Archive for August, 2007

Sound and Silence: Night Biking New York City

Night biking New York is amazing, but maybe not the way you’d expect.

As dense as it is, NYC is still in many ways a city divided — by geography, income, race. But there are two places where those barriers break down. One is the hustle and bustle of the post-apocalyptic subway system. The other is an 840 acre swath of green painted down the middle of the biggest metropolis we got: Central Park.

I’ve been biking in Central Park for some time but, through the summer, the rides have slipped later, later, and then beyond sunset. That’s when Central Park starts to feel a good deal more intimate and more isolating: turning what were vast rolling hills of green in daytime into soft islands created by street lamps after dusk, surrounded by a blackness where only fireflies remain. It changes the mathematics of distance.

Doug Aitken captured it nicely when talking about his video piece Sleepwalkers:

The work was focused very much on this idea of the city as an energy source, and its constantly changing rhythm. I saw it as this relationship between the individual and their environment; how at times you fuse completely with the world around you and other times you separate and carve out your individuality in isolation. (via soundcheck)

I found that was a recurring theme in my nightly travels — feeling connected, then apart — diving into the blackness only to emerge in islands of light and sound that the night makes seem otherworldly. From lover’s whispers to a woman yelling into her phone “Well whose baby is it then?!” to the impassioned proclamations of an impromptu summer play, illuminated only by flashlights.

Coming up the East Side, you emerge from the night to the big sounds of Summer Stage: a Malian singer, a flanged out guitar, Horatio Sanz getting big laughs. The instant you recognize the sound, it vanishes into Doppler and you’re in darkness again. A group of bikes rush out of silence, impossibly close, rattle past, and disappear in the shadows ahead. Silence again. Then, in a pool of light, the remains of a soccer game; stragglers jokingly yelling Spanish obscenities at each other as they kick the ball, wandering victoriously home. And they’re gone.

Just beyond is the great downhill (accompanied, as always, by Jane’s Addiction’s Mountain Song) as I wind my way at high speed past the last embers of light from Lasker Pool. The rush of wind hits my face like a thousand feathers. Then climbing over the now quiet rock-cast shadows of Heartbreak Hill, through the amber light of a bench-strewn path, and suddenly *snap* into the once dim, now blinding lights of 100th street — where neighbors, families sit outside talking late into the warm nights. Then home.

Riding anytime in Central Park is a wonderful thing, but night riding has a kind of deep beauty that sticks with you. It’s the same kind of mood that Dayton and Faris captured so expertly in Milky Way. Nights when you don’t need to sleep to dream.

High Tech Differences Worldwide

The meaning of high tech changes depending on where you are in the world. This week, we were fascinated by cases of technology working (and not) all over.

Cross Cultural No – hysterical breakneck trip around the world shows us the definition of “beatdown” in many tongues

Top Sustainable Tech – Africa is home to all kinds of intriguing new sustainable technologies; many born out of necessity. Also, see new work applying web 2.0 ideas in Africa

Iraq Unwired – not too much high tech going on without power and Iraq’s power grid is increasingly at the mercy of armed militias

Imagined Image – completely wicked Israeli image resizing technique chops out or adds new bits in just the right places (hires here)

Photo With Flash – stateside gurus develop a clever new approach to flash photography

The Sounds of Great Game Places

What’s your favorite game soundtrack? Games transport us, be it to sprawling floating kingdoms or a backyard barbecue. And music plays an important role in making those places feel whole, from the symphonic deep space expanses of Homeworld to the rocked out city streets of Jet Set Radio to Katamari Damacy’s giddy j-pop. The best of them stick with you, reminding of places you never wanted to leave.

Digging through my music collection (kicking the Windows habit will do that to you), I noticed that just three of the many game soundtracks I’ve collected over the years have hung around in a meaningful way — creating unique places that I still regularly return to in sound.

When you hear the opening bars of Hyllian Suite, for example, you know you’re in for something special. Jade’s lighthouse home is a warm, hopeful place, and the world beyond is at once more amazing, amusing, and threatening. The Beyond Good & Evil soundtrack captures that world deeply, along with the fantastic characters that inhabit it. Who can forget the high tech rasta rhinos from Mammago’s Garage or the secret passage discovered to tune of Slaughterhouse Scramble’s butt rock or Double H’s quietly insistent message in Enfants Disparus? (Download it here.)

Where BG&E provides places where we can sit still and soak up the atmosphere, Wipeout 2097 (aka XL) never stops, giving only tiny flashes of a future landscape through the windows of anti-gravity craft moving at mind numbing speeds. That doesn’t stop us from imagining the world, though. And music plays an essential role in making that happen, with an electronic soundtrack that provides the perfect glitched-out counterpoint to the highly finessed, Red Bull reflexed racing at hand. Even when you can’t see the city for the demonically winding track in front of you, that world is taking shape in your mind’s eye, guided by sound. Until Wipeout, Playstation only promised the future. Wipeout finally delivered it — and the soundtrack played a triumphant role in making that future feel real. (Grab a used copy of the game cheap and rip the soundtrack right off the disc. Ah how we long for the free music love of PS1.)

Ever wonder what orange sounds like? Rez has the answer. No game ties music and visual so tightly together. After all, the game world in Rez is the music, synaesthetically speaking of course. That’s because every interaction with the world magically happens in time with the music and vice-versa — one intimately informs the other. It’s a stunning accomplishment and one that gives every area its own diverse flavor. From Egyptian fireflies emerging from the blackness alongside Buggy Running Beeps to the steps of a pixelated giant in a Chinese-inspired labyrinth, fittingly set to Rock is Sponge. But none of them can top Adam Freeland’s enigmatic Fear accompanying the mindblowing inside-out final stage. (Import the soundtrack via Amazon.)

Rez is a case study in trigger theory gone right — the idea that a few well placed hints (musical in this case) can trigger a wholly new reality inside the player’s head, far beyond what exists on-screen. But the other games here use music to similar effect. The experience happens within you; as a deep connection between what the game provides and your own memories. Triggers let you escape into your own dreams, instead of those of the game designer. It’s genius when done right. And my favorite soundtracks trigger memories of places I long to visit again and again.

We last talked about the intersection of music and place in Colma: Slacker Awesome in Deadsville, USA.

Beauty, Race, Resistence

We love multicultural views and this week found us seeing the world in different shades of skin and different income brackets.

Kabul Fashion – gorgeous clothes light up a crumbling Afghan neighborhood

Hutongs Vanish – beautiful backstreet neighborhoods in Beijing are being bulldozed, poorer inhabitants sent packing

Whitewash – wrestling with using rich white Westerners to tell the stories of poor black Africans

Deliverymen’s Uprising – low pay, abusive employers, awful conditions, not anymore. Chinese and Mexican deliverymen draw a line in the sand.

When She Was White – a “black-looking” child born to white parents in South Africa is disowned, finds an empowering new life

Finding Frequency: Beats Beyond Rock Band

Imagine a game where you play music with your friends. You each play different instruments, and you can jam with them online. It’s Rock Band, the much anticipated follow-up to Guitar Hero, right? Well, yes. But it’s also a game that arrived half a decade earlier.

That game is called Frequency and it’s important because it added a fantastic new idea to the beat genre: choice. No game has done it since.

With other beat games (Parappa, Band Brothers, Ouendan), you either play the notes in the single track in front of you or you lose. It can be fun, but it can also turn quickly into monotony. (How much can you really feel like you’re playing an instrument when you have to stick so close to a script?) Where others have one track, Frequency gives a choice of eight — each a different instrument. Think that drum part is no fun? Switch to vocals, guitar, synth, or another percussion track for the next phrase. You choose what to play each and every measure, and that makes the difference between feeling like you repeated the music and feeling like you created the music.

But here’s what really makes Freq special: As you master each track, it continues to play in background. You spin one track, then the next and the next, building to a crescendo when the whole song is finally thumping and you can freestyle on top of it. The feeling is sublime because the connection between performance and musical reward has never been so supremely well crafted. And that same track-based motif translates flawlessly when you jam online with your friends, either competitively or laying down tracks for an original song (yep, there’s a composition mode, too). It was the very first online game for Playstation 2 and the first online music game ever.

All this speaks to how stunningly innovative Frequency was when it came out in 2001. That only becomes clearer when we look at games like Rock Band (made by the same folks), which are only now starting to add back the features Frequency had then — different playable instruments, play online with your friends (but still no “choice”). And Freq was a special kind of addictive, too. In March 2005, Edge put it this way:

Though Amplitude marked a step up in terms of MTV-friendly spit and polish, it’s the pared down strobes and breaks of the original [Frequency] that stand the test of time.

Why didn’t it take off? Well, Frequency wasn’t all that approachable. And that’s perhaps the most important innovation of Guitar Hero; making the music game immediately accessible to the most game phobic among us (that’s no small thing). The abstract visuals probably didn’t help, either, though retronauts among us might appreciate those slotted tunnels as loving nod to the arcade classic Tempest.

As much as PS2 was built on big brash titles like GTA and Gran Turismo, the platform deserves just as much credit for cultivating smaller gems: Ico, Rez, Katamari. Soulful, clever stuff that sometimes sold and, well, sometimes didn’t. Frequency’s a didn’t, but it should still be remembered alongside the better known PS2 boundary pushers, as a truly special small game the world still hasn’t quite caught up to.

Find more music game futures at DDR Can’t Flow and more Frequency at harmonixmusic.com

Hardship and Laughter

Stuff we found inspiring this week was at the intersection of beautiful, difficult, and funny. Not always at the same time…

Window to Kylemore – gorgeous lo-fi photos reveal the soul of a South African village just outside Stellenbosch (particularly this one)

Big Dog Catapult – hysterical tv spot shows what happens when 30 foot dog and pool party collide (and don’t miss a different kind of water play in the equally fabulous Whoo Alright)

Lyrically Challenged – there’s a special kind of genius in youtube music video reinterpretations

Ski Shrine – beautifully meditative shots from a shrine to skiers lost

Speaking of Race – anyone who’s been paying attention to this site lately knows why this quote hits home (taken from the Boston Globe)

Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

First off, I want to thank everyone who posted thoughtful comments in response to my discussion of Resident Evil 5. A lot of fascinating points have been raised, and a central one is the question of guilt. There’s a reason I chose not to call Capcom racist, but instead focused on the images presented in the recent 3 minute trailer. That reason (aside from not wanting to use the word loosely) is that I suspected there might be something cultural at play. Wired blogger and author Chris Kohler provides some insight:

The problem as I see it is that the game’s Japanese designers don’t have the history that would lead them to understand how this might be read in American cultural context. (more)

In an email message, he went a bit further:

I’ve been going to Japan for seven years, and I’ve seen lots of race-based caricatures used in products or in advertising. They don’t have any history of race-based conflict like America does, and so I think they just don’t have that feeling that it’s inappropriate. By and large there is no malice behind it — I imagine they just feel that race is like any other visual concept, open to use in any creative way they see fit.

I’m fully prepared to accept the possibility that Capcom is not intentionally drawing on painful stereotypes, but that does not mean they’re allowed to be oblivious to them or their impact. To the contrary, as a company that sells into many markets worldwide, it is very important for them to be aware of cultural issues. If they fell down anywhere, it seems likely to be here — understanding stateside racial sensitivities.

Of course, a trailer is not a full, playable game. But trailers are a way for game companies to manage impressions of their games. If a game is presented in a troubling way in a trailer, folks can and should react to that presentation. As has been pointed out in the comments, a number of interpretations are possible, but I would still argue that certain images in the RE5 trailer are problematic as they are expressed presently.

We will have to wait until the final game ships to see what Capcom truly has in store. My hope is that they do something empowering and humanizing for Africa (or Haiti or wherever the game is set). Until then, we can only react to what Capcom gives us. (And, no, I haven’t written off buying the game.)

But here’s the broader point: The videogame is the most powerful medium yet devised, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what it can do. Games need to be taken seriously. In a private communication, Karsh Kincaid put it this way:

People may say “oh, it’s just a video game”, but video games are a big part of American pop culture. Moreso than that, these days pop culture serves a huge impact as the popular pedagogy for masses of people in this country and all over the world as they look to understand people of color through the politics of difference.

One commenter referred to Africa as a “fantastic blank canvas for gaming history to write on.” That’s precisely the concern. Research has shown that those in the West have many misconceptions about Africa and other black countries. (Authors like Charlayne Hunter-Gault have worked to dispel them, but there’s a lot more work to do.) So, while it is good that game companies are taking note of black nations, we can’t ignore what the games they make are (and aren’t) contributing to the process of helping the world better understand those places and peoples.

Perhaps (as some have suggested in comments) this is all part of a difficult growing process that will lead to real parity. I, for one, certainly hope so. But that does not mean the impact of games on black people should not be interrogated, discussed, and criticized. And I’m happy to add my voice to that conversation.





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