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Well, that was the best year ever for gamers, don’t you agree? 2011 is going to go down as one of those great years for me where I got overwhelmed by all the great new games to the point that picking the obligatory-to-every-geek-at-this-time-of-year top 5 was actually a near impossible task.

By the time you all read this, you will have heard the Skyrim song, which for the last 3 weeks has occupied pretty much my every waking minute trying to get it right. I’m sure lots of you would like me to talk about it and I certainly will but I’m going to do it next month as I want to sit back and observe the (hopefully positive) reaction to it first. I’ve been so close to it for the last few weeks that being objective about it is impossible right now and I’d like to have some degree of distance and a better, hindsight assisted view when I decide to dissect it for you guys.

To kick things off this month I’m not going to answer questions for a change. I’m going to tell you what my favorite games of 2011 were and why. Hope you don’t mind!

5. Portal 2

This is kind of a dirty little secret for me – I wasn’t a huge fan of the first Portal. Sure, I enjoyed it, but I never understood just what it was that got people salivating about it like hungry headcrabs. Short, visually bland and almost insultingly easy in parts, it felt like a fun little novelty game with a great storyline more than anything world-shattering.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Portal 2 came along and knocked my socks off. Valve have a way of making really good sequels with all the right changes and evolutions (although this rule is debatable with L4D2). Longer, deeper, more varied and with the best, funniest, most compelling characters of the whole year.

4. Dead Space 2

DS2 was, for me, our medium at the very top of its game. A near flawless shooter that was smooth, classy and polished to a bloody shine in almost every aspect. Visually the best game on 360 in this gamer’s opinion, what Isaac’s nightmarish adventure lacked in true terror it more than made up for in smooth mechanics, stunning set pieces, flawless and innovative shooting and the least intrusive, most ingenious HUD and loading system I have ever seen in a game.

3. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Despite not being the emotional rollercoaster the trailers implied it might be, Deus Ex: HR had me glued to my Xbox for a glorious, golden week. It feels unfair to spend time bitching about the godawful bossfights (or character animations that would make Gamebryo sneer) when right around every corner was a wonderfully, geniusly designed area with multiple, all equally rewarding methods of beating it.

The atmosphere and narrative were amazing in this game too, of course. They inspired my most well received song yet, so thanks, Deus Ex!

2. Batman: Arkham City

There is one story moment (which I won’t spoil) near the end of Arkham City that left me sitting slack jawed and misty eyed for ten minutes after playing it. One of those moments so perfect, so beautiful, so in touch with the subject matter and the characters that for a moment it transcended the genre and showed the true potential of what this medium is going to become over the next few years. My new favorite Batman moment.

The fact that this came after 30+ hours of ingenious puzzles, thick, filthy, grimy atmosphere, the most brutal, satisfying hand-to-hand combat on the market, almost ridiculously generous amounts of gameplay variety and literally hundreds of fan-pleasing Easter eggs just made it all the more potent when it came around. And yes, there is a song coming.

I’m still fuming over that damn augmented reality training, though.

1. Duke Nukem Forever, of course!

Who would have guessed that after such a long development cycle that old Duke would swagger back into our lives with such style, grace and panache? Every aspect and feature of the game was innovative in its design and perfect in its execution. From the utterly hilarious and edgy humor (“Looks like you’re … fucked,” hahahah!), to the more tactical, cover-based 2-gun modern combat, to the new linear, focused level design, to the aggressive but subtle enemy AI, to the removal of the silly, unrealistic looking kick mechanic, to the stunning, futuristic visual design … the game never ceased to amaze us from the mesmerizing (not to mention hilarious) opening right up to the explosive finale.

Hurtling through canyons in at least 3 gorgeous shades of sandy brown, feeling the smooth vehicle steering controls react to the world class physics system in your excited hands! Sending Pig Cops (get it? Pig – Cop! Hahahah!) flying over cliffs (who are so tough and badass they don’t even ragdoll when you kill them!). Watching the sublime, next-generation graphical textures whiz past your mesmerized eyes all while keeping a wonderfully smooth frame-rate … man, what an experience! What a game! All of this and it had boobs too. Boobs on walls! That you could slap! And everyone now knows that slapping her boobs is the way to a lady’s heart. Duke was not only a rollercoaster thrill ride, but educational for men, too. A subtle, thoughtful, masterpiece.

Seriously, though, you all know it’s really …

1. Skyrim

Why? You’ve heard all the praise a million times so I’m just going to say … because it ate my life, that’s why.

Also …

Special mention to F.E.A.R. 3 for being by far the most disappointing game of the year. The reason? Well, all I’ll say is, “fuck multiplayer.”
Onto the songs!

Zombie Holiday

I was quite surprised how many of you asked to hear about this song. I expected it wouldn’t be as popular as the songs about, well, better games if I’m honest.

While Dead Island certainly had its share of fun and great ideas, it felt completely disjointed, confused in its tone and at times utterly stupid in its broken, self-contradictory narrative. This is why the song is so insane and extreme in its duality. There’s the jolly tropical marimba verses celebrating the great stuff in the game (the violence, basically) and then the noisy, intense chorus, which was meant to imply the awkward, out of place moments of horror and emotional intensity that were promised so much in that amazing trailer but ended up being laughably bad.

I remember watching Sam B’s completely moronic “ghetto” gesture animations during a serious scene and laughing my ass off at what was supposed to be an emotional climax to the story. That’s what I was trying to capture with the song – that feeling of wacky tropical fun and chaos mixed with the completely out-of-place “serious” moments .

I made almost the entire song in Ableton, which is a synth manipulation program. The squidgy, “wub wub” synth sounds that dominate 50% of the track were meant to imply the squishy, squelchy splatting of zombies. Pretty simple. The “ummbawappa waaay” chant is there because it just felt completely silly and again out of place with the song and somehow implied a tropical feeling to me. For the chorus I wanted something that was a cross between NIN and The Prodigy, brutal and violent but also kind of funky.

It got called dubstep a lot, but what people don’t realize is that bands like the two I mentioned have been using these kind of manipulated synth sounds for a decade and a half, before dubstep was even a word. However, if it sounds like dubstep to you, that’s fine with me, just making it clear that the motivation for the style was not to fit in with what is current but paying tribute to some of my old favorites.

The lyrics speak for themselves in this one. The narrative didn’t merit a song in my opinion so it was always going to be about the violence.

Criticisms

Interesting; really liked the two sides of this (i.e the cheerful melody vs dirty synth), but felt the juxtaposition here was just a little too much.

The juxtaposition was too much. This was the point. It was a little too musically out there for some people’s tastes but I was ok with that. It exactly was what I was going for.

I think the song describes the dualism of the games atmosphere quite well. It still isn’t something I’d listen to though.

Completely fair. My goal here was to describe the game, not make a classic song that was everyone’s favorite. So this was pretty much the reception I expected and I was ok with it.

I can see how a lot of people will be turned off by this. The contrast in genres is so great, which is in itself a testimony to the creator’s talent, that it confuses all those humans who have a musical tunnel vision, which sadly I think refers to most people.

This guy probably played the game, he seems to get it.

Seriously this song is all over the place the growling vocals don’t suit your style what so ever and the dub step with the growling vocals it is all just so confused I have no idea what you were thinking stick to your well established great normal vocals with the harmony from layering that was an abomination to several genres.

This guy probably didn’t play the game. Which is why I understand why the song must have seemed so weird and wrong to him. It’s all good, bro!

I didn’t like it that much.

That’s nice. Thanks for sharing!

Until you get your act together I recommend against trying Skyrim, lest you want to be lynched by EVERYONE.

By the time this article is published this guy will either be proven right or eating his nasty little words. I do hope it’s the latter.

Redemption Blues

This was a very organic song for me. I wrote it in the very old fashioned way, sitting down with my acoustic guitar and strumming out some chords. It all started with that simple little chuggy, Foo Fighters-ey chord sequence in the intro and the rest just came naturally. I could hear that single, long high string note in my head and that helped me build the atmosphere. I think it took me about 20 minutes to write this song, as opposed to the hours/days/weeks I usually spend agonizing over them.

I really love it when songs are this easy to create and I always feel like the best ones are often the ones that just pop into your head (though “The New Black Gold” would imply otherwise). Judging by the amazing reception to this track, it would seem you guys agree. Even Rockstar liked this one, pinning it on their homepage for a while.

The lyrics deal with John Marston during the game’s third act, reflecting on his life and mistakes and trying to make the best of his time with his family. The general feel I wanted was a person trying to be hopeful and see the bright side in the face of an inevitable doom. His relationship with Abigail is the inspiration for the chorus.

Also, I just wanted to move people a little. It might sound silly to some, especially those who are not familiar with the medium, but I wanted it to be a tribute that made people feel the same emotion I felt during that final act of the game. You guys know that in general I try and focus on the less violent, more personal parts of the games with great stories to tell.

The song starts at a whisper and builds gradually into a louder climax. I wanted people to feel a little shiver of exhilaration when the song finally lets loose and breaks into the “Justice ain’t no lady” section, and this is usually achieved in music through the careful use of tension and dynamics. I don’t always get it right but in this song most people felt I did, which made me happy.

The Western-ey tambourine shakes, echoing wails and big drum rolls were an afterthought. The first version didn’t have them – I added them in after feeling that the song wasn’t musically connected enough to its classic Western subject matter.

I got a lot of compliments on the lyrics too, which is usually an area I get some stick. This was lovely for me. The lines that really seemed to get people were:

No man can truly outlast
All the mistakes of his past

And

There ain’t no more cowboys
Only men with violent hearts

I guess sometimes it’s the simplest words that are the most effective.

Criticisms

Very good. Now do it again, but with zombies.
Never! I hated that DLC and I’m utterly fed up with zombies.

what is this crap? Doesn’t capture ANYTHING of the stark brutality of the game. while his lyrics are sound and he’s obviously a good instrumentalist, can never EVER capture the heart of a game. Red Dead was brutal, it was a deep introspective and self-punishing journey for Marston that ultimately ended in the only redemption he could get

I wasn’t for one moment trying to capture the “stark brutality” of the overall game. I was trying to capture two aspects of the story – John’s relationship with his wife and his hope in the face of doom. What is his one single motivation for his every action and deed in the story? Saving his family. It seems very short-sighted to overlook this.

The heart of the game to you may have been the hard, cold violence and brutality, but to me it was all there in that gentle final third. Most people I know who have been in a relationship can relate to feeling protective of their loved one. Not sure I’d want to know someone who didn’t feel that way.

Keep up the comments, though! I look forward to someday making a song about a big juicy steak and seeing you call it crap because it wasn’t about the side salad.

Damn, man, I really like when your songs gradually become louder and stronger over their course. That’s awesome.

Yeah! All my favorite music has those quiet/loud dynamics in it. They can turn a song from a nice little ditty into something that smacks you right in the gut.

Find this stuff really inspiring. I had bad experiences in bands as well so became strictly a session musician then had bad experiences with that also and quit working in music all together. This body of work is making me feel like getting back in the studio again. Never thought that would happen:)

It’s hard to express just how good reading that made me feel. Knowing I inspired someone like that just makes my head spin. In a good way.

I hope you guys all have a lovely Christmas and get to catch up on all the games you didn’t get time to play in the crazy November explosion of awesome (I, for one, still have Saints Row 3, Dark Souls and Bastion yet to play). There won’t be a new song next fortnight but I will see you in the new year with a song I’ve made about an old classic that none of you will be expecting. 😉

Merry Christmas and a geeky new year!

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