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Pride & Prejudice.

Pipe Dreams


I’ve never had an opinion about hospitals. You know how some people are scared or just plain hate them because it’s associated with some painful memory? Well, I’ve never had any. My childhood was pretty normal, devoid of any major accidents, and the most serious injury involved a minor arm fracture that healed well in time before my exams (sadly). 

My grandmother, my Awwa was hospitalized yesterday. That is where I am right now. Looking around this depressingly white, small, sad room. Smelling all the weird smells that come and go. Thinking what it must be like to be her. To be all of ninety years. To be fragile, and weak, and have your wrinkly skin barely hang off your bones. To wear the thin, light purple gown the hospital gave you, and not care that it does not even cover your chest or legs properly. To have nurses poke…

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There was a moment in time until a decade back when albums were meant to be consumed as a whole. Like a book, each song similar to a chapter, adding one piece to the overall picture with its’ own little story. I am aware that not all albums did that, but for almost every concept album like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, we had a statement of purpose like Neil Young’s Trans. Every album was made with a specific mindset — with or without an idea or a concept — and generally during a specific period of time. It was a snapshot of where the artists stood at that juncture of time and what they were listening to, or what they envisioned the next decade of music listening to.

Modern music is divided by decades — this is merely common knowledge. What is not is that with the advent of digital music, albums died. With MP3s and iTunes, music began to be consumed in parts in form of “singles” (whose popularity revived with or without the LPs) rather than a whole as an album.

This resulted in a massive upheaval during the early 2000s. Pop was the first genre to overturn but almost every genre followed. Making music became more about generating “2 strong hits per album” rather than making a cohesive and purposeful musical statement. There were exceptions to this rule but they were few and far between.

Polishing the Blank

That wasn’t the only issue pertaining to modern music “industry”.

In our modern era, when polish and gloss can be achieved far too easily courtesy of the technology we created, there are some artists who strive to stray from the path by being “raw”.

In music, these artists usually come in form of noise/distortion messiahs, ones who shun the clean production which studio labels encourage in order to appeal to today’s iTunes-loyalist, Spotify-ing youth. They believe that making their music rife with distortion spikes would make their music more appealing to the youth tired of the superficial gloss of the mainstream.

They are wrong.

They are in reality no different. Choosing a label just because most shun it. What they fail to realize it is it’s a label without any purpose. And when you choose a label just for the sake of “being different”, you become as purposeless as the mainstream artists you’re trying to criticize.

Enter the Masked Siblings

Karin and Olaf Dreijer have been at pioneers for over a decade but unusually private shunning fame

Karin and Olaf Dreijer have been pioneers for over a decade but have been unusually private insteading choosing to shun fame

Enter The Knife — a duo of siblings from Sweden who have been at the forefront of no significant movement. They have not revived any retro genres (a trend which refuses to become a fad) and they have made no silly Internet-meme inducing YouTube video to become a breakout success.

However, they are successful artists — respected by their peers and adored by their fans.

I can say there are two obvious reasons to this:

  • The Knife have evolved in an incredibly natural manner over their three albums — starting with synthpop with infectiously catchy tunes in Deep Cuts, they moved to the dark, atmospheric and eerie synths of Silent Shout before composing the soundtrack for a Darwinian opera. Yes, you heard that right!
  • The Knife are hugely private artists. They have almost no interviews to any media publications and until recently, they used to make public appearances only during their live shows and that too by wearing masks which resembled medieval Swedish witch-doctors.

While Deep Cuts brought them to the forefront of public attention thanks to their hit “Heartbeats“, it was Silent Shout which resulted in them earning respect from most of the music aficionados acquainted with them.

In fact, back in 2007, when I first listened to Silent Shout, it was a hugely inspirational album for me and it broadened my horizons beyond the music I used to listen to. Marble House and From Off to On were two songs which were on repeat on my now long-gone MP3 player for many years. It was a modern electronic classic, in every sense of the word.

The Knife were at their peak. They gave a tremendous audio-visual live “experience”  and then they disappeared. Off the radar. The moment they stood at the precipice of being superstars and seizing the world, they retreated back into the shadows. Where many other “privacy-loving” artists would have buckled and embraced the spotlight, the Dreijers who make up The Knife stayed true to their ideology, which surprisingly is a rare sight in music nowadays. Especially when the said ideology is “making music for ourselves”.

Overview —  This is an Album

That is an important message which rings true in every second of their third album “Shaking the Habitual”.  I emphasize on the word album because that is exactly what it is. A confluence of ideas tied with similar ideologies on politics, economics, culture and environment (anti-capitalism, in other words) conveyed through a set of familiar tools used in such an incredibly alien manner that it unsettles you as much as it draws you into its’ dark, mysterious core.

Similar in terms of size and ambition like last year’s The Seer, this is an album which demands to be listened in entirety — the whole 96-minutes of it. On top of it, the album is an incredibly confrontational and aggressive towards the listener — a rarity especially in today’s day and age which challenges the listener daring them to rise up to the pedestal where it stands and see it eye-to-eye. I have listened to extremely few albums which have intimidated me on first listen as much as Shaking the Habitual did.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the most complex music I’ve ever listened to. Far from it, but there’s something so incredibly aggressive about everything it does — in music, in structure, in lyrics which while encouraging you to rise up to its level also draws you into an eerie place where danger lurks around every corner. 

The Knife’s “Shaking the Habitual” has a common purpose — do what its title suggests. They sure achieve that in quite an incredible manner and in a sense that will rattle you. But how.

Rattle and shake everyone!

Rattle and shake everyone!

When they begin the album with “A Tooth for an Eye” , a track filled with many pop elements — none that are outright familiar with us. Instead of kicks, they use tribal beats and the synths which they had become their prime instruments over their career are sorely missing in this track. There’s a sense of rawness in Karin’s (the sister and vocalist of the duo) voice which permeates into the music and the music in turn seems to affect her. Both of them seem to be in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

The idea of what’s mine
A strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire”

screams Karin in the opener as she clearly states her intention in the opening 5 minutes and sets a rough precedent for the remainder of it.

That said, nothing could have prepared me for “Full of Fire“, a song rooted with a repetitive beat teetering on distortion and ADHD-fuelled insanity with only the oft-kilter beats from The Knife holding it apart. Almost as if its’ bursting out of seams. “What’s your story? It’s my opinion” blurts out Karin as she makes the first solid statement about this album being clearly a product of their own wishes. This is not a product of fan-service, The Knife made an album 7 years later because they wanted to.

This track also sets a dangerous precedent for much of the album. On paper, this is the most familiar track for long-time fans yet despite familiar tools, it is absolutely lacking any structure. Sure, it has a beat running through it that occasionally makes you tap your feet but it’s driven by a monster of its own will. A track with pop sensibilities but without any direction or structure. And I mean that as a praise of the highest order because it perfectly suits what The Knife intend on doing here.

After two intense tracks, The Knife turn down the heat a notch and let the atmosphere take center-stage for a brief moment with “Cherry on Top“. This has a repetitive string section that slowly and menacingly builds up to the half way point at which Karin’s distant vocals blurt out oddities. The Knife aren’t exactly masters of lyrics or poetry but the words that come out here seem oddly naive for them.

The slight mention of “Haga Castle” in the end of a 4-line lyric (spoken only once in a 9-minute ambient track) perhaps indicates a sly remark at the Swedish aristocracy.

The building quietness almost tumbles head-first into the unabashedly tribal beat “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” which clearly seems like a track inspired from cult Nigerian icon Fela Kuti. There’s hysterical chanting in different voices and a repetitive tribal beat (not a drum machine, mind you) steadily builds and breaks the rhythm. In terms of accessibility, this would be the most accessible song to a layman.

This naturally leads to “Wrap Your Hands Around Me” which evokes a heavy deja vu of Dead Can Dance, a popular British act who are known for their gothic influenced instrumentals and raging ballads. This seems similar in a sense as Karin’s voice for the first time in the album takes on a softer, more colder edge as she sings in almost a romantic tone. This being Shaking the Habitual however means that romance has a sinister tone with it as the much-despised castle is mentioned again in the line “free the unborn child at the castle” which comes across as a dual plea for people trapped both within and outside the castle. An interesting way to look at things I’d say.

There’s a short and a rather loud passage titled “Crake” which serves as nothing but a brief intermission before the album’s most divisive piece.

The Divisive Point — A 20-minute Ambient Drone

Shaking the Habitual is a brave album and despite its’ bizarre experiments and its confrontational nature it is still an album very much reminiscent of The Knife’s pop sensibilities. I believe a lot of the long-time fans would have embraced the album if it weren’t for this track (and its’ side two counterpart).

Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” is that divisive point. Down the road with about four songs where The Knife seem to have fairly rattled things with few intense and weird tracks, they go overboard with a 20-minute ambient drawl  that is essentially a massive drone piece. Fans of drone music like Godspeed!You Black Emperor or Boards of Canada know that drone music is best enjoyed in long listens where creating an atmosphere is the primary objective.

Problem is — The Knife are seen as pop traditionalists. Long ambient tracks is the exact opposite of what their fans expect from them. The longest The Knife have gone ambient before this was the 4-minute start of “The Captain” in their stellar album Silent Shout.

But let’s take a step back and judge the song for what it’s worth. Almost five minutes of silence with music bubbling underneath, it slowly rises to the forth and then falls back, it isn’t until the 10-minute mark something starts to surface. The 19-minutes go away pretty quickly if you take the song for what it’s worth. An ambient track. It creates an atmosphere even if I’m not sure if it’s a solid atmosphere. It’s not meant to be a track that grasps your consciousness. It’s just supposed to float around in the background quietly letting you know of its presence. It isn’t anything new but seeing The Knife do it and pretty admirably is quite amazing. They are clearly out of their comfort zone with this and what could have been their Achilles Heel turns out to be another feather in their cap.

Side Two — A Broken Mirror

For those who managed to survive the long intermission, The Knife reward with something akin to a mirror to Side One. The songs on this side (a double album if you have the CD version) are in a vague sense relatable to the songs that came before but only in a one-to-one manner.

The opener to this side “Raging Lung” is a six-minute structured pop song but using entirely unconventional elements. They still keep the tribal drums, there’s an ear-splitting horn which is the core melodic element here which runs through the song like its’ veins are burning with some mysterious rage. It extends into a three-minute long drone outro which retains some of the loose elements of the track but seems almost like an orphaned child of its own making.

Networking” is the most identifiable song on this album. Almost after an hour, The Knife drop the first track that can immediately be attached to a popular genre — techno. Despite its 4×4 nature, the beats have an odd time-delay signature which makes everything that’s arranged perfectly in order seem disorderly.

It’s like there’s a layer in the track’s perfectly arranged system that’s somehow misbehaving and that gives the entire song a chaotic feel. It wonderfully conveys The Knife’s message and the song itself is quite a joy to listen to.

Which is why the album begins its final section on a high. After a similarly loud and brief passage “Oryx”, we have quite possibly the two shining examples of this already stellar album. Firstly, there’s “Stay Out Here“. There’s wordplay in the song’s title itself. What does it mean? Is it warning us of a danger? Or is it wanting us to “stay out here” as an invitation? Your mind is puzzled and its’ that which draws it out slowly.

The track begins deceptively simple with a simple beat that appears catchy. But if the album has shown anything, it is destined to be anything but simple. Soon enough, the track disintegrates into random drum beats that emerge out of any order without any rhyme or reason while the original beat continues to beat — as if it’s the very heart of the track. Quite easily the most explicitly political track on the album, Karin outrightly says “They work the world as it will be/
Is now when they dance/Just so just now the euro falls

Album's promotional material neither featured The Knife or their masks but instead they chose drag queens to represent them

Album’s promotional material neither featured The Knife or their masks but instead they chose drag queens to represent them

There are also hints of the “intersectionalism” that Karin & Olaf talked about in the rare interview with “Being horizontal is wonderful/Most things we love are open ended” perhaps aptly placing their message of embracing people for who they are.

The track also gave me goosebumps the first time I listened to it because the song despite being eerie and chaotic has this almost scary transition of Karin’s voice from feminine to male singing “Lose a wall, love me” over almost a dozen times.

The Point Where You Give Up — “It’s Just Pulling Strings”

If Side 1’s 19-minute ambient drawl was supposed to discourage those with a weak resolve, Side 2’s equivalent comes across as more intimidating but merely in 9-minutes. “Fracking Fluid Injection” is basically repetitive pulling of metal strings for the entire 9 minutes with an echoing voice crying out in pain.

It has a sense of purpose which becomes more immediately apparent. Subtly, string by string, the pulling  becomes plucking. The intensity with which the strings get plucked result in sharper resonance and this is compounded by the echoing cries turning into shrieks and screams. As the track slowly proceeds with a sinister tone, it slowly continues but after a point, a hint of defeat sets down on it. The pulling of string is ever so furious. They are literally plucking it apart but the voice is almost a defeated cry now.

This is my interpretation — this is a track which describes humans exploiting earth for resources particularly the likes of mineral oil. Fracking Fluid is basically fluid injected into the ground to push out oil from an underground reserve. I see the pulling of strings as us injecting more fluid into the earth and the cries turning into shrieks and eventually defeated sighs are those of Mother Earth and the pain we inflict upon her.

It’s a beautiful theme driven upon in a manner only this album could. After this, the closer “Ready to Lose” hardly matters because the album has seen its best and what a peak it was.

Conclusion — A Statement

Shaking the Habitual is a powerful statement. For The Knife, it is a statement of their artistic integrity — that anything they make is primary for their own wishes and of nobody else. They create a powerful statement in this album one which speaks of many themes — political, economic and environmental but also speaks about the artistic integrity and how it is vastly ignored in today’s world of quick gains and riches. Every turn they challenge their listeners but The Knife never intended to do that. They just made an album because they had something important to say.

And for that I applaud them.

Final Score: 5 out of 5


kafka

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

Haruki Murakami has for been for as long as I have been reading words written by him, a soul among billions in this world, who understands the various mysterious pertaining to the fringes of the world and what our subconscious mind perceives of things around us. You may call him my favourite author — and that wouldn’t be a lie since I greatly admire his writing style — which both in its style and content — manages to capture those mysteries we didn’t know existed, but which always did. He brings out these questions from the fringes of our minds which we weren’t aware of before.

The Fog

Reading his novels is a surreal experience in the truest sense. Often his stories wrap themselves in this bizarre fantasy world which despite its realistic appearance is rooted in something alien. I am fascinated by how he manages to weave around passages on thoughts that have been troubling us — of memories, of loss, of love, of desire — into such beautifully written passages which amid the bizarre fantasy setting reflect the dream-like characteristics of it but also how our own subconscious mind often functions. Never a product of a single thought but always made up of many.

His novels are like puzzles without a definition — one that have no clear solution until you have found it. All his stories are that — ones which oscillate between being bizarre and making sense beyond words — the kind that makes you pause, look up and stare at the empty space in front of you for several moments trying to grasp at something beyond the fog.

That is an apt description of how I feel when I read most of his books. Like I’m grappling with an undefined entity beyond the fog. I can neither see it nor can I feel it, but I know it exists. Occasionally, the fog clears for the slightest moments and I catch glimpses of the question I have been fighting with.

Overview — Dark Prophecies and Oedipus

Kafka on the Shore is his 2007 novel, a book released at a point in his career when his worldwide popularity was hitting new highs. It is unusual for any Japanese author to get recognition from the rest of the world to the level he has achieved but when you see the universal themes his works embrace and how his characters’ lives are always spent in pursuit of a purpose unknown to them. His stories can be described as journeys without any known destination or direction — they are journeys with a self-contained purpose. The milestones in these journeys are indications of where you are headed — each milestone a piece that slowly fills up the jigsaw as your destination slowly forms into shape.

These are similar machinations behind the lines that make up Kafka on the Shore. Typically for a Murakami novel, it has its central character in pursuit for his own self. Unusually so, this time it isn’t a thirty-something lost in the waves of time and suffering from a mid-life crisis. This time, his protagonist is a 15-year old boy named Kafka Tamura. His pursuit is of discovering his own self but not through a deep introspection or through your dreams. You do not have that pleasure when you are young — your dreams reflect more of your fantasies than of the real world. Your experience of the world outside is limited.

Murakami realizes that and alters his traditional formula in an important manner to accommodate Kafka’s pursuit for his self in the world outside him.

Unusually, Murakami chooses to focus on a recurring theme taken from the Greek tragedy featuring Oedipus. Abandoned by his mother at birth, Kafka is left alone under the oppressive care of his father until he chooses to break free from it by running away. His act seen as a proof that escape is sometimes indeed an agent of change.

He lives under a dark prophecy of his father — one which mirrors that of Oedipus, that he shall kill his father, mate with his sister and his mother before losing himself.

There are a lot of ways this could have gone sour but thankfully Murakami handles this with an indirect approach. The Oedipus theme runs through the very core of Kafka on the Shore but it is never overpowering enough to take centerstage.

Structure — Parallel Odysseys

In fact, Kafka’s odyssey runs in parallel with an old man named Nakata who can talk to cats, convinces lost cats to return to their homes and is apparently hollow. The latter fact plays a key role in the story but I shall not spoil it for you.

Instead, I will like to emphasize on how Murakami repeats the pattern of combining two parallel journeys in a similar manner to how he did in the sublime Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World almost two decades back. By alternating chapters between these journeys, Murakami often manages to slowly unveil the loose but well-defined connections these journeys have. In this case, it is a lot more direct and less abstract than it was in Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World, but nonetheless this structural decision works for a number of reasons:

  • for revealing the afore-mentioned similarities between the odysseys and the rather obvious connections they may share
  • when one of the plot threads slows down, the other can still manage to entertain — thus maintaining the “page turner” trait which has made Murakami’s recent novels so accessible for the less patient readers worldwide
  • an interesting observation is that often one of the plot threads slows down almost as if it were waiting for the other thread to catch up. It is a fact in one situation in the novel, but I wonder if this were the main reason why Murakami chose to make such a structural decision

The chapters are also arranged in a very interesting manner — each threads are either relatively ahead or behind chronologically to one another but never simultaneous.

Talking Cats, Raining Fishes and Undead WWII Soldiers

“In everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

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It wouldn’t be a Murakami novel without the bizarre. In Kafka on the Shore, there are plenty of that. Talking cats are the first to appear who often fall into idle conversations with the old Nakata. After a peculiar incident that acts as a chief propellant to the narrative, Nakata loses that ability to talk and becomes more of a clairvoyant and can rain fishes instead.

If I were to analyze about Nakata’s character, I’d say he is not a character. Instead, he is a mere vessel — a literary one — which both remotely supplements Kafka’s search for his true self and also acts as an embodied representation of how Kafka’s internal conflict.

Him losing ability to converse with cats parallels with Kafka’s loss of innocence — both after his father’s murder and him sleeping with his apparent “sister”. 

Nakata being able to rain fishes is just another display of his supernatural ability, one which I interpret being as a replacement of being able to converse with cats — perhaps the empowerment Kafka feels after getting the better of his father, his captor and oppressor for most of his young life.

Late, in the novel, Kafka ventures out against the advice of his wise friends into a mysterious forest. This forest evolves pretty much into a labyrinth where people lose themselves if they go too deep. Also, time doesn’t move deep in the forest. Which is why he comes across two WWII soldiers who haven’t aged since the day they defected from the army.

This venture into the labyrinth of a forest is the most direct representation of Kafka venturing into the deepest recesses of his self. He discovers a city untouched by time — his true self — the core of his personality, if you seek a more elaborate term.

Writing — Of Memories Lost

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.”

Murakami’s writing has encapsulated his mysterious yet strangely profound and universal themes and Kafka on the Shore arguably contains some of the finest passages he has ever written. Due credit needs to be given to Philip Gabriel who translated the original text from Japanese. There are occasional idiosyncrasies that are bound to occur but I think the beauty of what Murakami conveyed is retained.

One of my chief criticisms is that a lot of what he writes in Kafka on the Shore seems less purposeful than his previous works. Unlike The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where the narrative often segues into monologues or side-stories that relate to central narrative, however vaguely it may be, Kafka on the Shore has a surprising amount of self-indulgence in regards to Western culture that is expected from a Murakami novel. There are occasional breakaways to appreciate classical composers including Schubert and Beethoven or disruptive cameos from inanimate brand icons like Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders.

Rather than adding to the tale, these elements subtract from the entire picture. They break the spell and they stick out as a sore thumb to the cleverly constructed riddle Murakami otherwise constructs.

Central sequences to the novel are the ones spent in the library and the aforementioned venture into the labyrinthine forest.

Courtesy Angela Tang

Courtesy Angela Tang

The former is where it charts up some of its most beautifully constructed passages. Ones pertaining to memories and of nostalgia. Miss Saeki’s character — the one who is apparently (since facts are a luxury in Murakami’s world) Kafka’s mother particularly brings out the very best of Murakami. Hers’ is a character living a life that peaked too early. She lived through perfection before she had lived through the worst. Her rest of the life was entirely built on the lone regret that everything beyond that point was a downfall. It is a beautifully written character whose regrets are brilliantly brought out and whose tragedy ties brilliantly with Kafka on the Shore’s central narrative as well as the recurring theme of Oedipus.

Another recurring element which are a delight to behold are the conversations between Kafka and Crow — his mysterious imaginary friend who is possibly his alter-ego and the sole adversary(or friend, depending on how you see it) throughout this entire adventure.

A select passage from their conversation, one of the best I’ve seen from Murakami since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle :

““Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

An you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Criticisms

As I mentioned earlier, Murakami’s novels are like a puzzle you cannot quite solve until you are facing its answer. A question defined by its answer, if you may.

However, Kafka on the Shore can be a taxing read because unlike its’ obvious inspiration, Murakami’s own psychological noir and fantasy mash-up Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World, this novel is not as rewarding. An entire thread starring Nakata is one purely for the convenience for the other. On its own, it can be amusing to read initially, but after a point it essentially slows down to a drawl, eventually stopping to a halt. The writing and narrative meanders about the point on Nakata’s thread while Kafka readies to make the all-important venture into the labyrinthine forest.

Even when the book is over and the answers lay all bare before you, it is not just as satisfyingThe Oedipus theme seems more like a supplementary to Kafka’s self-discovery rather than a central theme of its own. Incredibly disappointing for something the book spends much time fantasizing about.

In terms of length, the book at 614 pages could be shorter by atleast 200 odd pages if it hadn’t bothered all the unnecessary excursions on Nakata’s thread quite simply because Kafka’s thread hadn’t quite reached the point where it needed to.

Conclusion

Kafka on the Shore can be seen as Murakami’s “Greatest Hits” — one which encapsulates much of the abstract themes he has been writing about for over three decades. It starts with an ambitious theme that takes its inspirations in Greek tragedy of Oedipus and while it does manage to dish out many profound moments, fairly sizable parts of it fall flat.

It is a simple case of one half of the story running out of ideas sooner and while the other half manages to hold to your attention, the frustration at the futility of it all engulfs your experience.

What often matters at the end of a Murakami’s novel is that you are able to get answers. With those answers, you unravel the question. Why the characters undertook the journey. Why you read through the book.

In case of Kafka on the Shore, those answers come. But they come too late, after too many meandering excursions and are ultimately too sparse for you to care.

For a novel that captures Murakami at his best and at his worst (which is still pretty OK, in plain terms), Kafka on the Shore is an excellent starting point for those who are intrigued by Murakami’s legend and are brave enough to embrace his ambitious work. For those who aren’t, I would still suggest Hard Boiled Wonderland and End of the World as his best introduction to his surreal works while Norwegian Wood is obviously his most popular work among masses owing to its nostalgia-heavy romantic themes.

Score:

3.5 out of 5

Aspirations occupy a very unique position within our mind. Despite having their fair share of time under the spotlight of our consciousness, they do not dissipate into nought. They retain a sense of permanence in a very distinct way. They are also great indicators of the time passed and the changes it has made on us.

When your consciousness is wandering, idle, you may bump into some of these past aspirations. Old or new, they are like that friend whom you bump into occasionally who not only reminds you of that time in the past — your personality and thoughts back then,  but also holds a mirror in  front of you to reflect where you stand today.

I have seen many of my own aspirations over the years. Ranging from naive ones during childhood, to the idealistic ones from teenage, to the more realistic ones today. It is relative but as you discover yourself everyday and the skills you have and the confidence you have in the said skills, these aspirations redefine themselves.

Steering on to the Topic

But let’s leave behind the stream-of-consciousness and rather personalized beginning to actually come onto the topic.

Over the past year, I have had opportunities to live through one of my primary aspiration I’ve harbored since I was a child. To become an author and to write for a living. Whatever opportunities have come my way in different sections of my life, I have grabbed them and I feel I’ve made the best usage of time that I could. Handling different parts of your life — academic, professional and personal within a common aspiration is challenging but immensely rewarding.

But one of the other aspirations which has persisted with me over the years — to make games — has always met some or the other obstacles. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the primary reasons I joined a Bachelor’s course in Computer Engineering was because I wanted to learn aspects of programming and AI.

It isn’t like I didn’t give it a shot before. I have been listing down concepts and turning them into game design documents over the past two years. But design documents are just that — pieces of paper that speak of only ideas. So, I tried making an “experimental” shoot-em-up last year but unfortunately I had lost confidence in it before it was even complete. I found that working solo is a difficult deal because you have to be decent in the three pillars of development — programming,art and sound. I consider myself okay in the former and latter but not art.

So, when I heard about Ludum Dare 26 and that it was being organized during the April 26th-29th weekend, I was excited.

Ludum Dare

Pretty sure, most of you are wondering exactly what is this Ludum Dare?

With 2,347 games submitted, LD26 was the biggest game jam event in history

With 2,347 games submitted, LD26 was the biggest game jam event in history

It is a “game jam” event that is held thrice annually and is now in it’s 26th iteration where people from all over the world — amateur hobbyists like me as well as professional developers make games from scratch over the space of a weekend. There are two events in each Ludum Dare — a 48-hour “Compo” event which is basically a competition with strict rules and requiring you to work solo and stick close to the theme. The 72-hour “Jam” event is a more relaxed affair where you are given more time and freedom to develop on your own ideas and work in teams.

I don’t know exactly what it was within me but I chose to aim for the 48-hr Competition (that’s what India does to you,I guess).

Preparation

There’s no real way of preparing for a Ludum Dare. The theme on which people make games on is only revealed once the event starts.

So, in the week leading upto LD, I focused on finalizing the tools I’ll be using. I had previously used GameMaker,XNA and Stencyl in varying measures but Unity had always been my ultimate target. Besides Unreal Engine, it is the only top-tier, professional-grade game engine available for hobbyists and indie developers.

Since I had never worked in Unity before, I set myself a task to atleast get a basic feel of its’ features. It was more difficult than I thought. It took me some time to wrap my head around its’ coordinate system, scripting of main camera, particle system and I had to even brush up some of the high-school physics and math concepts.

It was fun and challenging to learn but I knew the real challenge lay ahead.

Challenges Ahead


It was never going to be easy. In that very week, I had THREE back-to-back practical exams. So, I spent Wednesday,Thursday and Friday on them. Also on the day LD was going to start (with the announcement of the theme) I had to give my Senior Year project seminar in the college. So chances were that I was already going to start a good 8 hours later than everyone. Plus, I had a birthday lunch I was obligated to attend to on Sunday and I couldn’t excuse myself out of it.

It only got worse.  My Internet provider called up saying the maintenance of Internet would mean it would be down till Sunday morning. Just great. 

Basically, if I was planning to aim for the 48-hour deadline, I was already going to have to work with 10 hours less and without Internet to help me. Not a good start for things. I told myself that even if I wasn’t able to finish it, I’ll learn something.

With that positive mentality (hear O Pro-Life Preachers!) I went into the weekend.

Theme

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I immediately checked the site and found that the theme was “minimalism”. Since I had a project seminar in few hours, I had to get ready for that but I kept thinking about the theme and what ideas I could adopt into a proper game that is fairly unique but not too difficult to make.

Behold my infamous handwriting!

Behold my infamous handwriting!

Surprisingly by the time I reached my college at 9, I already had charted a rough concept and I wrote it down. By the time I was done with the project seminar (which was delayed no thanks to the lovely professors of our college) and I had returned home, it was 2. I took a short nap and began at 3.

Timeline

I had decided on a dynamic rhythm game with simplistic two-control scheme that had a rather deep underlying concept but absolutely no exposition.  Dynamic in the sense, the players could adjust difficulty of the game through their own actions. Create/destroy musical objects which repeat to form a pattern imitating one’s daily routine.

With the basic premise on paper, I began getting the setup ready. The LD’s “Compo” rules state that all the content — code,art and music needs to be made within those 48 hours. It took me a 4-hour sitting to get the engine set up exactly how I wanted for my game.

I then began coding the individual behaviour of the player “cube” and it was around 10, I could finally start working on the chief concept of the game — recycling objects. This required creating a custom module. Something which a newbie to Unity like me obviously suffered to do.

Unable to find solutions, I decided to plug in my MIDI keyboard and create some tunes in the meantime. A rhythm game needs to have some good tunes after all. I stuck with ambient music as the background soundscape as I felt it was minimalistic and sparse enough to suit the theme.

I used FL Studio for the beats. I really liked the simplistic interface and how easily one could mix. For the MIDI, I used the typical MAGIX Music Maker and stuck with the traditional play-record-mix-master technique to get the appropriate sounds. I liked how I could imitate sounds of a flute and of a violin using a low-pass filter applied onto lower keys of the keyboard.

While I was doing this, I was constantly trying to rack my mind to solve the issue  I was stuck on. It was around 3:30AM when the migraines started creeping in and I finally gave up for the night and went to sleep.

New Day, Late Beginnings

I had set my alarm at 6. I snoozed it.

When I next woke up, it was 7:30AM. Ugh.

Within 10 minutes, I was back to work. And tell you what, it took me just 10 minutes to crack the problem that was plaguing me for almost 4 hours last night. Just ten minutes.

Over the next three hours, I was on a roll speeding through the lost time last night. If this were the popular Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, I would be a programmer “on fire”.

Unfortunately, my mean streak came to an end when I had to go for the birthday lunch. I came back at around 2PM and graciously avoided the comforts of an afternoon nap and set back to doing. I had been feeling weirdly confident since morning. As if, despite all the odds that had been stacked up against me, I was going to do it. At the same time, I was a little wary of being like a hare in the Hare and Tortoise and not getting too overconfident of where I was.

The workspace

The workspace

So, I continued working without a break. More tunes were created by 4PM, some of which were recorded live using my iPad and SoundCloud app on it.

Then I set aside everything to work on my primary weakness — art. I believe I have a decent visual aesthetic sense, but when it comes to creating them I’m no good. There’s this inherent phobia that drawing instills in me which seems to sap all the confidence I generally have for other things.

So, I got onto it. Using Inkscape and Photoshop, I created simple designs that described the type of instruments each track was imitating and keeping the color palette fairly simple.

I did not believe that minimalism = black & white. In my opinion, minimalism is something which conveys a deep concept through limited usage of aesthetics and exposition(if used in a narrative context).

So, as you can see the colours I used were a lot more vibrant than what most of the others used for their games.

It was about 8PM when I was done with art and sound. So, I started implementing them into the engine one by one. Surprisingly, art didn’t result in any obstacles. It was Unity’s sound design which gave me trouble as I couldn’t wrap my head around how I should use it to fit the purpose of my own game.

I tried to look up at the Internet.

Still no internet.

I was seeing visions of yesterday, where I was stuck on a problem and without help from the Unity forums, I wouldn’t be able to get past them. But somehow, a few workarounds later, the sounds worked pretty much like how I wanted. I guess that is an important aspect of design as well. “Trying to adapt things as much as possible”.

Late Run 

Around 10PM, I had this crazy idea. An idea that could certainly have a positive effect. Now, I despite this being my first time in any game jam, you need not tell me that even entertaining these ideas was basically signing a death certificate. Given the time constraints, you had to stick with the idea you had originally thought. I had managed to do it thus far — but this idea seemed too delicious to not implement it.

So,leaving all my scheduled plan for the game aside, I started focusing on this. It was not before 2AM when I had finally finished this. With the deadline date, just a mere 5 hours away, I decided I needed to wrap up ASAP.

So, as I was finally getting the win/lose conditions implemented, I realized something.

I had not even made the Main Menu.

Again chucking everything out of the window, I frantically set to making the Main Menu, the “How to Play” screen as well as the Win and Lose screens. This took art and some new scene scripting to implement but I finally did it.

The screenshot at 5AM. With 2 hours left on the clock

The screenshot at 5AM. With 2 hours left on the clock

The GUI needed tweaking, so I set on doing that.

It wasn’t until 6AM when I was finally done. But then I just recalled that I could make the background music vary according to different “phases of life” or the progress bar atop.

So, I spent another hour doing that. Then, almost frantically, I baked the native version (Windows) of it and quickly set about uploading it on Dropbox. It was just around 7:10AM (the deadline was 7:30AM) that I logged onto the Ludum Dare site and filled up the submission form, describing my game and uploading various screenshots.

I had made it on my first Ludum Dare. I had finished making my first “complete” game and that too within the 48-hour Compo deadline as I had initially aimed. Despite all those obstacles that the world threw at me, I managed to do it.

Post-Mortem

In retrospect, I am rather proud of myself. Not because of the game. But because of the dedication I never knew I had within me. I don’t recall ever waking up for the entire night for something I was working on. On occasions, when I have done that, I’ve done it if I was reading a really interesting novel (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle),watching a really interesting TV series(Twin Peaks) or playing an addicting game(too many to name).

But never for something related to work or even a hobby. Something where I wasn’t getting entertained. I lost motivation while developing a number of times before and this time I had plenty of opportunities where I could have table-flipped and just quit. But I didn’t. I stuck to my target and that makes me really proud of myself. This past year has been great for a number of reasons and I think I might have found another good reason for that.

What’s better is that the game has received some really good praise from fellow LD-ers and their comments both on the game page and my Twitter were really encouraging. Even the criticism has been helpful since I apparently had messed up on a number of small factors(resolutions on Web browser etc) but it’s all cool.

The best part besides finally having a “finished” game? THE MOTIVATION! I have loads of it now. I had heard people say how a finished game helps and now I am experiencing it first-hand. I’ve already made plans on reviving some of my older “ideas” and seeing if I could implement them. All while implementing some features I left out of the LD48 game due to the time constraints.

So expect to hear more of this “new” side of the old Ansh in the coming weeks.

Of course, here is the game page on the Ludum Dare site. Currently, I’ve managed to port it on all versions — Windows/Mac/Linux as well as Web through Unity without any major issues. I explain the underlying concept and the mechanics much better there. So,it’ll be better if I keep it simple here.

Any feedback is appreciated. I’m new to this and I’ll take any words — praise or criticism alike with a pinch of salt and take it as part of my learning process.

That is all for now.

–Ansh

 

EDIT: Indie Game Mag featured my game as their “Indie of the Day”

The Mask

There has been a certain craze related to “confessions” lately which has spread itself  like a plague on Facebook. It started with “college confessionals” and spread to specific localities and we now even have a “Twitter Confessions“. On Facebook. There’s an inherent irony in that but my sheer disgust at this prevents me from appreciating it.

This piece was born out of that disgust for what I see as a silly craze that goes on to show just how badly Internet has made us starve for attention and validation. 

A-Dozen-Masks

The Mask

We wore our masks – the facades behind which we hid our true selves from the outside world. We never removed them in front of others. The mask was a chameleon, a shape-shifter – changing colours and forms evolving according to the will of our minds. It would enable us to shift from sympathetic friends to disdainful rivals in the space of moments. We lived in bliss with our masks on our faces, not caring what lay beneath. Why should we? What if whatever lay beneath was inferior in comparison to the masks we wore? How would we face the world then? How would we face ourselves?

Then came a time, in the midst of a flux, when one of us stumbled upon an object. This object lay in a remote corner of our virtual space. In this virtual space, the masks people wore gained strange powers. It unshackled them from responsibility curtailing their intentions behind a veil of anonymity and freed them from following typical social conventions. Everyone had flocked to this virtual space when it was first created and over a period of time it had become our second home. One where we and our masks – together in solitude communicated with millions of our kind. Personas could be created and destroyed at will when you hid beneath this virtual veil – it made us feel strangely empowering.

But this object which they found changed things. It was a mask.

Another mask.

The first ones to wear it among us claimed that the new mask gave them immense freedom under absolute anonymity – unlike anything people had ever imagined. They could reveal their inner-most thoughts about people to everybody without ever revealing their true names. Confessions was what they were calling it. The traditional act of absolving one’s guilt in front of God. But what guilt could we have when we were so lost behind our own masks?

Yet, each one of us wore that mask. Turn by turn, we confessed our inner-most thoughts, feelings from the very recesses of our decaying core and it felt great. What was better was that people talked about it. They talked about it all around – their voices whispering in the empty corridors and crowded class-rooms talked about us, about our inner-most thoughts in a tone of excitement that made us feel proud of ourselves – a little better about whoever lay beneath the two masks we wore.

Slowly a change began encompassing our daily routines. In the virtual space, in groups and in our real lives, people rarely talked about anything besides it. Laying our deepest thoughts open while we remained hidden behind our masks gleefully watching the world whisper excitedly about what we thought was turning into an image-booster. In the anonymity offered by the mask, we began feeling better about ourselves and what we felt. It attached some meaning to our feelings even if they never had any significant outcome or effect. It was turning into a borderline obsession for all. People raged and argued about inanimate things – about feelings which were left orphaned by their creators, never to be looked upon by either of them.

It wasn’t until long before some of us realized that it was the mask which was controlling us. The lure of confessing in anonymity of feelings which had little worth in real life was too great for us to overcome. We tried telling everyone about the evils of the mask before it was too late. Some realized their folly and tried removing it in vain.

They didn’t know where the mask ended and where their true selves began.

In their attempt to chase behind primal urges and shower feelings on people who didn’t know they existed, they had forgotten to understand their true selves. To find time and take a look at who was the person behind the masks. In their vain quest for a stranger’s affection, they never understood their ownselves.

One by one they began to drown in the sea of their own regret. Of aspirations and castles that never were.

Strangely, people said that when they died, the masks they wore simply fell off from their faces. Beneath the mask, they were all just faceless.

No identity.

——————————

Coincidentally, this is also the first time I have posted a short story/fictional piece (if you can can call it that) written by me on this blog. I’ll be doing it on certain occasions in the future.

For now, it is time we must wear our masks and move on back to the real world.  Because god forbid, if anyone sees our true selves, what if they don’t like it? That is a part of us that can never be changed.

But there lies the question doesn’t it? Is there ever really a “real” you when you are never really aware of it?

Greetings,

For the final installment in the annual “Best of 2012” series, I present to you the very greatest of the gaming from last year. This is the typical “Ultra-Late Edition” I have been doing lately, since I like taking additional time to play the numerous games which have piqued my interest over the last year, so I can give a proper opinion on what I thought was the supreme pick among them.

It’s never that simple though…

Where We Stand

2012 was a year which in the near future both gamers and academics will look back as the key turning point in the transition the entire gaming medium is going through.

Pushing the Limits

Pushing the Limits

We are right now at the flux of change, at the precipice of seeing our medium transition into something we hope will be much better without losing too much of what made us fall in love with it in the first place. It is clear that gaming — both as a medium and a community is no longer the single monolith it was a decade back. It has fragmented into these branches which have vocal supporters and flagbearers of their own. This is a good thing as variety only serves to enhance a medium, rather than destroy it.

It is important as change permeates around us that we take a moment to look at our own definitions and evolve them accordingly. I have heard many people deriding over what they see as “not game enough” and while I respect their opinions, I believe that with time definitions need to change, else they remain nothing but narrow-minded relics of a mind which couldn’t maintain pace with time.

As much as there were signs of negativity particularly from the bigger companies who continued to wade through stormy waters amid layoffs, giant losses and controversially disastrous games. It seems like only now, some of these big companies are realizing that the gaming bubble which got created with the rise of Wii and games like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty Modern Warfare has long since burst and by spending on forced multiplayer modes they are only spreading themselves too thin — something that comes back to bite their own asses.

This is a topic that I want to speak at length about and thus this blog isn’t the best idea to continue venturing on it. For now, this should give you an idea of how I perceive certain aspects of our medium.

The Diary of A Gamer in 2012

For me, 2012 was an excellent year. I did not only play the most number of games I have in a single year, but I also played games which only served to deepen my appreciation and love for the medium. In a time, when I see many gamers I know get jaded of AAA games, I am glad that my penchant to unconventional games from less-popular sources and genres has continued to keep me enchanted.

Be it visual novels in Katawa Shoujo or Analogue: A Hate Story or the incredibly complex grand-strategy in Crusader Kings II or my brief but prominent affairs with shoot-em-ups on PC with the Touhou series.

One of my beloved genres from the past saw a popular revival from a familiar source with The Walking Dead while little indie games like Unmanned and Dear Esther continued to redefine what “games” mean to me.

A brief affair with the danmakus

A brief affair with the danmakus

I also got a chance to play what has surely become one of the most enchanting and seductive worlds I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of through the means of a game in Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines which also is a delightful RPG on top of it.

I was briefly intrigued by the Mass Effect 3 “Retake” controversy but ultimately came out unaffected and holding it just above the original ME1 in the pecking order.

Dishonored reminded me of moments I used to cherish in games like Deus Ex and Pokemon Gold but was thoroughly missing in recent times until it showed up.

As winter approached, I got into night-long conversations with NeonNinja on Steam and together we began a process of influencing each other into playing awesome games. I shall not speak of what games I influenced him to play(as there are many 😛 ) but I shall speak of what he made me play. Because I am greatly thankful to him for that.

He made me play Spec Ops:The Line. A deeply flawed military-shooter which embraces every cliche in the book of generic shooters, only to sharpen them into knives and put them in your gut — one by one. I don’t recall any game which has resulted in as much critical analysis in recent times as Spec Ops did. In its flaws and successes, Spec Ops and Hotline Miami defined the flux of change 2012 represented. They both abhorred and reveled in violence only to turn back the mirror on the player. Spec Ops in particular bravely showed how the medium had progressed yet how badly it was being held back by its own conventions.

You can look at my complete list of “Games Finished in 2012

Game of the Year Awards

Let us begin with the award categories. Each has a winner and a runner-up. Let’s do this.

Best Visual Design

ninja

Winner:  Mark of the Ninja

Klei’s fantastic 2D stealth platformer was a brilliant 101 in how to explain every single thing that is happening on the screen through visual means. From spheres that indicate the intensity of noise your actions make to brilliant light & shadow effects. The masterstroke was the clear distinction between foreground and background which never distracted from the excellent stealth gameplay of MotN.

Runner-Up: Mass Effect 3

In more than one way, ME3 was pretty much the best of the previous two games and it carried that even in terms of its visual design — which showed both the neat, bluish hues of ME1 that spoke out “SCI-FI” loud and clear while the darker colours did their job in displaying the gloom of a universe under siege. With a rich colour palette that is thoughtfully used, ME3’s art design consistently hit all the right notes throughout Commander Shepard’s final stand against the Reapers.

Best Audio Design

hlmblood

Winner: Hotline Miami

Dennaton’s retro bloodfest would be nothing without its heady cocktail of trance-inducing 80s synth-pop that put you under a spell of endless repeats and mushing the tiny heads of your enemies into a bloody pulp. It has been said the most underrated sound in the world is silence. Hotline Miami pays its due respect to it and it wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for the sudden eerie silence that occurs when you kill the last enemy. The “silent walk back” wouldn’t be as effective if it weren’t for the sudden silence as the din of its synthpop tunes gives way to your rising guilt.

Runner-Up: Lone Survivor

Jasper Byrne’s kinda been my favourite indie developer in 2012. Besides making one of the favourite tracks in Hotline Miami, he also made this wonderful 2D-survival horror that evokes memories of Silent Hill only if you played it on an acid-trip. It burst into dreamy psychedelic jams amid eerie silence and the sharply increasing noise as enemies approached nearer as you hid in darkness, as you held the empty gun you have in your hand only increased the tension.

Best Game Design

WinnerCrusader Kings II

Like some of you may know, I have a great interest in game design so to me personally — game design while a very expansive topic also comprises of providing players with tools and a set of defined rules in a universe that is their playground. Some call it “sandbox” others call it “true freedom”. None are so in real sense.

Crusader Kings II is. Instead of focusing on battles and war, it focuses on character, dynasties, courtroom politics and relationships. In addition to giving an incredible twist to so many conventions of gaming least of which includes the very concept of “death” and it’s unpredictable nature sets it in a league of its own. Couple that with its ability to provide gamers with tools and rules and then leave them to their own doing in a world that’s as rich in its realism as its rife with randomness and the arbitrary. If I had ever seen a brilliant example of game design that didn’t follow the conventional rules, CKII would be it.

Runner-Up: Super Hexagon

On the opposite side of the spectrum is this minimalist masterpiece from Terry Cavanagh. Incredibly difficult might be its most common tagline but what Super Hexagon does is it encapsulates the entire history of action games within a game about a tiny triangle and converging sides of a hexagon. Be it reflexes, precision, instant-decision making coupled with observation and foresight — the skills we associate with action games — are the very core elements of this brilliantly designed minimal action game. The simplistic controls are merely the icing on the cake.

Excellence in Writing and Narrative

spec-ops-header

Winner: Spec Ops: The Line

You might notice the mention of “narrative” in the title of this award. I generally don’t do that. This is the reason why. Spec Ops is not going to win any awards for its dialogues. But it is how its anti-war narrative weaves and blends every single aspect of its sandstorm of elements — its generic gameplay, the metaphors and the slow realization as it all snowballs slowly into something darker as the game progresses until it finally punches the player in the gut.

Exploring “the line” between the player and the character they control might seem like an impossible and overly-ambitious narrative, Spec Ops does exactly that exhibiting the growing disconnection between the players and Gen.Walker as responsibility on their own actions start to swirl into a spiral of questions as the game heads to its apocalyptic finale.

I could write essays about this game but they have already been written. It brilliantly explores the “space” between us and the characters we control in games to such a brilliant effect that it is a shining example of what games are capable of as a storytelling medium.

Runners-Up: The Walking Dead AND Analogue: A Hate Story (TIE)

More than a cop-out, this joint runners-up decision is apt because both the games deal with characters in extremely uncomfortable situations and how their spirits and relationships with those around them are constantly tested. In The Walking Dead, it is in a post-apocalyptic society where the very vestiges of human civilization break down into something worse than the plague. With emotional highpoints and powerful characters tied with a central relationship between Lee and Clementine make The Walking Dead one of the most powerful stories in recent times.

In contrast, Analogue: A Hate Story is bipolar switch between the light-headed conversations around cosplay to the serious depiction of a deeply burdening patriarchal society. Its’ characters are not burdened by something as immediate as the zombies but the suffocation in their society moves them to act beyond their character. A great showcase of both the humor and seriousness the visual novel genre is known for.

Best Soundtrack

rin_22

Winner: “Enigmatic Box of Sound” — Katawa Shoujo OST by NicolArmarfi, Blue8,delta, CplCrud and Juno

This was a pretty solid little visual novel that made people talk primarily because of its misleading premise and how it was made by a group of world-spanning 4chan users remotely over a period of two years. But once it got released (for free) it earned praise because its treatment was sensitive where it needed to be and solid otherwise.

The highpoint for me personally was the soundtrack. It reminded me of my love for classical music particularly those from Frederic Chopin and Scott Joplin, and some of these wonderful melodies using simple piano and acoustic guitar are so beautifully done that no words are needed to describe them.

So while you have “Daylight” describing the gentle calmness of the mundane, we have a sombre menu music in “Wiosna“. There is depression and broken shard of a person that was Hanako in her “Jitter” (high-point in terms of music describing a character’s mental state) while “Nocturne” captures the very essence of this soundtrack and what it is capable of. Solidly consistent throughout, this was as simple choice as any I have had to make in this blog.

Runner-Up: Hotline Miami

Which doesn’t mean it didn’t have any competition. Hotline Miami wouldn’t be the same game without its heady soundtrack which included licensed tracks and original from Jonatan Soderstrom’s fellow indie conspirators. While we had Pertubrator’s “Miami Disco” or M.O.O.N’s “Hydrogen“. There also had to be a brilliant Mission Score screen music with Jasper Byrne’s supremely ambient synth-mammoth in “Miami” which would bring back the 80s in gloriously loud fashion back to our ears.

Non-2012 Game of the Year

For those games from the yesteryears which I played for the first time in 2012.

Rich and intoxicating -- one of the best ever

Rich and intoxicating — one of the best ever

Winner: Vampire: The Masquerade-Bloodlines

It’s no secret that I’m a closet(?) goth and I adore dark and brooding atmosphere be it ones created by a game or music. Bloodlines was the final game made by the ill-fated Troika and they eventually shut down after its development. At release, it was a buggy mess and got mixed reviews. But when I played it last year, I adored it. It may have fixes but this game has what so many games lack — a soul and a beating heart. With a rich and brooding atmosphere that smells of approaching doom and a narrative design that weaves all the best elements of RPG. Add in a clunky but well-designed gameplay based on World of Darkness tabletop rules and brilliant music and you have one of the most immersive games ever created. Period.

It has its dips and highs in the form but it ends on such a brilliant note that you spend the next two minutes gaping at the screen in amazement.

The brilliance is in it’s second playthrough especially if you play as the Malkavian class. They are “bipolar, semi-insane and hallucinating” vampires so you have some of the most ridiculous experiences in RPGs. From having hallucinations and “voices” that subtly forebode events to come to having arguments with the STOP sign and the TV announcer, this is a game steeped so heavily on narrative ambition, it serves as a shining reminder of what RPGs are capable of.

2012’s The 5 Greatest Moments in a Game (spoiler-free)

(in no particular order)

  • Crusader Kings II: “My Story Vol.1” was basically my first playthrough of this brilliant game. For the first six hours, I alternated back and forth between the tutorial trying to grasp the majestic and complex systems of the game. I began as a small Count in Ireland. Smartly working my way through court, I gained the claim to my neighboring county and I smartly slipped poison into its count’s drinks and claimed it for my own. That marked the beginning of 400 years of “history” where I would rise to power eventually capturing all of Ireland, parts of Scotland and parts of France, only for my son’s homosexuality (a sin in those times) to make him hated by the nobles who staged a revolt and killed him. My young son who wasn’t of age was under a regent who got blinded in a tournament and his handicap nature resulted in the son(which was me) to become bloated and I ended up marrying a Muslim princess and converted to Islam. DISASTER. As the Pope and the King of England all declared Crusades on me and the second-half of those 400 years was spent fighting and scheming against enemies from all sides until I managed to survive with pretty much what I started when the 400-odd years of the game were completed. WHAT A STORY!
  • Hotline Miami’s “A Silent Walk Back” : In a game that reveled in its own violence by glorifying every bit of it to the point where it got a little too much. But still the loud music and the generally reckless combat made it too entertaining for the players to ignore. Until you had killed the last enemy in the area. When the “cassette” suddenly gets stuck,rewinded and there’s an eerie silence. As the din of the loud synthpop clears, you walk back the very same path you came. Watching your bloodied “masterpiece” as guilt slowly boils within you. A brilliant sequence that tied in perfectly with its anti-violence by irony theme.
  • Mass Effect 3’s “The Fate of Tuchanka” : This was always going to be difficult to select as ME3 had MANY brilliant moments but I finally went for this because not only was it an emotional highpoint but also it brilliantly merged the variations in decisions from the previous two games on a scale BioWare had never attempted before.
  • The Walking Dead’s “Farewell” : Everyone knew it was coming but still it brought in the emotions. Superbly done.
  • Spec Ops:The Line’s “White Phosphorus Scene” : At once, a brilliant criticism of modern military shooters and the blow-up of everything the game was building upto in its preceding eight chapters, this scene was the infamous gut punch which brought EVERY gamer — thoughtful and observant or trigger-happy in face with the brutality of war. Every bit of this scene and how it takes place is masterfully done.

The Best of 2012

I hate saying this every year but 2012 was really a solid year in every aspects and those who say it was downright the greatest year in gaming aren’t that far from the truth. The variety was another sign that as a medium it was taking all the right steps. There were clear signs that few games helped the medium progress far beyond what we expected. There were also some stellar representations of lesser known genre and basic creativity came from every angle in 2012.

I still cannot understand people jaded with “same-old” gaming. They are either not looking at the right places or are too narrow-minded to accept the new games. Because as far as I know, 2012 was a landmark year — one where the division in the industry became all the more clear and I’m glad for it.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super Monday Night Combat
  • Binary Domain
  • Lone Survivor
  • Analogue: A Hate Story
  • Torchlight II
  • Borderlands 2

The Top 10

Narrowing down to a Top 10 was a mammoth task. I know few have given up on making a Top 10 list but I stuck with my intention to make a ranked list like every year.What I have here is a “snapshot” of what I thought. I may disagree with this list a year or so down the line but for me this is how it stands.

How have I differentiated in a year with so many great games? I have done so on two criteria: a) how much I liked them (top priority obviously) and b) on the basis of their importance to the medium.

10) FTL: Faster Than Light

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Subset’s roguelike space-simulator is a classic example of the creativity that is brimming in some of these indie developers. One of the early games to come out of Kickstarter funding, FTL showed that money in right people’s hands can result in challenging and intensely original games. With eight sectors and perma-death/no reload of roguelikes, FTL became that a solid “one more try” game for countless people. It helped that the MIDI-esque downbeat tunes helped create an enchanting atmosphere for our space adventures.

9) Mark of the Ninja

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Klei’s 2D stealth platformer is easily the best in it’s class because there is little that compares to it. But it also proves right my definition of stealth game which goes: “Stealth at it’s best is a puzzle with dynamic components”. MotN is a designer’s game and it shows in how impeccably designed every element of it is — from visuals to audio to its mechanics. It is a great example of how a solid vision behind a game can make it a cohesive and engaging experience.

8) Hotline Miami

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Dennaton’s reckless 2D-gorefest was at the forefront of the indie movement in 2012 because not only it represented the overused retro aesthetic but it did so while appearing fresh. Cactus aka Jonatan Soderstrom’s philosophy of “gameplay mechanics first” shows in Hotline Miami with it’s gameplay taking centerstage. Everything — from it’s Drive – esque story to its’ anti-violence by irony theme revolves around that gameplay. With brash aesthetics and loud music, Hotline Miami was a step in the right direction for both the medium and indie development.

7) Dishonored

Dishonored

Arkane’s steampunk stealth adventure harkened back to the golden-era of PC gaming where Thief, Deus Ex and Splinter Cell existed side-by-side and level design worked in tandem with player agency without breaking immersion. Dishonored is the “Greatest Hits” of those stealth games implementing some of the best mechanics from each while giving its own original twist. It may have had an underwhelming story but the mission hub and its structure was so well-implemented that you could not help but praise Arkane (and Bethesda) for taking such brave risks in this day & age.

6) XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Firaxis made the bravest attempt in the history of the turn-based strategy to remove all the barriers which had limited the appeal of this traditionally complex genre but in this “accessibility” they somehow managed to retain most of the richness of the XCOM series. Transitioning into the modern-era with cover-based turn-based strategy, XCOM Enemy Unknown is a golden example on how to make a complex genre accessible to almost everyone by a detailed tutorial and abstraction of lower-level design elements and only focus on the essential aspects.

That along with some of the emergent narrative aspects on the battlefield made it an immensely enjoyable game — one that takes the most looked down aspect of modern development and turns it on its’ head for a delightful strategy game without any inaccessible barriers. This is no longer an elite club, this genre is now open for everyone — was the statement Firaxis made with Enemy Unknown.

5) Mass Effect 3

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BioWare’s closer to their brilliant sci-fi trilogy had to be special. For two games and over eighty hours, their trilogy had captured imagination and had players invested in the universe and its inhabitants. But you could count on BioWare to dispel doubts after Dragon Age II, because they brought in their A-game for ME3. Making it a deeply personal tale as well as a galaxy-spanning “kill the baddies” was made special only because you had invested so much time and choice in the game. And it all showed beautifully. Tuchanka, Rannoch or the Citadel. It worked in ways both clear and subtle. The gameplay was an improvement — almost a best of both the previous two games and while sacrifices were made, they only reinforced the tension and urgency of a universe under siege.

Old faces brought in the nostalgia while new faces were admirably built. Much of the wasted potential of ME2 squadmates was developed here. It all built beautifully to the finale on Earth and no matter what you may think of the eventual outcome, nobody could argue that the 100+ hour journey spanning multiple games, planets and galaxies wasn’t worth it. The journey of one Commander Shepard was memorable. Thanks for the memories, BioWare.

4) Super Hexagon

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I learnt to appreciate minimalism in different ways and it all began with a visit to an art exhibition. But it was only when I played Terry Cavanagh’s minimal “action” game did I realize the sheer beauty of minimalist design. Super Hexagon captures the entire 25 years or so of action games in a tiny triangle and converging sides of a hexagon. It demands every bit of attention and skill you’ve used in action games for the past 2 decades be it observation, foresight and planning or plain old reflexes and quick decision-making. Super Hexagon is a wonder in design because every element it has is necessary. There is no filler, nothing you feel is excess to the requirement.

Chipzel’s high intensity chip-tunes and the ever-changing background colour and perspective makes Super Hexagon a tense experience capable of making your heart pump with excitement in a mere 20 seconds.

That is a sign of a solid game, if I ever saw one. Just look at *this* gameplay video to get a little taster of what it’s capable of.

3) Spec Ops: The Line

When I said at the start of this list that I’m ranking games with their importance to the medium being ONE of the important criteria, this was the game I was referring to.

Simply put, there was no game in 2012 which was as important as Spec Ops:The Line was. What began as a generic excursion to near-future Dubai with a typical dudebro squad, slowly started growing darker and more mature. By the time you were questioning the identity of your enemies and the very intent of why you’re supposed to shoot them down, you know this game had its’ claws on you.

But then, there came the metaphorical sandstorm and the game continued to rise steeply in ambition. At one point, I was sure this game was going to cave in. But that moment never came. It was a narrative-driven experience with generic shooting and sloppy controls and cover mechanics. That is not the reason why this game is No.3

The reason it is No.3 is because it not only criticizes its own genre by ironic example and shows the brutally dark side of war but it also explores the medium and points fingers at the player. But that isn’t it, it continues down that path exploring the growing disconnect between us and the character we control questioning the responsibility of the characters’ actions and our involvement in the game.

As body count piles and brutalities get worse, Spec Ops marches towards its chilling finale. In the end, it is a game I’d never play again. The controls have nothing to do with it, but I’d rather not experience a game where I’m tired shooting people I don’t want to shoot. Where I’m tired following a path I don’t want to follow, playing a character whom I am growing increasingly disconnected with.

It explores the never-asked question in games “Where does your character’s responsibility end and yours begin?”

In words of a certain review I don’t recall, “The only way to really win Spec Ops:The Line is by switching off the game and walking away”

2) The Walking Dead

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For what had once been my favourite genre in games, point-and-click adventures went through a very rough patch in the past decade. But Telltale had always been at the forefront of the revival and the revolution. The revival was for the point-and-click genre — over past six years — Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit and Back to the Future are some of the few shining examples in their catalog. The revolution was that of episodic gaming. What was seen as a cash-grab model, turned out to be a perfect fit for The Walking Dead which thrived on its short-length episodes to administer maximum impact on its players.

The emotional tale of a convict trying to redeem himself in a post-apocalyptic world where the very foundations of civilization are slowly rotting into barbarianism, Lee finds his only hope for redemption in Clementine, a lone child amid the chaos. Together along with a ragtag group of memorable misfits, TWD creates one of the most memorable adventures with moments of intensity and twists and emotional high-points.

Players made decisions at key points which didn’t impact the story as much as how everyone viewed Lee. This worked wonders especially during the latter two episodes where Telltale learnt to manage both storytelling and their cinematic gameplay in a natural manner which certainly the likes of Quantic Dream and Hideo Kojima can learn from.

It may have revived the popularity of a genre but TWD is at No.2 because it shows that emotionally powerful tales of relatable human-like characters can be told through games.

1) Crusader Kings II

Recipe for disaster,bro.

Recipe for disaster,bro.

This should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has been around me for the past year or so. From Twitter hashtags #CKII to constantly annoying my friends on just how rad this game was.

And it is.

In many ways, CKII is my dream strategy game. It is a game filled with immense depth and complexity. I love that in any strategy game. It is also not RTS. That helps too. But it is not a game about a “nation” or a “faceless ruler”. CKII is about a character — one which you character and whose shoes you walk in as. It is essentially a role-playing game in a grand-strategy’s clothes. You have attributes, traits and negative aspects. You interact and build relationships with people around you to achieve higher.

Besides intricate court-room politics and the general dose of backstabbing and scheming, CKII treats player death very uniquely. When your character dies, it is not GAME OVER. Instead, you continue playing as your heir. You inherit the situation your ancestor(the previous character) left you in but are now a new person. New positives and new reasons for people around you to hate. This is akin to a Reset button while carrying the entire baggage and shit your ancestors left you in.

It works brilliantly. Death can occur anytime,anywhere. On the battlefield, in the courtroom. You could be assassinated, you could fall off your balcony. You could catch the plague and survive or you could die while having sex with your wife. It is extremely random and unpredictable JUST like actual death. No other game I know treats death like this and this has tremendous affect on how a player looks at this game.

I was constantly worried about death. When I knew I was having a good run, I wanted to secure the future. Make sure my heir is well-educated, has no enemies but then he has an accident and dies and now I have to contend with his vastly inferior younger brother. You have to live with your own sins and decisions and this is the sheer beauty of CKII. Only one of the many aspects of it.

In a year with so many quality, grade-A level games, there was never any contender for the No.1 spot for me. CKII was the clear and simple choice.

And with that, the “Best of 2012” series comes to an end.

I hope you enjoyed it and if you have comments on what I said about the industry and various games OR want to criticize my No.1 choice as CKII (which shall be met with fire!!) or anything else feel free to do so.

Until next time.

Take care.

And see you on the other side.

Ansh

Hey everyone,

I’m back with another “Ultra Late” edition of Best of 2012 series. This time I cover the films and their episodic brethren television. Both had extremely strong years particularly TV which is fast becoming a ground brimming with creative concepts.

So without further ado, I’ll list out the best:

Television

While I still am lagging behind in a lot of notable TV series including Mad Men (which I hear had a great showing in 2012) and the ever-amazing British period drama Downton AbbeyI’ve been wary of my female friends talking about how Girls is the second coming of Jesus for women their age. I’ve also steered clear from The Walking Dead and Justified even if they supposedly had solid seasons this year.

Regardless, let me get on with the best TV series this year, purely on the merit of the episodes that were aired on TV in 2012.

Honorable Mention 

Homeland

The only reason why I bothered to mention the second season of this intelligence psychological drama was because it had extremely strong moments. While the source from which it was inspired (an Israeli docu-drama) ended with Season One, the second charted new territories and began remarkably. It peaked and then sharply fell into cliches to the point where it became ridiculous and cheesy. A season that could have easily broken into the Top 5 instead has to contend sitting out as an Honorable Mention.

Now, with the actual Top 5. Let’s do this:

5) Archer

"It's pretty hard to stay anonymous when you're the world's greatest secret agent"

“It’s pretty hard to stay anonymous when you’re the world’s greatest secret agent”

Sterling Archer & his gang of misfits were back with the best season of the adult-comedy ironic spy caper series. Filled with long-running gags (“You’re in the danger zone!” and “That’s how you get ants!“) and punchlines with memorable pop culture references and lines like “So once again you’re left with the middle class Irish man’s dilemma, do I eat the potato or do I let it ferment so I can drink it later?

Featuring two memorable episode-long cameos from Burt Reynolds and Bryan Cranston, Archer upped the ante in inane, sardonic humor with lots of awkward pauses, politically and racially incorrect one-liners (” Black astronaut!? That’s like killing a unicorn“) and generally chucking subtlety out of the window.

Highlight of the Season:

*after having hot sex with co-worker Pam*

Archer:Where did you learn all that stuff?
Pam: You know I grew up on a farm, right?
Archer: Really hoping that’s not relevant.

4) Game of Thrones

In a frenzied second season, Peter Dinklage stole the show as Tyrion Lannister

In a frenzied second season, Peter Dinklage stole the show as Tyrion Lannister

Continuing its brilliant adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga, the second season continued its continent-spanning narrative of different factions in Westeros all of them plotting revenge against one another in the quest for Iron Throne. It worked more subtly as newer characters were introduced and more supernatural elements began taking form with some tense scenes of political backstabbing.

It all builds up to the glorious “Blackwater” episode which will remain as a high-point example of what TV is capable of achieving in terms of large-scale battles and glorious effects despite smaller budgets compared to films.

Subtle variations were put by the show’s writers at various points to instill some of their own personal touches but the story which is a very solid and entertaining one remains true to the novels.

Highlight of the Season:

The Blackwater battle. The ridiculous amount of tension and the underlying irony of its outcome that it manages to carve out of the iconic battle and the mood of the people (particularly the women) when under siege. Brilliantly done, is all I could muster after it had ended.

3) Sherlock

Making legends -- one episode at a time

Making legends — one episode at a time

BBC’s modern retelling of the iconic detective earned them accolades last year and this year the Doctor Who writers reunite for the second season which sees them retell two of the classic mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. Considering this is a season of merely three episodes, it is ridiculous to see how much goodness they have packed in it.

The reimagining of Hound of the Baskervilles into a modern psychological horror is much in line with some of the psychological aspects of Conan Doyle’s novel. But it is the infamous “The Reichenbach Fall” mystery which sees Sherlock finally come face to face with his arch-nemesis Moriarty is what brings out this series’ genius. One of the most brilliant retelling of a century-old classic which stays true to the original but deviates accordingly in just the right ways. I was literally left speechless and breathless by the end of that episode.

Years later, this series will be viewed in adulation by fans of Sherlock old & new, just like it is now.

Highlight of the Season:

Difficult to choose among so many, but I’ll go with Sherlock coming to slow realization of exactly what Moriarty intended to do him and his image. Genius!

2) Louie

Hilarious, heartbreaking and tragically funny -- Louis C.K continues to observe life's odd realities through his eyes

Hilarious, heartbreaking and tragically funny — Louis C.K continues to observe life’s odd realities through his eyes

I refuse to call Louie a sitcom or a comedy series. It is more in line with cultural satire or a “slice-of-life” basically. This season takes more of a deviation from the need to make audiences regularly laugh in order to stage elaborate buildups that either hilariously break down into something ridiculously awkward or anti-climatic.

Persistently, it retains the critical eye that Louis C.K — the one man force behind this series casts on our society and it is almost like a tragic comedy of the life we are living. The man is ridiculously experimental as he delves into dream-like scenarios to show what a person intends to do (like clean up a seat in the subway so others can sit) but doesn’t do because it would feel odd (which is literally everyone of us)

It is this ability of Louie to reveal the naked truths of ours (at times literally) which makes me a massive fan. It isn’t for everyone but those who embrace the concept that this show holds will find something deeply satisfying and funny as we observe what this man observes through his eyes — inhabiting the same world as we do.

Highlight of the Season:

Best situation was from the Afghanistan war-camp focused episode titled “Duckling”

  • Louie’s daughters hide a duckling in his bags when he goes to Afghanistan for a war-camp performance. Enroute to one of the camps, his helicopter breaks down and while it’s repairing a bunch of armed gypsies meet them and hostility increases due to the language barrier (and prejudice/misconceptions) until the duckling — a source of irritation for Louie thus far escapes and in his attempt to catch it he stumbles and falls. Seeing a white man chasing a duckling clumsily makes everyone in both the groups laugh immediately resolving the hostility. A brilliant showcase of how comedy is universal and can break all barriers.

1) Breaking Bad

And it all comes down....

And it all falls apart….

Thus far in it’s four seasons, Breaking Bad had mostly been a crime drama of the highest caliber. Higher than The Sopranos, higher than even The Godfather (but that isn’t exactly an apt comparison).

Season 5 — it’s final season apparently rotated the platform into something the shocking cliffhanger hinted. The process of “breaking bad” was complete. The trials and scaling insurmountable challenges of the previous season had had its toll and Walt White had changed. In the first six of the eight episodes of the half season (the other half airs this May) the viewer is progressively shown a higher degree of detachment from the character they associated so much with. An intense psychological study of its key characters — each of which we’ve come to know so well in the previous four seasons, and how the base concepts of morality get convoluted in a landscape that cannot be defined anything other than Machiavellian.

However, the brilliance lies in the final two episodes of this half season where after scaling a mountain — Mount Everest or walking on the moon, you realize that the feeling is only temporary. When permanence settles in, you are going to be unsatisfied. Which is what leads to the decision Walter makes.

But the wheels of irony aren’t so simple. As the half-season ended on the simple but gut-wrenching note, we cannot help but envision an apocalyptic future for the final eight episodes of this incredibly powerful series.

Highlight of the Season:

This season? Every fucking episode. Period.

Movies

2012 was a strong year for movies and we had solid representation from all kinds. It included the big budget ambitious types (Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas) to the low-budget ambitious types (Beasts of the Southern Wild). From the internal turmoil (The Master) to the external (Argo). From the strength and resolve of one man(Lincoln) to the twisted symbolic routine of a shape-changing individual(Holy Motors). 2012 had everything for us.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Deep Blue Sea
  • Lincoln
  • Argo
  • Cloud Atlas

When the dust settled however, these movies emerged as the Top 5:

5) Holy Motors

Only the ridiculous makes absolute sense here

Only the ridiculous makes absolute sense here

I had heard about Leos Carax before but only in the passing. It wasn’t before I watched Holy Motors did I realize the breadth of absurdist sense this guy makes through his movies. There was no movie wilder and weirder in 2012 that resulted in as many WTF as “did someone put acid in my popcorn or soda?”

Narrated as a singular journey of a tycoon in his limousine as he meets his various appointments by transforming into a new role — not just cosmetically but personality wise as well. A bag lady, an acrobat, a reptilian alien, a sewer man who kidnaps Eva Mendes and eats her hair. Every sequence makes you gasp while it cleverly distracts you from the symbolic puzzle it hides underneath. Which is what Holy Motors is. A giant puzzle composed of smaller ones –each of which make the central picture a bit more clearer.

Born entirely from the left-field of French absurdist cinema, Holy Motors is a rare treat that enthralls more than it frustrates.
4) Life of Pi

Magic of the spiritual

Magic of the spiritual

I had merely done few book reads of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning fantasy novel but I immediately was enamored by Ang Lee’s representation. He manages to capture an idea that is so difficult to describe if it were written on paper but he manages to convey the idea with ease.

Which explains the commercial success this movie received and it kinda redeems my faith in humanity. It is a great example of using visual effects to enhance the viewing experience and the variety of interpretations it left behind is bound to stay with the viewer long after the movie is over — a telltale sign of a thoughtful movie.

3) Zero Dark Thirty

A decade of dedication with a positive outcome -- but at what cost?

A decade of dedication with a positive outcome — but at what cost?

When I went into Kathryn Bigelow’s intelligence-drama, I was well aware of the controversy it had sprung over its alleged “pro-torture” stance. I came out puzzled. I had absolutely loved the movie and in no way found that stance to be apparent. Instead, the movie merely highlights torture as a method used by intelligence agencies as a means to an end — one that has as much chance of failure (as the false info leading to attack on Riyadh) as of success.

What is masterful about this movie is it has zero action scenes except the final 20 minutes during the assault on Bin Laden’s “fortress”. This is a proper intelligence-drama where the tension lies in whether the lead the characters have found leads to anything fruitful. This is some grade-A genius Bigelow is creating of late, first with the palpable tension of disarming a bomb in The Hurt Locker but ZDT’s subtle attempts at tension are a lot more effective.

It also succeeds as a character study on how a persistent resolve to catch one man led to success but only left her hollow and broken from inside. Maya is wonderfully acted by Jessica Chastain (who’s probably my fave actress after this and Tree of Life) whose passivity may have cost her a potential Oscar win.

2) The Master

The torment of a man

The torment of a man

Another of my favourites’ which got snubbed by the Oscars featured a powerful performance by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the central two characters. Led to an existential search for his purpose in life as a war veteran, Freddy played by Phoenix starts questioning the very principles of the man he looked up to.

Brilliantly directed scenes that portray Freddie’s internal turmoil are among the strong points of this movie. An American classic which slowly grows on you, The Master is bound to be a favourite for many but movies like these don’t win Oscars, antagonistic lead actors or not.

1) Moonrise Kingdom

The age of innocence

The age of innocence

Wes Anderson’s adventure set in the magical world of remote Rhode Island was a mystical and endearing look into the inimitable optimism early adolescence often brought to us. Amid confusing hormones, building angst and a world that fails to understand you, our two leads strike a distant connection and plan to elope together and build their own “Moonrise Kingdom”.

Like a typical Wes Anderson movie, the kids hold wisdom beyond their tender age and the adults move around jaded with their lives. Between these two lies Edward Norton’s cub scout master whose naivete keeps him from getting jaded but he can also no longer remain optimistic about what visions he once saw.

The film is a precious gem for the nostalgia-loving buffs and it is shot with brilliant cinematography (shame on you Academy for not even nominating it!) that it will make you leave the burdens of your daily life and book a ticket to Prudence Island,RI.

—–

That is all for this time.

This series shall culminate next time with “Games” so until then

C ya

Ansh

The Space That Games Exist In

Much like their older brethren, video games inhabit a space that isn’t the easiest to define. It is even tougher to define exactly how important this space in which the worlds that games exist in is to the medium itself.

It is considered natural for the community to cast a critical gaze at some of these aspects as games progressively evolve as a medium and embrace themes and topics that had previously been considered impossible to encapsulate within the pixels and polygons of a video-game. Such discussions often revolve around whether games are being held back by their by naïve fantastical worlds that are still stuck within “traditional” gaming cliches  when that effort could be diverted in making games a more serious medium.

Escapism has come to be attached with negative connotations in certain communities of late.

Validation from experts of more established medium has become a "holy grail" for many in the industry

Validation from experts of more established medium has become a “holy grail” for many in the industry

But is that really true? Should games focus primarily on the real world in order to push the envelope of “games as a serious medium”? Should we singularly consider our eternal quest is to receive validation from experts of other fields?(read: Roger Ebert)

The Traditionalist’s Imaginarium 

At first glance, it would be seem foolish to leave behind the very foundation on which the video-game medium has been built upon. Unlike other mediums that began as a means to express their creators’ opinion or views, games evolved very different in that regard. They evolved primarily as means of entertainment, its virtual domain extending the ability to provide escapism to its players to the extent no other medium could hope to achieve. The human mind finds it easier to escape into a world that isn’t real.

Fantasy worlds are incredible in their ability to draw players' into their worlds and provide escapism and an "out-of-body" experience

Fantasy worlds are incredible in their ability to draw players’ into their worlds and provide escapism and an “out-of-body” experience

Leaving behind the very foundation of the medium to venture into the unknown for the sake of an uncertain and interpretative “progress” would be foolish and quite frankly a little naïve. Fantasy worlds have time and again shown that they can suspend players’ imagination and immerse them more efficiently than many “realistic” worlds manage to. Games are often that time of the day many look forward to when they can relieve themselves from their worldly burdens and undertake world-saving tasks in a world devoid of stereotypes and pre-conceived notions.

It also doesn’t mean that fantasy worlds are entirely rooted in its creators’ imagination. Many role-playing games based in an imaginary setting like Dragon Age and Mass Effect feature many elements that have been directly inspired from the real world. Its representations of alien/fantasy races, their characteristics and societies mimic that of our real-world cultures. It can result in an interesting reflection on our own world but through the portal of an imaginary one. It is also capable of bringing questions surrounding freedom and ethics – something which many role-playing games center their key decisions around.

Games like Journey and ICO hold a certain appeal because they resemble fables from hazy dream-like worlds that stand somewhere on the line dividing imaginary and reality. They speak as profoundly about the real as they speak in abstract.

In absence of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes, many of these fantasy worlds are excellent means of drawing its players into their world capable of providing an “out-of-body” experience – something we know more commonly as escapism. Suspended in such a state, it is much easier to have a deeper emotional effect on players, which would explain why many gamers of fantasy RPGs often daydream about the world.

Labeling such worlds as naïve and unbecoming of the “potential” of the medium is unfair to what they do manage to achieve.

“The New Real” Movement

Games based in a real setting and focused on real issues, however, possess the ability to drive home a more powerful message with much ease. Without the imaginary world and its lore, real-world settings do not need to concern themselves in unnecessary exposition and can instead directly focus their efforts on surrounding players with issues – interpersonal or international, the player knows are very much real in the world around them. These games haven’t always been around forever.

Let us take a time to distinguish between games based in a modern setting versus games based in a real setting. There is considerable difference between both as one can rightfully take creative liberties with its setting behind the cover of “fictitious representation” while the latter’s very selling point is its realism essentially representing realism of our life and the world –whether it’s told from a fictional point of view or a documentary-styled real view. Molleindustria’s Unmanned was an interesting but brief interactive meditation on a drone bomber’s life as he remotely kills alleged “terrorists” from thousands of miles across – never experiencing the brevity of his actions nor feeling the risk of war – and this disconnection with his own actions was admirably shown. This was a fictional excursion but in a real setting.

Unmanned admirably showed the disconnection of a remote drone bomber with his own actions

Unmanned admirably showed the disconnection of a remote drone bomber with his own actions

Others like the recent Depression Quest weave together interpersonal experiences of its creators and their battles with depression that not only wonderfully weave a self-conscious tale but also make its’ players aware of the very detail of emotions which one experiences in depression. Depression is still very much a taboo in the modern society – and people tend to overreact to it and the game aims at spreading awareness about “Exactly, how does it feel like?” and with its story brings out the possible options to overcome it. Such a personal experience makes games incredibly personal experiences – something which we never knew or even imagined them being capable of of a mere decade ago.

Such “real” games are capable of suspending its players in an odd “in-limbo” of real and the unreal where despite being immersed in a game, they are constantly reminded me of the world or an aspect of themselves. This self-aware immersion is an excellent example to showcase the kind of progress we’ve made as a medium. Add that to such game’s ability to drive home a harsher message on a socio-political issue or a personal experience making video-games an intensely relatable experience – a stark contrast from the escapism of the fantasy world, don’t you think?

I conclude quite predictably, that when it comes to the “Fantasy or Reality” arguments in games, there is no one correct answer. There may be preferences for one or the either but the strength of any great medium isn’t that one needs to give way to other — no matter how archaic or unfitting it may seem to our ambitions to be taken seriously. A medium is marked as mature for its ability to accommodate varied experiences. Literature is adored globally because we can have Crime and Punishment alongside American Psycho with Picture of Dorian Grey as the differing variant. Films can have CGI-effects infused blockbusters and documentaries. Neither holds its medium back.

Likewise, games are starting to offer experiences like Unmanned and Depression Quest. Even AAA games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line — two games with a common theme of anti-violence that treat it in different ways — one revels in it, while the other wears you down with it. We have to appreciate this important change — a world where different experiences can live.

Games exist in the space of our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real

Games exist in the space of our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real

The Space That Games Exist In

Whatever it may be, games based on real or fantastical elements will retain their validity as long as they are successful of taking players out of their physical shell and provide an experience that involves them.

Because at the end of the day, video-games do not exist in the harsh realities of our world nor do they exist in the vibrant imagination of its fantasy world. They exist in the space in our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real. Some call it escapism, others label it as immersion.

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[Update]: This blog post got a mention in Critical Distance’s February 2013  edition of “Blogs of the Round Table

Twenty-One

It’s funny how birthday springs up every year in the flow of life being just what it is — a milestone for you to gaze upon and reflect on where you stand on your journey.

When one thinks of a journey, one’s thoughts immediately go either to how they have arrived where they stand right now or what their eventual destination shall be in the near future. Personally, I have found that thinking about future is a more stressful endeavor because one has to partake in many variables and the element of uncertainty puts many off, breaking trains of thought before they can pick up speed.

Nostalgia

Thinking about the past? That’s much easier.Be it embarrassing situations that you blush or facepalm at the moment they enter your consciousness to the events that make you smile. I won’t lie — I’m a very nostalgic person, I think about past as much as I think about the abstract (which is also quite a lot) and as it always has been the case, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past as my birthday draws near.

The most obvious observation that I make is — “the time has gone too fast” . I think this is true for anything but it’s an especially peculiar thing to say for one’s life. After all, my knowledge about “time” has been as long as my life. It would be odd for me to say that it has gone too fast.

However, I mean it in the sense that when we consciously perceive our age — in numbers — something which no other animal does (or is capable of) it’s only then do we become conscious of the time and how quickly it has sped past. Does our conscious perception of “age in numbers” make humans more nostalgic than others? In the absence of such numbers, we would really have no indicator of time and then where would we stand? Would we ceaselessly worry about what we have achieved and what we haven’t compared to our peers? Would we worry about time running out? I doubt any animal species worry as much about the “passage of time” as us humans do.

Fears

At 21, my fears haven’t really changed. I am still ceaselessly fearful that I’m wasting too much time doing nothing. When others — parents and peers — tell me I’ve achieved an appreciable amount for my age, I see it as shallow praise. It’s not that I don’t appreciate people praising me, but I find any words of encouragement that say “you’ve done enough” as unsatisfying.

I think part of the “competitive” attitude has been pushed into me by the environment I’ve grown up in. Born in the post-globalization era of India, I was among the millions others who had the entire world of opportunities to explore and an equally large volume of challenges to overcome.

The strange part is I don’t know if this “fear” of being left behind in this race I don’t even care about is a good or a bad thing. It is this “fear” which drives me to do things which I’d generally be too lazy to do. It makes me wake up till 3AM at night and finish stories or articles that I’m starting to pitch to editors. Create something that I can be proud of — now or someday when I’m old enough not to look down at my own creations. But, it is also this same “fear” that drives me mad — feeding my bipolar personality — swinging me from unbound joy into depression at a single chain of thought.

In about a year, I’ll probably have to make my life’s “biggest” decision. While my peers decide between GRE or a job after graduation, I have to decide exactly what I want to do. I have a fair idea — a couple of options — I think they are entirely viable but another fear permeates at this point.

I’m scared of being stuck doing something I won’t like. Interests and passions are fickle in nature and if entire mountains and course of rivers can change over years, then what is a mere human? It might seem like a naive fear but at the point where I stand — at this milestone of Twenty-One that fear seems valid in my eyes.

I can see people around me satisfied with dreams of a secure job which is more than what they ask for in this uncertain financial environment. I kinda wish I had dreams as simple as theirs. It’s not like money isn’t of importance to me. It’d be stupid to ignore money but it simply isn’t the No.1 priority in my eyes.

I envy those who excel at a specific skill and they can be confident about their future too. I consider myself to be a jack of all trades, master of none. If you know me even a little bit, you’ll know that such a saying would be quite apt for me.

Parents and Childhood Dreams

I think it isn’t surprising to see that the only people who remain excited about your birthday over the years are your parents. If you have a healthy relationship with your parents like I do (shame on you if you don’t, give them a call and tell them how much you love them!) then such excitement never fails to bring a smile on your face.

As I look at them, all those years of my childhood where they were with me in every moment — smiling over me, watching over me as I grew into what I am today. *I swear my eyes were wet as I was typing this*

I know many like giving credit to what they become to their ownselves. It’s a fair action but one cannot overlook the influence one’s parents have on you. I still recall those days when my Dad used to take all of us to an eatery on my birthday only because it was the only place in my vicinity that had a Street Fighter II Turbo arcade machine.

I still recall the day when my Mom took me to a library and bought its membership for me when I was eight. She isn’t as fluent with English and she didn’t want the same for me. She wanted me to read books and possibly write one someday. Even when I wrote short stories at nine — a kid writing about weird space adventures — both of them were the ones who showered me with words of praise and encouragement. I think if they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have pursued my literary passion and without that I wouldn’t be as proud of who I am today.

I still recall the dreams I used to have back when I was twelve. I couldn’t remember the dream I had last night, but I remember what I used to dream back then. How strange is that? It’s as if my mind is still stuck somewhere in a time vacuum of a place where I shall eternally be the twelve-year old dreaming about going on adventures and solving mysteries just like in Enid Blyton novels.

thinking

Existential Realization

It is then that I finally realize the question I had been pondering over lately. Over birthdays becoming less important for us and more for others– either because we’re jaded or because we’re special for others.

I think the latter makes me realize that among life’s many objectives — one of them happens to be “being special for others”. Be it being a friend you can always stick for, being a son that makes your parents proud or a lover who will always be there for you.

Till now, I had seen the “selfish” side of humans. I had believed that *everything* that we do in life is for validation. Money. Job. Anything that we put effort into is an effort to seek validation. It’s only people who are already famous who say “I don’t like fame”. Every human wants to be appreciated for what he does. Nobody wants to go to a remote countryside hut, make dozens of masterpieces and die only to be forgotten.

We are all on a quest to become “immortal”.  We all know that we cannot escape from time nor death, so the only option that is left with humans is to immortalize themselves somehow. Most of us either tend to achieve it by creating something that shall last beyond our grave — an artistic creation, a scientific discovery or even an architectural structure. We also achieve it by becoming part of the “cherished” memory of others. I think it is this “selfless” part that I have overlooked till this point. That perhaps, in their selfish attempt to immortalize themselves, humans do make a brief attempt to become special in someone else’s memory. Chances are they will live beyond us — generally our kids — and we shall continue living in their memory.

In a year filled with proud achievements, first break-up, ascending on the popularity charts (again!) and the death of my beloved grandfather, I think such a thought is an apt way to finish this rather personal and introspective blog with.

Regards.

Ansh

2012: A Year in Review

World

Out of the blue, into the black” — Neil Young

From a global perspective, I think 2012 was another year that followed 2011’s rise of increasing awareness among people as countries realized that passivity and disillusionment wasn’t going to get them anywhere. Despite disconnection existing in our modern society, 2012 gave us more examples of the “People Power” that I talked about back in 2011.

It wasn’t without resistance though. Syria still suffers from the massive fight-back from its local militants in response to the people’s voices against their rulers –the al-Assad family. Myanmar had their first elections and Aung Suu Kyi finally returned to lead the country after spending over two decades under house arrest. On the other hand, the transition to democracy wasn’t so smooth for Egypt, which still faces a certain degree of unrest over the supposedly biased polls.

There are a lot of things wrong in our society. Mass killings, gang rapes going unpunished and indiscriminate corruption. But it’s only been over the last few years, I’ve seen voices rising from places you normally wouldn’t expect. People rebelling against tyrants, speaking out for long-ignored prejudices rooted in tradition, for biased laws and against blind-folded, indecisive governments. Be it something as loud as the Russian all-girl punk band “Pussy Riot” or as brave and solemn as Malala Yousafzai, 2012 continued the tradition of social-media and Internet playing a massive role in spreading the awareness among people without being needlessly filtered through the propaganda of the news channels — and while it may not always had a visibly positive impact, the initiative means there is potential for hope in the future.

Life

2012 was a very fruitful year for me. It started right off with me winning a couple of literary competitions — creative writing, debate and it ended with me becoming part of the Student’s Council of the college as the Literary Chief and organizing literary events including an inter-collegiate quiz.  More duties and responsibilities await for me in the horizon in that regard and for once I’m excited about them.

On the writing front, I finished three short stories which I shall briefly describe.

A Clockwork Soldier’s Diversion —  A parable of sorts describing a man trapped by his mundane schedule — a clockwork soldier working going about his routine until the day the key in his back stops turning and how he suddenly finds a source of inspiration to help him look for happiness in the little moments of daily life. Nostalgic and introspective in equal regards, this was one of the two entries that resulted in me winning the aforementioned “Creative Writing” competition.

The Disciple —  This was part created during the competition where I was given two randomly-chosen popular characters and I had to write any creative piece on them. The two characters I got were Barney Stinson (of How I Met Your Mother fame) and Golem(the mythical folklore creature). It was an interesting challenge and I think what I created stood true to their characters but combined them in a unique way. Partly funny and part-metaphoric tale of the ugliness of Golem, I consider this to be inferior to the other two shorts.

Genesis A surreal adventure taking place in the dreams of an unborn child in the womb of mother that was written purely with the intent to self-indulge, Genesis was conceived from the mixture of two ideas — 1) how do infants learn certain things that we never have to teach them and 2) how the human embryo evolves in a mother’s womb over a period of nine years through stages that resemble — a tadpole,a tiny bird and then finally something resembling a human — the stages of evolution in a general sense.  I received considerable amount of praise from my peers (especially from those who matter) and I personally think this was the strongest of the three shorts I came up with in 2012.

I dabbled a little with game development in 2012. I participated in the NaGaDeMo (National Game Development Month) which despite the word was international in its scope. Working solo, I created cheap pixel-art and a developed a rather rudimentary prototype using Stencyl of a shoot-em-up whose design I had been working for quite a few weeks before it. It turned out to be a fairly OK first-try and the positive feedback from the closed community has encouraged me to try more of this in 2013. If I had a New Year’s Resolution (I don’t), this would be it. Hopefully, I will had something solid I can share with the world by this time next year.

I also ended up buying a MIDI keyboard in October. After meddling with it a bit, I decided to buy a Digital Audio Workshop (DAW) which is basically a music production program. Hours of meddling and slow progress eventually lead to my first electronic track “Drenched“.

I got a lot of encouragement particularly from an acquaintance of mine who ran a fairly popular music blog. This inspired me to learn more about the specifics of production and the various techniques. Being an engineer, a lot of the aspects related to wave theory were fairly easy to grasp, so the progress went good and in less than a month — “Drenched (Final Cut)” happened.

Longer and more haphazard than the first, it successfully achieves my intent with the track combining all my various influences into one 5-minute track. If you haven’t please listen to it. Any feedback is appreciated.

On the career front, in less than a semester I’ll be heading towards my final year. Things have gone too fast and I really need time to have a perspective on things and prioritize. I have a few ideas about what I want to do once I get my bachelors’ but they seem too fantastical to be true/too risky/too costly. Maybe now is the time to do some soul-searching and figure out exactly what I want to do. Fears and worries multiply within the realms of my mind when I think of this but I know this is a decision I have to make. And I need to be confident about it when I do.

Literature

I frankly spent a lot less time reading books than I did in 2011. Part of the reason was that during Summer, where I generally spend most of my days reading novels, I was instead taking part in the afore-mentioned NaGaDeMo.

Still I think I’ve read enough to choose the best.

My Favourite Novel in 2012”  — Wolf Hall

Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” besides being a thrilling piece of historical fiction was one of the best pieces of literature I’ve read from recent times.

Hilary Mantel has been on a roll of late — with Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, she has bagged two Man Booker Prizes and with the final part of the Tudor-inspired trilogy coming up in a few years, she might even bag a hat-trick.

While it’s easy to be skeptical of “awards”, I think the Man Booker Prize still manages to maintain a fairly high standard and Wolf Hall reaffirms my faith in that. Named after the traditional seat of the Seymour family as well as the old saying “Man is a wolf to man”, it is a great piece of literature and historical fiction that didn’t require any particular background knowledge for you to be immersed in the court-room politics of Henry VIII. I’ve had one or two book-store reads (a term for sitting in a sofa and reading 20-30 mins of a book in a book-store) of its sequel and I was surprised to find out it gets even better.

Moreover, reading Wolf Hall coincided with my addiction of Crusader Kings II and watching the second season of Game of Thrones and that resulted in some intense backstabbing and court-room scheming entertainment for me during the sweltering heat of Indian summer.

Music 

2012 was another solid year for music. I have had a lot of discussions veering on the edge of arguments that 2012 was as significant a year in music as 2011 (just as in gaming) but some people just won’t listen. Regardless, personally for me 2012 stands out because of a singular masterpiece that swept aside the prejudices I had for its genre due to the sheer brilliance of its music and lyrical content. Also, at the backdrop of the mainstream praise this artist has gotten, I think the world may potentially have a new music legend in their hands.

But first, let us talk about the songs. Or tracks as some of these lack any distinct “singing” trait to classify it as a song.

Best Album Cover of 2012

(III) by Crystal Castles

(III) featured an award-winning photo by Samuel Aranda of a Yemeni mother holding her injured son shielding him from tear-gas

Best Music Video of 2012

Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus

Kahlil Joseph’s short-film combined a series of stream-of-consciousness scenes into an interweaving tale that within its 3-minute duration manages to say much more. FlyLo’s multi-segmented track serves as the background score to it instead.

Best Tracks of 2012

15) Paradise by Wild Nothing

The Michelle Williams starring straight-outta the post-Instagram era music video does zero justice to WN’s dreamy epic. Right from the quietly humming base, to the long meandering mid-section breaking into the familiar guitar jam, on dreamy mornings in 2012, Paradise was very much like its namesake.

14) Apocalypse Dreams by Tame Impala

Animal Collective bombed out big-time in 2012 and there was much laughing-and-pointing at them but Kevin Parker’s project did a great job of filling the void AnCo left for many of us in 2012. Loud psychedelic jams that break and build as often as they resonate into the empty space somewhere at the back of your head. This was the best of their lot in 2012 by quite a distance.

13) Wild by Beach House

Baltimore’s dream-pop duo had another successful outing in 2012 cementing their “mindie” (mainstream indie, yes I know what you’re thinking) status. Wild certainly had the best of Beach House’s elements — synth-driven dreamy music combined with Vicky Legrand’s sultry,beautifully sung vocals.

12) Grown Man Cry by Amanda Palmer

Sometimes known as Mrs.Neil Gaiman or otherwise AFP(Amanda Fucking Palmer), Amanda Palmer had her most successful year as a solo artist in 2012 with a successful Kickstarter project which resulted in the excellent album of which this song is a part of. Typically,AFP with a mid-tempo rock tune and honest acid-spewing lyrics, this was the star pick from the album for me.

11) Baby by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

An erotic cover of the 70s slow-drawling Donnie & Joe Emerson original, Ariel Pink infused a rare amount of oomph into his otherwise weirdo outcast repertoire. Combining Dam-Funk’s smooth vocals, this was essentially “2012’s Sex Song”

10) She Never Dies by Tying Tiffany

While structurally she has transitioned from experimental to traditional, Tying Tiffany still has a knack for genre-skipping musical elements and the beat that thumps throughout this song is the best example of it. Part-industrial and part-post-punk, this song evoked the perfect themes of this underrated album.

9) Transgender by Crystal Castles

Best track from CC’s surprisingly solid (III), it showcases both their refined minimalism in Ethan Kath’s production as well as the continual growth in Alice Glass’ icy vocals and introspective lyrics. “And you’ll never be pure again” has to be 2012’s most painfully delivered line with detached emotion.

8) Gun Has No Trigger by Dirty Projectors

Both an excellent music video and a song that brings out exactly what Dirty Projectors wanted to achieve with their 2012 album. Strip out all the complex parts but maintain the essence of the music. Cooing female vocals and a sick bass-tune provide enough structure for Dave Longstreth to wound his vocals around.

7) Sleeping Ute by Grizzly Bear

Definitely 2012’s best opener which followed their tradition of “Openers that will blow your brains to bits”. Weaving a spiraling guitar riff and an oft-kilter drum track with a dream-folk outro that harkens back to Nick Drake. They struck all the right chords with this one, literally.

6) good kid/m.A.A.d City by Kendrick Lamar

It might be cheating since this is basically two tracks but both of these serve as the pivotal turning point in this album that is essentially serves as a semi-documentary of Compton. This is the turning point when things start going sour and our protagonist — K Dot — is forced to introspect about his gangsta’ lifestyle. Fictional or real — this shit’s brilliant.

5) Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus) by Grimes

2012’s radar-star, this is among Grimes’ more challenging albums bringing forth all the weird and eclectic influences in her music. I might have chosen a more obvious and likeable “Oblivion” but I instead went with this track which is every good as the more popular tracks on the album.

4) Cherry by Chromatics

Chromatics’ were bound to have commercial success after composing part of the background score for 2011’s Drive and this additional song definitely shows them at the height of the power. While I was learning music production, I couldn’t help but appreciate the various aspects of this song. Clean beats that build up with just the right intensity to build the effect but not sound too out-of-place.

3) The Apostate by Swans

Swans’ 23-minute closer was every bit as epic as their 2-hour long album. Literally bludgeoning their listeners into a trance built on repetitive riffs and beats, few musical pieces evoked as strong reaction as Swans did in 2012.

2) Running by Jessie Ware

UK’s major newcomer struck gold among every possible community. Her voice harkened back to UK’s golden era of soul-music of Sade but the dance beats that ran in the bloodstream of her music meant they had a modern vibe that with her sultry 80s vocals made just the right mixture for everything element of the song to click to perfection.

1) Pyramids by Frank Ocean

A 10-minute epic in every possible sense of the word. Musically, it travels across the history of the R&B genre — from the 80s space-funk to the modern slow-club jam. Thematically, it compares the decline of Afro-American women in the US culture using Cleopatra as the central allegory — from a queen to a stripper. There have been over a dozen interpretations of this epic, and that only goes onto show that when it comes to music, 2012 only had one star.

Best Albums of 2012

Underplayed Albums

  • Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  • Bish Bosch by Scott Walker
  • Kindred EP by Burial
  • 11:11 by Chiasm
  • Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus
  • Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen

Honourable Mentions

  • Give Up The Ghost by Polica
  • Narrow by Soap&Skin
  • Lonerism by Tame Impala
  • Theatre is Evil by Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra
  • Bloom by Beach House

The Top 10

10) Shields by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear would be the greatest band if their albums were only 4 or 5 tracks long. But, that is the issue with their music — the longer you listen, the more passive you get to them. Which might have something to do with the placement of their strongest tracks at the fore-front of the album. Just like Veckatimest in 2009, Shields is another indication of progression but I still think the best of this talented Brooklyn quartet is ahead of them.

Choice Picks: Sleeping Ute, Yet Again

 

9) (III) by Crystal Castles

Despite their established “mindie” status, after a rather lackluster (II), Crystal Castles’ were just one misstep away from being discarded as “lamestream” by the hipsters. Yet, they essentially improved their goth-rave sound and cut down all the excesses to the very basic. Rudimentary and raw at the same time, (III) is the darkest of all CC’s albums and rightfully so with its themes of oppression,violence and women harassment. After this, CC are in my good books for the first time.

Choice Picks : Wrath of God, Sad Eyes, Transgender

8) Mature Themes by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Ariel Pink transformed from another Beverly Hills weirdo to a LA cult-icon in 2010 with his commercial breakthrough Before Today. With Mature Themes, Ariel Pink dials back to the obscure and utterly weird music aspects of his earlier albums and lyrical content about “hopped up shemales on meth” so weird, you don’t know whether to laugh or grimace. But what matters is Ariel Pink hasn’t lost his touch for the forgotten retro pop and he still cooks up the best of that for anyone with enough gut to digest his other weird aspects.

Choice Picks: Only in My Dreams, Symphony of the Nymph, Baby

7) Kill for Love by Chromatics

Chromatics’ Kill for Love shouldn’t have worked in theory. They make music for movies — even their producer calls their music “cinematic soundtrack” but somehow in between 2011’s Drive and this they made songs so structurally conventional that it is now hard to believe I ever thought of Chromatics as movie score-only artists. Ruth Radelet’s dreamy voice and Johnny Jewel’s neat production are certainly the driving force behind their hazy synth-driven tracks that made up the bulk of my 2AM listening.

Choice Cuts: Kill For Love, Back from the Grave, Lady

6) Dark Days, White Nights by Tying Tiffany

Yeah I know. She’s hot. Now quit staring and continue reading!

Tying Tiffany had been circling around the radar, on the verge of a breakthrough and 2012 seemed to be her year. She was composing for Hunger Games and her album had been quite possibly her strongest. But much to the disappointment of her fans (me included), her achievements went under the radar. She has built a solid base in the non-English speaking countries in Europe but despite combining the best concoction of post-punk and industrial on this side of the Atlantic, her solid album was quite easily one of the most underrated ones of 2012.

Choice Cuts: Drownin, Sinistral, She Never Dies

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On to the Top 5. Traditionally, these always are my “Highest Recommendations” or “Must Listen Albums at Any Cost” and this year it’s not any different.

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5) Swing Lo Magellan by Dirty Projectors

With Animal Collective bombing in 2012, the coveted throne of “Hipster Kings” was empty. In a cliched manner, the two front-runners happened to be from the hipster-country of Brooklyn, but Dirty Projectors always seemed to be the favourites. Despite losing Angel Deradoorian who took a break thanks to AnCo’s Avey Tare (oh lord! The amount of conspiracy theories people cooked up) DP’s follow-up to the “music so complex it’ll blow your brain to bits” Bitte Orca turned out to be the polar extreme — structurally and musically simpler, less textures, hand-claps replacing drums at many places and music so organic you could almost smell the soil. Once again proving that despite pretention, when it comes to music, there were fewer geniuses in modern-day with as much variety as Dave Longstreth.

Choice Cuts: About to Die, Gun Has No Trigger, Just from Chevron

4) good kid,m.A.A.d City by Kendrick Lamar

Coming into 2012, Kendrick Lamar was among the most hyped artists. At the end of 2012, he was the second-most acclaimed artist standing just a few steps behind the obvious winner. But that’s no mean feat. Kendrick’s 2012 venture shows ambition beyond anything one can imagine gangsta’ rappers are capable of. Essentially structured as a movie where the story proceeds through lyrics and telephonic conversations as Kendrick jumps through the various personalities of the protagonist — K.Dot.

Be it the typical gangsta’ with the swagger (Backseat Freestyle) or the introspective and deep reflection on where he began going wrong (Art of Peer Pressure) or the core twist in the tale (good kid) where he is in for a rude awakening as both hoodies and police chase him and (m.A.A.d city) where his backs are against the wall and he lives a living nightmare in the place (Compton,CA) that he used to call his home.

I personally jot this one down as hands-down one of the best rap albums in lyrics and themes in ages. Seriously great!

Choice Cuts: Backseat Freestyle, The Art of Peer Pressure, good Kid

3) The Seer by Swans

Michael Gira has lived through four decades of making brutally punishing music. Back in the 80s, NYPD had to shut down their live shows because audience often reported for being ill and being bludgeoned into unconsciousness by their music. The Seer, a 2-hour long epic album is the summation of everything he has done in career. Few artists appreciate space as much as Gira does, his songs build up in a very slow manner which requires patience but that is part of the charm as it traps its listeners into a trance with their repetitive riffs and beats as well as the loud droning sound of Michael Gira himself. With numerous collaborations in this album from Karen O, Mimi Parker,Alan Sparhawk and the good ol’ Jarboe, The Seer isn’t just majestic in its scope — it evokes the kind of violent primal highs — which only music can.

Choice Picks: LunacyThe Seer, The Apostate

2) Visions by Grimes

2012 will also be remembered for how “weird” became popular. Grimes aka Claire Boucher was at the forefront of this movement. Founder of the term “post-internet music” that is possibly the best way to define her music. Influences so diverse in time and location, that only someone who has lived their childhood through Internet can develop such an eclectic and diverse taste. Visions was her most successful attempt of merging these eclectic melodies into a conventional pop structure. The end result was one of the strongest pop albums of this new decade (it’s only been 3 years I know) and a new electro-pop icon to be watch out for.

Choice Cuts: Genesis, Oblivion, Be a Body (侘寂), Colour of Moonlight(Antiochus)

1) Channel Orange by Frank Ocean

There was always going to be only one winner and Frank Ocean was more than the obvious choice. 2012 will be remembered as a year for a lot of things but primarily it will be seen as the year when Frank Ocean burst forth onto the scene amid unusual controversy. He revealed via his Tumblr post that his first love was a man. While this may not be unusual, for the traditionally conservative and chauvinistic hip-hop/R&B community it was. He backed it up with his album. And dear lord, what an album it was.

I have always said before that R&B has been the genre worst-plagued by modern technology. Auto-tune has been used in the worst manner possible and people have forgotten how R&B actually had soul and heart during 70s when Marvin Gaye was still alive.

But Frank Ocean played a key role in sweeping away my prejudices for the genre. He is a talented musician and has a great voice but he is also a great story-teller. His songs weave so much of himself into it that you want to listen to more of what he says. He fills every word with pleasure and pain be it when he speaks about his first love (Thinkin Bout You) and then speaks of his aspirations of his unborn daughter(Sierra Leone) and then goes into the excess-filled lifestyle (Sweet Life), the downside of wealth(Super Rich Kids). One song after another, the album gut-punches you with brutal honesty.That is even before the 10-minute epic (Pyramids) in the middle of the album changes the flow of the album from heart to the mind. What follows is an honest confession of the religion of unrequited love to a cab driver (Bad Religion) ,a stream-of-consciousness song (you heard that right) about existentialism (Monks) and then teams up with Andre 3000 to cook up one of the most painful songs about pleasure (Pink Matter).

2012 will be remembered as the year when each sphere of music — mainstream and indie had the same favourite — Frank Ocean. With depth and accessibility, he topped charts, had the most acclaimed album of 2012 and leads the race with 6 Grammy nominations (for a change,Grammy).

Choice Cuts: Thinkin Bout You, Sierra Leone, Pyramids, Bad Religion

That ends the Part One of my “2012: A Year in Review”. I’ll be back with Part Two which will talk about Television,Movies and of course — GAMES!

Till then, take care and wish all of you a Happy New Year.

–Ansh