Star Trek: Beyond!

I’ve Just seen Star Trek: Beyond and I was very impressed. I left it feeling satisfied, entertained, moved and uplifted, despite all the tragedy and controversy leading up to its release that cast something of a pall over it (especially the untimely loss of Anton Yelchin, who was a promising talent and particularly great in Odd Thomas). I urge any long standing sci-fi and ‘Trek fans to see it.

There’s one particular action sequence scored with a very well known and thematically appropriate Beastie Boy’s song (that put a huge grin on my face) that’s worth seeing it for alone, regardless of all the other great stuff (Spaced references that have been snuck in by co-writer Simon Pegg) including ‘York Town’; which is an astonishing bit of design and visual effects work.

The Sulu being gay stuff is sweet and handled well, with no heavy handed fuss made of it in the story, which is how they should’ve let it be revealed to the audience, rather than making a huge deal out of it, because what does it matter (though I agree with George Takei’s argument). We should be beyond this shit now, in keeping with Roddenberry’s vision.

My only complaints are in how director Justin Lin has handled some of the action set pieces. There’s some real confusing transitions, disorienting choreography and jumpy editing going on! He clearly comes from the Michael Bay school of filmmaking; and it’s a bad fit in places. Plus, the light balance was way out in certain night-time sequences, being unnecessarily murky and desaturated. It felt like you were watching it with the brightness set to minimum.

Regardless of these quibbles, it was an engaging and original story that had a classic Trek feel, without lifting material from previous, well established, iconic instalments (which was really the only bad thing about the previous movie – it should’ve been another of the genetically engineered super-soldiers from the Botany Bay; who rose to prominence instead of Kahn in this alternate timeline!); and nicely sets up the next film to boldly go into new and unexplored territory, where no previous ‘Trek enterprise has gone before.

Long may you live and prosper, you magnificent bastards!

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Gears of War: Judgment – A Belated Review

In response to seeing the new characters that will be featured in the forthcoming Gears of Wars 4 I was inspired to finally publish this unused review of GOW: Judgment I wrote a while back for a site I used to work for, as it nicely sums up a lot of my thoughts feelings for the enduring game franchise.

The three new characters from Gears of War 4 (From L to R): J.D. Fenix (son of Marcus), Kait Diaz & Delmont Walker.

The three new characters from Gears of War 4 (From L to R): J.D. Fenix (son of Marcus), Kait Diaz & Delmont Walker.

The thing about the GOW games, is that I’ve never actually played through and completed any of them on my own, as I actually get bored and frustrated with the repetition and lack of a clear and engaging plot line.

It’s the kind of game that I and my friends get to together to play as a social event, mainly for some cathartic relief in ultra violence and tongue-in-cheek larks. I think of them as being the gaming equivalent of the WWF or 70’s Godzilla movies, and the very things we criticise it for, are the same reasons why we like it. I can never take it seriously, as it has very little sense of its own absurdity, and mocking the over the top machismo, homunculi character designs, clumsy attempts at pathos and po-faced melodrama – while also getting to destroy huge, hideous monsters in a spectacular and excessively gory fashion with phallic, over the top weaponry – is a big part of what I/we enjoy about it. The unconscious (or unconcerned) mawkish sentimentality and lack of sophistication make it sort of charming.

Eat your Oats and one day you too could look this stuffed.

Eat your Oats and one day you too could look this wide.

So, because of this, I’ve never actually paid that much attention to the games from a more technical point of view, though they’ve always impressed me on an aesthetic level – despite the fact that I feel they owe an awful lot to Games Workshops Warhammer 40K (not that GW don’t owe anyone credit for inspiration – especially Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein) – and GW didn’t have a game of this type available to challenge Epic with (and still don’t in a lot of peoples opinion) until Space Marine was released. As much as I welcomed and enjoyed Space Marine, it would have benefited greatly from borrowing some of Gears’ gameplay elements – especially the campaign multiplayer and innovative cover and fire system, which hadn’t been so successfully implemented in a game of this type until GOW was first published (and yes I know space marines shouldn’t have to take cover – but really the option should be there for you to use because they physically CAN if they want to).

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SPAYSH MAHWINE!!! (TM & Copyright Games Workshop – not).

This is not to say that the plot and character development over the course of a game is not important to me – being a writer myself and favouring narrative driven games, it’s my bread and butter – but I’ve come to not expect much in the way of story from most action shooters – especially GOW – as so far, I’m just as perplexed about exactly why this is all happening as I was before I started playing them, with – even after the third instalment – a lot still left unexplained and unanswered. I find it all quite convoluted, but maybe that’s my failing and I’m not paying enough attention through all the gore splattering me in the face.

This will be tantamount to sacrilege to some, but I’ve always preferred the supporting characters of Baird and Cole (despite Cole being dangerously close to a ‘token’ caricature in how he is portrayed) to the two leads as their more cynical, snarky and overtly ridiculous (unless we’re meant to take Cole seriously and without irony?) So, having the opportunity to play as them in a prequel that is completely absent from Marcus’ gurning and Dom’s mewling is a welcome relief.

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(From L to R:) Baird, Sam & Cole.

Even after the mild disappointment of Gears 3, which – despite some stunning set pieces – failed to satisfactorily resolve the loose ends and glaring plot holes, as a whole GOW: Judgment felt small and regressive, though it was bigger than I expected it to be for a glorified expansion/add-on, due to the frequent change in locations, with the story being told in flashback from Baird and the other characters perspectives during the various theatres they experience as part of the war against the Locust (and occasionally the Lambent proper, introducing them earlier than they appeared in the main trilogy in an effort to incorporate and justify their sudden inexplicable appearance at the end of the second game)

As to be expected from Epic, the design of the environments and the graphics in general are lush, being a huge improvement over the first two games and matching – if not exceeding – the third for level of detail and impressive VFX and lighting. Unfortunately the characters still look like ‘roiders with overactive pituitary glands, and walk like they’re trying to carry grapes between their buttocks without crushing them.

Except for the sole lady of the party – Onyx Academy Cadet Sofia Hendrik – who, as far as I’m concerned, looks great and is a welcome attempt at diversity (like Anya and Sam in Gears 3) and offers an alternative perspective to the uber-mensch Cogs, both in terms of gameplay, as well as in her personality and attitude within the story. Though why she should be the only member of the party wearing a skintight body glove under her armour is questionable, despite how nicely it shows off the pronounced cleft of her finely sculpted bottom, though saying that, and to their credit, her face is not that of an atypical, pouting botox porn star, as you might have come to expect from this type of game.

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The women of GOW (From L to R): Sofia Hendrik, Anya Stroud & Samantha Byrne.

I always feel conflicted by this sort of thing, as the primal side of my being is primitively pleased by T&A, but my intellect and sensibilities question its validity and appropriateness. It saddens me to admit that my overriding memory of this game is an image of her buttocks as she’s on all fours, wounded and pleading to be revived. I’m sorry. I didn’t make it and don’t try to tell me the developers weren’t aware of this.

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Apparently, there are also two men in this picture.

As previously noted, the story is told in flashback with each of the progressive stages being from each of the casts perspective, giving you the option to play as a different character in single player for variation, though there is no discernible difference – aside from a cosmetic one – in how they handle or what they can do, making it redundant from a gameplay standpoint.

As ever with the Gears games, I found the controls  as being exceptionally responsive (I have to actually turn the sensitivity down – which is unusual for me in a game of this type) with just the right amount of ‘resistance’ in the virtual physics to give the illusion of weight and momentum to the targeting and movement.

In regards to the HUD I’ve always found the gore spatter hitting the camera distracting and irritating – rather than more immersive – as it obscures the action happening on screen and I would much prefer a small energy bar representing health and armour/shield strength to the cog and skull icon made of rapidly darkening blood mist and splotches. Though I must acknowledge that this is a creative method for both warning and punishing you for your incompetence at being hit, encouraging you to play more tactically by using cover more frequently.

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Judgement is quite flat in terms of how interesting and varied the geography of the environments are, especially when compared to Gears 2 and 3, with their escalating – and undulating – verticality. Though maybe this is down to the fact that it’s set before the events in GOW 1. As a result, it’s not as expansive, because certain things have yet to have happened in the timeline of the larger story to create more interesting apocalyptic marquee moments. Though I thought the beach assault on Onyx Point was very visually arresting, evoking footage of the Normandy landings from WWII and what it might be like to have a ground view in those circumstances.

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The Assault on Onyx Beach. 

One new thing that Judgment does introduce is an extra element of difficulty to the missions by adding optional in-game challenges that reward you with extra content if completed (principally being the ‘Aftermath’ campaign set during Gears 3), which I/we happily accepted during our play through and actually found them more enjoyable, as opposed to the usual tired method of increasing difficulty by either making the enemies much harder to kill, or spawn more frequently and in greater number in repetitive waves, which usually proves to be frustrating and boring, but these challenges actually made it more interesting at times, by adding variation to the types of enemies you face and giving you additional objectives to be completed.

A good example of this was in the level set within the Vaults of the Museum of Military Glory where you have the option to reduce visibility via a thick blanket of fog, making it more challenging and atmospheric.

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The Museum of Military Glory.

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The Vaults beneath the Museum of Military Glory.

If it wasn’t for these extra challenges and the impressive visuals (though less so here than in Gears 3 with its huge sense of scale and elevation) and the now standard campaign and multiplayer features, this game would be quite repetitive and dull, with the often relentless and (aforementioned) identical waves of beasties to vanquish being little more than fodder as you make your way through the gorgeous, but now fairly perfunctory environments (thanks to being typical of those featured in the three previous games) adding no real challenge or significant new plot elements or back-story to the series, leaving me in doubt as to wether these supporting characters really needed their own game to flesh out what little there is to know about them.

One thing that I always considered to be a cheap and overused element from the previous games, that are still present in this new addition to the series, are the Tickers. TICKERS ARE REALLY ANNOYING!!!

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A Ticker. Oh, how I despise thee.

In single player I found the A.I. controlling your team members to be just as unreliable as it was in the previous three titles, with no real sign of improvement here. I found myself having to revive them more frequently than they did me in some places, which can get irritating at crucial times when multiple positions have to be defended simultaneously. Admittedly, I’m not a greatly skilled gamer to start with and if the programming that governs their behaviour is set up to make them adaptive to my ability, then perhaps this is why! Durrrr…

Maybe I’m expecting too much from what is essentially just an arcade style shoot ’em up – and the latest in a series of games that have already defined and pushed the boundaries of this particular franchise (and arguably third person shooters as a whole) as far as it can go in both terms of gameplay, character development and story.

These days, with competition from other series of a similar genre and content such as Lost Planet (Lost Planet 2 in particular – and also now the Division) it’s easy to take for granted just how innovative GOW was/is, being the first co-operative third person shooter of its kind on the next generation of consoles (at the time of their initial release).

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Lost Planet 2

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The Division

I’m not a big competitive multiplayer gamer, but the GOW games were one of the few I used to play frequently. I have always felt that GOW definitely added something new to the standard multiplayer tropes, with more emphasis on tactical team work and more balanced, less frenetic, even pace to the action.

With Judgment Epic have made an attempt to shake up the multiplayer features with two new modes, but unfortunately these don’t really live up to the standards set by previous instalments, being largely replacements of existing, popular and well established features, rather than completely new additions, which begs the question “if it ain’t broke why try an’ fix it”? Unlike the refinements of existing modes seen in previous games in the series, change for the sake of change to try and encourage new interest does not – in this case – guarantee an improvement.

The first of these new modes; ‘Free-for-all’ changes the pace of the existing multiplayer game modes by essentially being a chaotic you-versus-everyone death match and takes away a lot of the iconic features that make the Gears games unique, such as round based, team-oriented combat, and the iconic systems of receiving power boosts from successful reloads, and being able to revive and be revived by your team mates.

The second of these ‘OverRun’ is actually quite a good addition, but is basically a combination of the Horde and Beast modes from Gears 3, with players filling specific roles in your team that can be used tactically to your advantage, by playing as different classes from a selection that includes both Human and Locust characters, and is objective based, encouraging players to be more strategic and play cooperatively – which I personally favour.

In conclusion; GOW: Judgment doesn’t really introduce anything new aside from explaining what happened to Baird and Cole before GOW 1 with no major or affecting drama to speak of (at least not for me, but then I’m an emotionally desensitised Brit). Regardless of this, it’s an undeniably solid shooter and a lot of bozo fun to play with friends in co-op and multiplayer modes, with few equals in the third person arena. You get a good six or so hours of gaming for your money in campaign mode (and more beyond in you’re willing to preserve with the new multiplayer features), so if you’ve have enjoyed the previous three games – and as long as you’re not expecting anything new or radically different – then I guarantee you will like this, despite it’s various shortcomings.

That Band Scores! Popular Music in Video Game Soundtracks.

For your improved enjoyment and edification, please listen to this playlist I have compiled as a compliment to this article:

That Band Scores! Playlist

The first significant instance of established music artists (both indie/alternative or mainstream) having a more active role within the soundtrack and score of a video game, and not just being licensed for use, was the first Wipeout for Playstation 2 in 1995 with featured (then) exclusive tracks by electronic/dance acts Leftfield, the Chemical Brothers and Orbital.

orbital leftfield chemical bros

From L to R: Orbital (Phil and Paul Hartnoll), Leftfield (Neil Barnes), The Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons).

(Though the track Megablast by UK dance act Bomb The Bass deserves honourable mention for its use as the title theme of the 1989 Commodore Amiga and Atari ST home computer versions of Xenon 2 that it has now become synonymous with).

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On the L: Bomb The Bass (Tim Simenon).

Orbital’s track Wipeout (later retitled P.E.T.R.O.L.) was first written for the game and is almost inextricably associated with it in most people’s memory. The same thing happened with Fluke’s Atom Bomb featured in the sequel Wipeout 2097 (1996) that was also composed specifically for the game and became a non-club, mainstream hit single upon its commercial release as a result.

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On the R: The members of Fluke (Mike Bryant, Jon Fugler and Mike Tournier). 

The tracks featured in the Wipeout series were also selectable from the menu, so that you could skip through to one that you preferred over the current tune that was pre-selected as the particular level/racetrack default.

This is now a standard feature for games, but back then it was revolutionary, as the quality and fidelity of a home PC or game console’s sound hardware, coupled with the limitations of the data storage space on the specific product media (floppy disks, tape cassettes, cartridges, compact discs etc), had not made music of this quality and quantity possible to be included before.

As we are now well accustomed to, many modern games even feature virtual radio stations to choose to listen to in-game (such as the vehicle stereo radio systems featured in the Grand Theft Auto series) with main themes and songs even being specially written for and only available in the games by popular music artists and composers.

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The “radio dial” as seen in Grand Theft Auto.

Some prominent examples of these are Danny Elfman (famous for his scores to Tim Burton movies such as Beetlejuice and Batman) writing the opening title theme for Fable (2004), Trent (Nine Inch Nails) Reznor with the main title theme for Call of Duty: Black Ops II (2012) and rock bands like Incubus, who wrote the four part track Movements of the Odyssey especially for Halo 2 (2004) (amongst other high profile acts; including guitar virtuosos Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, who played as part of the orchestra on the main score) which, like many of the songs commissioned for the game, was stylistically different from their usual output at the time, being tailored to suit its tone.

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On the L: Danny Elfman. In the middle: Trent Reznor.

Alternative rock, punk and metal acts are probably the most common to be featured, or commissioned for material to be included, in games due to the visceral, anthemic and fast paced nature of those styles, especially the action, sport and racing genres. Lamb of God’s inclusion in the Iron Man 2 (2010) movie tie-in game, being a prime example, with their (then) exclusive track Hit The Wall. Metal legends Megadeth provided the title track Never Dead for the game of the same name released in 2012, as well as for the first Gears of War (2006) and Rob Zombie (of course) composed Two Lane Blacktop exclusively for Need For Speed: Underground (2003).

Lamb of God Megadeth Rob Zombie

Top L: Lamb of God. Middle L: Megadeth. Middle R: Rob Zombie. 

Though hip-hop and dance tracks are also popular for the same reasons, with the Skrillex track Make It Bun Dem (featuring Damian Marley) playing to great and humourous effect over the now infamous mission Kick the Hornet’s Nest in Far Cry 3, where a number of marijuana fields have to be torched with the track being endlessly looped over the action. The song Sleepwalking by electro-rock project The Chain Gang of 1974 was first heard in the promotional media for Grand Theft Auto V (2013) and can be heard frequently in the game, even being used as the end credit theme for one of its multiple endings. Lisa Miskovsky’s track Still Alive was also used in similar fashion as the main theme for EA’s Mirror’s Edge (2008).

Skrillex Damien Marley Chain Gang of 1974 Lisa Miskovsky

Top L: Skrillex. Bottom L: Damian Marley. Bottom Middle: The Chain Gang of 1974 (Kamtin Mohager). Far R: Lisa Miskovsky.

Like well-known film and TV actors and directors, it’s become artistically legitimate, financially rewarding and technologically possible for big orchestral scores, and equally expansive but more experimental compositions, to feature in games now. This is a development which has attracted prominent motion picture composers such as Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer to work on the score and sound design for video games, with Gregson-Williams on Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty (2001), Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes (2014) and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2014) and Zimmer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) and Crysis 2 (2013).

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On the left: Harry Gregson-Williams. On the right: Hans Zimmer.

Lesser known but culturally significant figures such as Greame Revell (best known for his scores for the Crow and Riddick film series) scored Call of Duty 2 (2005), Nitin Sawhney provided themes for Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword (2007) and then Enslaved: Odyssey To The West (2010), and rising names in film scores such as former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) composed the music for Mass Effect 3 (2012), Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Iron Man and Pacific Rim) for Medal of Honour (2010) and it’s follow up Medal of Honour: Warfighter (2012), Bear McCreary (best known for his TV work on Battlestar Galactica and Black Sails) with Dark Void (2010), and original music from multi-award winning composer Gustavos Santaolalla (21 Grams, The Motorcycle Diaries, Brokeback Mountain, Babel) can be heard in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (2013).

Graem Revelll Nitin Sawhney Cint Mansell Ramin Djawadi Bear McCreary Gustava Santaollala

Top L: Graeme Revell. Top Middle L: Nitin Sawhney. Top Middle R: Clint Mansell. Bottom L: Ramin Djawadi. Bottom Middle: Bear McCreary. Bottom R: Gustavo Santaolalla.

Today, like major motion pictures, it’s now a standard procedure for most established or upcoming music acts to try and get a track from one of their new or future releases included on the soundtrack of a much hyped, or highly anticipated, video game or series sequel such as racer franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza, extreme sport sims like the Skate series (the first of which featured exclusive tracks from Tommy Guerrero, XXXChange, and Z-Trip) with the music for the third instalment being partially scored and designed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Then there’s the vast multitude of WWE and other EA (Electronic Arts) sports related games, and the endless iterations of music, dance and karaoke titles such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Just Dance. The promotion and exposure awarded from this is invaluable for bringing your music to a wider audience.

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From L to R: Tommy Guerrero, XXXChange, Z-Trip, Mark Mothersbaugh.

The Bravery’s self titled 2005 album was almost entirely licensed for use in audio-visual entertainment media, particularly video games (including; Gran Turismo 4, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, True Crime: New York City and MVP Baseball) before the album was even released, and they will not be the last band to do this.

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Top L: The Bravery (Sam Endicott, John Conway, Anthony Burulcich, Michael Zakarin, Mike Hindert).

Music by popular musicians has also been commissioned by game developers to be written for a specific moment, to enhance the emotional and dramatic impact of a scene. This was used very effectively in Red Dead Redemption (2010) in the form of the songs Far Away by José González, Compass by Jamie Lidell, Deadman’s Gun by Ashtar Command, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie by William Elliott Whitmore.

José González Jamie Liddell Ahstar Command William Elliot Whitmore

Top Middle: Jose Gonzalez. Top R: Jamie Lidell. Bottom Middle: Ashtar Command; Chris Holmes and Brian Liesgang (Ex-NIN & Filter). Bottom R: William Elliot Whitmore.

This was also notable in Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake, with the band Poets of The Fall performing music for the game as fictional group Old Gods of Asgard, continuing their working relationship with the developer, as they had previously composed the end theme Late Goodbye for Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003), with a further fine example being the track Exile Vilify by The National was written exclusively for Valve Corporation’s Portal 2 (2011) perfectly matching the tone of a scene set in one of the Rattmann’s dens.

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From L to R: Poets of The Fall, The National.

A less common occurrence is having popular musical artists being actively involved in creating and designing the entire soundscape and musical score for a game. The earliest example of this was when Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails and How To Destroy Angels) collaborated with Id Software on creating the sound effects, ambient audio and also scoring the soundtrack for the PC game Quake in 1996. This was followed by Rob Zombie’s exclusive additions to the musical score for Twisted Metal III for the Playstation 1 in 1998, and then by David Bowie and (his long time collaborator) Reeves Gabrels’ involvement in the David Cage (Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) directed Dreamcast/PC game Omnikron: Nomad Soul in 1999. Bowie and Gabrels wrote songs specifically for Omnikron including the tracks; Thursday’s Child, New Angels of Promise, and The Dreamers that were all later re-worked for inclusion on Bowie’s album Hours. Bowie also had some involvement creatively in the game’s storyline and design, as well as making two cameo appearances in it, first as the character “Boz” and then as the nameless singer of the fictional band “The Dreamers”.

Trent Reznor Rob Zombie David Bowie Reeves Gabrels

L to R: Trent Reznor circa 1996, Rob Zombie in White Zombie circa 1996, David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels ‘Earthlings era’ circa 1997.

An excellent example of the perfect musical act being matched with the ideal project is chiptune punk group Anamanaguchi providing the score for the retro styled, side scrolling beat ’em up Scott Pilgrim VS The World, which was a tie-in with the movie of the same name. Though this came about as the result of a uniquely circular cultural effect, as their sound is heavily influenced by classic 8-16 bit game scores form the 80’s and 90’s, which were a huge influence on the original Scott Pilgrim graphic novels the film and game are based on, having inspired series writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley.

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Top L: Anamanaguchi (Peter Berkman, James DeVito, Luke Silas, Ary Warnaar). Bottom Middle: Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Though none of these previous examples of scores by popular music acts have been a real time, reactive element of the game that responds to the player’s in-game actions. Something that would be fluid and subject to change, that could blossom or swell into more expansive and dramatic full blown orchestral movements and bombastic sounds, or ebb and recede to more minimal moodier tones, as a consequence of the players choices, without causing an abrupt cut or sudden pause in the soundtrack as it shifts to a different music cue.

This kind of approach to, and application of, reactive video game scoring wasn’t used specifically to enhance the drama, atmosphere and tension of in-game developments until notable experimental trip-hop/new jazz artist Amon Tobin was hired to provide the in-game soundtrack for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory in 2005 (the music for the cut-scenes were scored by noted game composer Jesper Kyd). This was produced by layering different sequences together, in a style similar to Brian Eno’s method of creating ambient soundscapes, by fading different complimentary (or even dissonant) sounds into the mix of the baseline sound textures to suit the action and events occurring in the game.

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From L to R: Amon Tobin, James Dooley, Mel Wesson.

This approach was taken even further by Tobin with his work on the score for Sucker Punch Productions Infamous in 2009, in collaboration with composers James Dooley, Mel Wesson and Cellist Martin Tillman. Blurring the line between sound design and music, with the score being composed primarily of recording sounds created by objects that could be found in an urban environment (such as plucking taut bungee cords like strings). It was also more responsive to the players actions and movements within the game, and the context of the given scene and events, building and then exploding into more percussive, anthemic cues in action sequences and then winding down into darker, more minimal tones for more ambiguous or atmospheric moments.

Despite what was accomplished in Infamous, it is publisher Rockstar Games that set, and keep raising, the bar for how music should be best used and incorporated into video games, starting with the innovative use of pop and rock songs in their urban Grand Theft Auto series, scoring particular kudos for getting synth-prog group Tangerine Dream (famous for their avant-garde 80’s film scores Legend, Thief and The Keep) to co-score the fifth title in the series, in collaboration with Woody Jackson, rappers/producers  The AlchemistOh No, and DJ Shadow, which was set in the 1980’s.

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Top R: Tangerine Dream (Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss, Hoshiko Yamane).

They then reached a whole other plateau with the previously mentioned western Red Dead Redemption (2010), which featured an even more ambitious dynamic (in-game action and player responsive) score composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson. Elm was/is a mainstay of post-rock instrumental side-project Friends of Dean Martinez formed by various members of alternative country/Americana rock act Calexico (and their previous incarnations; Giant Sand and Naked Prey). Stylistically the score was a masterful and evocative homage to classic western soundtracks by the likes of Ennio Morricone (though with a more modern sensibility) without resorting to parody, that perfectly complimented the setting of the game and further cemented Rockstar’s reputation as having a great ear for picking the right talent for a project.

Like Amon Tobin’s Infamous score, most of the songs featured in RDR were constructed from ‘stems’, which are subgroups of similar sound sources. Stems may consist of any grouping of sounds, be it instruments, percussion or vocals, which can be blended together as a whole or isolated for individual playback and gradual introduction into a mix.

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Top R: Woody Jackson. Bottom L: Bill Elm in Friends of Dean Martinez.

The use of a dynamic score was then advanced to the next level by the experimental noise-rock group Health, with their action responsive compositions for another Rockstar published game; Max Payne 3, in which they built upon a core of instrumental motifs that could be looped seamlessly together and then diverge smoothly at any moment into a series of additional branching and expanding stems to suit the mood or action, depending upon the player directed events happening in-game.

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On the L: Health (Benjamin Jared Miller, Jake Duzsik, John Famiglietti, Jupiter Keyes).

Using alternative music acts (regardless of genre), that aren’t classically trained or experienced composers, brings a different perspective and approach to the scoring of a game. This often results in more unusual and effective compositions, suiting the mood and tone of the setting and stories better than a standard orchestral score. With games often having a non-linear structure and more unusual storylines than most other audio-visual entertainment media (other than maybe comics or animation), there’s more freedom to experiment with different sounds and styles to find the best fit.

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On the R: Austin Wintory.

Though Max Payne 3 was preceded in some respects by Austin Wintory’s action-responsive score featured in Journey, Wintory is not (yet) an artist that is prominent outside of the video game industry, and it is in this way that Health’s score for Rockstar’s latest instalment in the MP series is leading by example, being one of the most cutting edge paradigms of this innovative and unconventional approach to the use of music and sound design by popular artists in games, booting the door wide open to exciting new developments and possibilities. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s an interesting and exciting prospect.

THE KINGS OF SUMMER [Film]

The Kings of Summer
The Kings of Summer: Patrick (Gabriel Basso), Joe (Nick Robinson), and Biaggio (Moises Arias).

The Kings of Summer [film]

The King of Summer

I watched this indie flick recently and have to say it’s one of the finest films that I’ve seen –  even outside of the usually disposable genre of teen-comedy-dramas that it belongs too – and stands shoulder to shoulder with other poignant, coming of age american classics like ‘Stand By Me‘, ‘The Outsiders’ and ‘The Breakfast Club‘ (to name but three). It features well rounded characters and great dialogue, full of idiosyncrasies, witty remarks and amusing banter – without being forced or contrived – remaining true to the people it portrays, their lives and the setting.

An additional bonus is the score and choice of music used in the film, which is consistently excellent and offbeat, perfectly suiting the changing moods of the story without being obvious, trite or guilty of crass, commercial product placement like so many other movies are these days. I can just imagine some suited corporate executive desperately exclaiming at one of their meetings: “Wait gang! Let’s shoe-horn that latest Rhianna track into this sci-fi blockbuster about an alien invasion! It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the movie’s themes, setting or tone right? As long as people hear it an’ go out an’ buy it in droves – that’ll be awe-some! Riiiight?! *COUGH!* Man, I can’t wait to get paid! Got’a get my mouth an’ throat disinfected professionally after sucking on Satan’s steaming hot member all week…”

Ahem, but I digress… The score was composed by Ryan Miller (who is lead singer and guitarist for the band ‘Guster‘) and features choice tracks from Thin Lizzy (if you don’t know who they are you’re either very young or don’t have eyes or  ears), MGMTYouth LagoonThe Orb (feat. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry), and Kevin Writer and Douglas James (as ‘The Skywalkers‘).

Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller performing with the band GUSTER.

The film comes from an original screenplay written by Chris Galletta – which is his first produced script – and it’s also Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts debut full length feature, so it’s doubly impressive how deftly they and the entire production team have executed the whole thing. All of the choices made for the project are excellent, even down to the placement of leaves littering the exterior locations (maybe I’ve gone too far with that, but what the hock, I’m laying down some serious praise here). The casting and performances by all of the actors – including the smallest walk-on part or cameo – are superb and all perfectly suited to their roles bringing some inspired comic and dramatic weight to their roles and this really helps make the whole thing feel cohesive, slick and exude quality.

Biggio camo.
Biaggio camo.

Young actor Moises Arias who plays the oddball ‘Biaggio’ (and can be seen more recently – playing another wacky ‘B’ – ‘Bonzo Madrid‘ in the film adaptation of the first novel of Orson Scott Card‘s existential sci-fi saga ‘Ender’s Game‘ – which, incidentally, being a great appreciator of the books – I also thought was superb) is especially notable. Arias is a real find, and some might not consider him much to look at, but he’s fascinating and hilarious to watch, with a great dramatic range and excellent, precociously comic sensibilities for someone of his age. This is not to say that any of the other cast featured in the film are in anyway inferior, it’s just that his character is the most eccentric and stand outs because of it.  

Bonzo Madrid
Bonzo Madrid in the film adaptation of Ender’s Game

The film feels classic but is very much a contemporary piece and somehow taps into that nostalgia feeling of similar movies like those mentioned above (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_teen_films#1980s for a comprehensive list) without being a weak homage or losing it’s cutting edge.

Rent/buy/stream it and watch THE KINGS OF SUMMER here:

The Kings of Summer

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/the-kings-of-summer-2013–145752.html

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kings-Summer-DVD-Nick-Robinson/dp/B00EALQPAE/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1391348684&sr=1-1&keywords=kings+of+summer

Visit the film’s official website:

http://thekingsofsummermovie.com/

Buy and listen to the films soundtrack/score here:

The Kings of Summer

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vogt-Roberts-Original-Picture-Soundtrack-Explicit/dp/B00EQ439HM/ref=dm_cd_album_lnk_alt

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kings-Summer-O-S-T-Ryan-Miller/dp/B00CXN3WUC/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1391365867&sr=1-1&keywords=kings+of+summer+soundtrack

LINKS TO STUFF I’VE MENTIONED IN THE POST:

Buy/rent and watch ‘STAND BY ME’ here:

Stand By Me

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stand-Me-DVD-Wil-Wheaton/dp/B000050GQA/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1391194169&sr=1-1&keywords=stand+by+me

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/stand-by-me-1986–3579.html?trkId=oc3fHwN0smbyeRf_yQ8CxQ2

Buy/rent and watch ‘THE OUTSIDERS’ here:

The Outsiders

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/the-outsiders-2-and-nbsp;discs-1983–10088.html

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Outsiders-Disc-Special-Edition/dp/B00525QKR0/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1391366601&sr=8-2&keywords=the+outsiders

Buy/rent and watch ‘THE BREAKFAST CLUB’ here:

The Breakfast Club

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/the-breakfast-club-1985–12448.html

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Breakfast-Club-Molly-Ringwald/dp/B000AMSSAW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391366516&sr=8-1&keywords=breakfast+club

Official website of sci-fi/fantasy author ‘ORSON SCOTT CARD’:

Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card author of Ender’s Game

http://www.hatrack.com/

Buy/read the book ‘ENDER’S GAME’ here:

Ender's Game

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Enders-Game-Ender-Orson-Scott/dp/0356500845/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391365534&sr=8-1&keywords=ender%27s+game

Rent/buy the movie adaptation of ‘ENDER’S GAME’ featuring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Moises Arias here:

Ender's Game

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/enders-game-2013–147512.html

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Enders-Game-DVD-Asa-Butterfield/dp/B00AW9MAXO/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1391365617&sr=1-2&keywords=ender%27s+game 

Official website of the ‘ENDER’S GAME’ movie adaptation:

Ender's Game

http://www.endersgamemovie.com/

Official webpage of Ryan Miler’s band ‘GUSTER’:

http://www.guster.com/


Buy and listen to their music here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Guster/e/B000AQ2UNO/digital/ref=ntt_mp3_rdr?_encoding=UTF8&sn=d

Official website of ‘MGMT’:

http://whoismgmt.com/

Their track/s featured in the film can be found on this album ‘ORACULAR SPECTACULAR’ and you can buy and listen to them here:

MGMT Oracular Spectacular

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B006ICJMF8/ref=sr_1_2_rd?ie=UTF8&child=B006ICJO4W&qid=1391370898&sr=1-2%3C/a%3E

Official website of ‘THE ORB’:

http://www.theorb.com/

The track/s featured in the film can be found on this album ‘THE OBSERVER IN THE STAR HOUSE’ and you can buy and listen to it here:

The Orb presents: The Observer in The Star House

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00AX4PRQA/ref=sr_1_7_rd?ie=UTF8&child=B00AX4PTQS&qid=1391370658&sr=1-7%3C/a%3E

FAT POSSUM RECORDS artists page for YOUTH LAGOON:

http://www.fatpossum.com/artists/youth-lagoon

Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation

The track/s featured in the film can be found on this album ‘THE YEAR OF HIBERNATION’ and you can buy and listen to it here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Year-Hibernation-Youth-Lagoon/dp/B005HP1FOI/ref=dm_cd_album_lnk

READY PLAYER ONE [Book]

Ready Player One art by Dalton James Rose

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I urge anyone that grew up in – or raised a family through – the 80′s and 90′s like me that loves games (of both the video and tabletop variety), comics, movies, music, fantasy and sci-fi to immediately purchase and read this superb sci-fi novel. Like fellow fantasy/sci-fi novelist Patrick Rothfuss (who wrote the equally superb Kingkiller Chronicle) is quoted as saying on the back cover: ‘This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.’

I wish I could do better, but I can think of no better hook-line to describe it and entice you than the quote on the front cover from a USA Today review which states; ‘Enchanting. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘ – though there’s also a pinch of ‘The Last Starfighter‘ in there too.  Here’s the blurb/synopsis from it’s amazon.com page:

“In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.”

Ready Player One book cover

Ready Player One book cover illustration by WHISKYTREEINC designed by Jim Massey

Wade's AVATAR arriving in the OASIS at the Club called THE DISTRACTED GLOBE

Wade’s AVATAR arriving in the OASIS at the Club called THE DISTRACTED GLOBE from Ready Player One by poster artist Gordon Jones

Not only is it a great read, but it’s packed with cultural references (both obscure and well-known – ‘Spectreman‘ anyone?) to various things from those periods that older readers (30+) will be able to appreciate in a haze-state of pure nostalgia, while still being a relevant, topical and believable work of speculative, satirical fiction about our future, that takes into account how rapid advances within the fields of interactive technology and entertainment media are starting to radically alter our society on every level –  as well as serious economic and environmental issues – and projects them into a future dystopia where they have reached their apex, and redundant cultural artefacts from the past become the key to saving the world from potential corporate hegemony. Woof.

Spectre Man & his nemesis 'space ape man' Dr. Gori!

Spectreman & his nemesis ‘space ape man’ Dr. Gori! By deviantartist PUNGANG

The concept is so smart and deceptively simple that it kills me that I didn’t conceive of something similar myself and I have the highest regard for author Ernest Cline and wait with keen interest to see what he comes up with next.

Ernest Cline & his Delorien

Ernest Cline & his Delorien (yes really, it’s his)

Without meaning to diminish what he has accomplished, he has conceived of a fictional world/platform that has allowed him to incorporate his passion and knowledge of all the geek/pop-culture that he grew up with that has obviously inspired him through his formative years, while also exploring new cultural and technological concepts, extrapolated from current trends and developments in a futuristic setting. So it looks both to the past and to the future and as a result has a wide appeal to a multi-generational audience, including middle aged parents of teenagers and even their grandparents above them.

'Fantastic Crossover Ultimate Battle' from Ready Player One

‘Fantastic Crossover Ultimate Battle’ from Ready Player One by deviantartist SharksDen

It incorporates all of the classic genre tropes of a more traditional ‘hero’s journey’ fantasy saga, where the protagonist ‘comes of age’ through a ‘rites of passage/trial by fire’ thanks to a lot of the plot driven virtual world quests and experiences that the character has via his avatar, while also being a very contemporary, forward thinking, subversive science fiction novel about environmental concerns and the impact technology has upon society. And it’s very funny too! His use of certain classic video games and characters from japanese pop-culture in crucial scenes is meta-level comic and dramatic genius (well, to those of us who get why in any case).

'Joust' from Ready Player One

Joust from Ready Player One by deviantartist zippo514

For another extra-meta-level cultural geek kick, you should also listen to the audiobook, as it’s read by current nerd-lord host of Geek & Sundry’s board game game show ‘Tabletop‘ and 80′s child star Wil Wheaton (who playedWesley Crusher in ‘Star Trek The Next Generation’ and Gordie Lachance in the classic coming of age drama ‘Stand By Me‘ – based on Stephen King‘s excellent short story ‘The Body’). As he is mentioned a number of times within the book in various contexts this is highly amusing on a number of levels.

Wil Wheaton & magnificent beard.

Wil Wheaton & magnificent beard.

Wil Wheaton sans magnificent beard.

Wil Wheaton as ‘Wesley Crusher’ in ‘Star Trek: TNG’ sans magnificent beard.

Tabletop Logo

LINKS TO STUFF I’VE MENTIONED & USED IN THIS POST:

• Buy/read ‘READY PLAYER ONE’ the book:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ready-Player-One-Ernest-Cline/dp/0099560437/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391193293&sr=1-1&keywords=ready+player+one

• Buy/listen to ‘READY PLAYER ONE’ as an audiobook:

http://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Ready-Player-One-Audiobook/B007PR58RQ/ref=a_search_c4_1_1_srTtl?qid=1391193359&sr=1-1

• Author ERNEST CLINE’s official website:

http://www.ernestcline.com/

• Everything you ever wanted to know about ‘SPECTRE MAN’! (& will probably wish you didn’t after):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectreman

• Buy/rent/watch the film ‘WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’:

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Willy-Wonka-Chocolate-Factory-DVD/dp/B00004D2Y4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391193447&sr=8-1&keywords=willy+wonka

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory-1971–4983.html?trkId=H-Cu99kDEQ8RLjfGBJdFHw2

• Buy/rent/watch the film ‘THE MATRIX’ (though if you haven’t seen this film & don’t already own it – where the frak have you been?!! & what is frakking wrong with you? KEANU RULES!):

The Matrix
The Matrix. Again Neo.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Matrix-DVD-Keanu-Reeves/dp/B00004R80K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391193471&sr=8-1&keywords=the+matrix

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/the-matrix-1999–1658.html?trkId=Ucr2BVJ4IQTr4X5khvV5-w2

• Buy & watch ‘THE LAST STARFIGHTER’:

The Last Starfighter

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Starfighter-Region-Import-NTSC/dp/B0024FADAQ/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1391345192&sr=8-4&keywords=last+starfighter

• Visit the GEEK & SUNDRY website:

http://geekandsundry.com/

• Watch episodes of WIL WHEATON’s board game game show TABLETOP:

Tabletop Logo

http://geekandsundry.com/shows/tabletop/

• Don’t know who WIL WHEATON is? Shame! Educate yourself here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wil_Wheaton

• Buy/rent/watch the film ‘STAND BY ME’:

Stand By Me

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stand-Me-DVD-Wil-Wheaton/dp/B000050GQA/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1391194169&sr=1-1&keywords=stand+by+me

http://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/rentals/stand-by-me-1986–3579.html?trkId=oc3fHwN0smbyeRf_yQ8CxQ2

• To read the novella ‘THE BODY’ by STEPHEN KING you should purchase the anthology ‘DIFFERENT SEASONS’:

Different Seasons

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Different-Seasons-Stephen-King/dp/144472360X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391194032&sr=1-1&keywords=different+seasons

• WHISKYTREEINC who illustrated the cover for Ready Player One:

http://www.whiskytree.com/

• SHARKSDEN Deviant Art page:

http://sharksden.deviantart.com/

• ZIPPO514 Deviant Art Page:

http://zippo514.deviantart.com/

• BUTTNUMBATHON poster art Facebook page where you can see more of GORDON JONES work:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Buttnumbathon/30478008067

• The AINTITCOOLNEWS article about READY PLAYER ONE where I cheekily pilfered certain images from (thanks & sorry):

http://www.aintitcool.com/node/51121