The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sam Keeper's Top 20 Of 2017

Every year, increasing in frequency as we approach New Years Eve, you can find me grumbling to myself that I'm going to write this specific article. The amount of grumbling varies based on how many articles sort of like it I've seen within a few days of each other, and how annoyed they made me.

Oh yeah folks I really don't love the "top x of y medium" genre. What the heck even is a genre? Who elected these stooges deciding what wins and what doesn't? What's the criteria here, huh? 

This year it's not too bad. Sure there's the usual stupidity of, say, top 10 comic lists that snidely proclaim that there's not been any good comics this year. Just for example. Which, for the record, let me pull anyone thinking this aside and gently suggest that you fire up a Computing Device and surf onto the information superhighway, since webcomics are actually culturally relevant in a way that print comics are, bluntly, not. But as exasperating as that kind of weird medium parochialism stuff is, it's counterbalanced by things like Colin Spacetwinks un self consciously wandering through a "top 10 games" list that included ports of weird fishing rpgs and digital versions of vintage pinball tables. (Publisher Giant Bomb also let Nier Automata developer Yoko Taro do something similar, so, good for GB for taking this exactly as seriously as I do.)

It's a little odd, then, that this is the year I finally decided to write a flippant parody listicle, since I'm not actually all that irked. Maybe I've just been waiting for the right mental moment where I could translate that feeling of irritation into something more productive, though. Anyway, my alternative is to finish writing a screed about how disillusioned I am with open source as praxis and that just seems exhausting to me right now. Somehow after a year of relentless catastrophe, constant retraumatization, and a bunch of shitty superhero shows, I actually feel, bizarrely, like sincerely celebrating some of the bright spots in the wretched slog of 2017.

Screw doing this in any kind of reasonable way though. This isn't top 20 comics or movies or concept albums about self annihilation and transformation into some sort of vengeful ghost of knowledge haunting the present.

This is just my top 20, of 2017.







Not The Actual Events/Add Violence


Nine Inch Nails' first EP of what is, apparently, going to be a triptych dropped last year the night I crossed the border from Canada back to the US. I spent much of the bus ride desperately trying to find wifi that would let me listen to the tracks. The sound, ultimately, was all the weird experimentation of the last two decades reabsorbed into the aesthetic of The Fragile and The Downward Spiral, and it set a pretty good tone for the incoming year.

Maybe I should be lumping these albums in with Twin Peaks, elsewhere on this list. It feels almost like they belong together. The most astonishing episode of Twin Peaks's third season features a full performance of the track "She's Gone Away" and the EPs as a whole feel like an eerie mirror to the show's sense of American decay. It's tempting to lean into the weirdness of this whole project and just sort of mash the two things together as some sort of Expanded Industrial Universe 2K17. There's plenty of correspondence between "Not Anymore"'s frantically catchy "I can't seem to wake up!", "The Idea of You"'s desperate mantra "None of this is happening!", and Laura Palmer's scream that seemingly shuts down all the lights in the universe.

In a year that left me feeling strangled, pawed at, suffocated, and submerged, there was something comforting in having my feelings echoed in these EPs, not just in lines like "there is no moving past/there is no better place/there is no future point in time/we will not get away," but in music that is truncated, broken, inaccessible, and violent.


My Hero Academia


In a year that reminded me over and over again that I really loathe superheroes, after about five straight years of being reminded continuously of why I loathe anime, an anime about bloody superheroes comes out, and I fall in love with it. I am baffled and feel like I'm being screwed with on some level. Still, here I am, a third of the way through rewatching the whole series thus far.

It's been a good year for anime on the whole. Maybe this entry should just be "Anime Was Good Again In 2017." My Hero Academia stands out from the pack as something I feel compelled to write about at length, though, so I'm highlighting it on the list, even above other possible entries like Made In Abyss and Little Witch Academia. It's another show about reciprocal encouragement, community development, and decentering the narrative from the singular hero, though it takes a little while to get there. 

Mostly it's just impressive for the fact that it does Superman vs Batman way better than comics or movies have managed, presenting basically those two characters as just having different mentoring styles, with Superman (the perpetually grinning and, secretly, physically disabled All Might) kind of a big goofball and Batman (the grouchy power-nullifying Eraserhead) just being perpetually tired and finding the spotlight of superhero fandom annoying. The show has a solid thematic core surrounding the idea of inspiration and support-as-heroism but it's also got some fascinating worldbuilding (what happens to kids who grow up with evil-coded superpowers?) and the kind of fiddly, tricky, puzzle-like application of powers that I appreciate so much. It's good stuff and you'll probably be seeing some articles on this in the new year.


The Last Jedi


We're going to be collectively sorting through this one for the next year, I imagine, just the way we did with Rogue One. Let's save it for 2018.


Twin Peaks


I'm not even really sure what to say about Twin Peaks. This season posited the Nuclear Bomb as a kind of primal sin in America that warps the very fabric of space and time not for, like, any kind of hokey "scientific" reason but because it's simply spiritually debased. Also in a year when puzzle box storytelling and analysis seem to be more dominant than ever, spurred on by the likes of Game of Thrones, it made a mockery of the whole mystery box everything-is-a-significant-clue aesthetic. I still have no idea what the hell I watched, but I loved watching it. It was difficult, inaccessible, deeply counterintuitive, tragic, beautiful, alienating, and so on and so on. I'm getting exasperated with myself typing all this out, because it's hard to even talk about the show without coming off as totally pretentious, even though I'm completely sincere in having loved this season, so I'm just going to leave it at that.


That Bit In The Inhumans Where Black Bolt's Parents Get Fucking Vaporized


Do yourself a favor: find some humans you can stand to be around, get drunk, and watch just the first two episodes of The Inhumans. I debated back and forth whether this, or the moment where someone's dialog gets cut off because they clearly didn't shoot enough footage, should make this list, but ultimately the moment when Black Bolt in a fit of teen angst turns his parents into atomic paste is so gloriously, memetically dumb that it had to win out.

It turns out that the one upside to a bunch of nerd boys endlessly failing upward into top positions at Marvel and DC is that eventually, inevitably, something truly, bewilderingly incompetent would get made. The Inhumans is it, and I'm perversely grateful that I got to experience it.


Luciferian Towers


I wouldn't have expected one of the brightest lights of 2017 to come from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band best known for grinding postrock dirges, but this album really sounds like, to grab a phrase from the liner notes of a previous release, "Stubborn tiny lights vs. clusteringdarkness forever ok?"

That's not exactly a clarifying way to start, but that's kinda what GY!BE's about. Maybe I can clarify things better by saying that the second track is named "Bosses Hang," and the fourth and final track is called "Anthem For No State." It's a timely album.

Mind you, their last few releases since reuniting in 2012 have all felt pretty timely this year, and I thought about tossing them all onto this list individually, since I only just encountered them. "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" is a great title all on its own, and its opening track Mladek sounds like the whole of post-Cold War imperial actions condensed into one shattering totality, a musical tapestry of war crimes. "Peasantry or Light! Inside of Light!" feels like a pretty good musical distillation of the kind of grim determination with which we peasants have slogged through the last year. I don't know what the fuck "Piss Crowns Are Trebled" is supposed to mean but it has an eerie ring of prophecy to it. (Does GY!BE have the pee tape??)

There's something about the way "Luciferian Towers" begins, though, with a track specifically entitled "Undoing a Luciferian Towers." At this bleak point in history, GY!BE has the audacity to offer a utopian vision through their weird instrumental droning dissonant postrock. Utopian seems to me a good word for it: "An Anthem for No State" in particular can be read both as an anthem for statelessness, an anarchical vision, and the no-place that Utopia famously is, an anthem for something that does not exist. But maybe it could exist, maybe bosses could hang.

Luciferian Towers might be savage and dissonant, but the message I get from it is, astonishingly, that a better world is possible.


GORKA




Goths


But for the most part
However big that chorused bass may throb
You and me and all of us
Are gonna have to find a job

I like stuff by The Mountain Goats better as poems than as songs typically but Goths won me over to a great degree, and not just because it's about a subculture I have a lot of affection for. The whole sense of something meaningful disintegrating under the solar searing of late capitalism felt pretty timely during a year when my readership shrank and social media continued to turn into a toxic swamp of desperate jockeying for air. Goths is mostly a gentle and affectionate reflection on a subculture several decades out of relevance, but it's also mad as hell at points, and I appreciate that. The ride's over, I know, but I'm not ready to go.


That Sisters of Mercy Remix


Listen we all know the choral bit at the start of "This Corrosion" is the best part of that song and maybe the best thing Andrew Eldritch ever did so it's not that surprising that Andrew Liles's 30 minute remix of the song that mostly consists of layered and looped cuts from that choral bit is excellent. I don't really expect everyone to have patience for this nonsense but boy do I find it satisfying. Something about just experiencing all the little textures and dissonances and synchronicities as layer upon layer of this sound come together and break apart feels incredibly satisfying to me.

Andrew Eldritch said that if Trump got elected he'd write a new Sisters album, and that hasn't materialized yet, but maybe we're better off with this remix instead.


Watching Other People Play Dark Souls III


I'm generally pretty ambivalent about Lets Plays and Lets Players and the whole surrounding culture, but there's not a snowball's chance in [does some quick googling] The Bed Of Chaos In Izalith that I'm going to get a chance to play Dark Souls in a timely fashion, so getting to watch other people play has actually been pretty great. From the outside, then, my experience of Dark Souls III as a Best Of thing is weird because it's not associated at all with things like gameplay but purely tied to the game as an aesthetic and thematic experience. 

It's weird to consider how impactful Dark Souls III was on me considering I haven't played anything in the series, but nevertheless I've found myself repeatedly drawn to its strange, complex mythology. It's the Gnostic in me, I suppose, popping up once again. I just can't help but be fascinated by the suggestion that the Age of Fire the player ostensibly must fight to preserve is actually simply a historical regime that, in gloriously dialectical fashion, has amassed a huge body of contradictions and specters that are now massed to pull the world into the darkness and delicious mutation of a new era. "Fear not the dark, my friend, and let the feast begin!"


Mouth Moods


I liked this so much I did a whole recording of myself trying to analyze it, while it was playing. Mostly I just ended up laughing a lot.


Homestuck Explained


OptimisticDuelists's Homestuck Explained video series and the many various accompanying essays were the best thing to come out of the fandom in 2017. Oh, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Hiveswap, it's a lovely jumping on point for the series and an enjoyable game in its own right. But I got my denseness fix from this project.

I think it'd be easy to write Homestuck Explained off as another of the countless puzzle box crit projects littering Youtube, since it does involve a lot of "decyphering" of the text of Homestuck. I don't think that's quite what OD is really working towards, though. One of the great things about Homestuck is that there's all these multiple symbolic layers on which the story works, quite explicitly and canonically. That's just sort of the natural result of Homestuck's RPG-like mechanical foundation. Any given mythological role assigned to the characters inevitably bundles together a whole bunch of data about powersets, narrative roles, archetypal touchstones, history, destiny, and on and on.  Delving into the deep lore therefore becomes a process of understanding how a bunch of queer kids grapple with interpersonal shit, as translated through the way they embrace or reject these identities.

At its best, OD's work has surprised and inspired me to look deeper into a comic I was already pretty sold on as having Some Deep Shit Going On. This kind of criticism, that can radically upend parts of my understanding of a work, always seems like a precious gift, to me.


17776


Oh you already know about this one. It was very good, and very satisfying from a formal hypertextual web art whatever standpoint. I did videos on this, go watch them.


Discovering That Pears Are Really Good In Beef Stew


This was so personally satisfying to me. I make the stew in the crock pot and then when it's about ready I cook pears on the stove top with onions in a little white wine and sugar and then add it to the mix. It really provides a lovely flavor to the stew and I'm really enjoying experimenting with fruit in savory dishes!


Neoreaction A Basilisk


Phil Sandifer keeps bugging me to write a review of this, since it's finally been released. I'm at loss as to how that should actually work, since it's already been incorporated so much into my thought and my writing, and anyway I already did that whole podcast thing with him. Oh and I wrote a whole review a year and a half ago. And since then I've used the idea of the Basilisk over and over in my work, as well as the Hauntological and the Weird which are analyzed by Mieville but which I found through this book, and so on.

So, it's like, how do I review in its totality something that I've been interacting with for, you know, 20 straight months, and that increasingly as we were sucked into the vortex of 2017 reactionary hell simulation world seemed to just be indistinguishable from daily life? 

I mean maybe that's the place to start: this is a book about the neoreactionary movement, at its core, and its tentacles spread out into everything from the President to David Icke and his lizard people to Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. The promised time of the Great Old Ones makes, I guess, for strange ancient-sea-bedfellows.

What really stands out to me, though, is Phil's idiosyncratic way of navigating essay writing, which isn't quite like anything else I've read, and which kind of set a new bar for my own practice (much, I assume, to the consternation of all you long suffering readers). Like, pledging to the Kickstarter for the book netted me access to The Last War In Albion, which is a history of the last few decades of comics interpreted as a massive wizard duel between Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. At one point in the book I experienced a sudden lurch of real dread and horror, as I came upon a ")" and realized that I had no idea where the parenthetical had started, but sensed that it had been many, many pages ago. These are books designed to screw with you.

So, maybe this is less marking NRxaB as a Best Of 2017 entry and more highlighting the whole Sandifer experience and the effect it had on me. If you want to read the criticism that I consider aspirational, this schlock horror philosophy book is a good place to start.


Sol


The instant I started to understand Seeming's newest album, I recognized that it was going to be my album of the year. (Hope linking that text in particular helps your SEO, Alex.) It's a testament to how brilliant it is that even with all the other music on this list, it still managed to retain that position. I need to write about this album at greater length--I want to do something similar, in fact, to what I did with If The Train Stops We All Die--but that for various reasons hasn't happened yet so I've just got to, somehow, compress my feelings about this and the "Faceless" EP into a short span in the oh god help me there's only two hours left before midnight.

This is rough because every single song on this album practically deserves an essay unto itself. There's "Phantom Limb"'s beautiful hauntology ("I can see you--well, almost/like a camera sees a ghost"), the furious pronouncements of "Doomsayer" (I keep finding myself muttering the lines "And will all of the kids who called me crazy/Suddenly track down my address and thank me/Saying, 'Finally I get it, finally I see the light, and you were right'"), the supernatural origins of "If I Were You" (dictated, apparently, by deceased Industrial musician John Balance to Alex in a dream), the 80s teen supernatural flick romanticism of "The Wildwood" (which I think does a better job of capturing that particular mood than Stranger Things), the breathtaking, endurance-challenging pure noise solo by Mertzbow in "At The Road's End"...

There's just honestly too much, and that's just looking at individual songs, not the overall project, which is a kind of post-gothic, post-industrial pop that weds a bunch of influences from funk and disco to apocalyptic imagery. And through it all this sense of a particular self-annihilation, "the unspeaking of my name."

I have always gravitated towards transformations, shapeshifting monsters, and cyborgs. I found my way to transhumanism through a sense that I should, if I wanted to, be able to escape this meat cage into much stranger and more beautiful forms. I suppose, at its core, Sol feels to me like, at long last, an album that understands that longing in a way that the banal, tiny imaginations of Silicon Valley types just can't. Late capitalism is a dead end. Let's shed our skins and become monsters.

Forward into wilderness. Straight on into darkness.


Night in the Woods


I'm going to have to talk about this more. In fact, I'm going to have to write a whole series of articles on this. I'm telling myself I have to do it because otherwise I'm going to wuss out, because that seems intimidating as hell and I'm bad at sustaining momentum for large projects these days, or even for small projects. (Oh lord I have so many more entries to write in this article.)

There's so much going on in this relatively short game, and it hits so close to home. It's a story about ghosts haunting a post-industrial Pennsylvania town. That's literally my god damn childhood, though much of my reading material ranged farther afield to Weird New Jersey one state over. You ever hear the song "Allentown" by Billy Joel? I guess he took one look at the Lehigh Valley and said ah, yes, this is where the American Dream went to die. The video for the song has a ballet of Bethlehem Steel workers. It's very camp, but hey, the story of this area is, itself, pretty camp sometimes. Night in the Woods knows this. It also knows that when you're queer, working class, and mentally ill it's hard to escape the malevolent gravity of Small Town PA and the sense that you probably belong in some smoldering pile of rubbish in Centralia. And it knows that Republicans are always one step away from setting up murder cults for some Outer God of the Invisible Hand of the Market.

Mon Semable! Mon frere! I subjected myself to Derrida for you, Night in the Woods! That's how much this game belongs on this very serious list.



Talking With Cool People About Star Wars


I wrote a whole monograph about it. Phil Sandifer wrote about it. Jack Graham wrote about it. Tobermoriansass keeps writing really good meta about it (like this post which I only just now saw). And I had a ton of other conversations with people about it, behind the scenes. This was a year characterized by Star Wars.

That's why Rogue One is (or... maybe was) the best Star Wars movie. I mean, 2016 wasn't a year defined so strongly for me and the people in my [wiggles hand vaguely] Spheres by Star Wars. It really seems like Rogue One kicked something remarkable off, largely by allowing a bunch of the subtext or repressed and buried text of Star Wars to explode into the primary text itself.

This entry isn't "Rogue One", though, or "Star Wars", it's "Talking With Cool People About Star Wars"--it's the whole discourse surrounding the franchise, as expressed locally through a bunch of cool people I know who are good at discoursing with, like, The Discoursing, if you see what I mean. It's not even that like the Fandom At Large impressed me that much--as far as I can tell the fandom is a torrid disaster--I just think it was cool to have so many people all talking about and thinking about the same thing and being able to share readings and analysis of a complex subject. It kind of highlights for me an upside to intelligent blockbusters, really: there are other brilliant movies out there but few that everyone will have seen in roughly the same timespan. Oh if only Marvel films had much of anything to say.

Anyway, it's a rare enough occurrence that the whole experience merited, I felt, a mention on the list.


Procedural Generation


Holy shit I love procgen. I love reading procedurally generated stuff, I love making procedurally generated stuff. I'm not so crass as to put my own game on my own best of list, but learning to develop procedural systems certainly ranks. This wasn't exactly new to me--a few years ago I developed a whole procedural system using Orteil's procgen system which the rest of the community has been adding to since. I already had some sense, then, of the way random generation allowed for a complex relationship between creator and tools, a kind of negotiation of inputs and systems. Still, it felt to me like 2017 was a year characterized by some really incredible procgen advances, both generally and in my own personal practice.

I mean, we had Zelda: Breath of the Wild come out and spark a ton of conversation about emergent narrative and the way open systems interact. There was a bunch of news from Dwarf Fortress about their ongoing attempts to simulate the universe, with a major update early in the year that introduced Deceit into the world, and a bunch of cool stories about the developing mythological/magical framework. I just finally got into Caves of Qud and I don't understand anything that's happening to me but boy it's pretty. Robots took over Youtube. (I guess that wasn't such a good thing admittedly but it's still kind of cool in a nightmarish sort of way.) And Polygon for a while turned into a weird hub for art derived from algorithmic processes--Monster Factory, Car Boys, SEO Play, and so on.

Admittedly not all of this is exactly procgen. Some of it--the Zelda stuff and Monster Factory for example--might be better termed "emergent narrative" or whatever. I'm just going to lackadaisically slap them all together though because I think they're unified under a broad heading of randomness and the potential therein, that collaborative element between human and nonhuman actors.

This perhaps reached its peak in The Adventure Zone, which became a kind of random walk onward from basic D&D shenanigans toward a story that, at its core, ended up being about unintended consequences. Through a deeply collaborative process driven in part by random dice rolls, the McElroys ended up developing a story about, in some sense, randomness and unpredictability and fucking up because you don't think through all the potential repercussions of what seems like a straightforwardly good idea at the time. But it was also, in structure, development, and narrative, a story about navigating that randomness and unpredictability and finding ways to move foward.

There's probably something timely in that.


The Ancient Magus Bride


Oh, well, I guess if I'm watching the last episode of this today, it counts as having been Of 2017. Like others on the list, it also feels very Of 2017 to me.

The Ancient Magus Bride is an anime about a suicidal redhead who gets bought by/apprenticed to a real big dude with an animal skull for a face, and gradually accrues a whole harem of attractive monsters. So, basically it's the ultimate wish fulfillment exercise for me. Through the course of 12 episodes she and the audience learn that seeing cool magic shit can't actually cure depression and trauma. Magic can help you talk to ancient spirit dragons, but what really matters is the ancient spirit dragon teaching you basic mindfulness techniques and helping you recover from trauma in a healthy way. Spirit Dragon Psychologist would be a great idea for a game. I or someone else should make that in 2018.

Anyway I appreciate The Ancient Magus Bride both for all that psychological shit and also because it seems, at this point at least, to understand the basic primal truth of Beauty and the Beast: the Beast form is the thing everyone's thirsty for. Or at least I assume we're all in agreement on some level, whether we admit it or not, that he's much better with the fur and the fangs and the huge shoulders. The Ancient Magus Bride is then this weird composite of an indulgent fantasy surrounding a deeply meaningful core: an acknowledgment that recovery can't just happen by magic.

Oh, though, it looks like I should have finished the last episode before I wrote this, since it seems like maybe they're just on hiatus for a week and the first season will be continuing in the new year. Stories don't end after you have a psychological breakthrough? Well, I guess that's an important lesson too.



And that's... well I've counted this a few times now at various points and gotten everything from 19 to 22 things, so who knows what the actual number is. But they're the top! They're definitely, very seriously, the best [N] [unspecified collection of things] [in semi-random order] of 2017.

Thanks for supporting me through this ghastly year. Here's hoping the Weird is on our side in the next.




2 comments:

  1. I like this list--there's some stuff on here I've missed, or heard about through others but wasn't sure if it was worth checking out.

    I too am super fond of seeing procgen get more popular for game design, and I hope that we start to see studios with more money really push it as far as it can go in interesting ways on the hardware side of things--or gets people interested with no money, because having used it for a few personal projects, it really lets you get more done with no money. And Adventure Zone!! Man, what a good show--I wiled away tons of time running this year listening to that show, and I love how the story emerged from the randomness, like you mentioned.

    Night in the Woods, too, was close to home for me. I can't imagine being willing to reveal enough of myself to write about it; if you do get around to doing a big series on it, I look forward to reading it!

    The pears/fruit in savory food is a good trick to learn. Pears here get used in everything from marinades to stews to just as a dessert, and apples make a ton of appearances in curries and stew and honestly one of my favourite side dishes is basically an apple kimchi.

    I'll try to check out the other things on this list that can be checked out, and thanks for taking the time to write this up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shit I gotta try apples in stew. That sounds awesome.

      And yeah I think procgen is a super interesting space generally... though I'm definitely finding that populating like just endless lists of things can get pretty difficult! It's hard to just come up with huge dictionaries of possible results and then parse those into entire grammars that will all render correctly no matter what words it picks and so on. So, I do sorta wonder if it's not more work in some ways... but I think the end result is something so fascinating and expansive. I love producing something that constantly surprises me with its results!

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