my favourite albums of 2012 (very late, and not actually a list)
I used to be all about year-end lists. I don’t know what happened this time around: either I lost the mental finickiness necessary to corall my musical affections into a heirarchy, or lost the geeky faith that it’s an intrinsically necessary thing to do. Still, I love reading other people’s year-end lists, and if I were to make a list for last year, here’s what I could tell you about it.
Neal Morgan’s In The Yard would be there, somewhere around #4 to #6, and I would wish it could be higher. I would wrestle with the ethics of sentencing an inconsistent record with some of the year’s most sublime moments to the middle of the pack, as though it were merely commonly good. In The Yard is not merely commonly good.
Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan would be higher, maybe #3. Dirty Projectors’ music has always been certain things (“beautiful”, “strange”, “complex”, “alabaster”), but this is the first album that introduces certain unglamorous and vital words to that mix (“sustainable”, “comfortable”, “happy”), and I love it for that. Dan Deacon’s America would probably sneak into the bottom of the list, because even a slight Dan Deacon record is a miracle.
The placement of Grimes’ Visions would tear me apart. I mean, I lived off that shit for a few months there. I was living on my own in a tiny city apartment, between sharehouses, and it was Grimes that helped me make sense of my silent, cuboid existence. “Oblivion” was hands down the best video of the year, and “Be A Body” became something of a private personal anthem for me (ever the brain-focused and body-denying nerd) as I slowly learned how to live out the directive of the song’s title. I haven’t listened to Visions much since moving out of that apartment, but the imprint was made. That record has something special going on.
The #1 and #2 slots would belong to Carseat Headrest’s Monomania and Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…— the actual order of which probably coming down to what kind of mood I was in when I finally hit “publish”. They are the two albums I’ve listened to the most in the last year, and I’m certain I’ll be listening to them for the rest of my life. Instrumentally they orbit different systems, but honestly, comparing them, I see more similarities than differences. On the one hand you have Fiona, scarred and swinging, interrogating the figures of her past with astonishing directness —
Remember when I was so sick and you didn’t believe me?
Then you got sick too, and guess who took care of you?
You hated that, didn’t you? Didn’t you?
Now when you look at me, you’re condemned to see
the monster your mother made you to be
and there ya got me, that’s how you got free, you got rid of me
— while Will Toledo does the same, but with his present, so simply and clearly that the melody just adds to the insult:
Somewhere down the line you’ll look back
and say you did the best that you could
and you’ll be wrong
Fiona casts her life in all of these fantastic, distended metaphors, like a cartoon Alice whose Wonderland exists only in her eyes and her gut, providing context for feelings too strange and deep to be cast in realism —
I’m a tulip in a cup
I stand no chance of growing up
I’m resigned to sail on through
in the wake of tales of you
— while Will does precisely the same thing, but with a less otherworldly pallette. He makes metaphors out of every ordinary thing he can, allows meaning to drip from all over:
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t taken all my notes on your rolling papers
but when you burned them the scent was such a bittersweet vapor
I watched the flames silence the words I was given in life
but if your heart was in it, I was glad to be your sacrifice
Fiona makes a battleground of herself, flinging truths into contradictions on the site of her own fierce, vulnerable body:
If what I am is what I am
cuz I does what I does
then brother get back cuz my breast gonna bust open
the rib is the shell and the heart is the yolk
and I just made a meal for us both to choke on
— and so does Will:
You held me in the sunlight, your interlocking hands
left a photograph on my shoulders
spots where I didn’t tan
but my skin was an imperfect film and the negatives were burned —
without the evidence, there was no need for you to ever return
OK, I’ll stop now. This isn’t building to anything — I just love both these albums, and wanted to share some of their words. I might just be getting sentimental, but that felt better than making a list.
On identification in videogames
I was reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics recently, and he brought up something that struck me as extremely relevant to videogames. In a nutshell, he argued that the more ‘cartoony’ an image of a face is, the easier it is to identify with it. A photorealistic image of a face can only depict a handful of faces (a photo only one), whereas a simple cartoon face can potentially depict millions — including you. The more simple/cartoony/universal a character’s image, the easier it is to creatively place yourself inside them. McCloud believes this identification is at the heart of why kids tend to be fascinated with cartoons.
The relevance to videogames is clear. Whereas modern mainstream gaming has largely devoted itself to chasing photorealistic graphics, I spent a good chunk of my childhood inhabiting characters a good deal more ‘cartoony’:
(It’s a stretch to call Fallout cartoony, I know, but the camera-distance and limited pixels accomplish pretty much the same thing — the Vault Dweller has no specific face or voice to contradict my own.)
The way we place ourselves inside videogame characters is really interesting and strange. Even though the action happens through an intermediary — the Player Character on screen — people routinely use the word “I” to describe things they’ve done in games. (“I beat the Elite Four with six unevolved Rattatas, just for fun.”) In a lot of games, the avatar is deliberately ‘thin’ or ‘universal’ enough that you can read whatever you want into them. Even with the blandest Player Character, though, their identity never entirely disappears. Rather, it’s more that you and they mix, somehow — creating the distinctive, temporary, controlled synthesis of character and self that is videogaming’s most unique feature.
In a lot of blockbuster modern games, though, so much effort has gone into making the experience more ‘filmic’ — elaborate cutscenes, realistic graphics, voice-acting, etc — that the identification process becomes more complicated. In precisely the same way that cartooniness makes identification easier, a Player Character with a specific voice, face and backstory makes it harder. Films can get away with this because they’re not aiming for creative inhabitation, but for empathy. (Every film is a film about other people, but videogames are guided stories about us.) Mainstream game developers that aspire to the state of film probably do so because of how deftly film brings together many of the same elements as games (visuals, screenwriting, music, etc), but it strikes me as a fraught ambition. The best thing films have going for them — the power to empathically observe the struggles of others — is at odds with the most potent tool in the artistic arsenal of videogames: the power to become something yourself.
(The clearest example of a game aspiring to the state of film is probably still Heavy Rain, which I felt kind of ambivalent about. Even as it incorporated a lot of empathic techniques from film pretty competently, it didn’t seem to be able to separate them from film clichés. That’s probably just a necessary phase in the development of a young medium, but still.)
The most common solution to the dilemma of identification is the silent protagonist. It allows game developers to use all the filmic techniques they want to make the world and characters compelling, but keep the Player Character a silent, universal, easily-inhabitable cipher. The more fleshed-out the world around them is, though, the more awkward this arrangement becomes. In games like Skyrim, I can’t help thinking: “Why am I the only person in this world who doesn’t talk?” I remember having to stop playing Dragon Age because of a tiny way they messed up this balance. (The protagonist is silent during every cutscene, but for some reason shouts out lame, repetitive battle-cries during combat? I hated that. It negated the voice I wanted to imagine, and took me out of inhabiting the character.)
The approach I’m really interested in is the curious middleground favoured by games like Mass Effect. Is Shepard an avatar you inhabit, or a character you root for? The developers worked hard to try to make the answer ‘both’. She is at once customisable enough that you feel pride and stake in your iteration of her, yet bland enough that you end up paying more attention to the better-written aliens around her. It’s a delicate balancing act. When people talk about their Mass Effect experiences, you often hear them slip unselfconsciously between the vocabulary of inhabiting (“I killed Wrex on Virmire”) and the vocabulary of external control (“I gave my Shepard the Kuwashii Visor”).
The lines here are totally fascinating to me. As games move increasingly towards the goals of film (with more realistic graphics and legitimate attempts at screenwriting), a tension builds between these goals and the reason many earlier games were actually really emotionally successful: the generous inhabitability of the characterless cartoon. The silent kid in Pokémon Red wasn’t actually a character; he was a pixellated representation of my daydreams about having tons of super-cool pets. Shepard, on the other hand, felt more like a movie character that I had a huge, beyond-the-movie kinship with. (And if amazing Mass Effect 3 ending-playthrough videos like this one — gigantic spoilers, obviously — are any indication, I wasn’t the only one.)
I hated the ending to Mass Effect 3, but I love that video. It made me realise something. The girl in that video doesn’t want Anderson to die, sure — he’s a beloved character who’s been with you from the first game. But Shepard is something other than a character, and the level of intensity with which she doesn’t want her to die is so far beyond that. It’s literally a “I don’t care what happens to the Universe, so long as Shepard doesn’t die” kind of deal. Which suggests to me that, at least for some gamers, the gambit of Shepard’s characterisation worked. That girl says both “Oh God, Shepard, don’t die” and “Oh God, I’m gonna die” without any trace of contradiction.
There’s a reason this particular combination is so potent, and why it seems to tap into something so latent and enormous. “My Shepard” is a telling construction. When identification and empathy are combined — when we see ourselves in a person that exists because of us, but who is ultimately seperate from us, and terrifyingly able to die — that’s the same kind of feeling parents have for their children.