Today in Pop Modern: June 30, 2014

Summer Games Done Quick


Allen: Summer Games Done Quick, a live, charity-driven speed running competition hosted primarily on ends tomorrow. It’s essentially just a series of scheduled games that Speedrunners from all over the world join in to play and beat as quickly as possible (hence the term “speedrunning”.) Besides being a fun look into the minutia of exploiting glitches and game abilities to play games in interesting ways, it represents a sea change in how people consume and interact with online video.

Users donate to a charity on a per-game basis. If, say, the upcoming speedrun is for Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger,the user who donates the most gets to name the player character whatever they want. It feels like a beautiful use of Internet meme culture, where names are picked by the people who care to invest the most, not a vocal minority who would probably name everyone “BatmanX420.” And since it’s all livestreamed, the whole affair feels like a television network, with new content being broadcast constantly, the best games being played at prime time, and highlights hitting YouTube within hours of airing. It’s nice to see game enthusiasts all watching a fascinating series of skill-based play for a good cause.


Magellan: The link at the end of this entry is for a video that went viral last week, but that I’d still love to talk about. It’s that fan-made trailer for the original Star Wars trilogy stylized like the trailer for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which I can’t help but play over and over again. Something about watching “Hooked on a Feeling” kick in with R2 lighting up and then watching Han run screaming through an Imperial hallway is at once cloyingly nostalgic and viscerally refreshing. If nothing else, I now want to watch the Original Trilogy over again at the next available opportunity (even the Prequel Trilogy version is quite fun: More than that, though, I experienced a new-found enthusiasm for the upcoming trilogy. This was helped in no small part by another bit of information that came out last week: Rian Johnson (of Brick and Looper fame) is directing the 8th film ( I’ve been a huge Rian Johnson fan for years now, so you can imagine my glee at seeing a universe I adore promised to the guidance of a creator who I deeply respect and enjoy. I suppose there isn’t much else to say except that I feel we’re on the cusp of a Star Wars Renaissance. People who, like me, grew up with this universe are finally being given the chance to influence it in a big way, and I think that portends great things.


James: I am going to go with something a little more mainstream here, and talk about something that most people already know. Recently I have been getting into TED talks, where TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design. These talks can range on anything from a four minute video on the most efficient way to use a paper towel ( to a twenty minute talk on how body language can affect your life ( . All of the episodes are smart, for the most part funny, and most importantly, less than half an hour long. These little gems can help fill a seemingly unproductive day with a fresh take on the world. There are mobile apps that give all kinds of cool talks, with topics ranging from all of the sides of science, artistry, and real-life. So today, I am pushing you to take half an hour out of your day to find and watch a TED talk that could make your day. The concepts in TED talks are fascinating, and at the very least can spark up interesting dinner conversations, even if they don’t change your life. But trust me, they will.



Silver Screen, Silver Tongue: Wayne’s World is Lackadaisical

Wayne's WorldBy Magellan

About the Film

Year: 1992
Cast: Mike Meyers, Dana Carvey, Rob Lowe, Tia Carrere
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%

About the Word

Definition: lack·a·dai·si·cal  [lak-uh-dey-zi-kuhl] adj. – without interest, vigor, or determination; listless; lethargic

The Review

I tend to skew fairly positive with this column, to the point where I annoy myself at times at how easily I fall into the trap of blindly praising a film for its obvious merits. In a way, I think that’s because it’s simply more fun to be positive, to find things to love in the world rather than critique.

The word “lackadaisical,” then, could portend a sea-change for Silver Screen, Silver Tongue, given its neutral-to-negative connotation. One could use the word as an indictment against Wayne’s World, a movie which glorifies the slacker mentality to an unhealthy degree. And, certainly, there were times watching this movie (revisiting it after several years) when I was underwhelmed by it, to the point that I could have easily scoffed and called the whole effort “lazy.” Many of the jokes are meaningless sight gags or references (the random room full of training men in the donut shop and the Terminator cop who pulls Wayne over, to name only two of many) that do nothing to advance the plot or investigate the characters. What few female characters presented here are either “Babraham Lincoln”s or “psycho hose beast”s. Rob Lowe’s character from the first scene of the movie to the last is nothing but pure, snake-oil evil.

And yet, I love Wayne’s World, so I’m going to steer this review towards a Mega Happy Ending (or a Scooby Doo Ending, depending on how things go). After all, this is an SNL spin-off from 1992. If I wanted meaningful storytelling or nuance, I came to the wrong place. So really, to call this film lackadaisical would seem to miss the point: that it’s just a comedy movie meant to tide you over for an hour and a half and squeeze out a couple of laughs. Then, why do I insist on using that word? Why do I insist on condensing this film down to one word that roughly translates to “lazy?”

It goes beyond the fact that Wayne and Garth are slacker supermen, the likes of which hadn’t been seen to such dazzling effect since Bill & Ted had their excellent adventure. It goes beyond the fact that the “Fight the Man” message is so overwrought and cheesy. It goes beyond the fact that our protagonists can just speak into camera or learn Cantonese whenever they need to in order to drive the plot. The beauty of Wayne’s World is that it makes no effort to put on airs; it makes no effort to be something that it’s not. It does so little to separate itself from the slang, the music, and the social mindsets of its time that in so doing it becomes timeless. It becomes a loving, immaculate capsule of everything that was suburban 1992.

From the very first scene, Wayne’s World takes a firm stance (or whatever you call the opposite of firm stance that still makes a point) in its timeliness. We open on a couple lying in bed, watching TV, flipping through commercials. They pass by everything you would expect: an ad for an arcade with Sonic the Hedgehog playing in the background, an ad for Chia Pets, and an ad for the ubiquitous Clapper. Immediately after these, the woman on the bed flips to Wayne’s World, the show within the movie, with a look of utter glee. Here the film is planting itself firmly in the canon of early-90s culture. Hell, they even make a reference to a Grey Poupon mustard commercial within the first act.

Perhaps it isn’t much of a stretch or even much of a headstrong move, since by this time people were well-aware of the SNL sketches and were quoting them left and right. The catchphrases that cycle throughout Wayne’s World (“Chyeah,” “No Way! Way!”, and of course “Schwing!”) had already permeated the parlance of the time. This movie is nothing but an affirmation of that.

I feel like I still haven’t communicated what I’m trying to get at here: this movie is “lackadaisical” in that it opens with a pre-existing reputation for its characters. It has brought in an audience which is already familiar with who they will be dealing with, and then proceeds to give the audience those exact characters, unchanged, throughout the movie. It doesn’t expect the audience to criticize it for this move, or even care. It’s a hell of a triumph, to string people along through a largely pointless joke-fest like this and still be regarded as a time-honored classic. That’s the subversive beauty of Wayne’s World: decrying, on its surface, artistic bankruptcy and corporate monotony, while itself being nothing more than a repackaging of old jokes and an extension of the entertainment juggernaut that is SNL.

Am I giving Wayne’s World too much credit? Of course I am. Like I said, it’s more fun to see the beauty and the positive in things. Some people may view this film as lazy and trite, but I view it as lackadaisical. It’s possessed of a sort of laziness that belies mental acuity. It’s the kind of laziness that isn’t these performers’ (at least, not Dana Carvey’s) ground state. If you still don’t buy what I’m selling here, let me sum it up in two quotes from Garth and two from “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

I’ll start with Garth. He offers two great moments of wisdom in this film, the first being at the beginning when Wayne is looking in on a guitar he wants to buy. Garth proclaims “Stop torturing yourself, man, you’ll never afford it! Live in the now!” That may seem vapid on paper, but it’s the emotional heart of the movie. It’s the reason everything is so stuck in its time. That quote epitomizes how Wayne’s World manages to turn the tragic flaw of many great films (looking dated) into its cardinal virtue.

Another one from Garth, which requires you to hear his tone, is when he and Wayne are lying on the hood of the car at the airport and he says “Sometimes I wish I could boldly go where no man’s gone before, but I’ll probably stay in Aurora.” Mind you, there isn’t a lick of sadness or defeat in that statement. Instead, it’s a pitch-perfect representation of suburban contentedness, the kind of blissful ignorance that petrifies song upstart intellectuals and drives them to the metropolis. Here, though, that fatalist fear of being stuck in a rut is humanized in the form of our protagonists. We’re shown that knowing who you are and not bothering to change can be a beautiful thing.

I promised a little Queen, and I’ll deliver. Now, most people may just think of the headbanging “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene as a fun moment that doesn’t have much substance. For me, though, that moment is the true introduction of the film’s thesis. By invoking the innocence and enthusiasm of its main characters, Wayne’s World takes the tragedy of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and reinterprets it, turning it into a ballad for the slacker, a glorification of being of the time and in the moment, and refusing to go above and beyond for any reason. Much like this article, it is a moment that pushes aside the negative in an almost comical search for positivity. The two lines that stuck out to me the most were when Mercury sings “Easy come, easy go,” and “Nothing really matters to me.” In the song proper, both of these moments are profoundly sad and defeatist, but when Wayne and Garth sing them with bright eyes and wide smiles, you can’t help but feel happy to just not give a damn about anything.

As the credits roll, Wayne and Garth reappear on screen, and Wayne says “Well, that’s all the time we had for our movie. We hope you found it entertaining, whimsical and yet relevant, with an underlying revisionist conceit that belied the films emotional attachments to the subject matter,” to which Garth responds “I just hoped you didn’t think it sucked.” There’s really no better way to say it than that. Wayne’s World is lackadaisical.

Group Think: E3 2014

group think header image

Now that E3 2014, the biggest gaming press convention of the year is over, we here at Pop Modern have some opinions on it. It was an odd E3 for sure, with plenty of announcements from all parties, but a clear directional shift in the games industry.

Allen: I’ve always had a weird relationship with E3. The first one that I ever watched online was E3 2008, where Todd Howard shot teddy bears out of a makeshift cannon in the Fallout 3 demo, and Cliff (then still going by Cliffy B) sliced through the stage with a Gears of War chainsaw gun. So yeah…that’s where the industry was then. But it was an early period in the last generation of consoles, and developers were just starting to figure out how to maximize that hardware power.

However, my strong attachment to E3 didn’t come until 2009, when I began watching Giant Bomb cover it live from their hotel near the convention center. Their coverage felt more honest than the IGN videos and Gamespot interviews because they were always about the people. They had on guests, and many drunken stories have been told over the years into the E3 Giant Bombcast microphones. But these guests have come and gone, and even Ryan Davis, by far the best host and hype man at the website unfortunately passed away almost a year ago. Times have changed since I first tuned into the show, and it was only this year that I was finally able to stay up late into the night and watch every Giant Bomb E3 show late into the nights. That’s what E3 is to me; it’s staying up until 2:30 on their chat channel waiting for them to shift out guests. It’s Paul Barnett’s “And that was E3” joke from several years ago. It’s the faces behind the content, not the games. This was a boring E3, yes. And I came out of it only kind of wanting a new console, but mostly just happy that the video games industry really has progressed so far in the last few years, and I can reflect on where I was mentally at the time of each year’s conferences.

Magellan: Lemme sum up my E3 2014 thoughts in one sentence: I want a Wii U. I REALLY want a Wii U. (Okay, two sentences.) As the guy who got a Wii at the height of the XBox 360’s popularity and then promptly got an XBox and forgot all about that silly white box except for the occasional game ofMario Kart: Double Dash!, that’s something I never thought I would admit. Now, maybe it was just random chance that I heard about more quality announcements coming out of Nintendo than anyone else (I didn’t watch any E3 coverage this year save for Conan O’Brien’s: Still, I think what’s really going on here is that the Wii U has had time to figure itself out, to get to the critical-mass point where the next year will see the release of new games from MarioLegend of Zelda,Kirby, and Star Fox, not to mention Mario Kart 8 which just came out and the ever-looming hype-specter of Super Smash Bros. In my mind, the PS4 and XBox One have yet to fall into their grooves (understandable, as they’re not even a year old). You can’t possibly get me excited about new Halo or Call of Duty games, and even if there are great new IP’s headed our way, nothing has seemed earth-shattering enough to warrant buying a new console, as opposed to just waiting to get it used in a few years or waiting for a PC port. God knows I’m still playing through last-gen games on Steam (GTAIV, the Mass Effect series, Skyrim, the Bioshock series, etc.). Of course, you can’t get Super Smash Bros. on Steam. Which leads me to reiterate: I REALLY want a Wii U.

James: E3 this year was a bit of a disappointment to me. After all of the hype and expectation that came with the unveiling of two new consoles last year, the range of titles and the limited options available seemed to be little more than just filler for 2015. Take the new Star Wars: Battlefront. Last year, the announcement thrilled and shocked me. After years of waiting, another Star Wars: Battlefront was coming out! Come this year, I desperately wanted the title to get an in-depth look at one of the conferences. However, instead of in-game footage, there was a live action trailer describing how DICE is trying not to make everybody mad at them. No single announcement thrilled me, with either sequels to games or the beginning of new franchises dominating the show. E3 last year pushed through all of the creative ideas, leaving a paucity of any real excitement. The one thing that was remotely interesting to me was the fact that every game is receiving multiplayer. Formerly single player games like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry are receiving new entries which show an increased emphasis on multiplayer, and  <shudder> co-op gaming. Trying to get together with friends to play games on the computer is hard enough, even with the lower prices that people pay on games. The increased push towards multiplayer games is no longer exciting to me, as I can’t bring myself to care about playing multiplayer games with people that I don’t know. In fact, when I see such an increased focus on multiplayer games, I tend to worry about the final quality of the finished product. While competitive multiplayer does not impair my experience, an environment meant to hold 2 people is going to feel radically different. As such, I wasn’t a huge fan of the last E3, and I look forwards to a better conference next year.




Television Tribune: The Cult of Barney


By James

I really like How I Met Your Mother. It’s funny, clever, and relies on a cutting edge narrative that makes it one of a few unique shows to air on a major network. With that being said, I hate some major parts of How I Met Your Mother. I am not going to delve into the critically mixed finale, nor am I going to talk about the framing of the last season. Such a venture is dealing only with minutiae, an outlier among the other eight great seasons. My issue is with the reception by the fans of the show itself.

The show is really about the characters, structuring plots around the reactions of the different friends to different situations. The characters provide foils for themselves, with character traits that are supposed to clash. Ted Mosby, the main character, is the helpless romantic, who often destroys relationships in his search for a platonic ideal of “the one”. His friend Barney is a notorious womanizer with abandonment issues, whose life is shown as empty, despite the numerous women that he has sex with. Ted’s best friend Marshall often seems childish, a simple man with the loyalty that comes with simplicity, quick to pick sides, and steadfast in his beliefs in monsters and aliens. Lily, Marshall’s wife, is a flamboyant and ditsy character, who often forgets important matters, and reverses the typical roles of sexuality. Robin, the last member of these Merry Men, is a woman who believes in her job above all else, sacrificing personal life for love life every time.

Each of these characters is flawed in a particular and unique way, carefully balancing each other out. Ted’s romanticism and Barney’s lechery balance out to the comfortable love life of Marshall. Robin’s father issues and Marshall’s over-reliance on his father lead to the happy medium of Ted’s relationship with his parents. Each character is a balance, not only of strengths and weaknesses, but also (relative) normality. No one character has a domineering role on this stage of the New York bar life. Sure, there are episodes devoted to showing us the change. Both Ted and Barney eventually start to come closer to the happy medium of accepting relationships as they are, and Marshall and Robin are forced to accept a more traditional role as children, but by and large the show remains the same. All of the friends are first among equals, but that isn’t quite true.

My least favorite part of the show How I Met Your Mother is the fans. Now, I will be the first to say that I don’t like fanboys. I have written before on how much recent Doctor Who fans have raised my ire, but there is something wholly different about fans of How I Met Your Mother. The point of the show is that everybody has their own mix of horrible and fantastic attributes. And yet, whenever I ask a group of kids who their favorite character is, I inevitably get a cry of Barney Stinson. Now, I like the character. I think that Neil Patrick Harris has done a fantastic job of making his character, creating a half James Bond, half laughable magician. With that being said, people don’t just like the character: they want to be him. There is a phrase that Barney often uses: “Legen-wait for it-dary. Legendary.” After I started watching the show in 2010, I began to notice that phrase bandied about. A lot. In fact, it seemed like I couldn’t go a single lunch without hearing a reference to the phrase, or to Barney and his cult of sexuality in some oblique way. I don’t particularly like unoriginality to begin with: banality to me is a sin equivocal with theft of time. But the fact is that this wasn’t just unoriginality, this was a much bigger deal. Impressionable kids couldn’t see past Barney’s cool façade, and wound up thinking that Barney actually enjoyed his life. The show is founded on the principle that everyone is equally miserable, but without that critical insight, nobody could see past the lampoon. Instead, they took the satire as a standard, and molded themselves to the cult of Barney.

Once again, I want to reiterate that I love the show. The plots are great, characters develop, and the entire thing exudes polish. But I also believe in impressionability, the fact that people will not always understand what they are watching. In the end, a show shouldn’t be shut down to prevent the few from misunderstandings, but I also think that it’s important to keep this in mind. It’s important not to fall under the allure of the cult of Barney.

Three By Three: Eponymous Albums

Fleetwood Mac Album Banner ImageThe Category

NPR’s All Songs Considered had their “The Year in Music (So Far)” episode just a couple days ago (check it out here), and it got us over at Pop Modern HQ thinking about music. Specifically, with all the talk of new bands (Beneath the Brine and Sylvan Esso, to name just two), it got us thinking about albums, and about how a band can use the medium of the album to say something about themselves. Of course, rather than be simple and talk explicitly about debut albums, we decided it would be more fun to put a twist on this list and go through all of our favorite self-titled (or, if this were an SAT essay question, “eponymous”) albums. We love all of these albums, and not just because they’re easier to find in a Spotify search.

The Choices


Queen by Queen: The British pop group that is synonymous with sports anthems, screaming rock ballads, and a suite of iconic songs wasn’t always the legend it is now. In 1973, a band known mostly for playing in clubs around London found its frontman, Farrokh Bulsara (later known as Freddie Mercury). His voice shone through even on their admittedly strange first album. With tracks with names like “My Fairy King” (where Mercury got his stage name) and “Great King Rat,” it was clear that they were taking inspiration from fantasy novels as much as their contemporaries in rock music were. That’s the thing about Queen; it’s simultaneously a love letter to 70s metal and hard rock music, and a glorious peek at what was to come from the band who would redefine pop and rock music forever.

“My Fairy King”:

St. Vincent by St. Vincent: The early months of 2014 were fairly disappointing to me in terms of new music, until St. Vincent came and rocked my damn ears off with her eponymous album from back in February. This almost makes my list exclusively because of “Digital Witness,” a badass earworm of a song all about putting technology down and interacting with those around us. Ironically, the best element of the song is the digital sax that kicks in early on. And, let’s not forget that it’s preceded by “Huey Newton,” a slower jam that highlights Annie Clark’s smooth-as-silk vocal style. This one’s stuck with me for a while.

“Digital Witness”:

Boston by BostonLooping back around to 70s hard rock, we of course arrive at Boston, as all good trips do. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t at least know the chorus to “More Than a Feeling.” There’s actually a beautiful story behind the creation of this album. Founder Tom Scholz refused to record in a fancy LA studio, so the entire album was recorded in his basement in Massachusetts. It doesn’t get more homegrown than that. And, like Queen, Scholz was influenced by contemporary bands (The Kinks and The Yardbirds, mainly), yet few other albums more perfectly represent the time and place they came from than Boston.

“More Than a Feeling”:


Franz Ferdinand by Franz Ferdinand: The first album by Franz Ferdinand is my favorite. The band embraces the chaos of Scottish alternative, bringing a punk rock feel to a more refined album. Eschewing the freneticism of typical punk, the group chooses a tempo that impresses great energy with restraint. The band’s most famous hit remains the song “Take Me Out,” a good measure of the band, which displays the range of tempo and tonal variation that the band brings. My personal favorite song on the album is “The Dark of the Matinée,” a song with oddly insightful, if slightly meaningless lyrics, with a great chorus, a great set of harmonies, and a certain humorous cynicism.

“The Dark of the Matinée” :

Flight of the Conchords by Flight of the Conchords: Flight of the Conchords is the self-proclaimed fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo in New Zealand. Their parody of songs and styles include the hit “Bowie,” a song about David Bowie getting high in space, loosely based around the tune of “A Space Oddity.” The group’s humour comes first in their albums, but their music is surprisingly catchy, with solid rhythm to back up the potent lyrics, and humorous song concepts. The ode to an impartial office romance “Leggy Blonde” colours an intense relationship with an office co-worker with the name Leggy Blonde. The lyrics are humorously bad, and the rhythm section of the song is entirely created using office supplies, showing the unique take that the band uses to approach music. My personal favorite song is a rap battle between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros, a seeming take on the insanity of rappers’ alter-egos. But maybe it’s not. The song is filled with zippy one liners, and a catchy beat. Take it as it is: a good song.

“Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros”:

Weezer by Weezer (Also known as The Blue Album): Weezer is a band that is almost perfect for any college kid. The music is on the right side of grunge, an unrefined energetic sound. The band puts together a set of appropriately angst-ridden songs, which are still appropriate twenty years later. The album has aged remarkably well, surviving the post-grunge purge that plagued other 90s bands.  The instrumentation for the songs is tight, with an emphasis on heavy drums and piercing electric guitar riffs.  My favorite song to come from Weezer is “Say It Ain’t So,” a song about an outcast feeling like an outcast. The song treads ground that has been well-traveled, but the exploration of the theme is presented well, showcasing the angst of the teen as he begs someone to say it ain’t so.

“Say It Ain’t So”:


The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground: I’ll go ahead and start off with my token street-cred entry (seriously, go read our other Three By Three’s, I always go for the easy pickings first). Just for the sake of transparency, my other options were Fleetwood Mac and The Cars, but the former would have just been an excuse to nod towards Rumours, and personally I think the latter is only so well-regarded because of its first few songs. Now, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all know about The Velvet Underground, so I’ll give a little background on the album specifically. This is the group’s third release, and it marks a distinct stylistic departure from their earlier work. Here we see a shift from the noisy, avant-garde, experimental tracks that peppered The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat towards a sound that was much more folky, even poppy. Don’t equate those words with it being worse or less artistic, by any means, since this album still stands as one of the best rock records of all time. It’s a gorgeously pensive experience right from track one (the haunting “Candy Says”) and weaves its way seamlessly between mellow bitter-sweetness (like “Jesus”) and faster rock numbers (like “Beginning to See the Light”). You’re going to groan at me for this, but listening to “Pale Blue Eyes” on the day Lou Reed died will stick in my mind for maybe the rest of my life.

“Pale Blue Eyes”:

The White Stripes by The White Stripes: Out of all three of the albums I picked, this is probably the one that I go back to the least. Not because it’s the worst of the three, but because it’s full of the kind of songs that The White Stripes kept doing and doing better as their career went on. If nothing else, The White Stripes is an impressive showcase of a band that isn’t afraid to explode out of the gate, to throw down nearly two-dozen rough, high-octane tracks. It’s pure energy from “Jimmy the Exploder” all the way through “I Fought Piranhas.” It’s also got a refreshingly blues-y quality mixed in with the unabashed garage rock with songs like “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” and “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Although this is certainly not the best that The White Stripes would come to offer over the course of the 00s, it’s a hell of a debut.

“Sugar Never Tasted So Good”:

Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend: In contrast, this is the eponymous album (and, to be honest, the Vampire Weekend album) that I return to the most often. I won’t say that it’s better than Contra or Modern Vampires of the City (although I definitely think it’s better than Contra, *cough* *cough*), but there’s no beating the sheer youthful charm of Vampire Weekend. The first four songs alone (“Mansard Roof,” “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) are all modern classics, each one unforgettably catchy and adorned with some truly gorgeous and varied instrumentation. The rest of the album is fantastic as well (“Campus” and “I Stand Corrected”), cementing this album as one of those great releases that works equally well when the songs are separated as when they’re all played back-to-back. Each song crystallizes the naivety and joy of collegiate youth better than any other album I’ve heard.

“Mansard Roof”:

The Conclusion

Something missing from our list? SantanaSteely DanStone Temple Pilots, and any of the scores of other eponymous albums deserving of love? Send your opinions our way! Situate them down in the comments sections, so we can sing along to some of your favorites.

Random Encounters: Do As I Do

AC3 Random Encounters

By Allen

Games are, at their core, metaphors for greater ideas that can be interacted with. Metaphors can be a few crumbled buildings signifying a larger ruined city, experience points to signify progress and character growth, or even points signifying success and accomplishment. Not all metaphors are aesthetic though. From a mechanical standpoint, every action the player takes should be a metaphor for something greater, since pressing a button on a controller does not directly equate to, say, swinging a sword. Looking back on my gaming history from the past decade, most of my favorites blend mechanics and metaphor seamlessly, and games as a whole are stronger when these two ideas gel.

It is admittedly difficult to find a AAA game that uses its mechanics to further a point without running into some sort of ludonarrative dissonance. I’ve been playing quite a bit of Assassin’s Creed III lately to catch up on a series that I used to adore. One of the reasons I dropped off of the series after Revelations was an unavoidable feeling of disconnect from the protagonists and story. By the third game in the Ezio/Desmond storyline, the games were leaping back and forth between present and past, piling on mechanics that seemed frivolous, and trying too many things without being good at any one of them. One minute, you’re hunting corrupt politicians in Constantinople, the next you’re rebuilding property around the city, and then you’re running around outside of the Animus doing first person block-shifting puzzles while learning about a character that barely served as more than a player stand-in in the last few games. Elements like this do not fit with the story being told. In these side missions, you’re supposed to be uncovering clues about Desmond’s past as he himself tries to cope with them. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the actual game part is just an ethereal-looking, poorly-controlling first person platformer. It creates such a huge disconnect that I barely touched those missions.

Fast forward to Assassin’s Creed III. The game starts you off as Desmond yet again, relearning his parkour skills in the Animus as if this isn’t technically the fifth game in the series and the player doesn’t know how to control the basic movement. Granted, very minor elements of the parkour were changed and improved in this title, but these improvements would work much better as an in-universe, contextualized tutorial. I’m all for contextualizing tutorials. Instead of reading a “How to Play” menu option or starting your game off with a plodding introduction, trust the player to learn. Mastering the nuances of a game’s control makes manipulating its systems that much more satisfying.

Eventually, the game puts you in the shoes of Haytham Kenway, a grumpy man with next to no personality. After a shockingly long first level in an opera house and eventually a ship, Haytham finds himself in 1700s Boston. Once set loose, he sets out to hire men who can help him find a secret artifact from thousands of years ago. This is where the game brings up questions about how its mechanics are supposed to make you feel about Haytham: why does the game’s minimap at this point function solely to label groups of British soldiers walking around as bright red dots raring to be killed if they only attack provoked? Why can I attack civilians three times before the game forces me to stop with a game over if Haytham is never at any point shown to be a clumsy killer or one who would ever kill random people? Moments like these just show a lack of polish and mechanical stability in a series that famously has been worked on by hundreds of people.

I’m not simply using this article to criticize the Assassin’s Creed series for not being mechanically resonant. Rather, I’m surprised and impressed when it is. Once the game truly opens up and you get to play as Haytham’s son Connor, many of the UI’s subtle nudges toward violence make more sense. Connor’s village was burned to the ground by British men, so it makes sense that they are all red dots on the map when you play as him. He is new to the Assassin lifestyle, so it makes sense that he might kill a civilian by accident here or there. But the game really shines when you step away from the big cities. In the frontier and homestead, where the game hides some of its best missions, everything you do as a player makes perfect sense with Connor the character. Of course you hunt animals and skin them with ease, because the game shows that Connor’s been doing it since he was a young man. And of course you climb trees and hang evil Redcoats from them with a ropedart; Connor’s home was surrounded by woods, and the Iroquois were known for using ingenuity to create tools for hunting. You’re still stalking enemies and sneaking around British encampments, but the fact that Connor is much more noticeably foreign and, specifically, Native American, means that yes, he’s going to be watched and persecuted at the slightest misstep in the cities, and yes, he uses the animal skins he finds to improve his home and upgrade his tools. Some of these concessions are understandable given the constraints of modern game design, but the frontier missions with Connor really highlight how much better this series (and all games, for that matter) are when the mechanics make narrative sense.

It’s a bit unfair to criticize modern blockbuster games for not being mechanically resonant. Bioshock: Infinite clashes heady idealistic drama about violence and control with first person shooting, but it’s hard to deny that the shooting is fun, and it helped the game sell millions. Indie games tend to not have ludonarrative dissonance because the small team size and limited scope mean that there is little compromise needed.  Spelunky’s explorer protagonist has déjà vu and the caves he goes to explore reset themselves magically, which explains away the random elements and repetition of his quest, and Super Meat Boy is harkening back to the brutal platformers of yesteryear while still appealing to a modern audience, meaning it is brutally difficult but offers infinite, fast continues. If we want big budget games to improve, we need to ask more from them than simply to be fun or look good. So many shooters empower the player, but also ask them to believe that they are part of a small, rag-tag group of soldiers who barely get by. Why then, do so many shooter protagonists have regenerating health, incredibly fast reload times, and crackshot aim? If we want to see games as a whole improve, we need to expect developers to not slouch when it comes to emotionally resonant mechanics, because they are at the heart of what makes so many games go from good to amazing.

Monday Match-Ups: Sauron vs. Darth Sidious

Lawn Bowling

The Setup:

We’ve all had the lunchtime conversations about despotism in fantasy lands. Who would win the fight, Sauron or Darth Sidious? We at Pop-Modern are the trendsetting few who think further ahead. Sure, it would be fun to see the devastation of the planet known as Middle Earth by a re-rebuilt Death Star (note: Abrams- you can take this idea to the bank, just put as in the credits), but wouldn’t it be more exciting to watch these despots battle for title of lawn bowling? That’s what we explore here today in the never before explored lawn bowling duel between Sauron, Dark Lord, and Darth Sidious, Lord of the Sith.


The Contenders:


Darth Sidious:


The Verdicts:

Allen: It doesn’t get more Anglican than lawn bowling. Similar to shuffleboard, it’s all about getting as close as possible to your target using a thrown, weighted ball. Now let’s take a look at our challengers. Sauron, the titular Lord of the Rings, has identity issues. Once a human for many years, he eventually abandoned his human form and took up the infamous Eye of Sauron form that he presents himself as in Tolkien’s epic novels. He can possess people probably, he can most likely, I dunno, squint really hard and move mountains, and, most importantly, he can roll a mean seven-ten split. His bowling skills were only elucidated in specific editions of The Silmarillion, but hitting pins does not a good lawn bowler make. Sidious also changed forms throughout his time as the Skywalker’s “creepy uncle who also wants to make us commit genocide” role, cliche as it is. His power is influence over anything else, despite what those damn video games will tell you about “Force Lightning” and “Force Choke” and “Improved Bonus to Lightsaber Crits”. With lawn bowling being a team sport, Sidious has got the motivation and pep to get his fellow bowlers on point. If we’re assuming this is human Sauron, all he can do is raise an undead army and command them to take over some land or something. Oh, and did I mention that Sidious can just use the damn Force to weigh the ball down right next to the jack? Oh, I didn’t? Oh, I’m sorry. I couldn’t you over the sound of Midichlorians not existing.\

Magellan: For this puzzler of a Monday Match-Up (would we have it any other way?) I’m going to make three key assumptions: First, I’m going to go ahead and say that “lawn bowling” is synonymous with “bocce,” if only because “bocce” is much more fun to say and sounds like the kind of game that two diabolical, older entities would play together. Second, I’m assuming that, however much it goes against character logic and the general rules of war (or lack thereof) that govern the Dark Side, Sidious has agreed not to employ the Force to give himself an advantage. That’s the only way we can make this contest fair, since any game that relies solely on physics would be irreparably broken by so much as a well-timed wrist-flick from the chubbiest Youngling, even with one of those glorified colanders they call training helmets on their head. Third, I’m taking it as given that Sauron isn’t manifesting as a fifty-foot fiery cat eye, but rather as the armored dude from the beginning of Fellowship. And therein lies the crux of my argument. Sure, Sauron has the strength and the precision to make some great shots at the pallino (another fun “bocce”-related word), but he just doesn’t have the maneuverability necessary to make some of the tricky finesse shots that will send Sidious over the top. You’ve got to admit, even with the pounds of skin that constituted Sidious’s eye brow region, he always looked nothing if not comfortable. He probably wasn’t even wearing anything under that robe.

Jim: The interesting thing about this scenario seems to be the issue of whether Sauron is a fiery eye, or a somewhat less immolated death king. I for one choose to believe that Sauron couldn’t bowl as such, as one eye would severely lack any kind of depth perception. Instead, I think that the contenders are an old politician, and a healthy, immortal death angel. Let’s face the facts. Politicians don’t make the best sportsmen. We’ve all seen Barack Obama playing basketball, and it is rumored that he only ran for president after the WNBA kicked him out due to his “uninteresting ball –play”. Could Sidious really do all that much better in bowling? Sure the death star probably has a bowling arena, but judging from the hunch in his step, Sidious wouldn’t even be able to pick up a 10 pound ball without seeing his local Twilek chiropractor. Besides, what with ruling over a galactic empire, Sidious hasn’t had much down time since he looked slightly less wrinkly. Sauron on the other hand looks stronger than Sidious’s brow furrows. Sure, his precision might have been dulled by using a gigantic mace for years, but what with lugging around a set of armor for millennia, and bench-pressing Oliphants, he could just throw boulders down the lane and crush people. Magic ring or not, this fallen angel looks like he’s fallen into the history books. Sauron wins lawn bowling, no contest.


The Results:


Darth Sidious wins 2-1


In a radical turn of events, the wrinkly old politician wins again. Nobody could have seen that coming since the 2000 presidential election. Political Comedy. Join us next time for some more cutting edge fan fiction.