Monday, July 28, 2014

Money. The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

Longtime games writer Simon Parkin has a solution, but first he must convince us there is a problem.

His point in a piece for the New Statesman appears to be "we need to talk about creative successes as much as we talk about financial successes so indie* devs will feel comfortable pushing the boundaries of art."

(Summary is barbarism. I know, I know.)

In context, it's just as presumptuous. The artistic temperament is a thing that will create independent of critical pats on the head. If the further argument is potential devs will get blinded by the tall stacks of indie games dollars, I'm skeptical. If the argument after that one is the devs looking for truly insane amounts of cash or a seven figure PayPal account leave after their first attempt doesn't set them up for life, I'm not sorry to lose their creative energies. If the next argument is "but devs/artists won't create without being told their work is rainbows and unicorn giggles," (and I believe it is) Parkin's got a real low opinion of devs/artists.

Mr. Parkin is wrong four times over:
1) The critical discussion already exists on social media and outlets he no longer writes for.
2) Option paralysis is real and constraints often help jog creativity. (Doom 3's flashlight.)
3) Hearing developers talk about making their business sustainable at a conference for developers is a legitimate topic of inquiry and doesn't preclude serious discussion of craft.
4) "People come into an industry desirous of easy success" isn't a sign of the end times so much as a fact of of life in any human endeavor from art to sewage treatment.

In a comment, Parkin continues, his feature isn't about insulting indie devs, but instead around "the dominant stories around games creation."  Whether that's true or not, it contains the moralizing nugget that artists shouldn't be concerned about earthly lucre, they should instead concern themselves only with the thing that will enrich our lives.

This is precisely the opposite of what we should (I used the word should. I ought to tread lightly.) be telling artists. We should be telling artists, focus on money, not exclusively, but know what you want to say and know what vehicle is most effective in allowing you to subsidize your ability to express yourself. I trust that if you're an indie dev making a game, you're making something you want to make, putting out art into the world that you believe ought to exist in it. Parkin, apparently, does not.

What can you create that you can finish, polish and still have money left over to produce enough copies to sell? Remember: Art is a misnomer. Art is a mantle put on your work by another person. Phillip K. Dick only enjoyed mainstream accolades after his death. The Renaissance masters had patrons. Greek storytellers told stories for food, shelter and coin of the realm. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Yes, make it because it means something to you (I assume "you're" doing that already,) but don't get drawn into an art before commerce discussion.

Worrying only about art doesn't free you up to create, you'd be creating anyway. Perhaps your dreams might appear in higher resolution, but what matters is that those dreams get out at all.

Be cordially mercenary, because Art is fickle, critics even more so and the way you get to keep saying what you want to say is by releasing things. And "focusing on art" does not help with releasing games. And each thing you release, incidentally, is art. Maybe not incredible art. Perhaps not boundary pushing. But small releases grow your confidence so when you do feel your oats, you have the dexterity and experience to push your vision. But first you must get to the point where you have dexterity and experience and that requires money and stability.

To get crass: An unlimited budget without constraints gave us Duke Nukem Forever. A budget of roughly $1.2-1.5 million gave us Shadowrun Returns. It's clear which one is the artistic success, but let's not forget that it's also the financial success, too. Why? Shadowrun has less to recoup and hard knowledge about what they could make given a discrete budget. Harebrained Schemes gets to make another game. 3D Realms doesn't.

Focus on the best work possible within the deadline. Art (or a particularly elegant manifestation of your creative vision) will come as a consequence.
 *indie of course being a marketing term and a funding mechanism.

The title of this piece is a graphic novella by the illustrious Eddie Campbell. You know what this song's gonna be. Art Is Hard, by Cursive.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blissfucker, Alone

Don't let that moron from The Needle Drop fool you: Blissfucker is great.

Darker Handcraft was a record I liked because it wanted you dead and wanted to get to killing you immediately. Since people in genre can recognize Left Hand Path but not Suicide Invoice, Darker Handcraft is a record that got defined with the idea of crust, those three grind-ish songs everyone praises but no one listens to, Evictionaries, and The Facts.

Blissfucker is more sludge. Now, sludge isn't new to Trap Them. Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds is the most obvious one to me, but Drag The Wounds Eternal and Scars Align are also precursors. Maybe Gutterbomb Heaven On The Grid also? What matters is that Trap Them is de-emphasizing grind on their most recent record. And it's hardly that, they're just writing longer, fuller songs!

Yes, there isn't the pulverizing four minute triptych at the end of Blissfucker. There's just that two odd minute blast beat frenzy as the second fucking track. And also the opening to Lungrunners? (And the first two thirds of Former Lining Wide The Walls!) If you want it, Blissfucker's still got you, but it's also doing different things. Ryan McKenney's broken glass yawp is still an assault on the listener's ears, but against the longer, more traditional metal of Blissfucker, his yawp changes the proceedings from ominous to actual danger.

Put differently, his vocals maintain a high threat profile. You can hear producer/engineer Kurt Ballou get more adept at recording by virtue of how clear Mr. McKenney's vocals come through. Mr. McKenney now fully sounds like the night terrors of whatever New Hampshire town he was born in. Mr. Ballou uses the old metal trick of burying the vocals in the mix, giving the listener the impression that they're struggling to get through.

My bandcamp download did not come with a .pdf of the art (and even if it did, band hasn't been putting lyrics in those things since Seizures…), but I'll throw a ten spot on the guess Mr. McKenney is yelling about the empty formalities of family/community ties, the horrors of violence and the broken humans left in the blast radius of war. Maybe zombies? That part I'm less sure of.

What I am sure of, and couldn't tell you why, is that Blissfucker feels like guitarist Brian Izzi's opus. Maybe it's the length. Maybe it's the fact that there's moments of solos, or something like them. Blissfucker feels new, even if I can point to places in earlier records that suggest this shift. Shift is the right word, but I ought to be careful on the emphasis. Trap Them remains a Swedish-style thrash band, anchored by a hardcore punk vocalist.

Blissfucker, as a whole, feels, strange to say, imperial. There's a grandness and scope to Blissfucker which previously was only an ambition in the band's discography. And if metal/hardcore/punk fans hate anything, it's ambition. The storyline of "grind/d-beat band makes another fast, obliterating full length" is easy. From Seizures... into ...Handcraft into Blissfucker, the songs have been getting longer, while maintaining that energy. Seriously. I listened to Seizures... for context. Blissfucker's got it.

It is a shame, of course, that drummer Chris Maggio is no longer with Trap Them. Whether it is my imagination or something approaching truth, his drum work on Darker Handcraft seemed to be hyperactive and kept the Trap Them machine moving at an exhilarating speed. Brad Fickeisen, the new guy, is no slouch himself (is that the second ex-The Red Chord member Trap Them's rotated in?) His steady work in my imagination makes it easier for Mr. Izzi to write his epic, but Mr. Maggio unleashed Trap Them in a way that leaves an impression. At the live show, of course, he fed off of and into Mr. McKenney's boundless, evil energy.

tl;dr Mr. Maggio is missed. Mr. Fickeisen is capable.

Former Lining Wide The Walls hides a melody in the final 40 seconds of the song that is worth the price of admission, upstaged by Mr. Fickeisen's delirious drum fills. The first two+ minutes is a thing I'd like to hear played at half time just to figure out how the hell they do it so precisely.

Seeing Blissfucker as a statement is seductive. Mr. McKenney abandons the "Day [NUMBER]:" portion of song titles, it's been three years since the last one, It's one and one half as long (roughly) as the previous record, there's maybe solos, and there's verbiage in the press release to support the theory. I'll agree, to a point. Less a statement than a reminder?

I know two things: I know Blissfucker isn't what I expected and I know I like it. Blissfucker is the full metal record that they've been threatening to write since The Iconflict. Blissfucker is what we believed and hoped they had in them.

Former Lining Wide The Walls, this time around. I've described it before, but just wait for that glorious, glorious swing.

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