Saturday, 30 July 2011

Evidently, too much spare time

aka. The Minecraft post, happy now?
aka. July was looking a little bare on this blog and I didn't want to leave it at my Arcade Fire rant*

Though it may seem like I do a lot (oh I make myself laugh sometimes) - or at least this blog gives that idea - I don't. In fact, the percentage of time I spend making stuff like Suspension or working on this new film that you're all gonna love is rather small. But, when I'm not trying to create something new and unique, or creating something unoriginal and generic, I'm on Minecraft.

For those of you who do not yet have Minecraft in your lives (it will come to all of us, with time), Minecraft is the newest fad in indie gaming. Created by Markus 'Notch' Persson and his team of supernormal Swedish codemonkeys at Mojang, Minecraft takes the normal sandbox game one step further, and creates a whole world of cubes - trees made from cubes, dirt cubes, stone cubes, wood cubes, and even animals and monsters made from cubes. Your task? To do whatever you like in this huge world, 'crafting' items and making whatever you want. At night the monsters come and attempt to destroy all that you've achieved in the daytime. It's a genius cycle.

I discovered Minecraft many months ago, bought it, got playing, got my sister playing, she bought it, got my other sister playing, she also bought it, set up a server for us, realised my friends played it, bought server space and then - well - then it was now. I'll admit, I'm obsessed. Minecraft is clever because, as a sandbox game, it means so much to so many people, and can be played in so many ways. My friends, who'd otherwise be slaughtering Nazi zombies (which is still an outdated horror stereotype, no matter how popular) on Call of Dull Gameplay, can enjoy killing the many monsters (zombies (not of the Nazi type), skeletons, and the dreaded creepers) and making fortresses. My sisters, on the other hand, can make their cottages and little ponds and have a nice U-rated time, provided they keep away from the monsters.

But the reason I love the game so much is its flexibility. I can make almost anything I want, and what I usually want to make is towns. Cities. Little hamlets. Houses. Civilisation, interconnected and planned and realistic. There's just something about designing a town that I enjoy - it takes design one step further from architecture and two steps further from furniture design. Screw designing a living space, why not design a living space for the living spaces? A place where both people and design interact, constantly, but there's more people than in a single house.

And that's my justification for Johnsborg:

Johnsborg is my hub - it was the first and largest town I built. It started with the ugly castle on the hill (I didn't know how to make stone at the time, derp) and the buildings and roads spilled into the valley below. I'm trying to make it a natural and cohesive town, and trying to make use of all the land I have rather than building huge houses really far away. I like the idea of a town (though I prefer to think of Johnsborg as a city in relation to the smaller settlements I've made) being centred on one feature, be it a geographical feature such as a lake or hill, or a man-made feature such as a castle. A settlement needs sometime to sprawl out from, otherwise it's just a cluster of small houses surrounding nothing in particular.

I began Johnsborg in February and have been building upon it since, but I'm slowly running out of inner-city space, especially since the land next to the castle itself is bloody annoying to work with since it's so steep. I will occasionally change the landscape but I don't like it looking fake, so that land will be left as-is for now.

Of course, if I spent all my time on Johnsborg city centre I might go a little mad (or more mad than I currently am). I love town-making for its systems and consistencies, such as using the same roads (two-wide of stone half-blocks) and including similar features in every town on the road map. Above you can see the single Johnsborg suburb, set into a small clearing to one side of the town itself. On the left you can see a bus stop - there are no buses in Minecraft nor will there be in the conceivable future, but placing a bus stop in each settlement on my road network gives it all a sense of interconnectivity and realism. The identical houses and dullness of this suburb were half my desire to make a 'kit house' that could be copied indefinitely, and half a result of listening to 'The Suburbs' too many times.

Also in Johnsborg - but a bit closer to the castle itself this time - is the district of Newtown (top picture, above), my attempt at creating a tall, claustrophobic, dislikable area with an underground market inspired by a trip to Camden (haters gonna hate). The bottom picture shows a small square (or plaza, or plads) at night, located to the back of the castle, called Johnsø Square, which features an angle statue identical to the one on the far-off island of Johnsø - a gift to the city and a reminder of other settlements.

But anyway, let's move on to other shit I built.

All roads and towns are properly signposted out of my obsessive need to organise.

Follow the coast and you'll go past Johnsworth Farm, then keep going and you'll reach a stretch of coastline I like to call the Gravel Coast (I like naming things, get over it) because, funnily enough, it's made of gravel. Here I spent a little while making a little village: Lørske. Though sharing a name with the citystate in which Suspension is set, it's hardly large. In fact, it's not large. At all. It has a town hall and a shop and a few houses. My intentions with Lørske were to make a realistic village - there is a house for the owner of the shop and a house for the owner of the café, then a town hall for those two to converse in. There's also a little wooden archway into the town which I like, it's like a little English village. Only virtual, and tiny, and blocky. And clearly not English. OK, let's move on.

Far away from Johnsborg is Abjab Lake, an unfinished project of mine. Abjab is a 'Johnsborg dependency' - imagine Johnsborg is the centre of an empire of little settlements. I spent a lot of time making an underground rail link between Johnsborg and Abjab, which gives it that 'long rail trip to a far-off land for holiday' feel. You spend so long underground travelling that when you walk up the steps of the station and out into the open your eyes meet the beautiful waters of Abjab Lake. Shame there's nothing to do there.

I'd go on but I fear I'd lose your interest even more than I already have. Plus, I got lost trying to find Johnsø to screenshot it, so that will have to wait. Suffice to say, Minecraft satisfies a part of me that longs to design houses, roads and public spaces, then experience them on their scale. I'd build houses out of Lego, but I'd most likely run out of bricks and I could never shrink down to live in them. Minecraft, though its blocks may prevent elaborate architecture and the lack of chairs and tables (fuck you, Notch) prevent decent interiors, produces great results.

If you don't already own Minecraft, you're missing out on something great, so I strongly recommend it. If you do own Minecraft, well done. If you already own Minecraft and go on my server, get back on and stop wasting my money, I'm not paying for it so you can ignore it you bastards.

Maybe I'll look back at this post in a year's time and hang my head in shame at how I spent so much time playing this game, but for now it's just another chance for me to make stuff. Plus I don't have to go anywhere and can enjoy a warm cup of tea and (occasionally) a hobnob whilst playing. Mmmm.


*Ironically, I now love both new songs and am making a video to 'Culture War'. I'm a hypocrite. I'm not a hypocrite.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Why 16 songs is enough

Hey all. Just a short post today about Arcade Fire, because I finally got around to listening to the three new songs they ungainly wedged on the end of their masterpiece album 'The Suburbs' this year, along with that awesome film Scenes from the Suburbs. These three tracks are two entirely new pieces, 'Speaking in Tongues' and 'Culture War', and an extended version of the existing Suburbs track 'Wasted Hours'.

First, I'd just like to say that I love the album. Of course I do. I've said that before and I'll say it again. I'm not slagging off the album at all, I just simply think two extra songs - especially placed so stupidly at the end of the album - ruins it a little, and I encourage anyone who wants to appreciate 'The Suburbs' fully to buy the original.

Here's why - the album starts with the song 'The Suburbs', a wonderful lilting song that begins the album so perfectly. And, after all is said, the final (16th) song of the album, 'The suburbs (continued)' drifts back in with that melody we remember from the start to tie everything together into a neat indie rock bundle. Lovely. Or not - the two additions to the album ('Wasted hours (extended)' simply replaces 'Wasted hours') are simply added on to the end, thus obliterating the calming and fading out effects of 'The suburbs (continued)', thus ruining any sort of beginning-middle-end the album had. Now it's beginning-middle-end-extras. I'm OK with new songs, even new songs that are tied in with the album, but why not just release a 'Culture War/Speaking in Tongues' single that is designed as an extra release to 'The Suburbs' album, without putting the songs in the album itself? Yeah, I know why, because putting 'deluxe version' on the end of the title will sell a whole bunch of copies all over again. Bloody consumerism.

Nice album cover, though.
'Culture War' is perhaps the best of the two new tracks, haunting like many other songs from the album. It also has some excellent powerful lyrics, such as 'We'll be soldiers for your mommy and dad / in your culture war' and one of my favourite lines, 'Now the future's staring at me / like a vision from the past / and I know these crumbs they sold me / they're never gonna last.' No doubt 'Culture War' holds the lyrical impact of the two.

'Speaking in Tongues' has its own charm, starting almost like an ABBA song mixed with Arcade Fire, but soon speeds into the usual AF sound when Win comes in with his lyrics. It doesn't sound that similar to other songs on the album, though, tempting me to think that it was made afterwards, and so is the next evolution of Arcade Fire's musical style. Its melody is a little too regular for the more abstract sounds of 'The Suburbs', though underneath Win and Régine's vocals there is a familiar guitar sound pulled from 'Suburban War'. For me, 'Speaking in Tongues' is the weaker of the two. Plus, it's not that meaningful anyway. And you should know I love 'The Suburbs' for its meaning.

Where that meaning is at its purest is in 'Wasted Hours', what many dismissed as a dull song. Sure, it's slow, and sure, it lacks the energy of some of the more catchy tracks on the record, but its lyrics are brilliant and central to the album itself. Especially, later on in the song, the line 'But now we see / we're still kids in buses longing to be free'. You may not see it, but the meaning of that goes above and beyond everything the album says. The album is remembering a childhood long gone, and the trials and tribulations of it, and how the person is 'moving past the feeling'; forgetting their past and what it was like and what they felt. The line in 'Wasted Hours' says that they're still in the same state as they were when they were a kid - they thought growing up would provide freedom and happiness but in fact they're still stuck in the same old system, still on the buses relying on other people to get by. Fantastic line.

Anywho, the update of 'Wasted Hours', tactfully named 'Wasted Hours (Extended)' brings some variation to the otherwise 'dull' song (I didn't think it was that bad, actually). It's almost identical to the original at the start, but the end brings a faster pace and more layers for a memorable piece of music (though reusing the guitar melody in 'Sprawl I', it seems). That's the gem of this deluxe album for me, bringing a good piece of music to some good lyrics.

So the deluxe version of 'The Suburbs' does have its advantages, but I'm still not sold on the placement of the two extra songs in the track listing. I like albums to be an experience, not a collection of equal, unrelated songs. And I though 'The Suburbs' was the perfect example of a coherent, beautiful and powerful album. It still is; just don't buy the deluxe version.