Saturday, 14 March 2015

"It Follows"

I'm trying to get into horror media more right now. For years I've consistently had friends who are really into horror, but a bad experience with a Flash game screamer years ago and an aborted attempt to play Clock Tower have meant that I always felt too scared to really delve in. Recently, however, after watching some friends play the Silent Hills Playable Teaser I found that despite getting my pants scared off once or twice, I didn't get the expected nightmares, and actually wanted to go back for more. I decided it was time to start becoming a proper horror fan. Shortly afterwards some friends strongly recommended David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, so I got somebody to come with me to see it.

This isn't going to be a review, per se, as that's not the kind of thing I like to do. It'll be a personal reaction, and I won't be moderating spoilers, so I only recommend reading on if you've also seen the film.

I enjoyed it, but I think I went in with the wrong expectations. As a relative newbie to horror I was expecting it to scare me shitless the whole way through. I yelped like a child when Paul threw the football at the window, but that was the only real jump I got. There were a couple of good scares, such as when the spectre walks up behind Yara at a moment when you've been led to believe things are safe, and lots of tension. However, I realised afterwards that my inexperience in consuming horror had led me to focus too much on whether or not I was going to be scared instead of really watching the film properly.

I started thinking about how the central premise could be read. The idea of a sexually transmitted ghost is certainly new to me. With the principle cast all being teenagers, and the almost complete absence of any visible parental figures, it is fitting for the story to be about how scary sex can be. The obvious parallel to draw is sexually transmitted infections. However, I cannot help but bring my own baggage out when thinking about this, and I wonder if the spectre is more of a parellel for psychological trauma and mental illness than venereal disease.

Hugh has a problem. This problem can be alleviated somewhat by sharing it with someone, but this means that that they now have to deal with it. His attitude is to give it to someone else then run away. Let them figure it out. When Jay and her friends track him down for more information, he says that they shouldn't be in the same place. Hugh's solution to his problem sort of works. It is no longer immediately to him. However, it is not guaranteed that he is free of it. If Jay succumbs, it will come for him again. And while distancing himself from her means that the problem is no longer quite so close to him, it also means that he has no way of controlling or knowing whether Jay is able to deal with it properly. He is still on edge, and has cut himself off from someone he apparently cared about.

Jay struggles with the problem. She tries to communicate it to those close to her. This is a challenge, as it is something they cannot directly see, and while they love her and want to help her it is hard for them to believe what she is telling them. However, she persists, as do her friends. She involves them intimately in helping her tackle this problem. She gives them all the information she has. By staying close to her they end up at risk of being hurt by the problem themselves, but in doing so they are finally able to see that it is not imagined, that it is real and is a true danger to Jay.

She agrees with Greg to pass the problem on to him. She thinks that he is brave and will be able to handle it. However, this does not work. Greg is less brave than he is ignorant. He does not truly understand the problem. It is suggested that he maybe doesn't completely believe Jay as her other friends do. Certainly, he was not close enough to her to be there at a crucial moment when it became visible to everyone else. As a result, it catches him off-guard and Jay is back where she started, minus one friend.

She and the others hatch a hare-brained scheme to solve the problem, but it doesn't work. In the end, she and Paul come to an agreement. They share the problem, both of them fully aware of the nature of it, both knowing that they may never be rid of it completely. They have ways to distance themselves from it temporarily, but ultimately they must live with it. The last shot shows them walking down a street holding hands, the problem still present in the background. They appear a little pained, but calm, and do not acknowledge the problem behind them, but we are left to imagine that perhaps they know it's there. It is still real and dangerous, but by staying together, rather than distancing themselves from eachother, they can both be aware of the danger and protect eachother and themselves.

I think this can very easily be read as being about coping strategies for mental illness. Hugh's strategy is avoidant. Get rid of it, give it to someone else, make the barest minimum effort so that they know how to stop it getting back to me, then run away. He is not necessarily a cold or bad person. He is visibly pained when he drugs Jay, and while the way he introduces her to the spectre is shocking, one could easily believe that he does it this way because he does not think she will believe him if he doesn't force it on her. He does something really awful less because he wants to inflict pain on somebody else, but because he is so mortally afraid of the spectre that he want to distance himself from it as much as possible. Reading the spectre as a manifestation of mental illness, or emotional pain, or trauma: Hugh wants to avoid thinking about it or dealing with it, coping by pushing it out of his mind. He pushes it onto somebody else, giving them a portion of that stress, but then runs away from them, hoping to leave behind the fragment he left them with.

Conversely, Jay's strategy is, to my eye, ultimately to accept this thing that has been brought into her life. She and Paul take it on together, but they remain with eachother. It is slightly painful, but they both know that no matter what they do they can't completely escape that pain. Rather than running away and ending up paranoid and distant as Hugh has, they stay close so that they can protect eachother. They accept the spectre and their pain as parts of their lives, and are prepared to accept and share it equally.

This actually parallels some of my own personal experiences in coping with periods of anxiety and catastrophic thoughts or triggers. While dwelling on them too much is a dangerous trap, I've found that it also doesn't always help to push them away immediately. That can only end two ways: either they're going to come back, and I'm going to be just as ill-equipped to deal with them properly; or I push those triggering, stressful things out of my life entirely and miss out on things that could be good even if they're scary (which is a big part of what I'm dealing with right now). The times I've dealt best with anxiety have been when I've been able to hold the thought in my head and process it a bit before letting it go. I need to accept these things as a part of my life and the feelings as a valid part of me even if they're painful, so that I can cope with them. This is why I read this into the different ways Hugh and Jay handle the spectre.

That the spectre is not given one consistent appearance is important. There are many iconic monsters in horror, but Mitchell seems to have understood that by giving a monster a face the fear becomes abgout that specific face. By having his spectre appear as anybody, random straners or people close to its target, it is made clear that the horror isn't literally about this spectre: it's about the more general concepts, whatever the viewer might read them to be, whether it's being followed, sex, intimacy, or, as I've decided, emotional pain. Of course, monster-as-metaphor-for-general-concept probably isn't a new idea in horror, but I liked this way of handling it.

A specific reason I was attracted to watch this film was knowing that the soundtrack was by Disasterpeace, who did the music for Fez, a game which I loved. I'm a little bit uncertain how I felt about this music in the film though. There's one specific track that feels almost lifted from Fez, just with notes changed around, and that was a distraction for me. The pseudo-chiptune synths came off as a little incongruous for me in general. I liked the bass rumblings, but the lilting melodies just felt kind of... cute. I definitely would enjoy the music out of context, but occasionally it felt too noticeable for me in this film.

All my more horror-savvy friends really liked this film, and I certainly enjoyed it and appreciate it more after thinking about it. Hopefully I'll have the stomach to watch some more horror and maybe play a few of those horror games that terrify me, and maybe I'll get more interesting thoughts out of those!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Tumblr stumblr

As mentioned in my last entry I've started to crosspost things over to a Tumblr. I'm being selective, and posting only those bits of writing that feel like they're actually cohesive and interesting and have a purpose. I've also discovered that Tumblr allows for alot more flexibility than I expected in what you can put into a text post, so I can actually get things across pretty much in full. Enough that I could, theoretically, migrate things over fully, though I'm still averse to that idea. We'll see how things go though.

For those who want to be able to follow, HERE'S THE LINK.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Venetian Snares: "Rossz Csillag Alatt Született"

Last time I talked about the album that really formed my lasting taste in music, the first CD I ever bought, which has strong connections to that time in my life. This time I'm going to talk about an album that feels very closely tied to where I am right now: Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (Hungarian, pronounced roughly "rose tshillog ollot syooletet").

Canadian artist Aaron Funk is known stereotypically for his harsh use of breakbeats and samples and mostly 7/4 time in his music. This album definitely delivers on those fronts, but employs alot of samples of classical music (including several from pieces by Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer), which for all I know might have been partially played by Funk himself. However, what has set this apart from what other few works I've heard by Snares is the tone of the album, what feels like an overarching theme.

For me, this is an album about depression and anxiety.

The title translates roughly to "born under a bad star", an expression referring to being born with bad luck, a curse. The track names follow in this vein. The first track is Sikertelenség, "failure". Others include Szerencsétlen ("unlucky"), Szamár Madár ("stupid bird"), and Hiszékeny ("gullible"). And the music is almost always taught, strained, frustrated, despondent. It's not like Winnipeg Is A Frozen Shithole, which is a witty parody of itself, or Meathole, which, at least for now, feels to me a bit contrived and artificial in its anger.

This album wasn't an instant favourite for me. This happens occasionally, that I will pick something up and listen to it a few times, but only really start to enjoy it weeks, months, maybe years later when the time is right. I only came to appreciate I Care Because You Do (mentioned in my last post) after I had listened to Richard D. James Album. I have a couple of other Venetian Snares CDs that haven't quite clicked yet (Meathole mentioned above, Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding, which is too inorganic and cold, and Horse & Goat, which is just too weird). However, some time last year I found myself listening to Rossz again having put it down for three years after buying it and suddenly it just fell into place. It's practically been on loop for me since then.

Every track feels like it's describing something, some emotion, some aspect of being afflicted with mental illness.

Sikertelenség is a short introduction, a creepy, awkward little piano piece. It tentatively steps forward, before falling over itself in an ugly, disordered mess. It's a socially awkward person, trying to appeal to other people but making a fool of themselves, and what might be trivial or mildly comical to others is awful and hideous and unloveable in that person's own mind. It's a sikertelenség — a failure.

Szerencsétlen begins with jittery, uneasy plucked strings leading into uneven, clipped bursts. It's paranoid, jumpy, nervous. Even once the beat and the percussion settle in, this anxious tone is maintained. It seems like Funk's standard tools of the spitty, cut-up amen break and the awkward, off-balance 7/4 time signature were made for this purpose, but the sampled classical strings he uses are brilliant as well. All the plucked string riffs after the middle, played with the tips of the fingers, evoke nervous, uncertain, uncomfortable contact. A creepy, undesirable person touching you. Or maybe you're that person. I particularly love the specific back-and-forth riff used at at 2:06 and isolated at 4:31 to close the track out.

Öngyilkos Vasárnap is the first track that makes the tone of the album explicit. It uses sampled vocals from Billie Holiday's rendition of Szomorú Vasárnap ("Gloomy Sunday") by Hungarian Composer Rezső Seress. It is a song about suicide. I feel that this is the perfect place in the album to do this. We've had suggestions of the mood, delivered to us organically in the form of pure instrumentals. Now when we get a track that is very explicitly about killing oneself it does not feel tawdry and contrived as it might were it the first track ("Hello this album is about being sad and I'm going to make sure you know this by putting a sad song about suicide right at the beginning"). Its place within the aesthetic structure of the album is brilliant as well: the slower, plodding pace is a break from Szerencsétlen's harsh breaks. The introduction of vocals is a departure that feels natural. And it works conceptually as well. We've been aware there might be something wrong. Something we can't identify or describe but that makes certain things difficult, that hurts us somehow, that makes us feel anxious and ill-at-ease. It pushes us away from people. And as we slip into solitude to avoid the anxiety, depression takes its place, and all we can think of is how we'd be better off dead.

Felbomlasztott Mentőkocsi takes us back not only to instrumentals, but in fact removes even the percussion. It's one of the most horrible, unpleasant, unsettling pieces of music I've ever heard, competing with Aphex Twin's Ventolin and Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It sounds like it's building up to something absolutely awful. It feels just like getting hit by a single anxious thought that then won't go away, that sticks around, pecking at you, taking up all your attention and energy, feeding and growing, spiralling, catastrophising out of control, until you're completely convinced that only the absolute worst possible thing can happen and that you're worthless and insane for even thinking this. What's worst is that it doesn't even reach a proper climax or ending. It just kind of... runs out of energy and twists itself into horrid, echoey silence.

The title, by the way, apparently translates to "disintegrated ambulance", which makes me wonder if Aaron Funk is actually telling a deliberate story with these last few tracks. A failed suicide attempt that resulted in a rush to the hospital?

And after that rush and the anaesthetic wears off, we wake up. It is dawn — Hajnal. This is the most firmly and clearly structured track so far. It never strays from a beat or clear rythm. And unlike Felbomlastott's unresolved buildup this manages a satisfying climax, a drop, even, at 4:11. It's like after a suicide attempt we're starting to resolve in our head that something is really wrong, something that needs tackling. Hajnal, as well as literally meaning "dawn", is a name. The name of a person. Is this track describing that moment where a person finally opens up to somebody else about the chaos that's been going on in their head for weeks, months, years? Is that why this track has a more satisfying, clear structure than those previous? To reflect the satisfying feeling of telling somebody something's wrong? It's certainly still not happy though. In fact it adds a new emotion to the mix: anger. Anger at oneself. At one's own inadequacy for being unable to function normally, to deal with the trivial, normal shit that everybody else seems to take in their stride. The breaks are actually pitched or balanced lower than they are in Szerencsétlen. It's definitely angry where that track is anxious. And just listen to that sound at 3:41. Perhaps that kickass drop reflects a more general snapping point, the release of a buildup of tension that, while it certainly lets some poison out, still leaves behind a knotted mess. The lingering, stuttering ending reflects this. It doesn't seem to quite know when it's stopping. There's that social awkwardness again. How do I even end a conversation elegantly?

Galamb Egyedül and Második Galamb are essentially a single track split into two. In fact, I only found out that they were two tracks when I went through the track listing to put this post together, as they bleed between eachother so seamlessly. We go back to sampled voice, but instead of sung vocals, it's now spoken word: a woman talking about her inability to reconcile her irrational fear of pigeons. This explains the pigeons on the album cover, and the two track titles translating to "pigeon, alone" and "second pigeon". Apart from the desperately morose sampled instrumentals, the monologue is gut-wrenching to me. It's so pathetic. So pitiable. Almost silly. Pigeons. Really? That's the thing? After six tracks, a descent into madness, a suicide attempt, and a confession, what comes out is that you're afraid of pigeons? The pigeon is the most mundane, ubiquitous bird imaginableand yet it's frightening to you?

But that's exactly it. The pigeon the woman refers to doesn't need to be a pigeon. It's any given trivial, meaningless, everyday thing that triggers you. And because it's trivial and meaningless that just adds shame on top of the existing anxiety.

"It's just a pigeon."
"Pigeon, why can you scare me?"

And the musical progression reflects this. We start with maudlin strings, then the old nervous, ticky-tacky breaks layer on top as deep, wobbly synth bass layers underneath. The tension and noise builds. At 2:59 the word "pigeon" is suddenly isolated in a gap in the percussion. It's downright comical. Mocking. Self-deriding. The anxiety continues to mount and the tone gets more and more sour, more growly, more angry. And then at 3:20 after a sudden build up it just explodes in these amazing syncopated, violent distorted bass drum hits. This part seriously just kicks my fucking ass every single time. This anger, anger at oneself, one's own irrationality and stupidity just thrashes around out of control until the structure tears itself apart at 4:35, but even then it continues to flail its horribly mutilated, degloved limbs around, losing more and more of its original form until finally it disintegrates completely and dissolves into white noise.

Szamár Madár is the only track that I feel is maybe misplaced, only because it feels a bit too neat in its form and too vague in its tone. It's certainly not a bad track by any aesthetic definition. Perhaps this is just where my reading loses its grip. The title translates literally as "donkey bird", but "donkey" seems to be used to mean "stupid". This title definitely follows logically from how I'm interpreting the previous two tracks. But what is the tone of the music itself? Sorrowful? Vaguely angry? Perhaps this is my imagined character turning their ire to the object of their anxiety, blaming it, externalising and projecting their self-hatred. Or maybe the relative simplicity of the track's structure and instrumentation signify the beginnings of being able to put an organised, readable form to one's mental ills.

Hiszékeny is the Goon Gumpas of this album. A break in mood, it's gentle and lilting. Almost infantile. I already wrote about how great I think this sort of structural tool is, but it works specifically within the story I've been writing about here. After offloading one's ills, or finding something to blame, or a way to give shape to them, there's a calm. A relief. A period of bliss. Almost euphoria. One forgets that one ever felt bad. Forgets what it felt like at all. Imagines that it can never happen again. But of course, this complacency is misleading. The babyish tone is appropriate. The only reason you think this is all it takes to be happy is because you are hiszékeny — gullible.

Kétsarkú Mozgalom was another track that I initially felt unsure of. Its samples seem to make things too explicit. There was a genuine poignancy to the woman talking about her fear of pigeons earlier on, but now she is talking simply about being unhappy where she was not unhappy before. It felt too simple, too obvious. However, as I've listened to the album repeatedly, I've realised how this fits into the overall structure. It's about finally realising how fundamental the problem is. That the problem is not really the pigeon at all. The pigeon is just a projection of the fact that you don't love yourself. It's not about blaming someone or something else or offloading your problems onto them. The problem exists solely within you.

As the penultimate piece it is a summary. A conclusion. Just as a good essay or dissertation starts by telling you what it's going to say and ends by telling you what it's said,so this track tells you in simple terms what the whole album is really about. And it is a summary in compositional terms, too. It collects all the moods we've been through, the sadness, the anxiety, the anger. It even reuses a specific structural feature from a key earlier moment: the gap leading into the reintroduction of the melody at 3:03 is a repeat of how the two "pigeon" tracks bleed into eachother.

And just as this album has its Goon Gumpas, so too does it have its Logon Rock Witch. Senki Dala is a quiet ending. But it is sad. We've realised that the problem lies within ourselves, but we are not yet able to fix it. Right now we may not be angry, or anxious, or suicidal, but we are not happy. For now there's just this ringing, hollow emptiness. A dull void inside us. We're a zombie. A nobody. And this is nobody's song — senki dala. Things will continue to be difficult. There's no satisfying conclusion. It doesn't simply end. It just slowly decays away.

This album hits home for me lately because it feels like it is describing my life right now. It might have been apparent, but alot of what I wrote above was drawn from personal experience.

I've been depressed and lonely for a very long time. It's hard to say exactly how long. I know I wrote a blog post in February 2011 pretty much saying that, but the events that I think are the source of this go back way further. In the middle of last year something happened that made it all come crashing down on me, and it became unbearable. Those closest to me know already, and I'm willing to disclose it to others I know personally, but it's not something I'm going to talk about publicly.

Almost everything up there, if it wasn't already apparent, was from personal experience. I don't know if Aaron Funk was really making an album about mental illness when he composed these songs (supposedly it's just about being a pigeon on Budapest's Royal Palace), but the structure, the story of it feel like it really reflects what I've been going through. The awkwardness is mine. The anxiety is mine. The depression is mine. The pigeon is also, I suppose, mine. I am the sikertelenség. I am hiszékeny. I am the stupid bird. The whole thing seems to be about me, and even though it's all miserable there's something really beautiful about that misery, about loving it, owning it, understanding it, accepting that as awful as it is it's still important. It was hard to write this post without just typing "I can't get over this album"

because I can't get over this album.

(I should clarify, however, that I have never self-harmed and have never attempted suicide, though those thoughts have definitely been there on occasion, thankfully not recently)

The last eight months have been awful.  However, what happened was something that was going to happen eventually, and I'm very lucky to have had friends who are as supportive as they are. After some time and coaxing I spoke to a doctor about it and was referred to therapy as well as put on a course of antidepressants. I'm nearing the end of this first round of therapy (I had the second last of eight weekly sessions today). It took alot of time and effort to unravel things enough to find an angle to work with, but today's session was very positive, if difficult and quite upsetting. We finally set some real goals. Taking better care of this blog is one of them. It's one of the few ways I really allow myself to love the things I love, and love myself. Not to protect them, protect myself, from imagined harm. I've been very on and off with it for years and keep saying I'll do more with it, but now I see the real value it has to me.

I've received encouragement from friends to get this content onto Tumblr somehow. It's definitely the more widely used and circulated format. I can't migrate it over fully as I don't think Tumblr allows you to freely post images and videos within the text body as I often do. However, I do want to find some sort of compromise. I might try crossposting my more important entries over to a Tumblr so I can get more visibility. I'll have to see what the format is actually capable of but I think it would be valuable.

If you've read this far, thanks for doing so.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sonic 2 8-bit ending

My most recent post drew a bit of traffic to this blog, and a couple of people responded really positively to my old writings about the intro movie for Sonic CD. My friend and contemporary Chris Cox posted a sweet little redesign which he said was partially inspired by it.

On its own it actually sort of reminds me of Sonic Pocket Adventure, a little-known but surprisingly competent game for the Neo Geo Pocket Color.

However, he also made a dusk version of the same image, with a different colour palette...

...which reminded me of something else entirely: the ending sequences for the 8-bit version of Sonic 2.

Although the 8-bit Sonics are definitely less developed than their mainstream 16-bit counterparts, I had a Game Gear long before I had a Mega Drive, so these games hold a very special place in my heart. The ending sequence to this game is very simple: it's just Sonic running from left to right across a scrolling background (joined by Tails if you got all the Chaos Emeralds for the good ending), with credits displaying at the bottom of the screen. However, they do something really nice, by changing the colour palette through 9 different iterations to convey a transition from midday, through afternoon, to dusk, and finally to night.

Aren't these colour palettes wonderful! I love Chris's redesign and colours, but his dusk version still feels a little bit like there's just a magenta filter over the image. Each of these, though, feels almost like an independant, new colour idea in its own right! There are such bold, shameless changes in saturation, hue, and tone. The almost pure grey sky in the second image. The bright, cold blue trees against the rich, almost cherry red sky in the sixth. The way the default neutral grey of the checkerboard pattern completely takes on the ambient colour.

Even the whole balance of contrast is played with to suggest the changing light conditions. Take a look at just the 5 colours used in the trees and grass.

At the start a strong, overhead, midday light is suggested with a high contrast between the lightest and darkest tones, and a gradual gradient formed by the 3 colours in the middle. However, as the sun goes down, this balance changes. The first colour actually becomes darker than the second, to suggest a strongly tinted light catching on the edges of leaves. In the 5th and 6th palettes, the second and third colours are almost, if not completely, identical, and quite bright, while the shadow tones remain very dark, to suggest the sharp, long shadows and the light getting right in your eyes that happen at sunset. And as night falls, the contrast within the trees becomes muted, so that,where before they were mostly darker than the sky, they are now entirely lighter. And all this is done without actually changing any of the pixels in the artwork, just shuffling the palette.

It's really brilliant. I want all lighting changes in cartoons to be done this way!

The music on the Sonic 2 endings is really lovely, too. I kind of prefer the bad ending theme. The soft attack and slow decay of the lead instrument give it a wistful quality, and the melodies, while still upbeat, are a little melancholy too, so it really does the job of marking the fact that you've beaten the game but something sad still happened (that is, Tails died because you're a failure).

They also both have this bouncy triplet rythm to them which really matches the pacing of Sonic's running animation!

I think 8-bit Sonic 2 actually has a really good soundtrack in general. These games are from a time when credits lists for games weren't really exhaustice and often used pseudonyms, so the composers for this game are listed as "Tomozou", "Simachan", and "Ray". The only one I can get any more details on is the first, Tomozou Endo. I may have mentioned this before, but a long time ago I was kind of into making covers of stuff in a PC version of the music maker from Mario Paint called Mario Paint Composer. I started a project to cover everything from the game but lost interest before I finished. I think some of what I did still kind of holds up though!

Linking to my old Youtube account is kind of embarassing but hopefully the stuff that's on there isn't too weird.

This is kind of a tangent, but all that colour stuff made me think of  the cartoon My Life as a Teenage Robot. It did some really really nice stuff with colour in general, and would just entirely replace the main character's normal white and aqua colour scheme to suit the mood and lighting.

It's actually a pretty good cartoon overall, from what I can remember. I had a quick thumb through some episodes to grab those screenshots and it made me want to rewatch it. I think it went a bit under the radar at the time but it had a respectable run of three 20+ episode seasons and a couple of specials.

I've got alot on my plate in terms of cartoon watching right now, though. I only just got round to properly starting to watch Adventure Time a little while ago and oh my god I love it so much. All the characters are so perfect and the writing is consistently great. I think about writing about it sometimes but chances are the fandom's already said everything there is to say there. Anyway after that I need to get up to speed on Steven Universe as people seem to be responding really positively to that, too. So it's kinda hard to justify the time I'd spend rewatching something right now.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Richard D. James Album and How Jonno Got Into The Music Jonno Likes

It took me a while to really get "into" music. I remember during the period of my life where Kazaa was a thing (I never bothered with Napster), and my most prominent social group was an online Sonic the Hedgehog community, I had a few things I liked that people I knew got me into as well as alot of videogame music remixes. However, I only started to develop my own taste in music after I started going to uni.

The album that best defines this period and my ongoing taste in music is Aphex Twin's Richard D. James album.

There's a little story attached to this.

I used to play rythm games alot. For a long time I was very into DDR, Pump It Up, In the Groove, even Beatmania IIDX. I guess after my first online community the rythm game scene was my next big thing for me. I spent alot of money and time in the Namco Funscape, Trocadero and other arcades during this time, before I lost interest in the people and moved away from the games.

These games mostly exist in arcades, with some console versions if you're willing to buy a junky and expensive plastic mat to stomp about on, but there are also unofficial simulators you can download for PC. The most widely used for DDR is called Stepmania. You can plug one of the actual mats into your PC to play it, but you can also just use the arrow keys on your keyboard. It's obviously not the same full-body experience, but it's still reasonably fun, and alot easier and more convenient.

As well as being able to play the actual Konami songs from the real DDR games in Stepmania, you can put any song you like into the game and make what is called a "simfile" for it, crafting your own sequence of steps to go with it. At some point people figured out that since most players are just using their keyboards, you can make simfiles that aren't constrained by the limits of what a person's legs can do, and instead make them specifically to be played on a keyboard. This leads to much harder simfiles.

I played alot of keyboard Stepmania for a period, and one song that had a particularly fun simfile made for it was Aphex Twin's Girl/Boy Song.

It was a weird kind of music I hadn't heard before, and the steps being meticulously synced up to the detailed polyrythms made me appreciate it more. At this point I was probably about 18 and I don't think I'd ever actually purchased an album in my life. Aphex Twin would end up being the first music I bought. Oddly, because I am a contrary sort of person, I didn't actually buy Richard D. James Album first, I got I Care Because You Do instead, which initially I didn't like too much. Then I wised up and got the former, and it's actually remained one of my favourite albums to this day.

I'm the kind of person who pretty much never puts my music library on shuffle, almost exclusively listening to albums as a single unit, in order. This does mean I end up getting a good sense of which tracks I want to skip (even if I don't actually do so). Richard D. James Album does not have a track I ever want to skip, and this is very rare indeed. It's not just that every one is high quality on its own. They all feel very cohesive, and nothing is out of place. There's alot of warmth in the synths and samples of 4, Fingerbib, To Cure a Weakling Child, Good Gumpas, Yellow Calx, and Girl/Boy Song, but even those tracks that fall on the harsher side, Cornish Acid, Peek 824545201, and Carn Marth, have this fuzzy, gritty intimacy in their sound so that they're clearly part of the same world. A world of close family, wooden floorboards, rusty gates, dust, home.

There are neat little tricks of pacing and linking the songs together. Cornish Acid, Peek, and Fingerbib employ this weird beeping audio artefact at their beginnings and/or ends, possibly a modem or telephone sound, maybe taken from some specific audio equipment malfunction. I think it's brilliant to juxtapose these three linked tracks in the first half of the album, right after the intro track of 4, as it estalishes the mood and tone early. Richard brings you into the place he wants you to be in at the start, so that you're sitting there comfortably for the rest of the album.

Goon Gumpas is almost an anomoly. It's the only song that doesn't employ any percussion at all, and is obviously more sedate than anything else on here. It's the one track that a person would probably be least likely to listen to on its own, out of context. However, I consider it an important part of the pacing of the album as a whole. I think a temporary shift in tone is appropriate just before entering the final act of anything, and this includes music. It's a signifier, to let you know that you're coming towards the end, and should prepare yourself. Additionally, the soft string instruments used are a mirror of what is to come two tracks later in Girl/Boy Song, so that when you hear the latter it feels like a reprise, like a motif, a theme that's been building up and is now being resolved. It's satisfying.

The final track, Logon Rock Witch, carries the sinister tone of some of the earlier tracks, but is also a little lighthearted, made out of silly sounds from children's toys. I feel this is a good way of relieving the gravitas that comes with a really outstanding and intense penultimate track, so that the end of the album comes more easily.

I've gone through phases of being into other stuff (most notably Japanese gabber/hardcore/speedcore, also introduced to me by Stepmania), and have had individual albums that I've been really obsessed with for a period, but this one has remained the most consistently listenable for me. And a large part of my taste in music can basically be traced back to it. Having bought it, Amazon started giving me recommendations, which lead me to artists like Boards of Canada, Plaid, and Kid 606. And plenty of similar music would get made into Stepmania simfiles, leading me to Venetian Snares, The Flashbulb, Hrvatski, and others. I quit DDR and Stepmania but this stuff has stayed with me.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

"Seconds" by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Aaaaaaaaaaaah blog blog blog I missed you so much! I haven't written anything in you for months and I'm sorry. It may seem like I left you for that cute new Tumblr thing but I barely post anything there either. Truth be told, I've gone from working on a really heavy, tiring job (see it here and here) that took up all my weekends and energy for a good couple of months, to taking time off all paid work to immerse myself in a personal project for the first time since uni. It will be seen eventually, and it isn't going to be anything grand but I know the exercise will have been productive.

Today, however, I am taking a break from that project to write in here. I recently picked up and read Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, a one-off graphic novel which is his newest work after Scott Pilgrim. I'd never actually read the latter (only having seen the movie, always a shameful thing to admit to for me), but Joe Sparrow specifically recommended Seconds to me, and the man knows me very well so I had to pick it up.

This isn't going to be a "review". Such things have their place, but many will have written reviews about this book (I haven't read any of them), and it's not my intention to write a brief summary and a watered down opinion for the benefit of people who might be considering picking the thing up. I'll be writing about some specific reactions I had to it, and will assume throughout that the reader has also read the book. Thus, spoilers will be everywhere.

On the whole I really enjoyed it. In particular the story tapped very potently into thoughts I've had for years about regrets and mistakes and owning your decisions. O'Malley's art is good, too.

However, there were two major aspects of the story that felt misjudged somehow. They were Max, and the other house spirit (or witch, or shadow, or mirror, as it is variously referred to).

When I first read through it felt wrong to me that Katie ends up back together with Max at the end. At first I wrote this off to my own emotional baggage around breakups leading me to feel that once you've broken up with somebody it's clear that it was never meant to be and you just have to move on no matter what. However, as I thought about it more and reread the book, I now feel certain that aspects of how Max's character are portrayed aren't quite right.

In order for it to feel thematically correct for Katie and Max to be together at the end, we as the audience need to believe that he is truly valuable, important, and healthy in her life. However, I never felt like the story was convincing me of this. The first time we see Max he frankly comes off as a smarmy shit. He gives Katie his sparkly smile and she melts. We are shown that Katie is infatuated with him, informing us that we're supposed to like him too. However, nothing in this first encounter makes me, at least, like him at all. The story seems to be suggesting that even Katie's feelings for him are entirely superficial, as her reaction is all passion, hormones, irrational emotion, not an honest response to him doing positive things for her as a person. In fact, their whole interaction seems wrong to me given the backstory. It doesn't look like two people who were in a relationship for four years (by which time most couples have moved from the "passion" stage to the "commitment" or "companionate" stage) and then broke up, but who still sincerely love eachother months later. It looks like a girl talking to her high-school crush. However, we're supposed to buy into this vague, nebulous, unconvincing magnetism Max has for Katie. And her feelings are so apparently shallow that she blows him off immediately.

One could say that this first encounter is maybe too brief to establish anything more than this. For Katie's part it's maybe not unreasonable: her avoidant nature (the key aspect of her personality as far as the story is concerned!) is coming out and she's pushing him away. However, I don't feel that this is an excuse from a storytelling point of view. Max ends up being central to the plot, arguably the chief external influence in Katie's descent into her mistake-ridden mess, so the first scene in which we see him, in which his entire relationship to the protagonist is set up, and in which all our expectations and perceptions of him are established, deserves more than these insubstantial four pages.

Subsequent sightings do little to improve my perceptions of Max. The second time around is more of the same: smarmy smile, gets cut short, again with a plot excuse. The third time we actually get to see the backstory. This is the point at which, even if we allow the brevity of the previous encounters, we can expect to really see what Max is like as a person. However, that still doesn't happen. We get to know that he was, in fact, a smarmy cock, and that he and Katie conversed easily before boinking. And somewhere in there a four-year relationsip hahppened. But we're told this, not shown. I finally get the goods on what went down between them, and I still don't love him as much as she does. For crying out loud, the most prominent part of this story is when Katie says "I guess what we had wasn't that strong". The first honest-sounding thing she's said about or to him so far.

And then Katie figures out that she can fix their relationship with the magic mushrooms. This is where things start to feel really off. She's seen him twice so far in the novel, and both times she blew him off within a minute (the second time was during a revision, but it still counts). Hell, both times he was actually trying to talk things over maturely and she still petulantly pushed him away. So suddenly being expected to believe that she still loves him enough to immediately get back into bed with him is a bit much.

(By the way, compare all this to Katie's relationship with Hazel, which we see develop organically and which provides Katie with important emotional outlet and feedback, and the one time we see signs of it breaking down, when Katie neglects the friendship for just a couple of days and finds their conversation suddenly awkward, it comes off as far more poignant and well-observed than umpteen iterations of "I need him to love me")

Now, up to this point I've been commenting retroactively. I'm calling aspects of Max and Katie's interaction "off" or "wrong" based on my knowledge of what comes later (that their relationship is fulfilling). However, in the vacuum of reading the story for the first time, there is actually nothing fundamentally wrong, at least from a storytelling point of view. Because it seems like Bryan Lee O'Malley is setting something up. And as Katie makes more revisions, and things start to spiral out of control, and in particular when she changes things relating to Max, this seems to be reinforced. She finds herself lying next to him in bed, they're still together, living together, and even married. She finds herself stunned at having his stuff in her room, and indulges herself by huffing his clothes in the wardrobe (a physical, hormonal response). However, many things are wrong. Though having boy things in her room is exciting, she is visibly unsettled by the compromise of her personal space, even as she denies it to the narration. Even less progress has been made on Lucknow, her new restaurant, than in the original timelines. Max is running the proceedings on it, not her. The servers at Seconds all love him and not her. She has compromised important aspects of her life for her obsession with Max.

And as she makes more revisions things only get worse. Based on his suggestion, she revises the decision to set up the new restaurant at Lucknow, and instead goes with Talmadge. And having retroactively ceded more control to Max, she finds him invading her life further. It is no longer "my" restaurant but "ours". The look, the feel of it is being done according to his wishes, wishes that, by the way, she literally cannot imagine herself agreeing to (and this is a man she went out with for four years?). The restaurant will now bear their shared initials, instead of her name. Her boundaries have been compromised. More revisions, and she compromises them still further, letting him get ever more stiflingly close, obsessively telling herself that him still loving her at the end of every day is the most important thing. It gets so bad that the world itself seems to start falling apart, and even familiar, comfortable, immutable Seconds starts getting changed according to Max's alien tastes.

These are all clear signs. Max is a destructive, negative influence in Katie's life. Focusing on him is a mistake. Every single thing we see of him in the story indicates that he is not just a red herring: he is the red herring. She makes the most sweeping changes to satisfy her need to be with him, and it ends up literally destroying everything. That is why, in the end, when she gets back together with him, I felt unsatisfied. One could make the argument that the problem was Katie's attitude towards Max, rather than Max himself, that her relationship with him was only destructive when she allowed her boundaries to be compromised for it... but I'm honestly not convinced the nuance is there.

The other confounding aspect for me is the other house spirit that Katie accidentally brings in from Lucknow. Simply put, I'm not sure it's actually a necessary plot element at all.

Thematically, the focus of the story is owning one's mistakes. rather than worrying about undoing them: to instead accept the consequences as a natural part of one's life. The crux of the plot is that the protagonist finds a method that allows her to erase and redo any mistakes she makes, but she abuses it, and finds that it ends up creating a convoluted, confused mess of a life that leaves her less happy than she started. It's a fantastic idea for a story, the kind of thing one imagines practically writing itself.

However, in order to start the degeneration of reality that builds up to the climax, O'Malley makes use of a plot device I'm not sure was ever needed. Katie finds an ancient pot or cauldron in the site of her up-and-coming new restaurant, and decides to take it home and, on a weird whim, uses the dirt in the bottom as some kind of fertiliser for the magic mushrooms that enable her to erase mistakes. It turns out that the pot was carrying the house spirit of the Lucknow building, and it uses the mushrooms itself to tear apart reality in bitter revenge for having been forgotten and neglected for hundreds of years.

Thematically this just doesn't seem relevant. The story is about mistakes. Does this mean that taking some old pot with dirt in it and pouring it over some mushrooms is a mistake? No, it's meaningless. A mistake is distracting your best chef from his kitchen and causing one of your servers to get horribly burned. A mistake is pushing away the person you love. A mistake is compromising your personal boundaries. Pouring some dirt on some mushrooms is not a mistake.

The shadow is used as the motivating force for things to start going truly wrong with the world. As Katie finds that her revisions are tying herself in knots, the shadow is getting stronger, and is using the mushrooms to tear reality apart. The angst of the protagonist is framed against a larger crisis involving the entire world, a well-trodden storytelling tool. However, I don't feel the other house spirit was a necessary device to enable this. It would be perfectly believable for reality to start buckling simply because Katie is using the mushrooms too much and to make too big changes. In fact I think it would feel more organic, as the further she goes back to make revisions the more confusing and alien the new world seems to her anyway: it would make sense for reality lose its grip on itself as Katie loses her grip on her life.

Ultimately she has to placate the shadow in order to right things. She talks it into calming down and letting her bring it back to its proper home. She has a face-off with its horrifying final form, and while this certainly provides a nice climax, the dialogue doesn't feel like it's really tackling the themes of the story as directly as it needs to. We get that in the epilogue, but the final "battle" just feels... divorced and irrelevant. And to be honest I don't know that we needed this second house spirit to provide a scary final boss either. The shadow could just be the amalgamated spectres of all the Katies from all the abandoned timelines or something. That would feel way better.

Again, what is the story about? Is it about house spirits? Is it about placating some superstitious belief? No, it's about believing in your own choices. The idea of house spirits is perfectly fine plot device to kick things off, but having one be the final boss as if that's the whole point is just weird.

So that's my thoughts. Again, it's a good comic and I liked it. I'm just picky. I'm sure if you've read anything I've ever written you know that.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tumblr bumblr

So I gave in and registered a Tumblr a little while ago and I decided I should finally start posting things to it. For the moment I've mostly filled it up with older art I've already posted here but there is one new thing (near the bottom). Also a bunch of reblogs. This doesn't mean I will discontinue this blog, just that artwork will be going on the Tumblr, and written things will be going on here. It might be redundant to post this notification here since I generally operate under the assumption that nobody really reads this blog (mostly because I don't update it regularly, also I think this platform is dead?).

Anyway here's the link.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Friday Saturday not hourly comics

There's this thing called Hourly Comics Day where people draw a comic documenting what's happening every hour for the waking part of the day, and some people I know and like have done it (most notable for me are Katie Tiedrich and Joe), and it seems fun, so even though it wasn't Hourly Comics Day I decided to do some myself last Friday and Saturday. I didn't post them before since I wanted to give that last post some space. Anyway, they cover watching the Kill la Kill finale, playing some videogames, and then a Pathfinder session the next day! It turned out to be hilarious so it was a good 24 hours to cover. However they're not actually hourly at all and are also hilariously rough and I drew them too small plus I am malcoordinated so you might not be able to read the words. I was going to clean them up in Photoshop but in the end I didn't even so much as tweak the levels. Fuck the police. They were fun to do and kind of therapeutic. I'll have to do them again some day. Oh yeah, the first and last ones contain Kill la Kill ep 24 spoilers in case anyone cares.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Brilliance of Undefined Fantastic Object's scoring system.

In the last two posts I made about games I talked about level design in the Touhou series, and also mentioned two other facets of games, mechanics and avatar design. I only briefly touched on these other two aspects with respect to Touhou. I addressed that ideally I think a game's mechanics (in this case, its scoring sytem) should allow players' relative skill to be distinguished at all levels: it should be relevant both for the hardcore, high-scoring nerd and the just-trying-to-survive casual gamer. I also said that, of the ones I'd played, the Touhou games didn't really have scoring systems that excel at this. However, at the time I hadn't played the 12th installment in the series, Undefined Fantastic Object. I think this game has a system that is rewarding and intuitive, and is also useful at all levels of play.

In accordance with the title, it is focused around little cartoon UFOs that appear when specific, marked enemies are destroyed. These UFOs come in three colours, blue, green, and red, and some flash between the colours in that order.

See that big fairy in the top left with the green UFOs above its head? That contains one of these things.
The rightmost UFO is a flashing one, as indicated by the white border.

If the player collects three UFOs of the same colour in a row, a larger UFO of that colour appears (alternatively, collecting one of each colour will produce a flashing UFO).

This UFO remains either until it leaves after twelve seconds or the player destroys it, and while it is present it will draw any items dropped by enemies on the entire screen into itself (these consist of red Power items which increase the power of the player's shots, and blue Point items which award points). If it is destroyed any items it sucked in are automatically awarded to the player with a multiplied value, another small UFO of the same colour is released, and a specific bonus is given depending on the colour of the UFO. Additionally, if it collected at least a set number of total items, a further colour-dependant reward is given.

This system is useful to the player. Usually, in order to collect items they must either be touched directly as they fall down the screen, or the player must move above the Point of Collection, an invisible line about 1/4 to 1/5 of the way from the top where all items are automatically drawn to the player character. This is also the point where Point items, which are worth more the further up the screen they are, reach their maximum value. Thus, using UFOs to collect items offers a convincing alternative to this risky strategy, especially since they automatically escalate Point items to their maximum value and give a potentially hefty multiplier on top. The element of risk isn't eliminated though: in many levels the bullet patterns seem specifically designed to offer a challenge to those aiming to grab swerving UFOs, and given how many of them there might be on screen at a time, and that one off-colour collection will screw up your combo and thus your next UFO timing, excessive greed can still lead to death. Not to mention that it is perfectly possible for a UFO to simply leave before you can destroy it if you get too greedy with getting items into it, in which case you simply lose everything it had absorbed.

I think this is a good system because it feels rewarding. It offers specific things that you have to do, and tangibly rewards you for doing them. Contrast this with the game with my least favourite scoring system, Mountain of Faith. In this, the maximum value for Point items is determined by your "Faith", which is increased by collecting Faith items that are dropped from enemies in the same fashion as Power and Point items. However, your Faith also drops rapidly if you haven't collected any items for a couple of seconds. As well as often rewarding menial conservatism rather than bursty risk-taking, it feels like it's designed to punish you for not doing things, instead of rewarding you for doing things. It's important to note my use of the word "feels" here: there's technically no difference, as lost oppurtunity cost is the same whether it takes the form of directly losing resources now or losing potential resources in the future. However, I know which one feels less enjoyable. It's acceptable to feel punished for an obvious mistake, such as losing a life, but trying to figure out ways to stagger enemy destruction and item collection through dry periods feels arbitrary and tedious. By contrast, the UFOs are obvious and satisfying. They're a clear, shiny carrot on a stick, and the gratification for collecting them is near instant.

What's really best about this system, though, is that the different colours give different effects. Red UFOs grant extra lives (1/4 of a life each for filling the UFO with items and for destroying it). Green UFOs grant bombs (1/3 of a bomb for destroying the UFO and a whole bomb for filling it).

The player's stock, showing lives on top and bombs on the bottom, along with current fragments.
Flashing UFOs turn Point items into Power items, and vice versa, as well as giving two small UFOs instead of one. Blue UFOs grant the biggest multiplier to the value of collected items (8, compared to the 1 to 4 of the other colours). Lives are obviously of most interest to the casual gamer, just trying to get their 1 credit clear. Points are mostly only relevant to the high level player. Bombs have usefulness for both, as using them to avoid death means you can either get further into the game, or avoid the inevitable oppurtunity cost of dying, depending on your goal. Flashing UFOs are mostly only relevant for scoring, but must be used in very specific ways to be worth it (either for turning a large number of redundant Power items into valuable Point items, or for allowing a specific timing to get a Blue UFO in the future, due to the extra small UFO they drop).

This means that not only does the system cater to players of all levels, but it allows distinct styles of play. A very inexperienced player can focus on red UFOs, as extra lives are the most obviously useful resource to them. However, a slightly more canny player will realise that green UFOs are potentially more cost-effective (1 1/3 bombs per green UFO, compared to 1/2 of a life per red UFO), but only if they can make proper use of what they get from them: if they can successfully bomb at every occasion where they would otherwise lose a life, collecting green UFOs is an effective strategy; if they lose all their lives with 8 bombs still in stock, it obviously isn't. A player can even choose to forgoe the UFOs entirely, focusing only on dodging bullets.

And for those aiming for high scores, there is still more subtlety to the system. It might seem most sensible to focus on maximising the total number of large UFOs, to get as many x8 blue bonuses as possible with the odd flashing UFO for Point/Power item conversion when relevant. This would mean allowing excess small UFOs to bounce around the screen until a current large UFO has departed, allowing another one to be summoned instantly. However, collecting a small UFO while a large one is on-screen, rather than going into the UFO gauge and contributing to the next large UFO generated, will instead permanently increase the maximum value of Point items by 1,000. Thus, on early stages it is actually better, in the long-term, to focus on collecting as many small UFOs as possible during the duration of the barest minimum number of large UFOs. Figuring out the cut-off point, where one should start maximising Point items collected over increasing the value of future Point items, requires intimate knowledge of the spawning patterns of the UFOs, the number of Point items actually available, and a thorough understanding of the limits of one's own abilities.

When I first started playing Undefined Fantastic Object I thought the UFO system seemed a bit arbitrary and gimmicky. However, once I understood it a little I realised that it opened up a ton of fun and varied possibilities. It allows you to feel clever once you've worked out a strategy that exploits the system, and applied the skills to execute it.

This is me a bit less than halfway through stage 5 on what would ultimately prove to be my 1CC run. Note the maxed out lives and bombs. At this point, I felt like an unstoppable badass.
And this is seconds after barely taking down the final boss in stage 6, my stock long since exhausted. You can have all the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards you like: in the end you're still going to have to dodge a bunch of bullets.

Thus, it is definitely my favourite scoring system in any Touhou game I've played so far.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Theory of Game Design

This is a framework for thinking about game design that I've been mulling over for a little while now. I was considering including it in my last post about the Touhou games, but I quickly realised that it was getting big enough to merit its own entry. It consists of three categories into which I think all the primary aspects of a game fit: mechanics, level design, and avatar design.

Mechanics covers how a player controls the game and what their objectives are. In a platform game, it concerns things like the acceleration of the player character and how gravity affects them, or how a stage is beaten (usually "reach the end"). In a multiplayer real-time strategy game, it can cover things like unit selection and control, resource management, how technology trees work, and victory conditions (destroy all of an opponent's buildings, eliminate their army, kill their commander etc.) The mechanics essentially dictate a game's genre, and their level of refinement defines how pleasing it is to play on a basic, ergonomic level (compare Cheetahmen to Super Mario World). I would label this the "primary" of the three categories: any changes to the mechanics will usually necessitate changes to the levels or avatars. In general, the better a game's mechanics, the more depth it has.

The second aspect is level design. The world "level" here is used as a catch-all term for the arena or arenas in which the game takes place. Its significance is obvious in the context of, say, platform games, but I also use it here to refer to, say, maps in a strategy game, or raid dungeons in an MMO. Some games don't have different levels. Street Fighter II, for example, has different stages on which one can fight, but the differences are strictly cosmetic: they are functionally identical (Vega's stage being the one exception). Levels can be created in a modular fashion after a game is "finished" without any changes to the mechanics. This can take the form of mission packs for an RTS, fan-made hacks for platform games, and so-on. Generally speaking, the number of levels available in a game defines its length.

The third aspect could be called either character design or avatar design. The first sounds a bit less stuffy, but is not as precise, as it suggests a visual design component. This concerns the controllable characters available to a player. Many games have only one avatar. The first Sonic and Mario games are good examples. Later installments of both series introduced more options. Avatars are a core aspect of many competitive genres, such as fighting games. In a real-time strategy game like Starcraft, I would consider a race, rather than a single unit, to be an avatar (races and units are analogous to characters and their moves in a fighting game). As with levels, it is possible to add avatars after a game is released (this was largely the motivation for Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, for example). Speaking loosely, the more avatars a game has, the more breadth it can be said to offer.

These three aspects can be defined seperately but they are inextricably linked. The levels can only make sense within the context of the mechanics, and must be accessible for the avatars, the avatars must have abilities that give them options within the levels, and so on. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a great showcase of the necessary synergy between characters, levels, and mechanics. Playing the game as Sonic, one can see a certain amount of every level, but upon trying out Tails or Knuckles it becomes apparent that there are parts of many stages that only they can access. Knuckles can climb walls to reach higher areas that Sonic can't get to, and can smash down certain walls that are impenetrable to other characters. However, his jump is subtley lower, and since he can't climb on spikes and certain other surfaces there are still places he can't go that Sonic can.

Knuckles cannot climb on these platforms, and, unlike Sonic,
his jump is too low to get on top of them.
However, there is a secret wall here that only Knuckles can break down.
Tails, meanwhile, can fly. This has distinct advantages and disadvantages compared to Knuckles's climbing. Tails can move upwards through the spike-lined shafts in Marble Garden, impassable for Knuckles.

Tails, however, can only fly for so long at a time before tiring out, whereas Knuckles can climb infinitely given grippable surfaces. Thus, there is a tall vertical shaft at the start of Sandopolis Act II that only he can traverse.

Knuckles can get all the way up here no problem.
But Tails can only get this far before running out of steam.
Compared to all this, Sonic seems disadvantaged. However, certain mechanics are made to privilege him in different ways. There are 3 elemental shields that can be collected as powerups, which offer protection to all three characters. However, Sonic gains extra moves by picking them up. These maybe aren't as powerful as the abilities of the other characters, but they let him do things faster. The fire shield's dash doesn't cover potentially infinite distance like Knuckles's glide, but it does provide a more immediate, gratifying speed boost. The electric shield's double jump and the bubble shield's bounce may not go as high as flight or climbing, but for the places they can reach they're alot more immediate.

On top of this, one of the game's secondary objectives, the Chaos Emeralds, favours Sonic. Upon collecting all of them, every character can make use of a more powerful "Super" form. And in short, Sonic's is the best. Super Sonic's acceleration, top speed, and jump height are far superior to those of Super Knuckles and Super Tails. It even affords him access to a whole level that neither other character can enter, the climactic Doomsday Zone.

Thus, the game's three avatars offer truly different options for a player, and reward different styles of play. Compare this to Sonic Advance. In this there are 4 characters available, the familiar trio plus Amy Rose, who uses a squeaky hammer as a weapon and pole vault for higher jumps. However, the stages do not offer any interesting alternative paths or secrets for any character. There's the odd shortcut one can make, but they seem to be accidental rather than intentionally designed. There's essentially no part of a level that can't be accessed by every character. In short, it feels like the levels were designed around Sonic, and then the alternative avatars were added as an afterthought. The mechanics are still solid (the physics are pretty faithfully copied from the Mega Drive games), but the level design fails to take advantage of the avatars offered.

This framework offers some perspective on Starcraft, a game whose design has possibly undergone more scrutiny than any other's, especially in relation to its successor, Starcraft II. The former is highly revered by almost anybody with a general interest in competitive games, and while the latter has gained some coverage, if you ask somebody familiar with both as to its actual competitive quality you will usually get a lukewarm response. You can find complaints fitting into all three of the categories I've suggested. In mechanics, one can look at things like "deathball syndrome" that is ironically caused by a pathing algorithm that is too good.

Deep, tactical combat.

Or the economic tools that often seem to balance a race on the razor edge of unplayably underpowered or gamebreakingly overpowered.

For level, or map, design, there are the destructible rocks that many felt were a dull gimmick to delay base expansion possibilities, or the high-yield gold minerals that had apparently broken synergy with Terran's high-yield mining tool, the Mule, (until their interaction was patched) not to mention the long transitional period from Blizzard's tiny maps that resulted in games that were too short, to huge league created maps that went to the other extreme and created dull stalemates. And for race/unit design, there are the Terran Marauder and the Zerg Roach, which feel against the core design principles of their own races, resembling Protoss units more than anything else, or the Protoss Colossus and Sentry, which only seem to reduce possibilities for good tactics and control.

Welp, guess the Protoss wins this fight. Again.
Players and leagues are trying to fix the map design problems by continuing to create new maps, and Blizzard are trying to fix the unit design problems with constant balance patching and new expansion, the first of which, Heart of the Swarm, is already out. However, if one understands that level design and avatar design are always subservient to mechanics, it's clear that if the problems truly lie in the core design of the game then these are merely patchwork solutions.

The relation to my previous major post is probably clear by now. I wrote a bit about the mechanics of scrolling shooters as a whole, and then focused on the level design in the Touhou games. I could also talk about the avatar design in these games, since for a long time they have offered a selection of characters with different shot types, bombs, and other gimmicks, and they do expose a few clever design traits in some installments. However, it's not what I feel is the strongest aspect of this series, so it's not what I focused on.

I hope some of that was interesting. Nothing I've written here is really new, but I think it's a neat way to categorise ideas. Also I'm sorry that alot of my examples are probably impenetrable to those not familiar with the games I'm talking about, but the only way to avert that would be to make this post way too long. If nothing else, I hope this provided some food for thought.

In other news, here's a drawing.

It's our party from the Pathfinder campaign I'm currently playing! From left-to-right-top-to-bottom: Pan, Catherine's human rogue/ranger, a little urchin who's already got us into trouble with her unchecked thievery; Robomir, Sam's human fighter, Pan's uncle, generally trying to safeguard his niece's supposed innocence; Jammy Dodger, Blanca's gnome summoner/alchemist (or jamchemist), plus her eidolon, the marmalooze, she specialises in chilli bombs, handbag slinging, and mage-hand hair-pulling; Dorfbram Boozelmite, my dwarf-revering gnome barbarian/boozehound (for the record, there is no good reason to ever play a gnome barbarian); Slok, Joe's half-orc druid, specifically frogwarden, who we thought was going to be overpowered but whose squadron of giant frogs have turned out to be largely a liability (R.I.P. Kruk). It's really hard to make such different characters mesh in an image. Especially when people have such disparate colour sensibilities. My progress on this drawing was essentially logarithmic, and even looking at it now I can see more stuff I want to try tweaking, but I should stop here for the sake of my own sanity.