Saturday, 28 December 2013

Best of 2013- The Last of Us

So I caved in a bought a Playstation 3 back in September. After sticking with the Xbox 360 and suffering two bouts of the “Red Rings of Death”, I came to the realisation that it was probably the best time to experience what Sony had to offer. With the “next-generation” of consoles around the corner, they perfectly ended with The Last of Us. I’d always been jealous of Sony’s lineup and its exclusives. The likes of Gears of War and Halo had originally attracted me to Microsoft’s console, but their exclusives had steadily been in decline over the last 3 years. My jealousy spawned from one studio in particular, Naughty Dog. 

Naughty Dog has always shown a creative and impressive side to every element of their games. Whether it be story, characters, environments, graphics or gameplay, there’s a distinct attention to detail that remains consistent throughout. From Crash Bandicoot back on the Playstation to Uncharted 3, they have remained at the forefront of both Sony and the gaming industry in general. The Last of Us represented a thematic departure as they ventured into a more mature and horror orientated project. Set in a post-apocalyptic USA that has been devastated by a fungal virus, the game follows Joel, a gruff and tragedy stricken soul as he has to escort Ellie, a 14-year old orphan who may hold the key to a cure, to a resistance group known as the Fireflies.

This isn’t necessarily a complex story, but one that focuses on the development of characters, both between their interactions with others and within dynamic changes in circumstances and the environment . The game doesn’t feel the need to drown the player with exposition about the cause of the disease, or the immediate stages of the apocalypse, instead it paints its picture through Joel and Ellie eyes and the remnants and testimonies of other survivors. The story’s pacing is immaculate, understanding when a certain atmosphere or “scene” should linger. Every chapter isn’t seen as a desperate need to impress with constant action and twists and turns. Subtly is key and Naughty Dog handles it perfectly while providing some of the most emotionally powerful scenes I’ve experienced both in film and the gaming industry for a long time. 

While the story is superbly well-written, it’s the characters that really stand out. 2013 really demonstrated both the importance and rewards of having strong characters. Bioshock Infinite, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Tomb Raider all portrayed their games specifically through the eyes of the protagonists, and managed to build a real emotional connection with the player. Having spent all her life amidst the apocalypse, Ellie’s character is alien to the concept of human life before the infection. Whether it be the sight of an ice-cream truck or an arcade machine, there’s an innocence but underlying tragedy as she tries to imagine a former civilisation. She’s a believable and endearing personality, not one that needs their hand to be held, but not someone oblivious to the horrors and acts that are occurring around her. It’s a perfect balance that works well in connection with Joel, and in the context of the story. 

As an actual game, The Last of Us continues Naughty Dog’s strict attention to detail. Uncharted 2 set the bar on “next-gen” graphics, and still remains impressive 4 years after its release. Since then the studio has embarked on a mission to further showcase the limits of Playstation hardware, and it’s fair to say they have succeeded. Like the game’s refreshing approach to the apocalypse setting, Last of Us’s colour palette is vivid and expansive. The emphasis on the overgrowth vegetation, the changing seasons and the sense of abandonment encapsulates the studio’s philosophy of visually telling a story and creating an distinct atmosphere. The A.I., while spotty for Ellie, is unflinching in its portrayal of a desperate and hostile society. Enemies regularly flank, and realistically react to changing situations causing firefights to be a test of anxious conservation of ammo and tactical awareness. The combat is visceral, violent and uncompromising. While crowds cheered at the Sony Press Conference in 2012 as Joel slammed a guy’s head into a desk and shotgunned another’s face off, the game is unrelenting in it’s depiction of survival and demise. Whether it be escaping the clutches of a ‘clicker’ or witnessing a public execution, The Last of Us paints a fearful image of humanity’s descent into violence and remorselessness.  

The Last of Us provided a fine end to the Playstation 3’s cycle.  As a film fan, it’s a visually stunning and incredible piece of storytelling, a persistent area of criticism by those of don’t truly understand the merits of the gaming industry. As a game, it’s an intense and gripping culmination of versatile mechanics and an unbelievable sense of immersion. Naughty Dog has created something that will undoubtably be remembered for decades to come, and has provided an experience that, while sounding cheesy, truly accentuates our “take for granted” lifestyles. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Best of 2013- Kurt Vile's "Wakin On A Pretty Daze"

Smoke Ring For My Halo was my favourite album of 2011. Since then Kurt Vile has steadily climbed up my “Favourite Artists” list and has gained attention of many, to the point of getting honoured by Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia with his own “Kurt Vile Day”. Therefore his fifth studio album was one that I was particularly looking forward to. 

Vile’s genre and style is a difficult one to fully define. He himself finds it challenging to name the key artists that have inspired him. Yet his work is never far from the term “psychedelic” , and is usually followed with nods to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. In my own unsophisticated words Vile’s music is a mixture of hard-hitting accents and rhythmically enticing uses of finger-picked acoustic notes, i.e. folky, rocky, psychedelic bliss (?)

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is a mild departure from the pure yet low-fi tones of his previous works. What’s particularly apparent about this album is the looser composition of each song’s multiplicity of melodies. Calling it a succession of tuneful montages would be a simplistic and offensive analysis, as each individual track is composed of tight progressions, segments and tones. The 8-minute opening track “Wakin On A Pretty Daze” is a good example of Vile’s vivid pursuit for the “perfect song”. A series of heavy acoustic chords enhanced by his traditional finger-picking, solos and inventiveness that perfectly blend into a meditative yet invigorating experience. 

But Vile’s musical understanding and application has the capacity to let a simple set of chords resonate throughout an entire piece. “KV Crimes’” punchy guitar and vigorous solos harken back to his blue-collar, lo-fi, classic roots. Meanwhile “Was All Talk”s finger-picking arrangement with a striding drum-beat suits the newly enlisted synth undercurrents perfectly. 

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is one of my favourite albums of 2013. While at times it feels slightly over-produced and lyrically uninteresting, Vile’s consistent and persistent strive for intricately balanced and fulfilling songs is one that never seizes to impress. Mirroring the title, this is an album that has a meditative and mystic charm that lasts well after its solid runtime. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Favourite Film and TV Characters: B.M.O

While not the first choice for many Adventure Time fans, B.M.O is one character that I myself don’t fully understand my own fondness for. After only watching the cartoon series for the last couple of months I’ve already become somewhat addicted to its bizarre and outright wacky concept of animated comedy. Comparisons have often been drawn to the likes of Ren and Stimpy and Courage the Cowardly Dog, and it’s fair to see why. While Adventure Time definitely plays it more child-friendly and whimsical in tone, the show’s creator Pendleton Ward doesn’t cower away from exploring some of his more eccentric and vivid sentiment and imagery. 

The entire show has a barrage of insanely “unique” and hilarious characters that cater for a wide audience. From Jake the Dog, a talking canine voiced by John DiMaggio who can manipulate his body into different shapes, to Lemongrab, an immensely creepy “experiment gone wrong” with a lemon for a head and a tendency to scream, Adventure Time isn’t short on variety. Yet amongst the craziness of it all, B.M.O has always stood out. While not a lead character per say, B.M.O manages to create an instantaneous connection even with his/her limited screen presence. 

Following on from the show’s surrealistic and “imaginative” entirety, B.M.O is a cross between a Gameboy and the original Macintosh. He/she (its gender is unknown) is Finn and Jake’s “living video game console, portable electrical outlet, music player, roommate, camera, alarm clock, toaster, flashlight, strobe light, skateboarder, friend, soccer player, video editor and video player”. There’s a joy to simply watching B.M.O walk into a room on its adorable little legs, or doing a kick-flip on a skateboard. Maybe it’s the notion that amongst candy people, walking mudfish and a psychotic heart voiced by George Takei, there’s a walking/talking/singing Gameboy that plays Abraham Lincoln Football on the screen. 
Personality-wise, B.M.O is a difficult one to summarise. Naturally protective of Finn and Jake, there’s a childlike wonder to its interactions and understanding of “normal” behaviour.  He/she regularly sings about emotions and human experiences such as friendship and pregnancy, offering a Pinocchio parallel. It regularly speaks to its reflection, known as Football, and teaches it the joys of real life. Yet it has some rather sinister motivations in certain instances. The simplistic yet precise animation of B.M.O’s body language and facial expressions goes a long way in adding further charisma and charm to the character. From its bouts of happiness to its scepticism over Jake and Finn’s intentions, B.M.O constantly shifts its personality but manages to remain enthralling throughout.

One particular episode sees B.M.O investigate the whereabouts of Finn’s sock. Not an interesting plot on a basic level. But with Ward’s twist of it being a 1950’s crime noire story animated in black and white, its a really bizarre and interesting look into B.M.O psyche. B.M.O narrates the entire episode and this highlights one feature of the character I can undoubtably justify, it’s voice. A lot of my love for B.M.O rests on its voice. Niki Yang, who also plays the Korean speaking Lady Rainicorn, offers a charming and rather cute personality to B.M.O. Whether it’s the “Engrish” nature of her accent or the fact that the character itself isn’t too sure on what’s going on, Yang brings an endearing quality. The line “B.M.O Chop. If this were a real attack, you would be dead”, is spurred at the most random timing, like many of her appearances, yet still manages to stick in the brain. 

While I keep hammering the essential notions of a true “character”, both in this feature and in my reviews, B.M.O is an odd exception to the “laws” of that criteria. It, like many of the show’s components, isn’t fully explained and honestly doesn’t need to be. While many have tried to read into the sketchy and convoluted question of B.M.O’s gender and feminism, what’s wrong with taking something at face value. B.M.O isn’t your typical animated character, and nor should he/she be. If character design or voice-acting has the capability to gain your attention and subsequent affection, then that’s enough for me to appreciate that individual. I genuinely want a real-life BMO. That’s not sad is it? -_-