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A Kid on the Slope

2 Jun

You guys. Okay, you guys. No… hang on. You guys. Seriously.

You need to go watch Kids on the Slope. It’s this show, see? It’s a show that was essentially Custom Made For Kirk Hamilton. You will like it too though, I sense, even though it was custom made for me.

It’s about a group of high school kids in 1966 Japan who find friendship, love, and discover themselves, and it’s all filtered through the lens of jazz. Not only is it lovely to look at, funny and full of heart, it’s maybe the most right-on piece of “Jazz Fiction” I’ve ever seen. From the way the performances are animated to the tiniest details on record covers, the show has been lovingly crafted by jazz lovers and musicians.

The most recent episode, titled “Now’s the Time,” brought together all the struggles, trials and tunes of the past six episodes into one musical moment so cathartic and wonderful that I wouldn’t even want to attempt to write about it. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

I did, however, write about the show at Kotaku. I was thrilled to see my article introduce a lot of people, Bebop-fans and newcomers, to the show. Sometimes I love my job.

Each episode is named for a jazz standard—”Someday my Prince will Come,” “But Not for Me,” “Summertime”—that encapsulates the theme of the episode. When characters are fighting, they come back together around jazz, and it heals them; when they’re lost they find solace in classic tunes and old records. As Kaoru learns “Moanin,” he travels back and forth from the record player to the piano, wearing down the grooves in the vinyl while mimicking Timmons’ swing. Everything about it rings so true, and hits so close to home… as I devoured the show, one episode after another, there were times when I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

Go read the whole article here, and watch all the episodes for free at crunchyroll.

Seriously.

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Growing The Audience

26 May

There’s this running question in the jazz world about “growing the audience,” finding a way to get people to want to listen to jazz again. It’s kind of a bummer topic, since the whole thing is predicated on acknowledging that jazz isn’t really all that popular anymore.

But it’s also a really interesting thing to talk about, since it requires us to take stock of jazz’s musical legacy, and why it is that we teach the music in the first place. Jazz was the jumping-off point for me to get into so many other kinds of music, and at this point, I’ve begun to think of music a bit more holistically both in terms of education and performance.

Anyway! I wrote a big article for my music section at Kotaku about the idea of “growing the jazz audience,” and why A) that’s probably impossible, at least by the narrower definition of “jazz” and B) that’s totally okay. Which really, is only a depressing conclusion if you’re so hung up on the idea of traditional jazz that you simply can’t look beyond it.

Today’s jazz musicians (and jazz-program graduates) are versed in so many different types of music, from straight-ahead bebop to electronic trance to pop to heavy metal, that labeling them “jazz musicians” feels like a misnomer. Jazz may be the root of most modern musical training—it’s where rock, hip-hop and funk all came from, after all—but to pretend that musicians who can play all of that music must or should make a living playing jazz feels like a narrow viewpoint.

Go read the whole article:

Growing The Jazz Audience ‘Cant’ Be Done.’ Maybe That’s Okay?

Viva Melodic!

22 Mar

I’ve been having a great time running my “Kotaku Melodic” series every Thursday from 7-9PM. We’re sharing all sorts of music-related stuff, from goofy videos to funny hidden audio easter-eggs to composer interviews to classic-game mixtapes. That image is from a post I did about the baller music of Persona 3. At my most professional, I described myself as “in full-on, hearts-on-fire love with this game.” That about sums it up.

Anyhow, I wanted to point everyone here over to it, since if you head to the Tag Page, you can just read Kotaku Melodic as if it were its own little music/games blog. You can do the same for our other channels, including Sportaku, PC Gaming Lives, the Off-Kilter comedy block, and the comics-oriented Panel Discussion.

So, go read some Kotaku Melodic! We had another fun set of posts tonight, and will be back next week with more.

Read Kotaku Melodic

The Year in Review(s)

17 Dec

2011 was a hell of a year. Twelve months ago, I was a fresh-faced blogger who had just taken the reins at Paste magazine, eager to do something new but not quite sure what that would be. Now it’s December again and here I am at Kotaku, looking back at an insane year of writing, debating, critiquing, traveling, and goofing around. I’ve made more friends this year than I made in the ten before it, and have had more fun than any one person ought to have. It’s all a bit difficult to write about, actually.

I wanted to take some time over the next week or so to look back at the year that was. I figured I’d start with game reviews.

It felt like I wrote a lot of reviews this year, but looking back, I see that I wrote fourteen. That’s not as many as most hardcore reviewers, but I hope that by keeping myself to around one review per month, I managed to engineer a quality-over-quantity situation.

Here, in chronological order, are all of the game reviews I wrote in 2011. Continue reading

Three Months On The Job

23 Oct

Friends, honored guests, Pawneeans: I have some time this Sunday and I thought I would look back at my first three months writing for Kotaku. It has been an intense, often overwhelming, extraordinarily educational, stressful and rewarding time. It’s taken this long for me to even get a sense of what the hell I’m doing there, and how it is that this particular job best gets done.

Since starting in August, I’ve covered two conventions, attended a dozen or so San Francisco press events, reviewed two big games, and been at the center of a couple of internet controversies. I’ve made some people laugh, pissed some people off, and made some people think (I hope?). I’ve written around 200 posts, which may sound like a lot but by Kotaku standards is a fart in the wind. Some of those posts have been good. Some have been not so good. But I like to think my batting average is holding up okay.

We’re in the height of the fall rush right now, with more great games dropping each week. That said, I feel like I’ve got some sort of window now that I’ve finished Batman: Arkham City (it is excellent) and have a couple of weeks before Uncharted 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Whoo buddy, when Skyrim comes out, I don’t even know what the hell I’m going to do.

Anyway, here are some articles that I’m proud of.

I’ve only done proper “reviews” of two games, both of which I liked. Deus Ex: Human Revolution got a more holistic treatment, and I tried to articulate how the game felt like a playable love-letter to is many influences. I also really liked Gears of War 3, though I got much more specific in my review. That was a very difficult review to write, for whatever reason.

I’ve started or fanned the flames of a few controversies, most having to do with how games represent women and minorities. My very first post as a staff member concerned the Facebook beauty contest that determined the appearance of Mass Effect‘s female commander Shepard. It was the beginning of a longer story, and as it progressed I even got to interview Jennifer Hale, the exceptional voice actor who plays Commander Shepard.

Two other posts generated similar noise–the first, a response to Evan Narcisse’s takedown of an offensive black stereotype in Deus Ex, and the second just last week about Arkham City‘s weird fixation on the word “Bitch.”

With both of those posts, particularly the Batman one, I was surprised by how many people angrily told me that I had no right to be addressing the topic at all. Several of my professional peers suggested that I’d written that “Bitch” post in a cynical bid for pageviews. I can assure them that I did not, and I can further assure them that I’m not the only person to notice that aspect of the game. I was just the first to comment on it in a far-reaching publication.

But even if I had been the only one to feel that way, it was still something I thought, and these days I’m paid to write what I think and show it to people. I appreciated everyone who engaged in the discussion, but I was bummed out by fellow writers who publicly questioned my motivations for writing the piece.

Speaking of interviews, I was happy with an essay/interview I wrote entitled “Felicia Day is Just What Gaming Needs.” Speaking with Ms. Day, I was struck by her enthusiasm and creative energy, and how willing she is to do unconventional and goofy videogame things. She’s a force for good in gaming, and I think we could use more people like her. I was extraordinarily depressed by the comments on this post. That’s a subject for a separate discussion.

I was so happy to reunite with my letter-writing buddy (and buddy in general) Leigh Alexander to tackle the classic 2000 PC game Deus Ex, in what we called “The Deus Ex Letters.” Leigh was hesitant about getting on board with the “greatest PC game of all time,” and given the reactions I’ve come to expect from PC Gamers on… well… just about everything, I don’t blame her. But we had a good time, and I think we shined light on some worthwhile topics.

Not everything I’ve been doing at Kotaku has been news, criticism, or other serious(ish) stuff. I’ve been writing goofy-yet-hopefully-enjoyable things as well. Right at the outset I wrote a fake novelization of The Witcher 2, which wound up being some sort of weird mix of humorous criticism and fanfic. I’m not sure if our readers knew what to make of it (I’m not sure I know what to make of it). I do know that I had a good time writing it, and I plan to do more.

Game previews are something we do a lot of at Kotaku—our readership is very interested in upcoming games, and we get to play a lot of games pre-release and share our impressions. Preview events tend to run from “uncomfortable” to “goddamned uncomfortable” for me. Trying to get a real sense of the game is all but impossible, since you generally see exactly what the publisher wants you to see and nothing more. Furthermore, playing a game for the first time while someone watches you, with a (well-intentioned but also intrusive) PR person hovering in the background is just… it’s not very close to my ideal gaming experience. Though often there are cookies, and I do like to eat cookies while I play games. (Also, Milk Duds.)

Sometimes the PR folks at press events practically write your headlines for you, and sometimes that can get you in trouble. (*cough* Batman *cough*) (I actually plan to address the whole “Joker-Gate 2011” debacle, but I’ll do it this week at Kotaku and I don’t want to steal my own lede here.)

Writing previews can be fun, if you’re creative about it. I had a good time writing this goofy rhyming preview for Saints Row 3, a game which deserves a poetic preview like a German Shepard deserves a plate of foie gras… which I guess is a good reason to do it? It’s a riotous, dumb game, but it’s not particularly lyrical. Anyhow, I had a good time writing it.

It was cool working with our commenters to assemble this collection of Deus Ex hidden secrets and easter eggs, which did over 1 million pageviews. That is a big number! The last hype-related thing I wrote that I liked was my analysis of the whole Dead Island trailer thing, where the emotionally impactful (blerg worst phrase) ad for a game was substantially different than the game itself. I talked about what I thought that meant, and invoked Don Draper while doing so.

I was happy to get to share some more bloggy, critical stuff, including my well-received “Kill your Mini-Map” post about Grand Theft Auto IV that has been brewing in ma’ brain for a long time, and a post about “The Thrill of the Hunt” in games, and how much fun it can be to hunt… people… and kill them. Uh. In games. It’s nice to pause and take a look back at games that everyone has already played, and allows for much more critical perspective. I hope to do some more of that in the future.

I’ve also covered some “current events,” in that they were things that were happening and I wrote about them. I was happy with my coverage of the Foxconn iPhone game that got banned, as well as my takedown of Fox News’s uninformed take on Fate of the World. I’ve actually kinda become Kotaku‘s unofficial Fox News hatchet-man, which is a role I’m prefectly happy to assume. If you malign video games on TV, beware! I will probably make fun of you for it.

Me at E3, ignoring Jane's Addiction in favor of trinkets.

So there you have it! Some of my favorite things I’ve written in my first quarter-year at the biggest, weirdest, wildest videogame blog on the planet. The fall rush is halfway over and all my convention-attending is done, so I’m hopeful that I’ll be writing more focused, critical pieces in the coming weeks.

As always, if you’d like to keep up on my writing but for whatever reason don’t want to sift through the tons of content we run every day, you can subscribe to my RSS feed, follow me on Facebook, or track me down on Twitter, where I tend to share my biggest stories.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank all my friends for reading my stuff and supporting me. Getting a full-time gig writing about games is a very cool thing, and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity. But it can often feel lonesome, and the job hasn’t always been easy. Working from home, writing super-hard all day, addressing a mob-like comment section of shouted, conflicting opinions; dealing with doubt and isolation, as well as the occasional anonymous social-media anger of people I don’t even know. It’s all tough. Due to the full-time nature of this job, I also somewhat unexpectedly left my music teaching position at Urban, and I miss teaching every day. It has been a significant challenge for me to balance my life without my students in it.

Every reader who has sent in a note of encouragement, every friend who has retweeted my work or said nice things, everyone who’s joked around with me on IM and teamed up with me for some late-night zombie destruction… thank you. My life has never been weirder than it is right now, and thanks to you, it’s also never been more fun.

Thanks also to my editors and fellow Kotaku writers, all of whom are maniacs who work their asses off every day. Special recognition to Stephen Totilo, who has kept me sane and been a massive help in upping my game. He’s a great editor, a funny guy, and he’s a phenom when he covers a conference. It would take another 1500 words to even begin to list the things I’ve learned from him.

Emo stuff complete! Time to play some more of this game I’m reviewing for next week. It’s not gonna be pretty. But then, “pretty” ain’t what they pay me for.

At least, it’s not entirely what they pay me for.

Talk Talk Music Talk Talk

18 Jul

My latest music/games column is up at Kotaku – it’s a post about voice-acting, melody, and why so many beloved game soundtracks are from games that feature little to no voice acting. It’s an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while, and which I first articulated on Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer Podcast last fall while talking with Michael and Dan Bruno about our favorite game soundtracks. While it’s of course not a “final” idea, I’m happy with how I managed to articulate the core concept.

As developers add spoken dialogue and sound effects to their games, they should always weigh the value of those things against the possibility that they will overshadow their game’s other vital aspects: bounce, flow, rhythm, and feel. Games and music can both wordlessly convey feelings of challenge and stress, joy and terror, and progression and release, and a talented composer can weave his or her melodies straight into a game’s mechanical systems to create something dynamic and uniquely beautiful.

The column was also a chance for me to do some collaboration with my friend Sarah Elmaleh, who is a fantastic voice-actor based out of NY. You may remember her role as K’lara Loshachtii in the oft-delayed but epic Sci Fi adventure game Suparna Galaxy. (And the voice of the computer in the PC adventure game Gemini Rue).

Sarah lent her voice to the role of Aeris in a video I made, while… yeah… I played Cloud. My goal wasn’t to win any voice-acting awards, but more to point out how the ear changes focus once a voice enters the scene. That said, I think that a recent YouTube commenter put it most succinctly:

I hope it’s clear in the piece that I don’t mean to “dismiss” any games with voice-acting, and I’m not offering my central theory as anything other than food for thought for fans and developers alike. I love the soundtracks to games like Metal Gear and Mass Effect, and of course both of those games feature copious amounts of voice-acting. That said, I think there’s something to be said for limiting the amount of chatter that goes on in games – lately I’ve been playing a few games that feature too much repetitive NPC chatter, and it detracts from the overall experience as much as it does from the music.

It’s been really fun, as usual, to talk about the column with commenters and people on twitter, and I’ve heard some great thoughts on both sides of the discussion. And I’ve had it further reinforced that at some point here I need to play Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VI, XenoGears and Crisis Core. You know, when I create a clone of myself specifically to get caught up on older games.

In the meantime, gotta go finish Bastion. It’s pretty cool. I’ll have some stuff to say about it.

Read “Voice-Acting Sucks Kill It With Fire” at Kotaku

BarCraft

12 Jul

This past Sunday, I headed down to Mad Dog in the Fog to check out a new event called “BarCraft,” hosted by Justin.tv’s gaming channel Twitch TV. I was covering the event for Kotaku, and it was great fun. My write-up went up today:

In between games there’s a convivial, social vibe as bargoers chat up strangers, discuss strategies and rehash epic games from the past. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a fantastic turnout, and that that fact is a Very Good Thing. BarCraft has that open, optimistic excitement that tends to crop up at the best types of video game events. Here we are at the start, everyone seems to be thinking, dipping our toes into the future.

My impressions are in the piece, as well as some general thoughts on professional gaming as a spectator sport. The short version: I’m totally into it. I’m certainly not much of a StarCraft player; the skill that it takes to compete on the Battle.net ladders is far beyond me. If you want a good idea of what I’m talking about, check out this insane APM demonstration:

 

But even though I could never hope to be one one-hundredth that fast, I love the game, and have had a blast learning more about the process of its design.

I missed the GDC talk given by Blizzard’s Dustin Browder entitled “Designing an e-Sport,” but I wish I hadn’t – fortunately, I can go watch it on the GDC Vault, which I fully plan to do. But even without seeing it, I enjoyed my friend David Carlton’s notes about the talk that he posted to his blog.

I’ve been thinking about sports and games quite a bit lately, realizing that it seems easier to turn a videogame into a sport than it is to turn a pre-existing sport into a videogame. People play Street Fighter IV and StarCraft 2 professionally, but to my knowledge they don’t play Madden or MLB: The Show. I have a number of thoughts about why that might be, but it’d probably be best to get them organized, do some research, and write a full piece about it.

In the meantime, I’m sure there’ll be more BarCrafts soon. The guys from Twitch TV were really excited to host more, and from the look of this Reddit thread, plenty of other folks are going to be taking it upon themselves to organize ad-hoc get-togethers of their own.

I’ll certainly go to the next one, and bring some friends. Maybe in a few months, at the end of the NASL’s second season. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to tear myself away from these YouTube videos and finish the Wings of Liberty campaign.

Read my “BarCraft” report at Kotaku

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