Irrelevant Troubadour

Games and Art: A Rambly and Probably Unnecessary Discursus
May 5, 2011, 4:11 pm
Filed under: video games

First off: Hola, amigos. What gives? I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but, well, I just haven’t had the urge to do much blogging.  But classes are over and I feel like the best way to spend this impossibly beautiful day is cooped up in my room writing words for the internet gods.

The “can video games be art?” debate is one that’s been hashed and rehashed countless times in everything from blogs to scholarly journals, and I can’t pretend that what I’m saying adds much to the discourse.  But nonetheless, it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

The main thing that, to me, sets games apart from other art forms is their difficulty, the fact that you can lose.  You can’t be bad at looking at a painting, nor can you lose at reading a book.  (although the argument can be made that some people appreciate art better than others, this isn’t really analogous to skill at games, since skill at art appreciation depends on one’s ability to analyze themes, forms, etc., whereas skill at gaming depends on speed of reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving skills–much more basic functions, in other words)  Yet it is very much possible to be bad at games.  In fact, the possibility of losing may be the one thing that ties all games together, since without this risk there is none of the tension that makes people want to play games in the first place.  Even games such as The Sims that can’t be ‘won’ in the regular sense of the word almost always have failure states.  Think about it: even if your sims have the biggest McMansion on the hill and have all their mood bars constantly full, you haven’t ‘won’, since you can keep playing indefinitely and there are constantly more challenges to take care of–but if your sims all die in grease fire, you’ve definitely lost.

How does this play into a discussion of games’ artistic merit?  Well, let’s talk about my personal favorite game of all time, Shigesato Itoi’s Mother 3.

If you haven’t played this game, STOP READING THIS AND GO PLAY IT NOW THERE’S A FAN TRANSLATION HERE.  I could probably write thousands upon thousands of words about this game and not come close to summing up everything that’s beautiful about it, but for this post I’m going to focus on one specific aspect of the game: the combat system.  The game uses a fairly standard Dragon Quest-inspired JRPG combat system for the most part, but there is one ingenious twist on the formula.  In Mother 3, by pressing the ‘attack’ button in time with the beat of the battle music, you can score combos on enemies to deal more damage.  It’s not necessary to win the game, but it’s really a brilliant addition to the otherwise moribund gaming cliche that is turn-based JRPG combat, infusing it with some of the intensity of rhythm games and adding another level strategy to the battle.

Why is this important?  Well, when I’ve played Mother 3, I’ve been completely unable to use the combo system.  I can occasionally get 2x and 3x combos by randomly mashing buttons, but for the most part it completely eludes me, whereas there are people for whom 16x combos just come naturally, as the video below illustrates.

My question is, then: because I can’t get combos, am I experiencing something different from the game?  Did I come to a different understand of Mother 3 than someone who flawlessly gets 16x combos for every battle?  I feel, in a lot of ways, like I got a completely different feeling from the game–I never got that feeling of being plugged into a rhythm, and in a sense I feel like I didn’t connect with the game on as visceral a level as I would’ve liked because of that.

It’s somewhat frightening to think that one’s appreciation of a piece of art could be hampered by something so simple as one’s rhythmic ability.  Indeed, this difficulty can become such a problem as to keep someone from playing the game at all; I still have yet to play the first game in the Mother in full, simply because it’s too hard.

I’d say that the closest analogy to appreciating a game as a work of art would be to playing a musical instrument.  You have a set score to go by, maybe the music is written out for you, maybe there’s just a few chords for you to improvise on top of, but to one degree or another, you can do what you want–and yes, like in gaming, there is a possibility of failure, as this middle school band dropout can attest.  I mean, there’s a reason beyond sentimentality that it was common to put “AND YOU” as a thank you to the player at the end of the credits of Japanese video games in the mid 90s: regardless of whether they player is actually creating anything by playing the game, they are needed to make the game happen.  If you start playing Earthbound (the second game in the Mother trilogy, for those of you keeping score at home)  and give up after the first dungeon (please don’t do this), the game is no longer “the story of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo saving the world from unimaginable evil”, it’s “the story of Ness who killed a weird ant thing and then hung around in town for the rest of his life, until assumedly it was destroyed by Giygas”.  (this raises all sorts of concerns for those who integrate games or game-like segments into more traditional works, such as Andrew Hussie, but that’s something to tackle later)

(note: the following paragraph is intensely spoilerish) The Mother series actually makes this player-game relationship explicit, by  having it be the will of the player directly intercede in the game itself.  In Earthbound/Mother 2, it’s the prayers of the player that finally defeat Giygas.  In Mother 3, the relationship is handled perhaps even more brilliantly.  In the game it’s mentioned that the dragon whose release will cause the unmaking of the world will take on the character of whoever releases it–if it’s released by someone with love in their heart, it will remake the world into a utopia, but if the person does not, the world will be cast into the void.  The climax of the game involves the release of the dragon, after which the player is presented with a black “Game Over” screen.  A callous player would at this point shut off their GameBoy Advance and go get some cheetos, but that player who, as most have, has fallen in love with the world of Mother 3 and its inhabitants would probably stare at the screen for a while, perhaps pressing some buttons randomly.  And when they press these buttons, they would notice something remarkable: even though the screen is blank, they can still move and, what’s more, talk to almost all of the characters they’ve met throughout the game.  The player is both the dragon and the releaser of the dragon, since whether the player feels any affection toward the fictional world they’ve been living in determines whether that world survives.  The player actively creates the game as a work of art much as the passively experience it.

Difficultly and the risk of loss, therefore, impede the player’s experience of a game as much as they power the game in the first place.  Now, I’m not saying we should do away with loss in games–that would be to make them no longer games at all–but I feel like perhaps we need to re-evaluate notions of difficulty, or perhaps re-evaluate the idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to play games.

I am reminded at this point of a Let’s Play I watched recently of Earthbound by YouTube’s BakaUsagi.  One thing that struck me was that, in her last video, she mentioned that when she used to play the game in her childhood, she would turn it on and play, not to finish dungeons and fight bosses and collect treasure and general continue the game, but just to…wander around.  She would just hang out in the world of Earthbound, imagining what sort of conversations the four main characters were having.  She wasn’t trying to accomplish anything; she was just enjoying the virtual world for what it was.  That, I think, is what more games should encourage us to do–not to lose, not to win, but just to play.


The Top 9 Worst Shipping Pormanteau Names

Shipping is a strange and woolly phenomenon.  I mean, I can understand why people do it and find it fun–it’s fun to speculate about romance, after all, and it’s much easier and less risky to do it with fictional characters than with real people.  Heck, I’ve even had brief fascinations with ‘ships in my time (not telling you which ones–people I know in real life read this thing and I gotta hide my powerlevel!)  Still, this doesn’t negate the fact that a lot shipping is extremely silly.  That, I imagine, is one of the big reasons behind its appeal.

One aspect I never will understand, however, are the portmanteau names.  You see them in mainstream gossip mags all the time–Brangelina, TomKat, etc. etc.–and they never stop being silly-sounding.  What’s even worse is when fans start to identify themselves via their ship names, leading to large groups of otherwise sane teenage girls referring to themselves as ‘Zuatarans’ or ‘Harmonians’ like they’re aliens from a 1950s B-movie.  With that, I present the top nine worst shipping portmanteaus.  Please note that in this list I’m not bashing the pairing in question (for most of these, I haven’t even seen/read the canon in question), just the name, so don’t worry, I’m not internet persecuting you.

9. Suzalulu (Suzaku/Lelouch, Code Geass)

god damn CLAMP people are skinny

Hot hot figurine yaoi used completely without permission from someone named milk_of_time's Livejournal

This one just sounds silly.  I think I had a mai tai at a tiki bar called ‘Suzalulu’ once.

8. Spuffy (Spike/Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

a-blah, a-blah!

I have no idea who made this but it's pretty silly looking.

I absolutely refuse to ever watch Buffy (watch me get hooked on it a few months from now and start writing vampire slashfic or something), but I’ve known enough enough fans of the show to know that shipping is serious business.  The shipping names, though, are not, as evinced by ‘Spuffy’.  And its rival ship, ‘Bangel’, doesn’t get off easily either.

7. Logurt (Wolverine/Nightcrawler, X-Men)

hey, they could've been listening to "car talk"
No idea where this is from.

Don’t you want some delicious Logurt?  It’s the cultured pairing!  Hee.  I slay myself.

6. Gwack (Gwen/Jack, Torchwood)

one classy waterfoul

Google Image Search is my friend.

Gwack gwack gwack!

5. USUK (America/United Kingdom, Axis Powers Hetalia)

checks and balances motherfucker
Have a diagram of the US and UK govermental structures from Wikipedia.

I’m sorry, I really am.  I just can’t help but read it as “u suk”.  And names for slash ships should generally be a bit more eloquent than YouTube comments.

4. KatPee (Katniss/Peeta, The Hunger Games)

he is hiding something

I got this image from someplace called "". I won't be surprised if they've conquered the entire internet within a year.

Eew.  Now I have even less of a reason to ever read these books.

3. Kum (Kurt/Sam, Glee)

i really can't imagine someone wearing this in public, even though zazzle says it's "rated G"

You can actually purchase these shirts from Zazzle, though I have no idea why you'd want to.

Kum.  Kum.  Kum. There’s no way to say it that sounds good.  In fact, Glee in general is really bad with it’s shipping names: it’s also given us “Furt” (Finn/Kurt, sounds like an armpit farting noise) and “Puckleberry” (Puck/Rachel, sounds like something old people have to eat).

2. Rwanda (Ralphie/Wanda, The Magic Schoolbus)

not even gonna make any jokes

Image courtesy of the US State Department

I don’t know which is worse, that there are Magic Schoolbus shippers out there, or that they decided to name their shop after one of the most war-ravaged countries on the planet.  Like, I feel bad making jokes here.  Let’s go on to the next one.

1. Chair (Chuck/Blair, Gossip Girl)

really, it's just a chair

A chair. Just a chair. That's all it is. A chair.

So you ship Chair?  Because I ship End Table!  I hate those people who ship Sofa, though; that pairing is so OOC.

There are plenty of pairings out there that take names from real-life objects and phenomena, but I’m singling this one out because it just seems so silly to go on the internet and say “Chair forever!” or “I hate Chair!” or “I wish more people wrote about Chair!”.  It’s just…Chair.  I don’t know what else to say.


Well, I hope you learned something about the magic of shipping.  I know I certainly didn’t.  But wasn’t it fun not learning anything?

And before you ask, me and my girlfriend’s portmanteau couple name is “Weaselboner”, so in a way making this list was cathartic.

Sabbath Assembly, Restored to One
March 8, 2011, 5:23 pm
Filed under: music

We have gathered here today to give praise unto our Lord the TV Tropes Album Exchange Club.  Our sermon today concerns Sabbath Assembly’s album Restored to One.  Let us pray.

Reading criticism of this album,  the main question people have about this is, “Is this for real?” My answer: kinda. The question remains, though: what would posses a bunch of psych-rock nerds to cover the hymns of an obscure 60s and 70s religious movement?

One thing this album is most emphatically not is a hipster piss-take. Even if Sabbath Assembly perhaps doesn’t respect the content of these songs (more on that later), they certainly respect the music. The thing that grabs me most about this music is that, for an album of quasi-satanic hymns by people who’ve been involved with Sunn O))), No-Neck Blues Band, and Six Organs of Admittance, this album is remarkably normal-sounding. It’s got some psychedelic tinges, such as the raga rhythms on “Glory to the Gods in the Highest” and the queasy organ on “The Power that is Love”, but mostly these songs are backed with a pretty standard pop-rock sound. The vocals, though powerful, sound almost syrupy-sweet. Yet that adds some power to this album, I feel; had it been loaded down with a bunch of drone and psychedelic effects, the album would’ve come off as trying too hard. Instead, the music is allowed to breathe and to assert itself, and it benefits from it.

Besides, the inherent strangeness of adapting hymns to a rock format is psychedelic enough as it is, giving the entire affair a very devotional air (as I’m sure was the original intention). Indeed, these are some damn catchy hymns, and it’s good that Sabbath Assembly saved this music from languishing in obscurity. This album is, if nothing else, a great historical document.

That, in fact, is this album’s main problem: it has trouble becoming more than a catchy historical document. When singer JEX sings, “Recieve our devotion, Lord Satan, ” it really doesn’t feel to me like she’s actually devoted to Satan. This, for me, robs this album of a lot of its emotional content. Many of the previous reviewers I’ve read have talked about how creepy this album is to them, but I’m not hearing it. To me, this album is like looking at the gravestone of a stranger: you feel as if it’s an important symbol for someone evoking memories and emotions, but to you it’s just a stone with a name on it. For an album about orgiastic devotion to a deity, there is very little religious feeling—of any kind—to be had here.

Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this album. It’s great music. It just didn’t hit me, mainly I think because it didn’t hit the people making it.

OutKast, Stankonia
March 3, 2011, 8:27 pm
Filed under: music

Howdy folks.  You know what time it is?  It’s TV Tropes Album Exchange Club time!  This is a review of OutKast’s Stankonia.

So this album is amazing. Let’s just put that out on the table where we all can see it.

It’s strange: my usual wall-of-text tendencies have deserted me for this album. Partly it’s because I don’t have a lot of experience in the criticism of hip-hop; partly it’s because I can’t really find many major flaws in this album to nitpick. Instead, I think I’ll just go though it and point out the moments on this album that most struck me.

  • I quite like “Gasoline Dreams”. The psychedelic guitar backing makes the whole thing sounds amazingly vicious.
  • Some great wordplay in the super-cool “So Fresh So Clean”. “A leopard-print teddy…Pendergrass” indeed. Though I don’t know why Andre 3000 felt the need to namecheck Anne Frank; that only works for Jeff Mangum.
  • I know it may be a bit overplayed, but I don’t think I can gush enough about “Ms. Jackson”. Seriously, this song has everything I like: backwards drums, slap bass, a hooky chorus, and lyrics that manage to tell an impossibly complex story, a conflicted internal monologue.
  • “Snappin’ and Trappin'” is another great song, but I can’t help but notice how much Big Boi manages to overshadow guest rapper Killer Mike.
  • “Kim & Cookie” is hilarious.
  • Oh man, “I’ll Call Before I Come”. I actually did a double take when this song came on. Why? Because the kind of vintage synth-funk backing they’re rapping over sounds exactly like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, one of my favorite albums. Seriously: compare “I’ll Call Before I Come” to this:
  • “B.O.B.” is, according to Pitchfork, the best song of the decade. For once, Pitchfork isn’t all that off.
  • The only song I really didn’t like all that much was “We Luv Deez Hoez”, though that may be a result of my hatred of fake laughter.
  • “Humble Mumble” seems to be a favorite here, and I offer my complete agreement.
  • “?” could’ve been a good deal longer. It could’ve been a great song on its own; instead it serves as an intro to the great dark soulful number “Red Velvet”, but it could’ve stood on its own.
  • Then again, I also thought “Cruisin in the ATL” could’ve been its own song, so what do I know.
  • “Toilet Tisha” is way better than any song with the word “toilet” in the title has a right to be. It also manages to be scarier than any “horrorcore” rap I’ve ever heard; it perfectly captures the nightmarishness of the story it tells in the music.
  • Hey, is that Cee-Lo Green on “Slum Beautiful”? I knew him mostly as a singer, but he’s a rather taleneted rapper too. Cool.
  • Not sure I would ever listen to “Stankonia (Stanklove)” on its own, but it makes a great album closer.

So in summing up: yeah, I really liked this album.

Something I Just Realized
February 25, 2011, 1:49 am
Filed under: music, ridiculousness

According to Wikipedia, Joanna Newsom has been in a relationship with Andy Samberg since 2007.  This means that there’s a good chance that she may have written the love songs on Have One On Me (a great album, by the way) about him.  This means, in turn, that said songs are now retroactively hilarious.

If you don’t get why, listen to this:

while looking at this:

That is all.

I’m Giving Up Blogging
February 22, 2011, 8:33 pm
Filed under: internet nonsense, live action tv, ridiculousness

I’ve just found the best website on the internet.  I’m never going to be able to top it, so why bother?

I present to you:

Fuck Yeah, Whose Line Fanart!

a steamy showertimeIt’s been real.

Frank Zappa, Zoot Allures
February 20, 2011, 5:55 pm
Filed under: music

Bluh bluh TV Tropes Album Exchange Club bluh bluh Zoot Allures by Frank Zappa bluh bluh listen to it.

There are many sides to Zappa. There’s the doo-wop loving soul man, there’s the high-minded classical composer, there’s the irreverent rebel prankster, there’s the wild jazz-rock berserker, there’s even the purveyor of hooky pop songs. Unfortunately, this album is mostly devoted to those sides of Zappa I most dislike: the technical guitar geek and the pointlessly crude, sleazy, and misogynistic novelty singer.

Having said that, I quite like this album—I’d say, in fact, that it’s the best bad album that Zappa ever made. Is it comparable to Freak Out! or Weasels Ripped My Flesh! or Burnt Weeny Sandwich or Roxy & Elsewhere? Nope. But taken on its own merit and disregarding just how much better Zappa could be when he applied himself, this thing’s awfully enjoyable.

Why is this? Well, quite simply, the songs are catchy. The rollicking “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station” and the glam-rock “Disco Boy” are tons o’ fun (even though I rather dislike the chipmunk backing vocals), the moody “The Torture Never Stops” is great if a bit long, and loathe as I am to admit it, I even sometimes get “Ms. Pinky” and “Find Her Finer” stuck in my head, though I have to pretend I don’t know the words.

And that brings us to the lyrics, always the most divisive thing about Zappa’s rock albums. Yes, I know they’re satirical and goofy, but the fact is that to me, they’re just plain not funny. They’re just kinda…gross. And the fact that he kept returning to these kind of lyrics over and over again throughout his career doesn’t help matters. “But Irrelevant Troubadour, what about Zappa’s instrumentals?” no one asked. Well, I usually love ’em, but on this album? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, “Friendly Little Finger” is great, but “Black Napkins” and the title track to me sound like the dullest sort of guitar wanking.

The general impression I get from this album is that it just plain isn’t one Zappa cared that much about. I’ve read that his rock albums from this time period mostly served to finance his classical compositions, and if so, it would make sense that this album is so half-baked. Now don’t get me wrong, this album is good at what it does—unfortunately, what it does isn’t much.

I must give this album some extra credit though: “Ms. Pinky” is probably the second best pop song about a blow-up doll ever written, after Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache”.