorable to big artists instead of indie bands), and if I wanted to make any money from my album, I’d rather people bought it outright than stream it.  Of course, at this point in my life – approaching 40, with a wife and a child and a mortgage and a day job I can’t realistically quit to go on tour, especially since I can’t pay a band and nobody wants to see a 40-year-old man with social anxiety on tour – I’d simply be happy if people listened to it, and I know that if I put “Untrue Songs” on Spotify, a great many more people would listen to it.  That album sold enough for me to recover my sunk costs and get a few cups of coffee afterwards, but I’m not sure anyone else bothered to track it down besides those initial sales.

Regardless – that’s not even the point.  The point of this section is that Spotify’s algorithms are better at finding good music than I was prepared to give them credit for.  I now look forward to each Monday’s playlist refresh, and I’ve even started a separate playlist with my favorites because there’s at least 4-5 songs in each week’s list that are keepers.

I bring this up also because some of the stuff I’ve been listening to has been so fucking good that it’s causing me to rethink my own music-making approach.  Like I said a few weeks ago – I have a bit of a creative inertia problem; when I’m rolling, I can’t be stopped… but when I stop, I stop, and it takes me forever to get moving again.  Sure, I could blame some of that on the move, but we’re all moved in now, and all my stuff is set up, and yet I’m still not quite back in the swing of things.  That said, there’s three albums that I’ve discovered this week that are fucking my brain up – in a really good way – and I’m back to wishing I had more available hours in the day.

Maybe I need to find a collaborator.  When I can’t get my shit together on my own, it’s often useful to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, and to feed on that collaborative energy to make something brand new.  There was a music festival in town last weekend, and it was some of the first live music I’ve seen in… years?… and the bands were quite good, and now I’ve got an itch to play with other people again.  This is usually a good sign that my creative gears are starting to turn again, so even if I don’t end up starting a new band, I’m hopeful that at the very least I’ll start writing new music again (or at least finishing the stuff I recorded earlier this year).


I’m already about 1000 words into this Metal Gear Solid V piece and I’ve only put, like, 6-7 hours into the game itself.  I can’t say much about the piece – or the game, for that matter – but I can say that I do not hate it, and indeed there are parts of it that I quite like – not the least of which is the ability to play one mission and then turn the game off without dealing with a 45-minute unskippable cutscene.

That said, I do find that I need to cleanse the palate every once in a while, and so I’m very glad to have Forza 6 in my life again.  I’d been a Forza loyalist through the first 4 installments, and then I fell madly in love with the Horizon offshoots, and didn’t really feel bad about skipping out on Forza 5 since I had other stuff on my plate at the time.

I’m not a car enthusiast by any stretch of the imagination; I own a car out of necessity and it’s a hand-me-down at that.  I like driving games for the same reason I like golf games – they’re usually very pretty, they require minimal focus, and the feeling of executing something well is just rewarding enough to keep on going.  This is a way of saying that I don’t come to Forza for the cars as much as I come for the tracks.  The first 3 or 4 Forza games reused a lot of the same tracks, so much so that I’d sometimes think I’d put the wrong disc in the tray.  Forza 6 feels a lot more fresh in this respect; the tracks aren’t the same old, same old.  Indeed, some of the tracks remind me of other games I haven’t thought about in a while – there’s a track in Prague that reminds me of Project Gotham Racing for some reason, and some of the new rain/fog effects make me think of DiRT.  (We need a new DiRT game, by the way.)

Wrapping up the Knight, and Looking Ahead to the Fall

1.  I’ve been toying with the idea of reviving my personal WP blog, which I’d impulsively shut down a few years ago for reasons I can’t quite recall anymore.  But I did want to revive two specific lists – my top 50 albums of the 80s and 90s.  I liked writing those lists, and they still feel more or less accurate, and I figured they ought to resurface.  (Speaking of which – please let me know if, for some reason, those links don’t work for you; I’m not 100% sure I’ve figured out how to mass-edit privacy settings.)

2.  Unlike games, which I have no problem giving up on if I’m not enjoying them, I am debating giving up on Joshua Cohen’s “The Book of Numbers“.  It’s a difficult book, but usually that’s not that big a problem; it’s more that I started reading it right before work got crazy, and I put it down, and when I pick it up now I’m totally clueless as to what is going on and, to the extent I remember any of the characters, why I should care about them.  I’d like to get back to it at some point – he’s extraordinarily gifted with words and phrases – but I think I need to read something a little bit less obtuse.

3.  I finished the main Scarecrow-centric Batman Arkham Knight storyline the other night, and yet I’d only completed 64% of the game.  I took a much-needed sick day yesterday and ended up finishing almost everything else – there’s only one or two more militia-themed sidequests to finish, as well as some kidnapped firemen to track down – which brings me up to around 91% completion.  That said, I’ve only found 25% of the Riddler’s question marks, and if I have to find all of them in order to fully activate the Nightfall protocol, I’ll just watch it on YouTube.  Can’t be bothered with that bullshit.

Overall – I think it’s fair to say I liked it, though I did find it tedious and repetitive at times, and almost all the militia-themed quests are straight-up filler and get super-ridiculous towards the end.  (The bomb quests in particular, where you eventually have to fend off 50+ drones, are just flat-out stupid.)

It’s hard to discuss the story without spoiling everything, but I did find it both effective and affecting; if this is indeed Rocksteady’s last Batman game, they went about as all-out as they possibly could, and I commend them for that.  I don’t know that I’ll find myself itching to play it again, though, the way I did with Asylum.

4.  Speaking of what to play next…. I’m looking at the release calendar and it looks pretty goddamned depressing.  Next week is the new EA golf game (which I can’t not call Tiger Woods, just out of habit)… and then:

  • Mad Max (I want to hope this isn’t terrible – there was an interesting-looking preview video a little while ago that suggested it was a bit more ambitious than you’d think – and the fact that it’s telling its own story and isn’t necessarily a naked licensed cash grab seems promising – but I haven’t seen any coverage about it since that video in April, and its September release date isn’t that far away)
  • Metal Gear Solid V (I’m renting this and I fully expect to send it right back.)
  • Forza Motorsport 6 (I missed Forza 5; I’m curious as to whether or not I’m going to like this, given how much I prefer the Forza Horizon games.*)
  • Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 (wouldn’t it be great if this game didn’t suck?  I miss the old THPS games like crazy.  I have little faith that this won’t be a piece of shit, but little > none, so…)
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (I’ll play this for at least a little while, I suppose.  It’s gotta be better than Unity, right?  I just need to figure out its nickname; AssSyn?)
  • Halo 5: Gaurdians (I’m at least renting this because I own an Xbox One and I feel obligated to, but I haven’t enjoyed a Halo game since maybe Halo 2.)
  • Fallout 4 (I cancelled my PipBoy preorder, mostly because I couldn’t figure out which system to get it for – has anyone confirmed whether the PS4 is getting mod support the way that the XB1 is?)
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider (This and FO4 are the only two games I could see knocking Witcher 3 out of the top spot in my GOTY ranking.  For some reason – perhaps simply my desire to play a good, fun action/platformer – I think I’m going to like this one more than Fallout 4.)
  • Star Wars Battlefront (I’m not really a multiplayer shooter kind of dude, but I loved the original games, and I’d like to think this would be fun enough for a little while)
  • Just Cause 3 (sure, why not)

And then there’s a bunch of remastered editions which I may/may not check out purely out of graphics-whore-ishness, like Uncharted, Gears of War and God of War.


* I forgot to mention that I tried the PS+ edition of Driveclub the other day; I did about a lap and a half of the first race and couldn’t figure out whether it was meant to be arcade-y or a sim, and while it’s pretty it didn’t grab me, and I promptly uninstalled it to make room for future HD installs.  Much ado about nothing, I guess.

Back in the saddle, more or less

(blows dust off blog)

OK, so: I was on vacation last week, but given certain recent events both personal and professional, I apparently needed to unplug from the internet for quite a bit longer.

i am still here, in my mind.

It’s hard to write about games when you’re not playing anything; it’s hard to write about music when you’d rather have people actually hear what you’re doing instead of poorly describing the process of creating it.  Also it’s hard to write, in general, when certain professional obligations make it impossible to do so.

But:  I’m back from vacation now, with my batteries somewhat recharged (it’s hard to fully relax when you have a two-year-old who’s favorite words are “No!” and “Stop!”), and I’ve returned to a day job that is considerably less stressful now than it was before I left.  These are good things!  Hopefully this means I’ll be writing here a bit more frequently than in recent weeks.


I’ve been thinking a lot about loops lately.  I’ve been watching my two-year-old son get into these “fun loops” at the local playground; he’ll climb up a ladder, run over a bridge, climb some steps, go down a slide, and then run back to the ladder and do the whole thing over and over and over again; he will not be deterred; if a kid gets in his way he either waits for them to pass (if they’re bigger) or steps around them (if they’re smaller) and then continues along his path; he’ll accept a brief respite for me to wipe his nose but that’s the only interruption that’s allowed, and he screams bloody murder if it’s time to go.

Maybe he gets it from me.  I’ve had a thing about loops ever since I can remember.  Not just in terms of games or playing, either.  I remember when I was first getting into music – like, really getting into music, during endless adolescent afternoons, when I would just tune out the entire world and get thoroughly absorbed in a cassette tape – I’d get to a favorite part in a song, and as soon as it was over I’d have to rewind and hear it again, and I’d do this over and over again until I memorized exactly how long I needed to rewind before getting to the beginning of the section.  (I still do this, of course, but instead of memorizing rewind time, I’m now memorizing timestamps.)

The point being:  that famous Halo quote about “30 seconds of fun” would appear to be something that’s hard-wired into our brains from an early age.  Speaking of which, that link above gives that quote a bit more context, in that the guy who said it didn’t mean to imply that in Halo you’re doing the exact same thing over and over again, but instead they’re switching the context on you so that the 30-second rush is constantly new and fresh.  This applies to the music analogy, though, too – if I get caught up in a favorite music section, I’ll listen to something once and then focus on a specific part, and then rewind and focus on a different part, each successive time my brain holding on to something new and different.


I did play some games on vacation – and on my Vita, too, which is nice.  I’d bought a few things before we left – Shovel Knight and Titan Souls, while also still staying heavily engaged with Stealth Inc. 2 – but as it turns out I ended up getting sucked back into SteamWorld Dig, for some reason.  That game is pretty neat, I think.  I’m still very early on, but it seems to be doing this very neat open-world Dig-Dug thing, which I find very pleasing and enjoyable.

I beat the first boss in Shovel Knight, and that game is fun, but – as I’ve said elsewhere – I don’t have that much nostalgic fondness for the 16-bit era that it’s clearly emulating, and so I’m finding that while I appreciate its slavish devotion, I’m not necessarily hungry for it the way everybody else is.  (Same thing goes for Axiom Verge, too – and where’s the Vita version of that, I wonder?)

I’m not sure Titan Souls is for me, though I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand so quickly, given that I’ve only actually beaten the very first boss.

Last night I felt a bit restless (for reasons I’ll explain at a later date, if all goes well) and downloaded Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China for the PS4.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous 2.5-D stealth platformer that makes me really wish I was playing Mark of the Ninja 2; it’s still very Assassin’s Creed-ish, which means the controls don’t always work the way I expect them to, and the UI is still very crowded (which is annoying, given the aforementioned graphical beauty).  But it’s at least not the same old thing, as far as the AC franchise is concerned, and so I’ll try to stick with it for the time being.


Over the vacation I finished the Valis trilogy by Philip K. Dick.  That’s the first PKD I’ve ever read, by the way, and I’d probably guess that it’s not the best way to start off with him, especially since I’m not what you’d call a religious person by any means.  It’s certainly very interesting and thought-provoking, of course, and after reading VALIS I’m certainly interested in at least thumbing through PKD’s Exegesis, though I know that’s probably a bit too much for me to chew right now.

I did end up breaking my “no new books until I finish the backlog” rule.  (Look – when I go on vacation, I tend to splurge – and given the sort of emotional stress I was going through before we left, I maybe went a bit overboard.)  I bought a bunch of stuff, all of which I really want to get to, but I ended up going with Arthur Phillips’ “The Song is You”, which is exactly what i’d hoped it would be (I really liked his “Egyptologist“, and when I’d read the description of this book I knew I had to read it as soon as humanly possible), and it’s also feeding me lots and lots of lyric ideas, which is useful, given that I really need to get back to work on the album.


OK, so, that’s it – I’m alive, I’m well, I’m getting back to work.  (And if you can, please cross your fingers for me; I’ll explain later.  It’s good news, if the finger-crossing works out, is all I’ll say.)

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