Archive | March, 2011

Prepare the Preparations- Ludo

24 Mar

An Album Review

Three things reminded me immediately of the better days of my college life: World of Warcraft, Pomegranate-flavored energy drinks and Ludo. Of these three things, the only I haven’t outgrown was Ludo. I was introduced to this alt-rock band from St. Louis by two of my best friends in college. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked Ludo. Their basic sound reminded me of a pop rock band. It was when I finally buckled down and paid attention to the lyrics that I fell in love with the band. Ludo writes all of their songs either from a nerdy perspective or about nerdy things.

One of their earliest albums, Broken Bride, is about a man who loses the woman he loves and instead of writing sad songs (as might be expected for a rock album) decides to fix this problem by building a time machine. The album contains an overarching story filled with zombies, dinosaurs and heartbreak. Broken Bride comes across as nerdy on first listen but even their more traditional songs have a hint of nerdiness to them.

Their most popular and successful song, “Love Me Dead”, is a classic “the person I love sucks” song. What isn’t cliched are the examples used to explain the horribleness of the girl in question. She is compared to everything from a TV evangelist to a party girl puking in his soul then asking for gum. Ludo has a very creative and nerdy way of writing even the most common types of songs.

Ludo released a new album, Prepare the Preparations, on September 7th of 2010. I immediately picked it up, listened to it and fell in love with many of its tracks. In the following review I will first talk about my general reaction to the album and then go song by song mentioning high points or interesting aspects.

This album is a seamless blend of the pop rock of Ludo (their first album), the dramatic flare and storytelling of Broken Bride and the rocking chart-toppers of You’re Awful, I Love You. Each album has worked on these features, mastering a specific one and then carried it forward in to the next album. (Example of this- There were rockers such as “Girls on Trampolines” and “Good Will Hunting By Myself” in Ludo but “Love Me Dead” is that genre worked to perfection). Prepare the Preparations is the natural evolution from its predecessors: containing and mixing all the perfected genres of the earlier albums while adding a few new tricks. If you’ve listened to and loved Ludo before, this album is a must own. Despite the above praise, I don’t think it is their best album (That would be Broken Bride). I do think it is as good as their previous albums, and has some of my top favorite songs by Ludo. Prepare the Preparations is great because it continues what is amazing about the band while stretching it beyond previous range.

If you’ve never heard of Ludo and wonder if this album is for you, ask yourself a few questions. Do you enjoy storytelling in your songs? Do you like nerdy things like a war between cyborg and robots, pirates, or love songs featuring leprechauns and witches? Do you appreciate a variety of genres in you general music tastes? If so, give some of the stared songs below a listen. Ludo might just become one of your favorite bands like it did mine. And if you like this album, definitely don’t stop here. All three of their albums are awesome listens. I’d recommend trying them in the order of: “Broken Bride”, “You’re Awful, I Love You” and then “Ludo”.

Song Notes

1. Too Tired to Wink- Good song but not in my top five on the album. Similar in genre to many of their songs on You’re Awful, I Love You; it rocks but only enough to make me lose a pair of anklet socks (as in rocks my socks off? Get it? Damn, that joke was bad. I apologize).

2. *Cyborgs vs Robots- My second favorite song on the album. Great topic, great energy and great instrumentation. I’ve heard reviewers say it is too busy sounding but as a person who enjoys Dragonforce, I can safely say it is just busy enough to convey the intensity they were going for.

3. *Whipped Cream- My third favorite song on the album. Like Too Tired to Wink, it reminds me of many of the songs on You’re Awful (particularly a blend between “Go-Getter Greg” and “Love Me Dead”) but I think this one due to shear hilarity of lyrics, rocking guitar part and the unlikely earworm nature of the refrain puts it in my top five.

4. *Anything For You- My favorite song on the album. I’m a sucker for this sort of mellow sound in general and previous albums have had good songs in this genre such as the hidden song “Boat Song” or “Topeka”. As well as being the best mellow song Ludo has ever recorded, it is both romantic, clever and funny all at the same time.

5. Manta Rays- Another good song that doesn’t make my top five. It is a more traditional mellow-styled love song. The lyrics are flavored by Ludo’s quirkiness but it isn’t as clever as “Anything for You”, keeping it from really standing out.

6. *Skeletons on Parade- A “Nightmare before Christmas” style musical number with the chorus (as in the musical theater type) and everything. One of the better songs on the album but I personally have to be in the right mood to really appreciate all the awesome word choices, jokes and guitar riffs due to its musical sound.

7. I’ll Never be Lonely Again- An oldies style love song, sweet and sad. This song would fit right in as a slow dance song at a 50s sock hop. Andrew’s voice is beautiful on it and it shows their range but it is not quite my cup of tea.

8. *All the Stars In Texas- My fourth favorite song on the album. It took me awhile to love this song but once I understood all the lyrics, I couldn’t stop singing it. A love song from the perspective of a bank robber to his girlfriend/partner-in-crime. The sound is odd and features the Moog rather extensively but it has good drive.

9. *Rotten Town- This is a song about pirates which is heavy on story but has a surprisingly good refrain. This is probably the best examples of their pure story song format on this album similar to “Lake Pontchartrain” but not as good.

10. Overdone- Musically, this song does some good things but I never could quite enjoy the lyrics. They are poetic and filled with strong emotions but it comes across as being as emo as Ludo ever will be.

11. *Battle Cry- Quiet literally a response to “We are the Champions” from point of view of the losing side. The anti-climax of the refrain makes me giggle while the Queen-style backing vocals and guitar make me want to rock. It is a great combo.

12. Safe in the Dark- Maybe my least favorite song on the album mostly due to my dislike of the extreme repetition of the line “everyone wants to feel safe in the dark”. Musically, it sounds cool and the call/reply structure of the choruses is interesting but the refrain kills the song for me.

13. Skeleton’s Lullaby- A tiny song that seems to be there partially to make the album have thirteen songs and partially to wrap up the musical that was started with “Skeletons on Parade”.

Half-Life 2

11 Mar

Silent Protagonists and Controlled Storytelling

I know I’m a bit behind the curve, but I just played Half-Life 2 and I loved it to death. Aside from great shooter game play, it also feature a well-told story. One of the stories most interesting features is its use of the silent protagonist. Silent protagonists have two main purposes: to allow immersion in the story and to allow the player to project themselves onto the silent character. Gordon Freeman is very successful at one of these but fails terribly at the other.

When the main character doesn’t talk, this normally allows people to see the character as themselves. A game where both purposes of the silent protagonist work great is Portal. Aside from the fact that the player can see Chell, there is little to distinguish her from the player. Though Glados talks at her, Glados’ treatment of Chell seems based on her current actions not on who Chell is as a person. When I played Portal, I never thought about what Chell was thinking or what kind of person she was. I was able to see myself as her and was therefore thoroughly immersed in my Aperture science experience.

Gordon Freeman is also a silent protagonist but he is not a blank slate. He is a distinct character with a past, character traits and relationships apart from the player. Some may argue that by not talking, Gordon loses all chance to define himself. This ignores Valve’s clever story telling techniques. One of the main ways Gordon’s character is defined is by the interactions with his friends from his life previous to the Black Mesa incident. Barney, Eli and Kleiner each reveal a little about him. They talk about his job, his education and their personal experiences with him. These tidbits are one of the main ways Gordon is fleshed out.

Another way Gordon’s character is revealed to the player is when there should be a choice the player can make but none is offered. A good example of his happens after he escapes Ravenholm. Through much of the game, Gordon is running for his life with little chance to catch his breath let alone decided where he is trying to go. This makes the general lack of choice available in the game make sense because the getting away is more important then where he is getting away to. Things should be different when he finally gets out of Ravenholm. Gordon in theory is free to go where ever he pleases having finally gotten out of both City 17 and the zombie-filled ghost town. Instead of choosing where to continue his flight from the Combine though, Alyx tells him that Eli Vance has been taken to Nova Prospekt. Gordon then charges off to save his friend, heading in to more danger instead of continuing his escape. By not allowing the player to choose whether they will save Eli or not, the game is having Gordon himself make a choice. It doesn’t matter if the player doesn’t want to save Eli, Gordon does so that is where you go.

Though some of the above evidence may not have you convinced, there is one aspect of Half-Life 2 which I feel beyond a doubt reveals some of the distinct character traits that Gordon Freeman possesses. This aspect is the game play itself. To complete the game, the player solves physics puzzles grounded in reality and fights through waves of combine soldiers, headcrab zombies and antlions. I personally died quite a bit particularly at points where the two challenges of the game were present at the same time. In the canon plot of Half-Life 2 though, Gordon doesn’t ever die which is why (aside from it being a horribly punishing way to design a game) each death results in you getting to try again. Gordon, unlike (most) players, clears every challenge in the game in one go. To be able to successfully do that, a person would have to be smart and a good shot. Gordon’s intelligence and skill with a gun is revealed through the game play of Half-Life 2.

Though Gordon is a distinct character which makes him different then many other silent protagonists, he still succeeds at being immersive. This is done through Half-Life 2’s controlled storytelling. The Half-Life 2 story is nothing if not a carefully controlled experience. If Valve wants to make sure you look at something cool, they have a combine solider shoot at you so you’ll be looking the right way as it passes by. This amount of control over the story even goes down to the emotional level. When you help citizens fight in City 17 is a good example of this. Ever group of citizens you meet is excited to meet you. They all treat you as if you are their savior, even referring to you as “the one free man” and other messianic terms. Invariably though as you work your way across City 17, these citizens die. My own reaction was to feel guilty and uncomfortable. In fact, I frequently through of myself as the worst Gordon Freeman ever. The citizens had though of me as some kind of hero and I had let them down. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that everyone who plays has some citizens die on them and that this is another part of the controlled experience. Unlike many FPS main characters, Gordon is a theoretical physicist first and an ass-kicker second. He was not born or even trained for this experience. He is flying by the seat of his pants. Yes, he does kick a lot of ass but he is just human and he can’t save everyone. Gordon feels guilty when the citizens die and uncomfortable with their praise of him and so the player is made to feel similarly. Carefully controlled emotions tie the player to the Half-Life 2 story causing immersion.

This emotional control is also present in the players experiences with Alyx. Alyx is suppose to be a character you like. Valve spent a lot to time play testing to make she she was helpful and never annoying. There are two reasons for this: 1. if she was annoying, it would have a negative effect on the game as whole and 2. Valve wants you to feel what Gordon is feeling. A romantic relationship between Alyx and Gordon is carefully formed over the course of the game and it’s following episodes. It is obvious on her side that she is falling for him but how does this play out from Gordon’s side? The player’s own emotional attachment to her. I know when I played Half-life 2, I was surprised to realize that I loved Alyx. Even though she could take a lot of damage, I found myself purposely standing in front of her to block her from being hit by bullets. I’d apologize when she’d get afraid in the dark and smile stupidly back at her she she said something funny. While I’m sure my reaction was a bit on the extreme side, coming to care for Alyx is a part of the carefully controlled Half-Life 2 experience. Feeling what Gordon would be feeling is the main cause of immersion in the game and Valve controls this without ever controlling your immediate actions.

Half-Life 2 is one of the best reviewed games of all time and I can see why. The game play is some of the best I have ever experienced and not just for a FPS. It is challenging but not punishing and it changes the mode of play often enough not to get stale. The topper for this awesome cake for me is the excellent way the story is told and the characters are fleshed out. By telling Gordon’s tale through a completely unhindered first person view, they made their storytelling process difficult. Despite and perhaps even because of these challenges though, Half-Life 2 stands out as a marvel of video game storytelling.