james debate
james debate

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Genre Folk Rock
Label Polydor
Producers Danger Mouse

michael kiwanuka best new album 2019

In the space of a few years Michael Kiwanuka has gone from a relatively obscure musician dabbling in an array of genres somewhat unsuccessfully, to one of the hottest names in British music. The debut album was folksy and charming, and the follow-up layered and brooding. His third album Kiwanuka continues the evolution of the singer-songwriter with an album of much wider ambition, and a flawless quality of production to match.

As with his previous work, Kiwanuka here sounds timeless without feeling dated. The music is more polyphonic than ever, with complex orchestras of instrumentalists bringing his vision to vinyl. The lyrics, too, elicit a contemporary sense of angst that evokes as many memories of mid-century revolution as it does modern-day tensions. Kiwanuka has often been topical (without being overtly political) and here he delves deeper still into racial anxieties, self-doubt and spirituality. Crucially, the songwriting is as brilliant as ever, and with producer-to-the-stars Danger Mouse at the helm, it sounds as a tight and fully realised vision, with barely a detail amiss.

If I had one criticism of the previous album, Love & Hate, it was that it was relentlessly dour. Kiwanuka manages to add a bit more variety to the tracklist, and nowhere is this clearer than in the opening track and lead single You Ain't the Problem, a remarkably catchy, upbeat number which simultaneously manages to blend the spirit of retro soul with a fresh digital veneer.

The delicately orchestrated Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) and its mesmerising intro track provide one of the album's most atmospheric moments. Understated and raw, it is classic Kiwanuka. The album then offers yet another completely different flavour with Hero, a funky slice of classic rock that pays homage to the civil rights movement and brings to mind sounds of Jimi Hendrix in his heyday.

These different moods and styles keep the album fresh without feeling disparate or disjointed. It is a testament to Kiwanuka's talents that he can bring together all these different influences and make them all sound distinctly like a Kiwanuka song. Kiwanuka looks a likely album of the year contender, and marks another fine addition to the discography of one of the world's most talented musicians.

Must Listen :
You Ain't the Problem
Piano Joint

Monday 25 November 2019

secret cinema stranger things london 2019

Let me begin by asking you a hypothetical. Would you pay £70 per person to attend a film screening where you dress up as a character in the movie and spend an hour or two hanging out in an interactive environment themed after the movie? If the answer is yes then Secret Cinema is probably something you would enjoy.

But let me ask a follow up. Would you pay the same price for the above product but without the film screening? The answer, of course, depends on how well they've executed the rest of the experience.

I am a fan of Secret Cinema, and this is the fifth of their productions that I have attended. I love the concept of immersive entertainment and enjoy the addition of interactive elements to these worlds. It's safe to say I am an even bigger fan of Stranger Things, a show upon which I have lavished great praise on this blog, and is very much in the running for 2019's best TV show. Despite these favourable predispositions, I unfortunately have to report that this is the first Secret Cinema production that I have attended and felt that it was simply not worth the money.

Secret Cinema presents: Stranger things represents the company's first foray into television. The usual Secret Cinema formula is this:

  1. Create an atmospheric location themed after a movie
  2. Dress up and spend an hour or two hanging out at said location, eating, drinking, dancing, and partaking in various themed activities/missions
  3. Watch the film in a comfortable and atmospheric setting full of inebriated, like-minded people who are really into the whole experience.

It is reasonable to wonder how they would adapt this formula to a TV show. After all, a whole season of Stranger Things might last some ten hours or so. Do they just show the finale? The first episode? Some mash up or remix of the season? The answer, it turns out, was none of the above.

To their credit, Secret Cinema have done a fine job in creating their atmospheric location. This production's converted warehouse is broadly divided into two sections: Starcourt mall and the July 4th town's fair. Both areas have been lovingly and lavishly recreated from the show, and filled with various shops, bars and other curiosities containing references to the show. You can get an ice cream from Scoops Ahoy, or a burger from Benny's Burgers. You can try your luck at the videogame arcade, or get a coke float at a bar playing 80s music videos. And then for some reason there's a Coach shop selling modern handbags. The food was actually pretty tasty.

There are various activities throughout the venue including fairground games and dancing. Every now and again the cast members will hold a dance-off or science quiz to break things up a bit. In addition, each attendee will receive a mission to seek out one of the cast members and do a little sleuthing to solve a mystery. This is a good idea in theory, but the missions are themselves very simple and superficial. My contact just told me to look someone up on a computer and... that was it. The results of that search didn't have any more clues, there was no more puzzle to solve, they just referred back to it at the end of the evening, "You remember that guy you read about? I found him!". It was a five minute task made longer by the fact that you have to queue for 20 minutes to speak to the contact, and then another 20 minutes to use one of the only two available computers.

This highlights the first problem with this production, which is increasingly an issue with Secret Cinema. They clearly aren't making any money on these lavish, but brief productions and the best idea they seem to be able to come up with to solve this problem is to cram an ever greater number of people into a room with little regard for comfort or experience. That and a Coach sponsorship, apparently.

You will find actors floating about the venue performing as characters from the show, and the casting here is actually pretty remarkable. The likenesses are very impressive. The guy playing Alexei I'm still not entirely convinced wasn't the actual actor from the show. They have a script and storyline that they follow throughout the show, and from what I saw they do a good job of it. The storylines themselves are pretty forgettable and derivative, more references and callbacks to the show rather than actual stories. It's also very difficult to get involved or follow what's happening due to the fact that every cast member will invariably have about 100 people gathered around them at all times, and they don't wear microphones. If you're short like me, then you might as well just not bother.

Then the finale. For the first time in Secret Cinema history, there is no screening. Instead there's a 20-30 minute theatrical montage, loosely following the events of the three seasons of Stranger Things. There isn't really much to follow here, it's mostly the actors miming while various out-of-context sound clips of the TV series are played in the background. Notably there isn't even any seating for this performance, the audience is entirely standing (I can only imagine that this is so that they can cram more paying customers into the venue). As before, this makes it very difficult to actually see much of what is happening, especially if you're short. And... then it's over. That's it, there's no payoff at the end, not even really a goodbye. Just get the heck out and maybe spend some more money at our bars before you go. I couldn't help but feel like I had just spent £70 as a cover charge for an 80s themed bar.

The theatrical performance, as it is, is not terrible, it's just... nothing substantial. There are moments of fun, like briefly breaking out into Never Ending Story, but those moments are far too brief (in fact they only play the opening one or two lines of the song - licensing reasons maybe?). There's nothing there that justifies that finale over, say, watching an episode of the series instead.

At this point it is worth remembering the history of Secret Cinema. Initially, the concept was just: watch a movie in a themed room, with some limited interaction for flavour. The company did not start off as this immersive theatre company, that only came recently. I love immersive theatre. There are some companies that do it very well indeed (see: Punchdrunk). Secret Cinema currently is nowhere near that level. They've done a decent job at recreating a few scenes from Stranger Things, but when you look closer there's surprisingly little detail and not all that much exploring to be done.

Whereas other immersive productions might have you explore fully-realised, lived-in settings full of interactive items and flavour providing clues as to the larger story, Secret Cinema's settings still far too often just feel like the bare essential props on a fold-out table. The theatrical efforts feel more like rehashed references than anything worth paying attention to, and the interactive activities remain largely pointless and superficial busywork.

In the past this wasn't so much of a problem, since these immersive elements were merely garnish for the screening. But in a show like this where the interactive elements are the actual meat of the experience... it's just not sufficient. It's not deep enough or interesting enough to form the central focus of a production, it doesn't feel like anything more than a superficial knowing wink to the fans. It still feels like garnish, only now there is nothing at the centre of the experience to be garnished.

And then there is the price. The £70 (or more) entry fee is comparable to previous productions, only now the core of the experience (the screening) has been removed, and seemingly replaced by nothing. This might not have been a problem had they substantially improved the interaction and other immersive elements of the experience, but they haven't it's largely the same as what we have seen from them before.

So I am a bit torn on how I feel about this production. On the one hand, I did have fun. Of course it is fun to dress up as an 80s stereotype and hang out in a themed bar doing various themed activities based on an IP that you love. But it all feels so insubstantial. On the balance I would say I enjoyed the experience more than not, but the pricing makes it difficult to recommend. If the £70 per person ticket fee for a film screening with interactive elements was already unpalatable to some, charging the same price for those same interactive elements but no screening is crazy.

Ultimately I think this is the big takeaway here. Immersive entertainment can, of course, be done without a film screening. If Secret Cinema want to produce shows that focus solely on the other elements of the production, they need to significantly improve the quality of those elements, or significantly reduce the price.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Developed by ZA/UM
Published by ZA/UM
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC

disco elysium pillars obsidian kurvitz zaum best game 2019 sequel no truce with furies

The videogame industry in 2019 is worth $120 billion. It is the largest entertainment industry in the world, more lucrative than film, music, or television. As with other forms of entertainment, this rapid growth has seen an incentive towards products that are safe, marketable, and mainstream. It's an increasingly rare pleasure to come across an original title that is willing to try something a bit more experimental, and Disco Elysium is definitely a true original.

Set in the fictional city of Revachol, Disco Elysium sees you play a somewhat eccentric cop waking up from what appears to have been an excessive bender that has induced retrograde amnesia. You don't know who you are, or even at first that you are a cop, but there is a dead person hanging outside from a tree, and you are here to investigate his murder.

Disco Elysium is based on a home-brew pen and paper RPG developed by lead writer Robert Kurvitz, and it is clear that a great deal of thought has been put into the world-building. Revachol is not from our world, but it is rich and believable enough to happily immerse one's self. Players will recognise many themes the world around us, racism and class inequality, political dogma, sexism and corruption. This is one of the keys to Disco Elysium. While the setting is fictional and contains occasionally fantastical elements, it always aims to create a somewhat grounded experience and is the more powerful for it. The characters are fleshed out and feel like real people with believable motivations. The game world that has been created is not the largest you will see in this genre, but it is so dripping with history and personality that you could spend hours just poring over every detail and believe it was a real place.

The game plays out in an isometric RPG format that sees the player explore the (mostly) open environment searching for clues, talking to suspects, and learning more about the world around them. It features standard RPG tropes such as inventory management, branching dialogue trees and skill checks, but this is pretty much where the similarities end.

Notably, there is no combat system in Disco Elysium. That is not to say that there won't be occasion where the player needs to get into a scrap or use deadly force, but it is realistically rare and always executed through the dialogue system. Whereas other RPGs will typically see the player rack up kill counts in the hundreds or even thousands, in this game it's more likely to be just a handful, if that. It is a design choice that plays into the game's grounded tone, and makes those moments of action all the more effective for their rarity. This is indicative of the game as a whole. Pretty much all the gameplay is carried out through the dialogue and skill checks system, which makes the skills system itself absolutely key to playing this game.

Most RPGs feature a skills system, where players earn experience points and level up skills to varying effect. In most games, these systems are fairly basic: add a point to strength to increase your attack power, add a point to charisma to increase your ability to persuade people, etc. Disco Elysium does things a bit differently. This game has some 24 different skills, each one essentially a different component of the player's personality. Add points to the "authority" skill to increase the player's forcefulness, or "interfacing" to improve their dexterity. Others are more intangible in nature, for example the "espirit-de-corps" skill which represents the extent to which the player embodies the spirit of the police force, or the "Inland Empire" skill which represents the player character's mastery of their own instincts. The Disco Elysium skill system somewhat uniquely also combines elements of a traditional "party" system, with each skill essentially being its own character. Dialogue will frequently feature a back-and-forth between the different skills and personalities, bouncing ideas and feedback around, representing the inner-monologue of the player character.

The other significant addition to gameplay comes in the "thought cabinet", essentially Disco Elysium's equivalent of a perk system. Various actions, events, and chance occurrences will introduce you to certain "thoughts", of which there are 53 in the game, only 12 of which can be used in any single playthrough. These vary quite radically in content and effect, from various political beliefs and artistic musings, to the belief that your character may secretly be an ageing rock star. These thoughts start off as vague concepts, the effect of which will not be immediately clear until you spend in-game time to "internalise" them.  These can ultimately have both positive and negative consequences, which vary from skill and stat modifiers to opening up completely new dialogue and gameplay options.

These two systems are extraordinarily robust. Rather that merely conferring a particular stat boost, they fundamentally affect the identity and personality of the player character in a way that allows for some very unique and deeply customisable playthroughs. From the numbers above, you can probably infer that there are a staggering array of different combinations, ensuring that no two characters are likely to be identical.

So Disco Elysium presents an RPG experience that is quite different to what most players will be accustomed. It is a very "talky" game, slow-paced with only brief spurts of action. At the same time, it is not the sort of game you can really "lose", and failing skill checks simply takes you down a different story path. The focus is very much on the story and the choices that you make. The reason this all works is the exceptional quality of writing. Disco Elysium features some of the finest writing I have seen in a videogame, tackling big, complex ideas with depth and sensitivity and an impossibly sharp wit. This game is often laugh-out-loud funny and I was surprised by how often I had to pause and take a moment to get the laughs out of my system. The amount of care that has been put into the dialogue is really remarkable, reacting to big and small decisions, the items equipped, and even just dumb luck (like wearing a particular item at a certain time of day).

Yet there are some aspects of this game that leave a sour taste in my mouth. Primarily: the game is just way too short, particularly compared to what has been widely advertised and discussed in pre-release previews. I completed my first playthrough in just under 25 hours, with all side quests completed and, quite frankly, taking my time to enjoy the setting and explore. When you consider that other RPGs (eg Pillars of Eternity, Skyrim) can run a hundred hours or more, it really puts the slight scope of this game into perspective. Pre-release hype had described Disco Elysium as a massive open world adventure, full of memorable characters, and a play time of 90+ hours, but it is clear that this grossly stretches reality. This game really just has you solve the one case, in one fairly modest-sized map (divided into three areas). Most characters you really only meet the one time for one quest and then never see again. It is clear that the 90+ hour estimate is supposed to include multiple playthroughs, making it a highly misleading claim at best. Even with that, it's hard to see how you could get four or more playthroughs (for 90+ hours) of unique content.

Now don't get me wrong: what is here is quite excellent. I just wish there was more of it. It is far more limited in scope that you will probably be expecting, and certainly nowhere near as grand an adventure as has been advertised. Ultimately it is what it is, but it's important that you know what to expect before you buy, especially when it is being priced the same as a AAA blockbuster game, rather than the more modest indie game that it is.

It's less of a concern, but Disco Elysium also commits some grievous RPG sins, including time-limited quests (without warning), and whole areas being closed off after certain quests (again without warning), rendering some quests inoperable. I've also encountered a small number of bugs (some of which required a restart). Not a massive issue, but can be very frustrating for completionist players who don't make regular backup saves.

Disco Elysium is undoubtedly one of the more memorable gaming experiences I have had in years. The slower, more thoughtful gameplay makes for a welcome change of pace from the more obsessed games in the genre, and some of the better written scenes will live very long in the memory. I found myself frustrated with the game at times for the reasons above, but ultimately just disappointed that the whole experience was as short as it was, rather than the grand, world-spanning adventure that had been billed. I sincerely hope that future expansions/sequels are in the offing, and look forward to seeing what this talented team come up with next.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home