Monday, 16 April 2012

It's like magic, turning data into feel

I had my first proper bass experience last Friday. My housemate is thoroughly into bass music, makes it himself, discusses it all the time, plays us sets every now and then and even holds a time slot in an online radio service (click here to check it out, if you're interested) so it would be rather right to assume that he keeps his eyes open for any live events like this, and so one doth finally come about.
                It was an event called Subloaded (I'm sure those of you who are into the genre will know it more than I, a simple nomadic explorer who has yet to properly settle down into a specific area) and it was held in a pub only about 40 minutes walk from us called The Black Swan. We wandered down there at about 9:00 in order to be in when it started up at 10:00, along the way enjoying ourselves a nice J and some friendly conversation with a stranger who was spending the night with us after travelling down for the event. Needless to say we were all rather high by the time we got there, the stranger had brought with him some pretty hefty weed and I found myself a little disconnected from the proceedings.
                I felt out of place; this was not my usual crowd, and the music I was listening to was not what I was used to, which is not to say it was a bad thing, don't get me wrong, I was certainly enjoying it. We arrived early, and so were sat in the front part of the venue, in the pub of The Black Swan, listening to some dude in priest garbs playing something akin - but not like - what we were going to spend the next 8 hours listening to. We left the pub maybe twenty minutes later (I was beyond buzzing at this point, so my perception of time got a little weird) and we wandered around the back of the building where there was another, rather unassuming door, around which a few patrons had gathered expectantly. My sense of displacement was then further amplified when the aforementioned unassuming door was opened and a man wearing a beige jumper walked out and past us. To me he was no different to anyone but according to the hushed and sudden whispers that coursed through the group of waiting music lovers I had assumed wrong, as this fellow in beige was actually Pinch. Capitalised. Italicised. A VIP. Pinch.
                'Fair enough' thought I. 'I wouldn't be able to tell that guy from my housemate, had I not spent the last 14 months living with him. This world is one full of celebrities, but celebrities that do not live in high towers' that is something very respectable about the genre and it's community. Yes, the man who just passed us may be well-known and respected, but he still had to use the same unassuming door that we all would to enter and exit the building.
                Anyway, once the beige celebrity dude had passed the doors remained open and we could enter ourselves. This is probably where I started to unravel. A queue formed and one by one we were herded into the passageway beyond the doors. A short but bulky man in black barred each one's path, greeting us with a different pleasantry before patting us down in a bid to minimalise the number of weapons in the venue (and likely put a hefty hurt upon anyone trying to oppose this) and sending us on our way. I was a little too high to deal with physical contact at this point, and my mind began to reel as his hands patted my hips and thighs. I thought to myself 'I don't have any weapons, but I might as well do! I'm bound to have something on me that is against the rules, I always do! Remember the Pen-Light incident!' and had begun panicking when I realised I was already most of the way in the building, my housemate buying our tickets and leading me into the paradise he had looked forward to experiencing for quite some time.
                The paradise was little more than a corridor with two doors, one on each side and an open area with a bar at the far end. To the right was a smoking garden, a terraced area with wooden tables and a strange white ceiling that seemed to be both an upside-down snowy plain and a bright, overgrown underwater cave, and to the left a plain rectangular room, painted black on all sides. As we entered the left door and turned to face the back wall I came face-to-face with the sound system that my housemate had been going on about for so long, and I can fully understand why he was so excited by it.
                I could not give you the specifics, as my knowledge of musical equipment is limited at best, but I'll say it consisted of two floor-to-ceiling stacks of bass amps either side of the biggest sound-desk I've ever seen (and I've worked in both recording studios and radio stations). The music being emitted from this beast of a system was no longer music to my gradually melting brain. What came out of this monster was waves of pure energy, motions and emotions, thoughts and feelings, brightly coloured in their entirely black light, washing over you like waves of sea water on the beach and dislodged gravel as you fall down a steep hill. In that room you don't hear a sound, but you feel every pitch of the spectrum in full force through your chest as it wraps itself around your heart and pulls you close so it can scream in your face, demanding that you understand what it wants you to think and feel about it, and you do, wholeheartedly, unobtrusively, you understand and you feel and you think and I feel rather out of place.
                We enjoy this for a few minutes - you can't just jump into it, like a swimming pool, you have to do little tastes of it, like a hot bath, dipping your hand in, recoiling, allowing it to cool, putting your foot in, recoiling again, then both feet, and so on - then we head out into the garden, where the air is moving freely again and you can breathe deeply without the weight of emotion upon your chest. I think I'm going to enjoy this, though it might get wearing come the earlier hours of the morning, but it'll stick it through, I'd like to say I have. We go and get some water from the bar, it costs 20p for a plastic cup, but you can have it refilled as often as you like, a deal I can certainly stand by, and we return to the feel-room again for a few minutes.
                My mouth is very cottony, and the water helps to wet it a little, but not much. I look around and think I can hear people yelling over the sound of the music, the only way you can converse in this strange cocoon. Cocoon, yeah, that's a good simile for this experience, it's like being wrapped in a good, padded sleeping bag. My arms and legs are warm, my chest is a little constricted, but not so bad that I can't breathe. It is comfortable. But I'm out of place. These are not my people, I'm an imposter, an intruder. What I hear and feel is a barrage of emotion and sound, but apparently there are individual, separate tracks running here, that slight change in tone means a new song, and these people recognise it, they're all going mad, even my housemate, their faces are a rictus of ecstasy, but I don't get it. It all sounds rather the same. I'm an outcast. But this is comfortable.
                The madness dies down and my housemate pulls me aside. We head back out into the corridor again, where there stands a group of people who stop my housemate. They all talk animatedly about the last track that played, how they all felt lucky for having heard it. I guess I should too? Here comes some more people, and the ones we're already with mock them lightly for having missed the track and it makes no sense to me but I guess I'm lucky but I'm out of place and now we head back to the bar, get some water and out to the garden. We find a larger group this time and we all talk, I even try to respond to some basic questions and seem like I'm getting by, but it doesn't feel right. I think they know I'm not from here, I'm not part of this community, but they're friendly, and I'm trying, so they won't do anything, they're not bad people, or monsters, I just have nothing to say. We find the strange who is staying with us and decide to light up another J. This one is stronger than the last, and we're joined by two others who are looking for weed but can't find any. We let them join in and I try more conversation. Things are going well.
                We go back inside and I marvel at the sound even more. It is like magic, my mind screams. It takes thought, idea, and data and it turns it into pure feel. We feel this, we don't hear it, per se, we feel it, but I'm not from this group, and I'm out of place, but it's warm and comfortable and I'm leaning against a wall and my housemate leans to me and says "let yourself go with the music, just relax" so I do but my mind won't shut up and the music is great it's magic and feel but out of place and I try to talk but I can't and magic in place out of conversation this comfort sleeping bag feel and think my feel touch it nothing black colour it's out and-
                There is dark and my face is burning. I'm leaning against something hot and someone is asking if I'm ok and I say "yeah, of course I'm fine" by my teeth hurt when I do and I realise my eyes are closed and I'm not leaning on anything by lying down. I'm on the floor, in the dark and I can feel people around me and my face hurts. My housemate grabs my arm and we get me upright and he leads me outside into the blessedly cool air. He asks me again if I'm ok and we sort out a lift back home to get me to bed. It's a shame, a really bastard of a shame, because I was enjoying myself, and I know my housemate was, but now the night is over and it has barely begun. I had momentarily lost consciousness - only a couple of seconds, long enough for my legs to buckle and to hit the ground, but in that moment it was gone. I needed rest and we made it home thanks to his wonderful girlfriend and that, sadly, was the end of my first proper bass-music experience. I'm not sure whether it was the weed, the lack of sleep I was experiencing from a very hectic week besides that night (from being home, to having a friend up in Bristol, to that and a gig on Saturday, last week was a VERY busy one for me) or if I was just so overcome by the music that my mind had cut out, I don't know, and I'm very thankful to everyone who helped me get back and I'm very, very sorry that you couldn't go back and finish enjoying the night, even though I insisted you did. Next time, either I won't go so you can be sure or I'll know to be more careful.
                If you get the opportunity to go to an event like that, I high suggest you do, it truly is an experience, that is all there is to it. I can even juxtapose it to a gig clearly by saying that you go to a gig to see a performance, but you go to one of those nights to feel the music, and it is truly amazing.
                For now, I'll just stick to the painkillers to stop my sodding jaw from hurting (I still can't eat properly).

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The dark side of Cartoons. All that yelling and screaming goes to good use.

When I was but a wee teenager I would spend my hours wasting away before the TV, because growing up where I did there was little else besides drinking to do (and I did a lot of that, too) but as anyone growing up in England during the late 90's and early 2000's can agree when I say that a lot of our broadcasting was shite to say the least, and if you were cursed to be stuck with the basic television package, terrestrial TV provided even less. So, torn as I was between BBC's mix of end-of-the-world news and psuedo-drama and ITV's upper-class "laugh at the poor people" news and mind-bogglingly boring period-drama, I found myself ecstatic the day my mum came in and announced we were getting a Sky TV dish installed. Suddenly I was spoilt for choice with 900 channels of equally nothing-of-interest broadcasting (and by 900, I mean somewhere in the vicinity of 150 crap channels, 40 news channels and about 300 Shopping Networks... The rest of that number were missing somewhere in the ethereal realm of dead air).
                I was on the verge of giving up on television entirely (something I have done in the years since) until I discovered the post-watershed options. Now, sad to say, I was not like most teens at that time, and what excited me most about this world of after-the-kiddiwinks-bedtime, censorship-free excitement was not the porn channels, but Cartoon Network. Well, not Cartoon Network itself, but the magical thing it turned into after the last of the Hanna-Barbera bedtime hour (The Flintstones, some Huckleberry Hound, Scooby Doo, good stuff, but still not enough for me) had drawn to its conclusion. Like the mythical werewolf, the man forced to hide his monstrous alter-ego until it tore him inside-out at the coming of a full moon, I discovered that Cartoon Network had its own dark side, and this night-time creature was called "Toonami".
                Toonami was host to a small community of "adult" cartoons, things I would later discover were called "anime" (and, to my further horror, available 24-7 in Japan and specialised channels on American TV). In these cartoons the heroes were free from the shackles of childish stereotypes; they were capable of being both good role models, like their daytime counterparts, but also of being real people, people with problems and attitudes that went further than the rebellious "I'll stay up after my bedtime" punks from daytime cartoons. In this world the good guys drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, swore and even killed people (they never "thwarted" plans, but solved the problems set to them by their antagonists by actually killing them, usually with some form of firearm or giant robot or super power). It was more than my little mind could fathom, and I was hooked.
                day after day I would ignore the large glass box in the living room, disenfranchised by the goody-goody actions of what classed as "my TV" and wait until the clock struck 9 and the trouble-free world of childhood faded into its own little dream world. I would then take up the controls, activate the television, the Sky box, and hit the numbers 6-0-1 (then the number for Cartoon Network, I have no idea what it is these days, and have no interest in finding out) and before me would flash the farewell message of fun-filled, family-friendly cartoons and when that was gone, on would explode Toonami, the dark side of cartoons laid bare for me to consume with my eyes and mind.
                Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop, Big-O, Tenchi Muyo, Gundam, all of these would be my new friends, and I loved every minute of it, but what captivated me the most was a rather lengthy series in which the sole purpose of the show was to see its protagonists constantly beat the shit out of their enemies, or be beaten in turn if they weren't strong enough. There was screaming, grunting, groaning and lots of death and destruction (perhaps I was too rash with my "not being into porn" thing earlier) and I was fully captivated by it. This thing was something called Dragonball Z. It drew me from the start, with its heavy opening theme, all guitars and shouting, and carried me further when its protagonists shot onscreen in white and yellow bursts of raw power. This was a world where evil could be beyond powerful, where the bad guys didn't try to steal or cheat but destroy whole worlds, or kill countless innocent civilians, and the only people who could protect it were those who trained night and day simply to punch them in the face harder than they could be punched themselves.
                Since those days my tastes have changed somewhat, but at the time Dragonball Z was the highlight of my day. I would tune in every day to watch Goku and his friends face a new foe, train, be beaten, train again and beat the foe in turn, and I loved it. I loved its simple nature: there were no deep storylines that had to be followed, like with Cowboy Bebop or Outlaw Star, there was simply the good guys beating the bad guys, with talk thrown in now and then for them to insult one another. A simple premise for a simple kid, but as I said, my tastes have changed over the years. I still love anime and the insane depths it will trawl to entertain people, but as my mind grew sharper so did my need for deeper stories and characters. This was when I started to better appreciate Toonami's other shows, and even now you can find a few of those previously mentioned titles (and many more besides) on my DVD shelf, but still, there is that part of me that loves Dragonball Z.
                I have recently been re-watching the show, back-to-back, every episode of every season (at the time of writing this I have just begun the fourth season, the Garlic Jr./Trunks/Androids saga) and I have to say, as much as I love it I can see why many others don't. It is repetitive, each season in the same as the last, with the only difference being how much stronger the antagonists are and how much work must go into beating them. Sure, it has its deeper moments, but its convoluted at best. I have developed a game while watching it: try to figure out how long in real time the show is portraying. It's pretty simple, and all in the title really, I just watch the show and try to judge how much of it has occurred in real time and how much in the super-fast fight-speed time that the battles last for. Depending on which season you watch, it can stretch anything from a year per episode to only a few seconds.
                A major case in point is the third season, the Frieza Saga. I found myself many times during that season thinking to myself "seriously, how LONG is this going to take?". The whole thing, which consists of (I believe) 33 episodes chronicles just ONE fight, that between the Z fighters and the destroyer of worlds, Lord Frieza. At the beginning the time frame is somewhat larger: Goku is in the ship's healing tank, and it will take about an hour for him to be restored to full working order, so in the mean time Goku's son Gohan, his friend Krillin and his fellow Saiyan/enemy Prince Vegeta must hold Frieza off long enough for Goku to be tagged back in. So there's a good time frame, one-hour. It is said many times, so one can safely assume that the time between episode 01 of the season (show episode 75) when the fight begins and episode 10, when Goku is revived, constitutes one hour of real-time. Since each episode is roughly 20 minutes long, that's 200 minutes of our time spent watching just 60 minutes of theirs (though, you have to account for time spent showing things happening elsewhere, so think of that as concurrent and you have a system wherein the same minutes can be replayed a couple of times to show what other characters are doing at the same time), evidence enough that they play with time a little, but you can accept that, there's a lot of things going on, a lot of different characters in different places suffering different fates, and you have to get it all in somehow, but it's later in the series that it really starts to mess with your mind.
                Episode 22 of the season (97 overall) has the beaten Frieza unleash a last-ditch effort to end the battle: a direct powerful attack on the planet's core. He explains that his power, depleted through fighting, was not enough to destroy Namek outright, but that it will gradually degrade until it's full destruction in just five minutes (another number that is often reinforced, mind) so we have a new time-limit with which to judge time in the show. Five minutes is not long, so we'd expect it to all be over soon. Going by the show's previous effort at time stretching, I'd give it 2 episodes, with room for concurrent stories. However this passes, and suddenly things are still happening. I won't bore you with details (you've probably already seen it, if not, I've given away a lot of spoilers already) but put simply the fight continues for another NINE episodes. NINE EPISODES. One Hundred and Eighty minutes of our time is spent showing just FIVE minutes of Dragonball time. Now you might say, "oh, it was just an estimation, it's probably more than that" but I'd say "watch it again. Hear the characters, Frieza, Goku and King Kai all say at different points that there are only minutes left, and refer to the previously mentioned five-minute time limit often too". The show REALLY does stretch five minutes into 180, and it's just mind boggling. What's worse (but also good, for the show does know how to make that time work) is that you'd think each episode would be uniquely boring and just contain the same stuff over-and-over again, but somehow it doesn't.
                Somehow the creators of the show have made it so that in each episode something important happens, in tiny little doses, so that overall you get one whole story. I tried to skip through some episodes, cutting through some of the standing and growling moments to get to more story, only to find that at some point in those growly moments they had put in important parts of the story that left me confused after I missed them, forcing me to go back and watch the whole thing. It really is astounding. It's like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are numbered as to where they go, only you have to go to a certain place at a certain time to get the individual pieces from some strange puzzle-man, and if you miss any one of those time slots the puzzle cannot become complete in any logical manner, rendering your time spent useless. It's maddening, astounding, and somehow damned good story telling. It's like the show is rewarding those viewers who are willing to sit through every excruciating second of watching a grown man shouting until his hair turns yellow with an underlying and somehow intriguing story, like some reversed dog trick wherein the dog performs the trick only when you're watching closely and then it gives you a toffee for having seen it.

                Japan, you crazy... But you do tell a damned good yarn!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Happiness is one million good deeds away

Happy... Happy... OK, in light of my last, rather lacklustre, post I'm trying to come up with a brighter topic to discuss this time, and strangely I'm finding this rather difficult... That sounds rather bad on my account, like I'm some constantly moody and dark fellow, but really I'm not like that. All the time... I mean, I like to look at life in both lights - both dark and bright. I like to keep in mind all the dark things in the world while keeping myself warmed by the light of goodness, but neither in a particularly all-in capacity. I guess that's why I've never fully gotten on with morality systems in video games.
                It was an interesting idea - introduce into a game a value of good and evil for your actions and around that alter the various characters and events you interact with according to how many of those actions you perform. These days it's pretty much written that such a system will be involved (largely in RPGs, games with a more fantasy-based storyline. I mean, can you imagine if games like Battlefield or Call of Duty were to implement it? Actually, I want to discuss that later, I think!). Every action you perform has some consequence on the world you exist in. Fallout, Fable, Skyrim, Bioshock and beyond, all these games attempt to measure your actions and have your game altered by them, and frankly, I'm unimpressed...
                For a start, your working with a morality system that is based upon the opinions of the developers of the games. I like to think I'm a well-balanced member of society, though I have been, on occasion, labelled as somewhat "sociopathic" (but don't believe that shit. It's nonsense.), but what I think is a "good" action and what they might think is a "good" action vary significantly. Take Fallout:  the majority of the time you lose morality points based upon anything you might do that can be considered bad, from killing a friendly NPC (who is, of course, only as friendly as your average sociopath, bland, smiling, always willing to accept your help when they need something, but utterly emotionless and entirely unwilling to help you in return, unless your charisma is high enough... fuck that...) to stealing an ashtray from a bar. Stealing an ashtray from a bar? Honestly? That is the act of an evil, domineering, destroyer of worlds? Fallout is set in a 1950's-esque world (actual date is likely closer to the 90's or early 2000's, but with the same attitudes as the 50's) where everyone was be-bopping the streets, cars were the exception, not the rule, and people could smoke freely in the face of a toddler without being looked at twice, and they make you more evil because you stole a sodding ashtray from a bar? I'm not an historian, but I'd wager any amount that in those days the average bar had about 300 reserve ashtrays hidden out back because of the number that would slyly "go missing" from the tables each time some young Bobby-Joe and his cohorts wandered in for a sarsaparilla or a malted milk, and now we're being the labelled as the scum of the earth for that? Bethesda (and whoever it was that coded that little line of 1's and 0's) screwed the pooch there a little, don'cha think? Further to that, what about those occasions when you need ammo or weapons (actually need them to complete some hare-brained young miss's mission to find her lost man who has been kidnapped by a raging hoard of super mutants) and there happens to be a veritable cache hidden in said young miss's living room, if you even dream of pinching a few rounds, she'll schiz on you, probably try to kill you, you'll be hunted by everyone else in the town, and you'll be forever shunned. Afterwards, you'll complete the mission, return to her, hoping to curry good favour having done her good deed, and you'll be rewarded with a bullet to the face, no money or EXP, and continued fear and loathing. Wonderful.
                It's so much easier to be "evil" in a game than it is to be good. I was talking to one person the other day, a huge Skyrim fan (I, myself, have never played it), who was attempting to play through it without committing a single evil act, doing nothing but good deeds and staying as far away from evil as they could, only to find that they were miles behind levels and items wise, showing that the focus of most games is in fact to be evil, or at least be incapable of being truly good. Further to this, I guess, is the player themselves, who rarely takes the wholly good path initially, without having to actively choose to. The games are all actively set to persecute, making it impossible to be a truly morally good gamer.
                I would also like to expound upon the idea of morality systems outside of RPGs. What I would like to see is a morality system built into games like Battlefield or Call of Duty. How would gamers fare if their morality was questioned or graded during their play-throughs of these games? Developers have always aimed at making these games far more "realistic" in their depiction of life and war, so how would we feel playing through a battle-simulation (because that's essentially what these games are) in which we are actively informed that we have committed murder each time an enemy is killed? Each of these games is sold with the idealism that each enemy in the game is evil (regardless of whether or not they explore opposing sides' characters, whether said enemies are a part of a plot to aimlessly wipe out large sections of an innocent populace), that they are only there as a willing tool of some overarching evil, or (in the case of playing as the opposition) either there as a way of infiltrating and subverting the cause of the enemy or are held against their will. The only time enemies in these games seem to show some sort of innocence or repentance is when in the face of overwhelming odds wherein they won't survive. What if these games emphasised the fact that they are only defending themselves? Their homes and their families? What if these games contained scenes where, whenever you kill an enemy, a distraught family comes bursting into the frame to mourn the loss of their father, their brother, their good neighbour? These things don't exist because the morality issue of war games is simply "YOU are the GOOD GUY, these people are the BAD GUYS, they are inherently evil and must die so that you can stop their EVIL cause". Yes, sales would likely drop significantly if they released Call of Duty: Moral Debate wherein you are often rewarded with lists of the lives you have ruined, each enemy dies with a scream of "I WAS ONLY DEFENDING MY FAMILY!" or "THIS IS A WAR YOU STARTED!", but I have to wonder if perhaps some people would maybe wake up and realise that this thing they call "fun" is in fact simply a ruthless killing engine... Don't get me wrong, I've played many of them, and I've experienced enjoyment in picking up some heavy machine gun and ploughing through an endless hoard of screaming Chinamen or Iraqis, but I do often stop to wonder whether I should be enjoying them. And yes, I know, some of you would happily throw back responses of "It's just a game! They don't exist and are programmed simply to be targets to shoot at. They have no families, no lives outside of the three seconds of animation they are given between spawning behind a bush and dying in front of it" but I, for one, would love to play a game where we are given a realistic measurement of the morality of the actions we perform.

               *CONGRATULATIONS! You have unlocked the Pointless Morality Bullshit award, for attempting to guilt-trip people with your words!*

                I love earning trophies...