Pentatonic Ponderings: More of That, Please

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By Allen

Prelude

I watch Almost Famous every year that I get the chance. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 or so, when it was first recommended to me by one of the editors of the now-defunct film website, Screened. If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know I really, REALLY like that movie. On my latest rewatch, I picked up on a whole new theme in the film that’s buried under all the nostalgia and rock music; longing. Specifically, the longing for a particular type of music, and how it feels to let a small clip of sound influence and change your life. Anna Paquin’s character sums this up in the screencap I’m using as the thumbnail; it does hurt, and it can be simultaneously isolating and inviting to feel like you’re the only person that feeds off of a particular piece of music. 2015 has been an incredible year of music, and I’ve easily listened to more full albums this year than ever before. Some of my favorite songs this year have that perfect, enchanting couple of seconds of sound that make me feel like everything is okay, and I’d like to share them with the world, and maybe we can all come to appreciate each other’s “silly little piece of music”.

Track 1: “Celebrate” by Metric (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLg9WUhhhAs&channel=lastofspades)

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We’re talking about the synth hit here. If you want my favorite instance of it in the track, it’s at 2:26. Metric’s been my favorite band since I first heard Synthetica in high school, so I started out as a fan of their synth-pop rebranding before going back and exploring their more rock-influenced roots. Shifting genres so drastically is a bold and polarizing decision, but it worked for Metric because they kept the core of what makes them special; an incredible concert sound and personal lyrics that have inspired millions. “Celebrate” is all about grasping at the opportunities in life while they’re still available to you. When Haines hits that synth note, it’s time to dance right then and there. The song almost grinds to a halt every time the synth kicks in, like the rest of the chorus is moving out of the way. It’s a powerful statement: “Here we are, this is what our sound is now.” Nobody wants to sit and wait.

Track 2: “Clearest Blue” by Chvrches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpFXXPruuqU)

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I have gone on record to the official Chvrches Twitter account saying that I will cry if I ever get to hear “Clearest Blue” live in concert. It’s the type of song that attracts that sort of response, with an emotional buildup that is so intense that it, like Paquin’s character says in Almost Famous, almost hurts. It’s a long, intense two minutes and twelve seconds into “Clearest Blue” before the song stands out from so many other Chvrches songs. Their latest album, Every Open Eye, has been criticized for sticking fairly close to their previous work in terms of song structure, but “Clearest Blue” proves this wrong. Even a minute in, a careful listener can notice the addition of different instrumentation and faster pace. “Holding on tightly to the side/Never quite learning why” is exactly how I felt the first time I heard this song. You feel it coming, you feel your pulse racing. And right as the drop is about to start, we become Mayberry in the song, trying to push this track away as yet another dull, chorus-focused pop song. But then it happens. 2:16 into “Clearest Blue” is the singular where I knew that this was an incredible year for music. I was genuinely shaking the first time I heard it, and it’s quite the fun little game for me to show it to other people and watch their reactions. This is the kind of music that really stings when it’s over.

Track 3: “Seeing Stars” by BØRNS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2GOGwB4QYU&channel=UCi13pi8_WsPJMpYBqSKwK_Q)

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Known by many as “the guy who wrote the song in that Hulu ad” and “Taylor Swift’s friend”, Garrett Borns established himself this year as an incredible voice in pop music. Although “Electric Love” is probably his most well-known song, “Seeing Stars” delivers much more in terms of the satisfaction we’re looking for in this list. Right from the start, the synth is overpowering and, most importantly, fast. Just when you think that’s just going to be the intro, it becomes the chorus. So simple, just a few notes, and it carries the entire song. I’ve found Borns to be fantastic music for cardio exercise, because rhythm like that keeps you from letting up for even a second.

Track 4: “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4ooH8frBWg&channel=ChanceThaRapper)

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Chance the Rapper refuses to let up after having released Acid Rap, a 2013 mixtape that was so good, so incredibly memorable, that it put him on the map of modern hip-hop. “Sunday Candy” is a song off of Surf, an album he did with his rap/soul music collective The Social Experiment over the summer, and it represents a big step forward in hip-hop. The part we’re going to specifically close read here is the first verse and chorus. Chance raps about his grandmother, and how her cooking, spirituality, and tenacity make her his biggest inspiration. Jamila Woods absolutely makes this track though, and her chanting of “Rain down Zion/It’s gonna rain” layered over a velvety baritone AND Chance’s rapping? It’s awe-inspiring, it brightens up a bad day, it…I’m dancing to it right now, and it’s not even playing. Good music can do that to you, if you meet it halfway.

Track 5: “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeccAtqd5K8&channel=CarlyRaeJepsenVEVO)

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SYNTH HORNS, Y’ALL. Who would’ve thought Carly Rae Jepsen could make such a knockout comback after seemingly peaking with her 2012 summer hit “Call Me Maybe”? Emotion is all-around an amazing album, filled with breezy pop tracks that I’m not ashamed to say I’ll be bumping in the car for months to come. The running thread of the album for me was “Let’s do some pop music you already know and love, and throw something special in there”. That’s the synth horns in “Run Away With Me”. I’ve never heard anything like them, and coupled with the thumping bass running through the whole song and the hollow, almost gunshot-like drum hit before the chorus, you’ve got the formula for an incredibly memorable pop chorus that shows Jepsen’s range and reminds me why I fell in love with pop music.

Epilogue

Honest to goodness, I didn’t plan for all of these tracks to be so synth-heavy, but that’s really just what I’m into these days. The criteria for what sounds and songs fit into this article’s theme is intentionally broad, and different for each person. Listen back specifically to songs that have gotten stuck in your head recently, and try to isolate which part, be it some random instrumentation or a lovely falsetto, you’ll know what you’re listening for. Take that, play it over and over again, and make a playlist out of all the songs that do it for you. Here are some of the songs I added to a playlist for this article that didn’t make the cut, but have the same satisfying feel to them:

“Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJJT00wqlOo&channel=AsthmaticKitty

“Baby Blue” by Action Bronson and Chance the Rapper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVP_w1rQweE

“Duct Tape Heart” by Barenaked Ladies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr23m4q6XoY

“New Americana” by Halsey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-eYbUVZedY&channel=HalseyVEVO

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Pop Modern Interviews: Max Heath, of Child Actor

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By Allen

I had the incredible opportunity to briefly interview Max Heath, half of Boston-based electro-pop band Child Actor, over email recently after the release of their latest full album, Never Die. Described by some as dreamy dance music mixed with ethereal vocals by Natalie Plaza, Never Die  manages to lull you to sleep one moment and have you dancing in public the next. Heath and I discuss the album and Child Actor below:

Pop Modern: Never Die was just released about a week ago, and it’s already sitting high up on my personal Best Albums of the Year list. This is in part due to your unique style of producing, as well as Ms. Plaza’s vocals. What mood/feel were you going for with Never Die, and what are some tracks you are particularly proud of getting out there?

Max Heath: There is certainly a feeling of fantasy or dream that runs through most of the album. Writing these songs I was excited by a contrast between euphoria and dread in the music. I think my favorites might be “The Memory” and “Ungone”, but I also like “Morning” purely from a songwriting perspective.

Pop Modern: Child Actor has built itself almost entirely on word of mouth and free publicity, and Never Die at least is free to download on your website, with options to pay for it on most digital retailers. Has this model worked out for you so far, and do you plan to stick with it in the future?

Heath: Making a record is almost always a big, scary investment of time and money and it’s hard from a practical standpoint to resist the pressure to monetize everything. Our main goal is to allow anybody who wants to hear the album to be able to do so. Of course our more passionate fans also have the opportunity to buy shirts and vinyl so we’re not exactly socialist. Really figuring out how to sell (or not sell) music is my least favorite responsibility so I try not to spend too much time thinking about it. Hopefully somebody else will think about it on our behalf soon enough, though it is nice in theory to feel like we make all the decisions ourselves.

Pop Modern: Who inspires you musically? This can be artists that directly inspire Child Actor work, or just people who’ve inspired you to make things and create content for the world.

Heath: The feeling of being directly inspired by a particular artist changes pretty dramatically and constantly for me. At this moment it’s Milan Kundera.

Pop Modern: Any plans for a tour coming soon that you’d like to share with your fans? Or other upcoming work to look forward to?

Heath: We’re considering various options for putting a tour together but nothing solid yet. Hope that works out. We still have a few videos and a couple cover songs we’re planning on releasing over the next several months.

Pop Modern: Where did the title, Never Die, come from? There’s obviously a track on the album by the same name, but I was wondering what made you choose to name the album after it?

Heath: We spent a lot of time thinking about death; you could almost say we were obsessed. We came to the conclusion that we really don’t want to die right now.

Couldn’t have wrapped it up any better myself! Many thanks to Max from Child Actor from taking time out of his day to be interviewed, much love to Ms. Plaza for co-creating such a fantastic, enchanting piece of work. Go download Never Die for free at childactor.net, or buy it on iTunes, Soundbutt, Bandcamp, or Amazon. Support good music, and let us know if you’re enjoying these sporadic, more focused interview features.

Diaries from the Multiverse: Game of Thrones

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By Allen

(Diary of Dietrich Windsworn)

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It’s always too hot here. With no ventilation or blasted windows, it’s just sixteen hours a day of that infernal ball of heat beating down on your face like so many drops of water. Water. W-A-T-E-R. I don’t really have much reason to write that word in Dorne. Prince Doran, bless that old coot, wouldn’t dare send us a droplet in times like this. With family coming in and out of Sunspear, once can’t help but feel like the Martells are busy these days.

But enough about the royalists and big shots, let’s talk about my day. I got up with the sun as usual, and set off to work collecting food. I headed down to the market, and Delia sold me a bundle of olives for half price because she said I have a “cute little face”. What she doesn’t know is I’ll be a man grown soon, and then she’ll be all out of things to call cute and/or little. So I did that. Later, I brought Hump with me to the watering hole, and we enjoyed a quick dip and sip before those damn guards with the pointy stabby things told us to “move or be moved.” Ugh, jackasses. Sometimes, I wonder if I could be a guard for the Martells. If it means getting to see Arianne and the Snakes every waking day, sign me the hell up. I swear, that family was just born with good genes. I suppose you reap what you sow.

I’m still torn up about Oberyn. The man always had nice things to say about the common people. He would bring his sister Elia into the streets, and they would dance topless as a newborn child for a while, until the inevitable peasant tried to cop a feel on the lady herself. I just can’t respect a fellow street dweller who insults our beautiful leaders in such a deeply personal way. It gives us all a bad name, and it’s not like we need more crap from the folks upstairs. I’ve always referred to the palace of Sunspear as “upstairs”, not necessarily because there are stairs inside, but because it feels like it’s always watching us, like parents in their rooms upstairs. Always watching, never interfering. At least it’s better than what I hear goes on in Westeros. One of the books I read mentioned how kings would have people brutally killed for simply getting too close. I complain about the heat and the hard living, but I like Dorne. I feel like we’re on the cusp of a big political shift, and if that means we don’t have to get involved in any wars overseas, count me in.

Anyways, back to my day. So I get my water, save some drops in my pouch, and head back home with Hump. The bastard gets a little feisty, and nearly drops me face first into a shockingly large puddle of shite. It was quite the experience. After that, nothing interesting really happened. I brought back the food and water, went running down to Hazzad’s house, and we kicked an old bundle of rags around for a few hours. Mama says I’m getting lazy, but anything is better than Maya’s typical day, which usually consists of: sleeping, bathing, flirting with men on the street, more sleeping, and more eating. Hey, it’s a living.

And then I came back inside, enjoyed the fruits of my labor, fed Hump, and sat down to read a book. I love having this time to catch up on things, but I miss being more busy. Ever since Baba left, I was supposed to be the man of the house. Turns out being the man of the house just means cleaning up after a shit-stained camel and lugging food back and forth.

But hey, I’d do anything for the family. I’d die for them.

Oh, and I polished my bow today. Both curves have a good angle now, and the string itself has excellent give and throw. I think I’ll bring it with me on the Meereen trip in a few days. I hear the Mother of Dragons is in town. I swear, I leave one hot place and head to another. Just once, I wish we took a trip to The Reach or Winterfell. I’ve always loved sailing ever since Baba brought us here so long ago. He said we were “getting back to our roots.” I dare you to find one actual living root in Dorne that doesn’t belong to a disgusting plant or parasitic creature. May The Smith guide my hand, The Father my decisions, The Mother my family, The Maiden my sister, The Crone my mind, and The Stranger…well, remove him from my bedchamber and bar him from our home. Time to do it all again tomorrow. Life goes on.

Panel Discussion: Reading Between the Lies

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By Allen

I’ve been trying to branch out more with comics in the last few months now that I have a commute again, which has led to me reading a weird amalgamation of stories that I’ve meant to for years like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, cult classics like Lone Wolf And Cub, and indie outings like the fantastic Alex And Ada. If there’s any quality that connects these disparate stories, it’s a disconnect between what is implied and what is in the panels.

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman  can best be described as Justice League starring characters from all across literature through the lens of Alan Moore. It’s easily his second most well-known work after Watchmen, and it shares his fondness for creating universes through implication of a broader world than what is seen. In Watchmen, every scene is filled with grunge and darkness that permeated late-80s postmodern art and media. Even when the story shows something like a dead dog or a man committing suicide with cyanide, the world around these scenes breathes with life and realism. This is much more apparent in League of Extraordinary Gentleman. At least in the first volume, it feels like almost half of the story is establishing shots and splash pages. And even though these scenes show the scale and scope of the novel’s many settings, they are drawn in such a way that each splash page tells a story. In one, the heroes sneak through a street of the homeless and ill, masking their faces so as to avoid detection. But what’s more interesting is what isn’t shown; the children of these homeless people, how they got there, and where our heroes came from. In this way, the establishing shots become about not what is, but what isn’t seen. These little details fill in the background of the world, and use a single page or two to tell an elegant, broad story.

If League tells its story through gaps and false framing of scenes, then Lone Wolf and Cub depicts the repetitiveness of violence exclusively using its context clues and the assumptions that the reader brings. The 1970s Japanese samurai story about a samurai assassin and his precocious baby son relies heavily on the classic “Exposition, fight scene, moral, repeat” formula for most of the early-goings. With every battle that Ogami Ittō gets into, the swipes and slashes of swords are represented by the same five or six frames of gore and mutilation. It’s a weirdly gruesome type of scene in a mostly slow, measured comic. However, since it’s almost the same series of frames every time, one would think the artist got lazy and didn’t want to draw new fights. However, this seemed to me like a deliberate choice. Even though the fighters and setting are always different, the battle itself is relatively the same. It’s the context from earlier scenes and past reader experience that envigorate these fights. When Ogami Ittō fights female samurai warriors, it looks the same as when he fights the bulky bodyguard character or vile bandits. However, when one realizes that these women are being treated as equals in Shogun-era Japan (at least in combat), the narrative is reframed to almost be about feminism and the way that these women use their weapons as much as their bodies to fight. And, like a good horror film, the implication of violence between frames is much more horrifying and brutal than what is ever shown.

There’s something almost false and deceiving about the way that comic book art is used to tell stories. Half a hand in one frame can represent an entire body, and word bubbles symbolize speech and action. But even the writing can hint at a greater world than what is shown in each panel. Alex and Ada, a new comic from the Luna Brothers (writer and artist combo that did indie horror masterpiece Girls) focuses on the relationship between 20-something Alex and his synthetic android Ada. For such a small-scale story, the implications of the universe around these characters is massive and detailed. The first example of this is a news report recounting a classic “supposedly subservient robots turn sentient and kill their masters” factory incident. The specific details of this story, like who created the androids and how they gained sentience are slowly explained to the reader and Alex through the story. As the world around him unravels, so does the pace of the story. Early issues spend a lot of time explaining this strange future, but as it grows more comfortable with its universe, Alex and Ada uses subtle, unspoken drama and pathos for world building. Nobody sits down and explains the virtual reality Internet that people browse;it is simply shown as is. This suggests that the world has been the way it is for years, and nobody within it needs to function as a reader stand-in.

Scott McCloud spends an entire chapter of his famous graphic art book Understanding Comics on the idea of storytelling happening off the panels. This is not only a well-known technique discussed in comics, but a staple of classic works in the medium. However, not many people view the panels themselves as a selectively permeable veil; See this, ignore this. Like a cell membrane, the art hides what needs to stay out, and shows what needs to be seen. But sometimes, it’s the stuff that doesn’t make it in that develops the world the best.

Random Encounters: Do As I Do

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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.

Random Encounters: Licensing Legends

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By Allen

Nintendo’s handling of their most popular licenses has always fascinated me. In the early to mid-90s, Mario was infamously licensed to Phillips for the poorly-received Hotel Mario among other games. Since then, they’ve kept their charming Italian’s likeness out of non-Nintendo titles for the most part since then. However, in 2004, they partnered with Japanese developer Camelot for yet another sports title. Mario Golf: Advance Tour is well-regarded as one of the more well-designed Mario sports games, but what interested me the most playing it now is how, within the universe of the game, Mario and friends are treated as mythical golfers, only playable in multiplayer.

Essentially, Mario Golf: Advance Tour was a tie-in title to the much more popular GameCube game, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. Characters from the former could be transferred to the latter via the GBA link cable, which allowed players to essentially level up a golf pro on the go before bringing them home to play against the pros in the GameCube game. The linking feature was interesting, but Advance Tour stands on its own partly because of how deeply its characters accept that the Mushroom Kingdom and its residents are simply a few tournaments and a lot of dedication awa. The intro of the game deliberately starts with action shots of the main cast of the game, followed by even more dramatically framed poses of Peach, Donkey Kong, and Yoshi before finally cutting to the titular plumber about to swing a golf club. That’s the last time that he or any of his friends are mentioned or seen by name until the very tail end of the main single-player campaign.

From there, the game essentially becomes Golf: The JRPG. You and your oppositely-gendered partner compete in various tournaments and challenges dotted around a camp devoted to golfing, and finishing these challenges awards experience points to be placed into stats like “drive distance” and “ball control”. There’s an entire glossary of incredibly specific golf terms ranging from “pin shots” all the way to intricate definitions of topspin and backspin. These elements all make a lot more sense when one realizes that Camelot was also the team that the acclaimed Shining Force series, Mario Tennis, and just a few years before, the Golden Sun series came from. With this JRPG and sports game cred under their belts, it’s no surprise that Nintendo hired them to create a unique experience to go along with their flagship GameCube golf game.

I have yet to find another game that utilizes its license as bizarrely as Mario Golf: Advance Tour. It’s not bad in any way; in fact, it makes getting to the final tournament where you do play against Mario and co. that much more exciting, because you know that they’re these legendary pros within the context of this game. Some of the references aren’t as clever, such as naming the first cup of the game the “Marion Cup” and featuring a recognizable mustached man’s face on the rug in the Marion lobby. But this game got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of game licensing. Lean too hard on your license, and you get a Star Wars Kinect scenario where the game and license don’t mesh. Focusing on the game first and the license second gives you more successful titles like the recently released South Park: The Stick of Truth. But making your license an unattainable, nonplayable cast of heroes in an otherwise solid game is much more interesting, and Mario Golf: Advance Tour shines even in 2014 because of it.

Pop Modern Interviews: Tanya Short from Kitfox Games

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(Editor’s note: Excuse the bulk of just interviews on the site lately! The three of us are kind of shifting into summer break these next few weeks, so content has been kind of hard to get out consistently. Bear with us, and enjoy.)

 By Allen

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Short, lead designer at the Montreal-based independent game development studio Kitfox Games. We met briefly at the Boston Festival of Indie Games last year, and I’ve been following the progress of their latest project, Shattered Planet, pretty closely since then because it looks incredibly impressive. We talked about the game, being an indie dev in 2014, porting from mobile to PC, and more!

 

Pop Modern: How did Kitfox Games start?

Tanya Short: We actually started with the creation of Shattered Planet! We joined Execution Labs, which is an incubator/accelerator for indie mobile games, in order to create Shattered Planet full-time. We’re four folks who met in Montreal, at local indie meetups.

PM:  How would you describe Shattered Planet to someone who’s never heard of it?

TS: To most people, I say it’s a survival strategy RPG, where you’re a space captain, exploring a dangerous alien planet. As a clone, you die (often!), but it’s all right, you can keep going with the knowledge of different species and technologies discovered. It’s free to download on iOS and Android right nowwww! And it’s coming to PC soon, as a premium game.

In reply, a certain gamer will say, “Err is it a roguelike?” to which I say, “YES!”

PM: When did development start, and what was the original impetus for making a rogue-like tactical game on tablets and PC?

TS: About a year ago! We actually didn’t set out to make a roguelike at all. We started prototyping a game all about exploration. We made a prototype that was more like Minesweeper, and one that was more like a board game… but the isometric RPG was our favorite, so we kept working on it… and a month later we realized we had accidentally made a roguelike!

Working in Unity made it easy to simultaneously develop for iOS, Android, and PC — so we did! We focused on mobile first so we could try out the base idea and see if people liked it, and after 250,000 downloads, we’re glad we did. Now we can focus on making the PC version super-extra-awesome with more confidence.

PM: Now, a common question that I’ve found gets developers thinking and entices people to try their games is this; If you had to recommend three other games, any platform or time period, that fans should try or know about to get a grasp on what SP is like, what would they be and why?

TS: Interesting! I’ve never had that question before. Hmmm. I guess I’d say the first would be Rogue Legacy, for the central idea of progression (loss, but steady empowerment). Then Brogue, because it’s my favorite roguelike ever and definitely had a strong influence on the core systems. And maybe Don’t Starve? It’s also an “uncompromising survival strategy”, with a hapless so-called scientist following where you click.

PM: The art is by far the most striking thing about the game, mainly because it feels like it’s pulling from so many inspirations. What were a few of them, and what were you going for with the art style and creature design?

TS: Well, Xin Ran Liu (our artist) is a classically trained painter, so we almost went at it from scratch! He tried out more painterly, more cartoony, and we ended up somewhere in-between, with bright colors to match the light-hearted tone of writing. I think his closest inspirations are probably traditional painters! He teaches classes at a local art school, and you can follow him on Facebook to see his awesome watercolors and other experiments.

Interestingly, for our next game (Moon Hunters), it has such a different style, with chunky pixels, muted colors, and frame-by-frame animation, people have asked if we’ve changed artists… but it’s always Xin! Well, we have brought in the talented Graham Lackey to help Xin out and give advice based on his experience working on Fez, Spaceteam, and various Adult Swim games.

MoonHunters_SEC_Gameplay_B

An early screenshot of Moon Hunters, the next game from Kitfox Games.

PM: Game development has been making huge strides towards accessibility in the last few years. What tools did you guys and gals make Shattered Planet with, and how do you feel about the current state of the independent games industry today?

TS: I AM SO EXCITED! We work in Unity 3d, and it’s empowered us so much, we’re thrilled with the direction game development is going. Jonathan Blow got some flak for saying game development was much harder 10 years ago, but he is so incredibly right — there’s genuinely no way 4 people could have made the equivalent of Shattered Planet in a year for PC 10 years ago, never mind across various platforms. It means that making games is almost as competitive as writing (making a game is still marginally harder than writing a poem), which is stressful, but definitely good news for consumers and art aficionados.

There will be more and more different kinds of games, made by different kinds of people, and that’s 100% pure awesome.

PM: Now, Shattered Planet has actually been complete and playable on tablets for a while now, but you recently announced that it will be coming to PC as a sort of enhanced version without the microtransaction options if I’m not mistaken? What was it like porting from mobile to PC, and what specifically are you planning to do besides change the controls and UI for PC players?

TS: Well, actually, we’ve been building with PC in mind all along — we announced it was tablet-and-PC back in the first month of development! But obviously PC as a platform has a longer history of hardcore gamer and expectations are different when you sit down at a desk.

In addition to UI and controls tweaks, we’ll be adding in whole spankin’ new features that unhappily got cut for the mobile launch: character classes, a daily challenge system, and a more robust datalog system…we’re still debating whether the datalog system will change the way pets work. But the core idea is to increase the depth of possible strategies and the appeal of experimentation in the game… and it’s really exciting to not have to worry about mobile memory constraints!

PM: Any advice for the aspiring indie devs out there? I know we have a couple who read this site, so I know they would appreciate any tips.

TS: Three major things:

1 – Make to-do lists with tasks you actually can achieve in a very short time-frame (i.e. things that will take you 1 hour or less). Trello is free and very good for this.

2 – Make a delivery commitment you can’t cancel. Agree to show the game publically, either to testers or to a festival or to whoever, and work backwards from that date to figure out what you can and cannot get done. Cut things that don’t get done in time.

3 – For the love of all that’s fun, don’t tell anyone about what you’re doing until after you’ve already done it. Pre-bragging removes motivation to actually follow through.

 

The best way to keep up with development at Kitfox Games is to subscribe to their newsletter. They’ll be announcing things like release of the PC version (due out sometime this summer!) and other updates about the studio there. You can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/EbbjT

And if you’d like to download Shattered Planet, search for it on iTunes or the Google Play Store, or click either of these links:

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/shattered-planet-rpg/id698929655?mt=8

Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.kitfox.shatteredplanet