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28Sep2016 1930: Crew Cuts

I've often extolled the virtues of Burnout Paradise on this site -- and in real life. Usually it's when a song reminds me of the kind of easy-free techno/rock that scored my hundreds of hours driving into walls. But today I'm here to talk about The Crew, and I can't talk about The Crew without talking about my years in Paradise.

First: drop whatever you're doing and fire up your Ubisoft uPlay account. If you played an Assassin's Creed game in the last ten years or dabbled in the Division beta, you have a uPlay account. Or create one! They don't care! Log in through the website and that should "verify" your account for the "Ubisoft Club". Then log in to actual uPlay and behold! They are giving away games for their 30th anniversary! Right now, this very minute, you can begin downloading forty gigs of driving game for free. Go fire that up. I'll wait.

Okay great. Now I can talk about why The Crew is worse than Burnout Paradise. Frankly, there's too much Crew. It's set in French America, a warped and abbreviated land somewhat like Japanese Europe or British Australia. The Rocky Mountains are visible from the suburbs of Chicago (incorrect); it takes less than two hours to drive coast to coast (incorrect); and the Dakotas are represented by the Dakota Grasslands, the Badlands, and a giant roadside concrete cow (essentially correct). But despite the breadth of the space, there's precious little to be done. Each of the icons on that map is a challenge or mission or cutscene, but they're spread minutes apart and separated by cookie-cutter fields and trees. You can find secret cars hidden away in barns or roadside monuments, but in trying to communicate the vast sweep of America they have failed to both represent America and to make a compelling entertaining world. Burnout Paradise's map is tiny in comparison, a microcosm of civilization that can be driven across in five minutes; but literally every single intersection of two roads is an event. Each meeting of the ways kicks off a race or demolition derby. The streets in between each have a speed record to be broken. There are over a hundred special fences to locate and smash, along with brazen yellow billboards to destroy, all crammed into a few square miles on top of each other. The roads in Paradise are laid out with especial care and craft; most of the roads in The Crew ape the grid of a major city or ferry you between them.

This overextension extends to The Crew's soundtrack. The YouTube playlist counts are slightly misleading; both games contain classic symphonies that I immediately disable, but Paradise also had dozens of retread tracks from previous Burnout games. The Crew is stuffed with far more licensed music than Paradise. It errs by segregating these tracks into fake radio stations. Radio stations ruin everything. Each station only has nine or ten of the songs on a loop (just like real radio! (heyooo!)), and switching stations requires far too many button presses while also driving down a winding mountain road. The user is allowed to smash them all together into a self-defined playlist, but because they were created as stations they don't fit together as a whole. The ecletic mix of Paradise music was all shoved into a single playlist from day one, and that list cohered into a soundtrack of driving bliss. It left such a deep impression upon me that now, ten years later, new songs don't evoke a genre of music but rather that game's playlist. Emo and dance music and 90s and 2000s all melted together into a sense memory, feelings that exist forever in a place that doesn't. It remains the only allowable context for [Avril Lavigne - Girlfriend]. The radio in Paradise was also accessible from a single button, and each track brought up the title and artist in a nag tag to remind you what's what. If I play The Crew for five hundred hours I still won't know the name/artist of some of these songs, because that wasn't important enough to the experience for the developers to surface that info.

But The Crew does have the concept of loot drops, which I'm digging. Chasing down that elusive Hood Ornament of +9 Pickup Slaying is probably enough to keep me driving when the driving itself isn't. I just wish we all had more Paradise. Developers are inching closer, ever closer, to ten years ago.

Google held fast on its decision to turn music curation over to blog-trawling algorithms. Radio stations ruin everything. So if neither of the above soundtracks float your boat-car, the only place left to turn is Japanese disco.

21Sep2016 1800: Epistolary

In the window between The Fifth Season and my copy of The Obelisk Gate arriving, I -- sorry, can I take a second to point out how all-fired cruel it is for my local library to have only the first book in every series? Gentlemen Bastards, Broken Earth, Three-Body Problem...all the modern series that can penetrate even my thick media shell are there in their merest portion. All my recent literary excursions have had a peculiar two-day whiplash as I devour a book, hit the library wall, and wait for Amazon to save me.

Okay. Anyway. To fill the latest two-day void I started in on Dracula. Not even going to link that title because come on, you know what I'm talking about. I've owned a cheap B↦N special for a decade but never get around to actually cracking the Drac paperback. For a few dozen pages it looked like I was right to ignore it; I'm not sure I like anything less than a 19th century epistolary framework. Telegraphs and trains and typewriters are not exciting technology. But when the novel started lengthening the chapters and getting into some action that didn't involve quills and chancery, a switch flipped in my head. Why, these are just interleaved point-of-view chapters! Like every other goddamn book I've read recently! It's not only a perfectly valid format for a novel, it'll win you some awards in the process. I think now what I actually hate about epistolary novels are the datelines. Actions are spread days or weeks apart -- just like in every book, mind -- but are located precisely and unerringly in time. There are salutations and signatures and pleasantries encrusted around the plot-bearing words. If Game of Thrones started each chapter with shit like "Strangdae, 13th Atrent -- Morning", I'd laugh it out of my house.

Dracula even has a meta touch of explaining how all this documentary evidence came to be collated and printed in one explanation that each character feels the need to remark upon, which remarks are themselves collected in the novel, which arrrrrggggh. But I pushed past it for the sake of vampires and was reasonably richly rewarded. I can see why it set the literary world on fire and became an instant worldwide phenomenon. Oh what's that? It didn't until it accidentally fell into the public domain and Hollywood grabbed it? Eat it, copyright!

As for music this week? Uh. De La Soul released a new album this year so that's pretty cool.

14Sep2016 1900: Self-Inflicted Disillusions

Rough times at the grocerliquor store today. A biker-looking dude was attempting to buy soup, O'Doul's, and flavored vodka shooter samples. His card was rejected and he didn't have enough cash, and it's not like anybody else in the store carries cash. He left the soup. There but for the grace of crop go I.

It really looks like there won't be a list of guided singles from Papa Google this month, so I had to go looking for my own disappointments. My own music library helpfully provided one! Again, the Napster era was a wild and lawless land, full of poor-quality singles disconnected from all albums and context. So when my personal collection served up [Kari Wuhrer - There's a Drug] I decided to finally investigate the rest of the album. And it's not good! It's painful, in fact, physically painful lyrics and some of the most 90s production I've heard in a long time. I was sitting at my work desk trying alternately not to lose my shit and/or my lunch. I frequently speak here about my hope for the return of ska and my love of singer-songwriters born of the mid-90s. Kids, this is the reality. For all the hits you remember, and all the common punching bags that have persisted in public memory, the truth is that 90% of the musical output is already faded from memory, a constant droning background noise that is unlistenable or incompetent in a less-than-humorous fashion. The 90s were like this all the time everywhere. There were no survivors.

07Sep2016 1830: And Suddenly Autumn

I was temporarily out of book over the long holiday weekend, nothing to do but visit fake planets and stare at my plywood non-floors, so I picked up this year's Hugo winner The Fifth Season from my library. And that's what I did Sunday. It's a mark of high distinction that I could do nothing else until the last page had been conquered, all other holiday possibilities forgotten in the drive to consume words. The author NK Jemisin is a black woman, which comes to bear directly on a fantasy world where -- let's not mince words -- Earthbenders are niggers. Layered on top of the undisguised racial politics is the second-person perspective, chapters where "you" are the main character Essun and also sometimes where "you" are addressed directly by the narrator. This feeds into some lovely word trickery and hidden plot information. And then sure why not the plot itself is also good: not-Earth is a place of constant seismic and volcanic activity, sending civilization through a constant cycle of long volcanic winters and near-collapse, and then somebody uses earthbending to rip the crust in half. Is that a spoiler? No, because that happens in the prologue.

What is a spoiler is the "interlude" chapter dead center in the book. This chapter breaks out of the narrative to once again address "you" directly, like the prologue, and only does so in order to waggle a finger at a spoiler for the very last line of the book. Subtle and subtler hints towards The Big Reveal are sprinkled throughout the novel, but this interlude leaves no room for mystery and is...odd. It doesn't enrich the backstory, enliven the characters, or embellish the prose. It sits there and nudges you in the ribs for two pages, asking if you get it yet. When you read this book I recommend that you skip this interlude entirely. I have no idea why it exists, why it was written, why it got past editors. It's the marketing department cutting a trailer that spoils the last scene of the film, and that is my least favorite part of Hollywood these days.

The second-worst part is that the book is absolutely Part 1 of a trilogy, just like everything else these days, so the forward plot movement is almost nonexistent. Every other type of plot movement is well-represented. Part 2 was just delivered to my door today; I'm hoping we can all start to move forward.

Google hasn't graced us with a new list of Antenna Singles this month, instead pushing a weird Blogged 50. "If it's trending, let's help it trend!" But it won't display a playlist and I don't want to encourage their backslide into radio stations. Instead! You should all go watch Dresden Dolls (Recorded) Live From Coney Island! Wooooo redhead with a piano singing about having sex! I didn't think much of opening act PWR BTTM because (a) they were obviously not micced up as well as the Headliners with the Headliner Sound Tech and (b) glitter. On the list of bottoms, they're at the bottom. High five for the easy joke!

But man oh man those Dresden Dolls still got it. I had a moment of vertigo as they launched into old classics I had never heard before. It's a lingering symptom of my college bout of Napsteritis. I think I'm a fan of Band X but really I'm a fan of those seven random songs I pulled from this one guy's drive fifteen years ago. Every now and then it flares up when I hear Dresden Dolls or Maxinquaye had entire albums and careers outside of the singles I stumbled upon.