Webcomics Roundup for the End of 2013

It’s been a while, but I want to get one last webcomics post in for the year. True to my headline, this will be an unfocused roundup of topics.

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Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Music Review)

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You cover

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case has covered a wide variety of styles in her career, from sedate to swinging and from honest to impenetrable. Since finding success, though, she has stayed fairly settled: Simple symphonic music sets off her clear voice, letting her seem simultaneously exposed and in control. Her lyrics are compelling, but usually impossible to interpret clearly, and even the songs that sound personal are not. This paradoxical mix has won her acclaim, but honestly it’s been a few albums since I really enjoyed her songs. They seem to promise a lot, but aren’t very satisfying.

That changes with her new release, which has the attention-grabbing title The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It is similar to those last few, with very little sign of the Case who used to sing with Maow, The New Pornographers, or on solo country albums. But this finally has a strong personal feeling to it. Maybe it’s as much an act as the old albums, but for once I feel like I’m listening to a person, not to a brand carefully test-marketed to hipsters.

That makes a huge difference, because Case’s power and confidence is incredible when I can accept it. These songs are beautiful, and while there are still some inscrutable lyrics, there are also entire songs that are straightforward. If the only frequent theme in the last few albums was cheering on nature and animals against mankind, this one has her taking a place among humanity. The repeated theme here is of woman standing up for themselves and reaching their potential. There is also “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”, a message to an abused child which contains too many details not to feel true. That song has no musical accompaniment and feels emotionally naked. In less confident hands, it would seem like a cynical attention-grab, but here it’s an honest attempt to struggle with a difficult topic.

Not that everything on The Worse Things Get is straightforward. There are plenty of lines like “I’m a Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come”, and those messages of female empowerment come from unexpected angles (“hey little girl, would you like to be the King’s pet or the King?”) This is an album that feels both complex and simple at the same time. Of course, that sort of dichotomy has always been a part of Case’s appeal, but this time it’s finally working for me. If you’ve spent the past several years wishing you appreciated Case’s songs, this may be the album you’re waiting for.

Grade: B+

 

Interactive Fiction Competition: Results and Final Review

The IFComp 2013 results are out. I only found the time to play nine games, and for the most part I was disappointed in what I saw. I’d expected that this would be similar to two years ago, when it turned out that my random list mainly focused on the middling games. This time, though, I played the fifth and eight best out of the thirty-five, and I was disappointed to see that there were seven rated at least as bad as the two I disliked. I suppose that the influx of new games did include a lot on the low end of the scale. On the other hand, Coloratura is the highest-scoring winner in years, so there was apparently some great stuff on the high end as well. I’ll have to check that out.

I see that my impressions largely matched the consensus. Saving John is the only one I was way off on. Yes, searching through scattered memories is already a Twine cliché, but I thought there was an evocative personality behind it all. On the other hand, I’m happy that Machine of Death did well; I’d worried that my interest in the general MoD community made me overrate it. The game I still need to review, Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life, came in at #5. I’ll just go ahead and review it now.

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Interactive Fiction Competition: Machine of Death and Trapped in Time

There are only a couple days left in IFComp 2013. (You can always play the games, of course. That’s the deadline to participate in the voting.) I have a couple more reviews today, and fortunately they’re more positive than last time.

I don’t expect to have time to post again by Friday. Even if I do, I’ll probably write about something else. I want to write my last IFComp article after I can see the full results.

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Interactive Fiction Competition: Mazredugin and Our Boys in Uniform

I thought that the big story of IFComp 2013 would be all the Twine-based games, but now I’m wondering if I was wrong. Admittedly, I’ve only played through six entries, but so far the dominant theme seems to be that they aren’t very good. Hopefully this is just bad luck on my part, as I used a randomizer to choose the order I’d play them in. It’s worrisome, though. Today’s two are the weakest yet. With one using Twine and the other using a traditional text adventure engine, it’s clear that the problem isn’t just one technology or community.

I should also say that I was hesitant to talk too much about these. Giving bad reviews is always a little weird, especially here when I’m talking about freely-released amateur works. Both of these entries had a sympathetic purpose, and I don’t want to insult the authors. On the other hand, they were submitted into a contest which relies on ratings from anyone who wants to participate. Besides, my good reviews don’t have any meaning if I don’t talk about the things that disappointed me as well. So here is a discussion about two IF games that didn’t work well at all.

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Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

Tin Star cover

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

I can’t believe I only discovered the incredible Lindi Ortega at the start of this year. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I picked up her new album as soon as I heard about it. Tin Star is different than Cigarettes & Truckstops in a lot of ways. Where that last album incorporated a goth-tinged blues and lounge sound, this one is pure country. Also, Cigarettes usually sounded like a performance, while Tin Star seems like a view directly into Ortega’s soul. Possibly because of that, it feels like the younger work of a person who would grow up to sing Cigarettes. Don’t think that means this is worse, though. Tin Star is the rare gem that reminds us why country is considered timeless. The entire genre is justified by the way it produces things like this.

Ortega’s voice is clear and soulful, with just a touch of smokiness that she can call on when needed. Her band sounds like, and may be, a collection of Nashville’s better sessions players who are thrilled to be finally working on the kind of music that drew them into the business. The tracks include a few songs about love and loss, but the dominant theme is Ortega’s career and love of music. The title track is a sad (and hopefully mistaken) acceptance that she’ll never become successful, while “All These Cats” is the ass-kicking answer to that: Ortega adopts a rockabilly style and tells the haters that they’ll never stop her. “Gypsy Child” and “Songs About” are also about the way she could never take music out of her life, and she sounds very happy despite the sadness in the title track.

I unironically and unthinkingly love this album. Ortega’s beautiful voice and personal-but-polished style makes it seem wrong to examine this critically. Part of me does know that absent her style, most of the songs would be generic country standbys. But how could I subtract the artist’s unique style from my calculations? Besides, she does have a dark sensibility that makes her unique in Nashville. That only shows up once here, on “Lived and Died Alone”, but that song is a stunner. It’s a disarmingly beautiful tale of necrophilia as metaphor for a lonely, overly-empathetic life. It’s not off-putting or gimmicky at all, and it gives Tin Star the twist that protects it from any claim of being filled with “standard country songs”,

I also can’t bring myself to proclaim this a classic, because I hope to hear about more than just her love of music, and also songs like “Lived And Died Alone” show us how much more Ortega is capable of. Every track on Tin Star deserved to make the cut, but I still expect to see a day when she’s gone even beyond those. I may wish that I’d discovered Ortega years ago in her fully independent days, but I can at least be glad that I found her while she was still on the rise.

Grade: A-

 

Interactive Fiction Competition: Saving John and Who Among Us

Continuing very slowly through the IFComp 2013 games, I’ve tried two of the web-based entries. These are both Twine games, a hypertext system that has become common in the past year. Think of it like a classic Choose Your Own Adventure, though the computer can track variables and make more complex choices than “turn to page 45”. This is very different from the more free-wheeling text adventure format.

Below the fold, I discuss Saving John and Who Among Us.

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