effects: a naruto case study

I’ve always had a rocky, inconsistent relationship with the idea of effects in AMVs. When I look at the kinds of videos I tend to prefer nowadays, they are almost always of the simpler, more straightforward variety, however it wasn’t always this way. When I first started viewing and making AMVs in 2006, I was, like I think most newcomers to the scene tend to be, enamored with videos that made use of excessive effects, to the point where I believed that making “those types” of videos was the goal towards which all new editors strove by default. It didn’t help that at the time, when the .org was really active and still represented the centralized heart of the AMV community, really “effectsy” videos were constantly being released and garnering a lot of attention. Stuff like Skittles, Magic Pad, Spoil, and Bleach Technique Beat were dominating the con circuits. Akross was (arguably) at its height, with videos like the groundbreaking Reflections striking a chord with U.S. audiences. Similarly, surreal and abstract works like Silencio and Vertigo were generating massive discussion, putting effects work straight into the spotlight. It was an endlessly interesting time in the history of the hobby, at least when it came to the technical prowess that was being put on display, and the ripples that flowed out from this time period eventually became waves that are still being felt in the trends of today.

From a personal standpoint, these discussions and videos impelled my personal style in a way that, looking back, probably stunted my growth for longer than it should have. Making a good FX-based video was what I strove for, for a while. My early attempts were disastrous, and probably peaked in the video that for a long time I was best known for, Hold On. It was a video that was created basically entirely in After Effects, which at the time was something of a badge of honor to have done, although nowadays that seems to be the norm. I watch this video today and I can barely stand to sit through it, but it was a technical achievement that I was quite proud of at the time. It was also the video that, in the long run, proved to me that being a technically savvy editor was not a route that appealed to my editing senses. The last video I did that had an enormous amount of effects work in it, Overmind, cemented my absolute despite of the tedious masking and frame-by-frame tweaking required to make FX work look good. I haven’t looked back.

Since then, and maybe even before, I’ve had a contentious, confusing, and probably contradictory attitude towards videos that use a lot of effects. While I try to take it on a case-by-case basis, I fear that I have unfairly made blanket statements about super technical videos that can hardly apply in all instances, and have similarly written certain types of videos off as the visual equivalent of ego-stroking without actually identifying why I feel this way beyond making vague, generalized statements in my defense. This isn’t fair, nor is it right, and in the interest of maybe setting the record straight, or at least straighter than it is now, I’ve decided to make a post basically deconstructing a few key videos that will hopefully make my feelings on the subject of effects work in AMVs clear to all, not least of all myself.

The three videos I’ve chosen have been chosen for some very specific reasons. It’s actually oddly serendipitous that I’m able to make a post like this using these particular videos, because I feel that between the three of them, they cover pretty much all the ground it’s possible to cover in the “types” of FX-oriented videos out there. Although the methods and specific styles have changed over the years, these videos still embody distinctly different schools of thought when it comes to how effects can be utilized in AMVs, and I feel like any FX-heavy videos made, even today, can ultimately be divided into one of the schools that I’m about to discuss below.

More than that though, it’s especially interesting because the following three videos were all released within about five months of one another, they all use the same anime (Naruto), and all are listed in the Top 10 (not Top 10%, the Top Actual 10) videos as rated on the .org for all years. For this reason I feel that it’s even more appropriate to set them against one another and use them as a basis for talking about this particular topic, especially considering that as the years went on, at least for a little while, they remained in the community’s consciousness as highly technical videos — the kinds of videos that we peons could only ever dream of being able to make.

Note, please, that this particular way of dividing videos that I am about to do is entirely of my own construction. I don’t claim to represent anyone else’s viewpoints here, nor do I claim to have the final word. This all comes from years of observation and thought on this subject, so you can feel free to decide just how much authority that carries, if any. With that, let’s get started.

[Quick follow-up note and apology in advance: there are a lot of links in the following paragraphs. Don’t feel obligated to watch all or even any of the videos I link below — although it should help your understanding of what I’m trying to say throughout the post. If nothing else, it’s a resource for a ton of different types of videos to come back to at a later time!]

Sierra Lorna – Phenomenon (Open Your Soul)
Released 4/5/2005

The Utilitarian Approach
Sierra Lorna’s legacy in AMVdom is sealed forever, even if she herself is all but forgotten these days. The simple fact of the matter is that her videos, regardless of how you feel about them, inspired an entire generation of sentimental editors that went on to influence even more editors down the line. Popular editors over the years like aerialesque, Chiikaboom, and Bakadeshi have cited her as an influence in their own work, and from there it’s impossible to calculate who all has been touched, in one way or another, by her work. By far her best-known video, Phenomenon is also possibly her most technically accomplished work. Keeping in mind that this was released in 2005, it’s fairly simple by today’s standards, but back then this kind of effects work was as simultaneously trendy and groundbreaking as almost anything you could ask for at the time, and it resonated with the AMV community as a synthesis of things everyone loved — fairly generic hard rock, Naruto, and eye-catching, era-defining effects work.

I’m not going to be overly critical of the video as a whole because that’s not the purpose of this post, but I think I should point out that I don’t care much for it, and never really have, although I watched it a lot when I first got into AMVs. The simple fact of the matter is that it hasn’t aged well, though, and these types of videos rarely do. It is entirely a product of its time. Besides the obvious choice of source material, the effects place it squarely in the mid-2000s; on that basis alone it would have a hard time finding an audience today that’s receptive to it on anything besides an enjoyment of its audio or visual sources.

This is a prime example of the kind of video that falls into what I’m calling the “Utilitarian” approach to effects use. The effects in this video are mostly without context, serving only as sync devices for the song’s main beats and “big” moments. For a song like this, that means that the effects are nearly constant, so if you’re removed from the era in which it was originally released, you may find yourself lost and put off by what is, let’s face it, a pretty tacky technical display.

The problem with videos like these is that they are ridiculously shortsighted. In a more cynical mood I might suggest that this video, and those like it, are created with the sole intent of capitalizing on what’s popular at the time to gain a following — “opportunistic”, in other words. In my heart of hearts I don’t know that I really believe that about Sierra Lorna’s work, even though it would be ridiculously easy to make that accusation based on the types of videos she released when she was active, because her work seemed to have genuine heart behind it even if the execution was pretty much never to my tastes. But I think those types of editors do exist, and effects like these — not necessarily the particular effects used in this video, but the type that ultimately add nothing to the video itself besides eye-catching sync moments — tend to be the hallmark of such an approach. These videos are shallow but technically savvy, made in the moment and disposable in the worst way. They are useful to us armchair AMV historians as examples of past trends, but rarely are they actually enjoyable in themselves, unless nostalgia happens to hold any sway in the viewer.

To Sierra Lorna’s credit, and really anyone who genuinely makes these kinds of videos out of sincerity or ignorance and not to cash in on current trends, it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the currents will carry certain types of effects and what will and won’t look good in the coming years. And, in the case of Phenomenon, it was one of the earliest videos, and probably the most popular of its time or any created before it, to use masked transitions successfully. Whether or not it was the source of this particular trend is probably impossible to say for certain, but it was only a couple years later that this particular effect started showing up in a lot of trendy videos, and it’s a technique that has survived to this day. In that sense, Sierra Lorna hit on something lasting, even if it was only utilized a couple times in this particular video.

The rest of the effects in here, though — the masked overlays with Shounen Bushidou-style lip sync, the boxed cutouts, the linear blurs, the colored-overlay-with-b&w-background used as a sync device starting around 2:03 — they all just scream “outdated” and exemplify videos that are entirely encapsulated within a specific time period, and which hardly ever — if ever — transcend their time and place to become timeless.

Phenomenon may be an exception, though, if the 2M+ views on its YouTube page are any indication. I have a hard time thinking of another such video that has stood the test of time, however, and whether or not Phenomenon was intentionally opportunistic, it’s hard to deny that its lasting appeal probably has way more to do with the anime/song combo than the particular editing style Sierra Lorna chose to use. Still, it’s Utilitarian to the core, and it represents a style in FX AMVs that, for me, is really off-putting and tends to be very forgettable. Phenomenon is etched into my memory in a good way because of the nostalgia that accompanies it (and all the top comments on the YouTube page seem to agree); in another way, I remember it as an ugly, showy video that happened to use some of the era’s most cringey effects in the shallowest way possible, and as an editor that tends to be what sticks out.

There are some exceptions, though, and good ones at that. UnluckyArtist’s Blithe and Bonny would find itself under this label, and it was one of my favorite videos from 2016. I also enjoy x-peppermint’s Creative and Koopiskeva’s Damaged Rei-Mix, among several others. This type of video can absolutely be done well, but those videos I mentioned tend to have other elements that I like as well, up to and including things as subjective as the song choice, or the conceptual backing. On the basis of effects alone, none of these videos (no matter how much I might like each one) would have stuck on my hard drive.

Decoy – Naruto’s Technique Beat
Released 5/26/2005

The Over-The-Top Approach
Back when things moved slower in the AMV world, and videos stuck in the collective consciousness for longer, Naruto’s Technique Beat (henceforth “NTB”) was one of those videos that was met with nearly universal viewership; it was basically required viewing for any aspiring AMV editor, and its existence was the source of many a good-natured joke about “Decoygons” (not unlike Euphoria and “Kooptangles”). In fact, Decoy had pretty much edited himself into a kind of corner with this video, and the hype surrounding his “sequel” (and ultimately final) video, Bleach Technique Beat, is difficult to describe to someone who wasn’t around to experience it.

These days I have a hard time thinking of a single comparable video in terms of something so ubiquitous in AMV culture; indeed, it’s probably more likely that such a time is past and will never return. With a fractured AMV community and the sheer volume of AMVs being released and lost among the dregs of YouTube, there are practically no videos that every AMV fan or editor would know of today. It’s a different world, not least of all because the approach that NTB defines — the “Over-The-Top” approach — has ultimately cheapened effects use in a way that makes these videos highly un-memorable, even when they’re striving to be the opposite.

These are the videos that go completely balls-to-the-wall with their effects use. These editors hold nothing back, pouring all their energy into making something that looks cool, and is eye-catching in a way that the more Utilitarian videos aren’t; where those videos are focused more on beat sync and comparably simple effects used to emphasize rhythm, Over-The-Top videos leave no frame untouched, playing with color, custom effects, overlays, masking, ad nauseam to give their video a wholly tailor-made look to separate it from the crowd. When people talk about “effectsy” videos, these are usually the videos that they’re referring to — the focus of these videos is the effects work, not the story or scene arrangement or anything else.

It would be easy for someone like me to write these videos off based on that description alone, but it’s important to realize that these videos are not, by necessity, completely disposable (although they tend to be shallow), and even if they were there’s something to be said for videos that are visually dazzling. Taking NTB as an example, it has a simple concept — the premise of showing the different characters in Naruto and their battle moves/techniques, as captured by a “drone” is a pretty thin disguise for allowing Decoy to go absolutely nuts with After Effects and the popular Trapcode plugins of the time, and make an FX-saturated masterpiece of color and era-specific geometry and HUD wankery. It’s a truly brilliant video, and I love it — no matter how I spin it I can’t escape the fact that it’s stupidly fun and perfectly utilizes the popular FX motifs of the time — maybe even perfects them.

That’s what makes these videos so great, when done correctly — they not only can help define certain eras of AMVs, they can set trends for the next one. Other popular videos like Into The Labyrinth or Magic Pad or PencilHead fit into this category — videos with admittedly superficial concepts that go above and beyond their peers from a technical standpoint. The number of videos mimicking Into The Labyrinth is probably higher than I care to count, and their quality is certainly questionable, but it doesn’t change the fact that I love Into The Labyrinth as much as I did the first time I watched it. To me it still feels fresh and unique, because everything that copied it didn’t perfect the craft the way lolligerjoj did.

That said, unlike in the days of NTB, now everyone has easy access to the programs that simplify the creation of this type of video. And more farsighted editors than those that stick to the Utilitarian approach have begun plastering their videos with meaningless effects to a degree that the line between these videos and those has become thin indeed. Stuff like this or this would ultimately, I believe, fall into this camp, but has a much more throwaway feel than those videos made by the masters of the craft.

If you’re going to pursue an FX-based editing style, this approach is probably the least risky of the three — it takes less creativity than the kind I will describe below, and it also has the potential to stay in the public consciousness for longer than those described above. But, it requires potentially more work and technical skill for a questionable return on investment, and it necessitates that you have your finger on the pulse of current AMV trends — an increasingly difficult feat in a hobby that is entirely decentralized. These can be great videos — the kind of videos that influence thousands of AMV editors in a certain direction. I would even posit that a not-insignificant number of the AMVs which, in the history of the hobby, could be considered to be “landmark” releases were of this type, made by editors who wanted to show off their technical skill by making something neat, and in the process pushing the boundaries of editing tricks and effects into new areas, coaxing others to follow them. But these days it’s a steep road, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and YouTube is full of editors taking this approach and failing miserably.

It’s also worth mentioning, though, that these videos are also the ones with the highest potential to age poorly. Because of the nature of the approach — showcasing effects rather than a meaningful concept — as effects go in and out of style, often these videos will too. My enjoyment of NTB is perhaps somewhat based on nostalgic factors, but I also believe that the best Over-The-Top videos are able to maximize those effects which are more “timeless” and minimize those that aren’t, and I think that NTB was able to walk that line very well. Time has not been so kind to other videos that take this approach, however. Videos like Extraordinary World, Ephemeral Reality, DANSU, and Empty Motion all look horribly dated today (even if I like several of those). It can be almost impossible to identify what will work in the long run and what won’t, which is perhaps why so many of these videos, which were huge in their day, have been completely forgotten now.

ScorpionsUltd – Whisper of the Beast
Released 12/1/2004

The Cohesive Approach
ScorpionsUltd is one of the AMV world’s perennially mysterious figures; a collaboration account between two Russian editors, they released Whisper of the Beast in December 2004 and were instantly drafted into AMV fame forever. They promptly disappeared from the scene for seven years only to come back out of literally nowhere with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an unexpected but worthy sequel and loving homage to the then 10-year-old, legendary Tainted Donuts. Since then we’ve once again been thrust into radio silence, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

What makes Whisper of the Beast such a fascinating video, though, isn’t so much the mystery surrounding the duo who created it, much as it can be fun to speculate on who they are and what drives (drove?) them to edit. Nor is it the video’s lasting fame, to the point where the main song in the video has been mistitled on lyrics sites as the title of the AMV itself. No, for me Whisper of the Beast’s legacy is found in its flawless use of effects — possibly some of the absolute best, most well-integrated effects use in all of AMVs, and one of the most representative of what I’m calling the “Cohesive” approach.

These videos utilize effects which have a purpose that supports and expands upon the editor’s concept, to the point where the video essentially relies on the effects to work in any sense of the word. The editors of these types of videos tend to be obsessively detail-oriented, often going to great lengths to hide the blatant effects work and make them look like a part of the anime itself (see: Eidolon). In other cases where it would be impossible to “hide” the effects work, they try to make it look so professional that the viewer doesn’t feel removed from the world the effects create. (For a modern and easily recognizable example of this, look no further than Anime’s Got Talent.) In either case, the FX work is not the purpose of the video, as in Over-The-Top videos, nor is it used simply as a way to sync to the audio, as in Utilitarian ones — it is a necessary component, and often a major one, in establishing the overarching concept of the AMV. Another way to look at it is that in Utilitarian videos, effects exist for the sync, in Over-The-Top videos the video exists for the effects, and in Cohesive videos the effects exist for the concept.

Whisper of the Beast is a quintessentially “Cohesive” video — the effects in the video all create an atmosphere that underpins the video’s story of loss and regret. There’s a lot of compositing and color manipulation — ScorpionsUltd were six years ahead of the curve in terms of these techniques, all of which are turned up to 11 in more modern Umika-style crossover videos (for example). But it all serves a narrative purpose, and it’s all integrated so well that for a long time I didn’t even realize that that eye thing on Naruto’s headband wasn’t actually in the anime. Chalk that up to my own naivete (I was very new to the AMV/anime scene when I first watched this video), but even today I still feel like the world and settings shown in this video feel more natural than in most modern AMVs that do the same kind of thing. And it’s a perfect example of the kind of endurance these videos can tap into when done this well — not only does Whisper of the Beast communicate everything it was made to communicate in a professional and effective way, it feels like it could have been made yesterday.

Of all the approaches, this is the one that can most easily do just that — transcend its time period and feel era-less, something that looks fresh no matter how many years down the road you first experience it. This is because, in most cases, the effects in these videos are secondary to the concept, and are generally not pushed beyond the boundaries set by what that concept requires. That’s not to say all of these kinds of videos don’t age; something like Arima Shinjikun, for example, definitely falls under this umbrella and has extremely campy effects, no matter how well they may serve the video’s concept, but I think that videos like those tend to be the exception. When I think of this school of effects use, my mind moves towards videos like VicBond007’s manga/anime mashup Accidentally In Love, or Nightowl’s Firewall. Even though I don’t particularly like it, Gorz’s Fracture is a good modern example of this approach — as shallow as I think the video is, the effects work certainly doesn’t feel dated 4 years on, and it’s done really well towards its conceptual end.

All that said, Cohesive-type videos are probably the most challenging to pull off, because not only do these videos require a wide-angle view of your concept from the beginning, they necessitate a very solid technical skillset that takes a long time (and/or a whole lot of work) to develop. This type of video also requires more thought and creativity than the others, because making an FX-heavy video driven by a concept rather than effects for their own sake means exhibiting a certain amount of restraint, and knowing when enough is enough. This is a skill that, upon cursory review, many modern editors seem not to have, and a lack of it is what pushes videos from this category into poorly-done Over-The-Top videos. This is why we have so many homogeneous crossover videos these days — the editors didn’t know when to stop with the color saturation, the DOF blurs, the meaningless compositing, resulting in stuff like this that immediately prompts in me a heavy, prolonged eye roll.

The masters of this style, on the other hand, understand the art of subtlety and the craft of hiding their work in the background. The best of these videos don’t let the effects do the talking — they let every other aspect speak for itself while the effects do the legwork. These videos certainly wouldn’t be what they are without the technical framework, but rarely does a viewer walk away from this video with the technical side being the thing that stands out most to them. Whisper of the Beast has always been an amazing video from a technical standpoint — one need look no further than the making of (the first of its kind, and also amusingly ranked among the Top 10% of videos on the .org) to see this — but I’ve always appreciated the video much more for its storytelling and emotive aspects, all of which, ironically and fittingly, would have been completely compromised by anything less than the technical skill of its Russian creators.

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Before wrapping this post up, there are a few things I feel I need to clarify: First, the above delineations are only strictly applicable to those videos in which effects work dominates the video in one way or another — these descriptions aren’t meant to be applied to simpler videos which may utilize various techniques outlined in the approaches above. Effects work has its place in all sorts of circumstances and all sorts of videos — this post is meant to focus in on those AMVs which utilize effects to a degree not seen in your typical video.

Second, there can be cross-pollination between these various approaches, although some much more than others — Utilitarian/OTT videos often find common ground, as do OTT/Cohesive ones…rarely, though, will Utilitarian videos ever intersect style-wise with Cohesive types. I think this is largely because these approaches are fundamentally at odds based on my definitions — Utilitarian videos tend to use effects only for the purpose of eye-catching sync, whereas the effects in Cohesive videos tend to be very purposeful conceptually. In most cases, these things are mutually exclusive.

And third, there are always exceptions — although I think I could probably divide the vast majority of really effects-y videos into one of the three camps above, I’m sure there are plenty out there that would make such clear distinction difficult, if not impossible. Subjective response always plays a part, so where others might think a video falls under one approach, I may see it completely differently. Still, I think the above definitions are helpful for discussion, and (more immediately) helpful for my own purposes of evaluation.

It shouldn’t be too hard to tell, by my language and tone throughout this post, what types of videos I tend to prefer, and which I tend to write off. I’m not a fan of Utilitarian-style videos in most cases, and I think I usually assert the mindset that, if you’re going to make effects a large part of your video, they should be contributing to an overarching idea in some way beyond simply “SYNC ALL THE THINGS”, even if it’s vague or shallow. OTT videos can be really cool, and there’s something to be said in a medium that’s as visually focused as AMVs are for those videos that don’t want to do anything more than create something pretty and visually striking.

That said, things can get sticky if that’s your only impetus, especially if “Why use anime at all over some other type of source?” begins to become a legitimate question that can be asked of your work. After all, an AMV is an Anime Music Video, and I think that the “A” in the acronym is important not just in defining a completed work, but in suggesting something about one’s motivation to make it in the first place. We create and watch AMVs because we love anime; to that end I tend to feel that effects work should reflect this in a real way — which is why Cohesive video types are my favorite when it comes to FX-heavy videos. Effects should complement the source in a way that they wouldn’t if any other source material were used instead — in other words, the specific effects used in Whisper of the Beast wouldn’t have worked on anything other than anime, and arguably anything other than Naruto. This can’t always be said of OTT videos (although certainly it can be sometimes), and can almost never be said of Utilitarian ones. I think this is an important distinction because it helps establish the AMV in question as a uniform whole, not simply a collection of discrete elements — the song, the source, the effects, the cuts, etc.

Ultimately this comes down to personal taste and what one expects out of the medium as a whole — and a much broader discussion can ensue. I’m not going to go down that path, at least not in this post, but suffice it to say that I believe effects use can say a lot about an editor and what drives them to create what they do. In light of that, some of my more vehement responses to certain videos, or certain types of videos, should hopefully be made a little clearer.

I want to clarify one final thing, as well — despite any appearance to the contrary, this post wasn’t meant to turn you, the reader, on to one style of editing and off of another. Obviously, my opinions seep through my writing like a sieve, and that was on purpose — as this post was as much a self-justification of certain opinions I hold as well as a general exploration into a much talked-about, but rarely deeply analyzed, facet of AMV culture. Primarily, though, this post was meant to get you thinking about effects in a new way, and maybe to help you put into words what it is you actively look for in viewing these types of videos; and, if you’re a newer or even a seasoned editor looking to become more technically-minded, to help give you some focus in regards to how you want to approach your next big video.

Depending on the circle of editor friends you run in, “effects” can be a dirty word, or it can be the only word that matters. Neither extreme is strictly correct without context. Effects are often the element of this hobby which pushes AMVs in to new and sometimes exciting, sometimes grating new territories. It’s all about how they’re used and there are a million different factors that can make FX-heavy videos succeed wildly or crash and burn. Identify your approach and use it as the framework for your video; I can’t guarantee you’ll always succeed but for these kinds of videos, I believe it’s the best place to start.

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final fantasy xv

ffxv_cover

It’s hard to know where to begin talking about this game, so I’ll just start from, well, the start: Final Fantasy XV opens with a brief and chaotic flash-forward to a point near the game’s end showing the main characters in the midst of a city on fire, before returning to the innocuous present. The game’s main protagonist, Prince Noctis, is leaving his father’s palace along with his three retainers and companions, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto, to be wed to Lady Lunafreya, a childhood friend and mystical figure in the world of Eos called the Oracle.

For games like this, this is pretty par for the course, but what happens next is one of my all-time favorite opening moments in any video game; perhaps one of my favorite moments in any game, opening or otherwise, period. Upon leaving their home city the game cuts to a shot of the gang on the side of a desert road, in the middle of nowhere, next to their broken-down car. After some light banter they get up and start pushing the car forward. They complain, they take shots at one another, and as their conversation continues a stripped-down cover of “Stand By Me” plays in the background — until the camera pans up to the sky and FINAL FANTASY XV appears on the screen, right as Florence Welch sings “…just as long as you stand, stand by me”.

It’s memorable by virtue of its being so understated — subversive, almost. You don’t fully appreciate the implications of the song until much later in the game, nor the complete passivity of the situation they’re all in until the story has twisted and turned into the kind of sprawling, apocalyptic drama that all Final Fantasy games seem to. It’s a crystalline example of problems in perspective — the way adults often look back on their teen years and laugh about the things that used to bring the world down around them. If only younger them knew what was in store.

If you know anything about Final Fantasy XV, you’re probably at least tangentially aware that it has received a lot of mixed feedback from players — and I’ll be touching on a lot of that below. But it’s important to realize, before anything else is said, that FF15 is treading new ground for the series with this entry. From having a massive, open world to a real-time combat system, it’s not catering to its traditionalist fanbase. And this shows from the very first moment you take control of Noctis, at a service station in the middle of Nevada-esque badlands, with a harmonica score in the background. It’s just so strikingly un-fantastical, so normal.

ffxv_6
And while this would be a perfect springboard into talking about where Final Fantasy XV fits in in the franchise, I’m woefully under-qualified to make any statements about that which would carry any weight, and besides, you can take your pick from elsewhere around the Internet if you care that much. I’m not here to talk about whether FF15 is a good Final Fantasy game; I’m here to talk about whether it’s a good game, period.

Because, well, I’ll be frank here — it has a lot of issues. There are many articles talking about FF15‘s failings, frustrations, and baffling design choices, all of which are often made all the more puzzling by the fact that this game was in development for 10 years. That’s an incredible amount of time for any game to be in development, especially given that most AAA titles seem to spend around a third of that time or less being created. So, especially for a franchise as celebrated and loved as Final Fantasy tends to be, fans had a right to hold onto a certain expectation of quality for this game.

I don’t mean to immediately imply that this game didn’t meet any of those expectations. In fact, the reality of the game’s plainness at the moment you take over wasn’t meant as a criticism; if anything, the opening few hours of the game just serve to underscore FF15‘s desire to set itself apart. The location, the music, the entire situation you find yourself in conjures up feelings of being on a road trip through western America. If you read other reports on the game you’ll hear similar sentiments, as this is an aesthetic the designers were certainly keen to promote. I found this to be one of its more charming aspects — unlike other JRPGs that have you travelling from town to town and resting in hotels or inns, FF15‘s accommodations are rarely nicer than camper trailers. In fact, one important gameplay element gives you the option to make camp at select points around the world map, allowing you to regain your group’s Health Points and gain temporary status boosts at the expense of the experience modifiers that can be found at more comfortable lodgings. It’s a nice little feature, something that is both a practical convenience as well as a singularly endearing addition. Regardless of the jokes that get thrown around (I’ve heard FF15 called a “camping simulator”), this was one of the game’s unique little traits that I found quite winsome.

There has also been a certain amount of derision aimed at the driving aspect of the game, however, and this is something that is perhaps a bit better founded. You’ll spend a not-insignificant amount of time in the Regalia, a luxury convertible that is your main mode of transportation throughout FF15. The world map is quite large, and while there is a quick-travel option (thank GOD), you still spend a decent amount of time driving from point to point. And if you want to travel to a point on the map that is not an already-discovered town or outpost or landmark, you don’t have that quick-travel option. Trust me, you’ll spend a whooole lot of time in the Regalia, and there’s really nothing for you to do during those drives. Even more frustrating is that in the beginning of the game, due to the mysterious and dangerous Daemons that spawn at night, you are unable to drive after the sun goes down unless you do so manually (meaning that you actually have to pay attention to where on the map you’re going; other than those times, your companion Ignis will drive for you so you as the player don’t have to do anything). Compounded on top of all of this is the fact that quick-travelling isn’t really a whole lot better, as you’re faced with long (1-3 minute) loading screens when you do. Getting around in FF15, then, is probably one of its most arduous tasks.

But riding around in the Regalia isn’t always bad, and in fact is the best way to see the beautiful world that the designers created — although for the first couple chapters you’re stuck in the dry wasteland of Leide, itself quite striking at times, when the rest of the world later opens up, you’re treated to a fair number of really beautiful vistas. This might be the best-looking game I’ve played yet, and there are some truly stunning pieces of scenery that it’s really easy to just stare at and admire. The world is rich and varied, and easy to get lost in. There are plenty of opportunities, especially in the game’s second half, to just go out and explore and see what you can find. Although it’s often nothing (I’ll get to this shortly), the trek is always pretty.

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Much has been made of FF15‘s status as an “open world” game, and I’d like to rest on this for a moment or two because a whole lot of what I ultimately think of this game is directly related to this open world element. It’s true, this is very much a game where you can ignore the storyline and just kind of do and go where you want, at least for a sizable window of the game. In the opening hours you’re restricted to a single slice of the map, which still manages to be rather large and full of places to explore, but eventually you get unrestricted access to everything — it’s just a matter of driving (or riding a chocobo) there.

At first, this seems really cool, no lie — even in those first few chapters when you’re relatively restricted, there’s a certain sense of freedom you get that’s generally lacking in this genre of video games, for better or worse. You can move all over, run around, fight, explore things off the beaten path, and generally just go where you want.

The problem, though, is that the world is just so empty; I mean, yeah, there are outposts and places to go, and there are things to look at in the environment that are kinda cool, but they don’t do anything. For example, you’ll occasionally come across some broken, abandoned structures — houses, usually — but you can never enter them, and there’s never anything hidden around them. They’re just decoration. NPCs are extremely rare, and don’t generally say much (if anything); if there are NPCs anywhere, they tend to be in the cities and pit stops around the map. The world is so big, but it’s so devoid of life or even the illusion of it. And while there is a story-based reason for this, the emptiness of the world often forced me to wonder why I should bother saving it. It doesn’t help, either, that there are cutscenes and asides in the game that imply the world is thriving and alive. You just don’t see it or feel it.

Similarly, there tends to be little incentive to explore, outside of general curiosity about what it might look like over that hill, or behind that huge rock outcrop. There are several “procurement points” that litter the world — points on the map where you can find treasure, cooking ingredients, or minerals. After picking up whatever item you find at a given point, you can come back later and something else will be in that same spot. It’s a nice idea to keep you engaged in exploring, but it ends up being utterly useless, as one of FF15‘s primary sins is its total overabundance of items. Now, this is a problem with the genre as much as it is with this game alone, but it’s especially bad in FF15 — there are hundreds of different items, 90% of which serve no immediate practical purpose. You can sell any of the items you find for gil, or you can use these items as ingredients in crafting magic spells, but outside of these two uses, they’ll mostly just take up space in your bottomless inventory. The fact that items are everywhere in FF15‘s world very quickly cheapens the thrill of coming across a new treasure lying on the ground.

So, this begs the question — why such a large world, if there’s nothing much in it? What do you do with this enormous, open environment, where you can travel anywhere at any time? The purpose, at least according to the FF15 development team, is sidequests. And here, really, is the game’s most glaring, aggravating flaw, and one that I can’t simply gloss over or try to explain away. Of all the strange decisions that the developers made, their approach to sidequests baffled and frustrated me more than any other.

See, sidequests are, essentially, the meat of this game — it’s where most players will probably spend most of their time. The sheer number of sidequests in FF15 is simply enormous. This article puts the number at over 200. In a vacuum, this doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but trust me when I say that it’s more than enough. Way more.

The first problem we run into is that these sidequests typically fall into one of only a few camps: go out and kill this monster/these monsters, collect X number of items and bring them back, take pictures of things, help stranded travelers, or fight your way through dungeon areas to collect powerful weapons. These are all pretty standard types of quests for an RPG, but the issue lies a lot deeper than a lack of variety. Allow me to illustrate with an example.

The game has a number of “quest dispensers”, for lack of a better term — a select few NPCs who task you with going out and completing sidequests for them. For the most part, all of the quests you undertake from any one of these NPCs is going to be the same type as any others you get from that same NPC. One such character is Dave; he’s the head of the Hunters, a loose group of brave souls who wander the land, killing dangerous creatures to collect bounties and keep civilians safe. Sounds cool, right, if maybe a little cliche? But no matter — you’ll come across Dave time and time again as you wander the world, and he’s always ready to give you a task to undertake. This is always going to be finding the dog tags of Hunters who have died in the field, so that Dave can return them to that person’s loved ones, in order to provide them with some sort of closure.

So far, so good — this doesn’t seem like a bad setup for a series of sidequests. The problem is that the developers, for whatever reason, decided to ignore every single opportunity they had to flesh out these sidequests into anything that feels meaningful. There’s no backstory on these dead Hunters, no explanation of why they were out where they were, what they were hunting, or who they were as people — you literally just go to the point marked on your map, probably kill a small group of low-level baddies, pick up the dog tags, and then bring them back to Dave. Rinse and repeat like 15 more times throughout the game.

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This is about 99% of sidequests in FF15. And it’s so frustrating, maddeningly so. The developers took the time to craft this huge, beautiful world — they took the time to program some 200+ sidequests, give you tools to find them and track them, and it all feels like an egregious waste of time on both their part and mine, as the gamer. At every point where they had a chance to paint the world with life, history, and purpose, they simply looked the other way and instead decided to give a few trite, interchangeable lines to one character or another to spout about whatever task they happen to be engaged in.

The fact that there are so few categories of sidequests really wouldn’t bother me all that much — after all, most RPGs offer a rather narrow range, but most other RPGs at least understand that sidequests are some of the best vehicles that developers have at their disposal to make the world relatable and alive to the player. FF15‘s sidequests are the very worst kind — utilitarian to the core, existing only as a means to kill time and provide experience points. They feel flat, worthless; just something else for me to check off of a list.

Which brings me to my next complaint — for compulsive sidequesters like myself, this game provides a seemingly never-ending parade of yellow question marks on the map (indications of where to find an NPC that will present you with a sidequest to complete). I tend to do as many sidequests as I can before advancing the story plot because, hey, you never know when something will become unavailable, right? The problem is, because of the sheer volume of these sidequests, I found myself locked into a mindset of “Must…complete…everything…” which totally interrupted the whole flow of the story. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were times where I would spend 10-20 hours (if not more) just doing sidequests instead of actually advancing the game. When you consider that most times, I would only be able to get in an hour or two of playtime a day, if I was lucky, this translated to literal weeks between story points.

Now, I admit that this is probably more of a “me” problem, but it doesn’t help that the game tends to take an approach that kind of dangles these sidequests in front of you, tempting you to take them up, at which point they show up on your quest tracker — a list of active quests so you know what has and hasn’t been completed. This is a common (and necessary!) element for huge open-world RPGs like this, so it’s not exactly a complaint that this is the approach the developers took, but it caused me to play the game in a way that made it feel more like a chore — checking quests off a list — rather than out of any sense of wanting to discover more about the world (not that these sidequests would have provided any satisfaction there anyway).

I could go on in this direction for a while, but suffice to say that this is by far the game’s biggest issue. This game took me close to 90 hours to beat — probably the most I’ve ever spent playing a single-player game in my history as a gamer — and I’d say that probably 65-70 hours of that time was spent on these sidequests. For some people, this ratio isn’t an inherently bad thing, but when you consider that almost every single one of those hours contributed nothing to the game besides experience points, it starts to look like a huge time sink.

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All that said, the game was far from a total loss, and there were plenty of things that kept me turning on my PS4 to play it day after day. For one, the combat in this game is outstanding, if difficult to get a feel for for the first…many hours of gameplay. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, the combat is not turn-based but real time, and takes place on the overworld — i.e. there’s no shift to a “battle screen” when you encounter enemies. This seamless nature of moving into combat is a welcome feature, and makes the combat feel all the more fluid and natural.

The actual mechanics of combat are a blast — while attacking is mostly handled with a single button, there are dodging/parrying/warping mechanics that keep things interesting and intense. There are also “Techniques”, specialized attacks or actions that combine FF13‘s segmented TP gauge and FF7‘s Limit Breaks, which can act as tide-turners in difficult battles.

Speaking of FF13, FF15 takes another cue from that game in that you can only ever control Noctis in battle — the rest of your companions, while (mostly) always present are computer-controlled, and while for the most part the AI is fine for your friends, it’s limited in a couple ways. For one, there are no pure “Cure” spells in this game, so any time a character needs healing it can really only be easily accomplished by using curative items — which the computer-controlled characters themselves can’t access until their health is at a critical point. So, you end up having to manage their healing and revival manually — which can be frustrating. Also, there’s no way to get your friends to all attack a single enemy, for instance, or to retreat and regroup, save through certain Techniques mentioned above.

These are relatively minor complaints though, and combat overall is absolutely delightful. Through all the mundane, repetitive, tedious sidequests, the thrill of engaging enemies in battle was by far the thing that kept me playing more than any other through most of the game. It’s fast-paced, addicting, and just plain fun. As a side note, I suppose I should mention that the game offers a more “strategic” form of combat by allowing you to engage in “Wait Mode”, which pauses combat whenever you stop moving so you can issue commands, scan the enemy for weaknesses, and generally have greater control over the fight. The few times I activated this (through the arduous process of navigating to the game’s options menu and selecting it from a submenu), I found it somewhat clunky and comparatively un-fun, so I didn’t really explore it. Your mileage may vary.

Magic is also worth mentioning here, as it too is used in a very different way compared to past Final Fantasy games, and in fact is rather unique in general. In FF15 there are magic deposits littered around the game’s world that are one of three elements: fire, ice, or lightning. Noctis can “draw” magic power from these deposits, and then combine the elements in varying quantities to create a limited number of consumable spells (usually 3-5 at a time). The spells are then an equippable item, like any other weapon, that can be unleashed in combat.

It’s an interesting mechanic, and a stark departure from the JRPG norm of having an ever-growing collection of spells and depletable Magic Points (which do exist in this game, but for a different purpose). The tradeoff is that these craftable spells can be extremely powerful, and have a significant “cool-down” period before you can cast them again. The limited nature of, and the infrequency with which you can use magic in this game was…different, to say the least, but I have to say I liked it.

For one, it was an element that was extremely easy to ignore (and often forget about), which appealed to me — I rarely find myself using too much magic in these types of games, so its relegation to the sidelines fit into my personal playstyle nicely. That said, I wish I had explored it a little more because it has the potential to be a game-changer — while you can more or less ignore spells, you don’t have to, and there are good reasons not to. When you craft spells you have the option to add in any number of a single type of item or ingredient. Different items add different side-effects to spells, such as providing healing to the caster (the one non-item way to heal yourself in battle), adding negative status effects to the enemy, and providing massive EXP boosts to your party. I started playing with this a little more intensely close to the end of the game, and I wish I had earlier.

There are other elements that I could harp on about as well, like the “Ascension” system, which hearkens back to the Crystarium in FF13, the character-specific Skills, or the Armiger attacks — all are, in my opinion, great things that add plenty of depth to the way the game unfolds, at least as far as gameplay goes. When it comes to the pure, underlying mechanics of the game, I have very few complaints. All these elements interlock so smoothly, and it’s truly a joy to experience.

But I have one big, final thing I want to touch on — the story. This aspect of the game was particularly difficult for me to enjoy a lot of the time, simply because I experienced it in such an uneven, staggered way, thanks to the sidequesting which ended up removing me from the story for days and weeks at a time. It was a real shame too, because the story in FF15 is perfectly good. Actually, I’d push it farther and say that it’s great — besides combat, the game’s greatest accomplishments are its story, characters, and cutscenes.

That’s not to say the story is original, exactly — you’ll find plenty of tropes and Final Fantasy motifs (and even some repeated story points from past games), but I hardly found this to be off-putting, especially for the JRPG genre which tends to thrive on such elements. The game’s primary antagonist, Ardyn, is an especially interesting character, and one who is constantly making you question where the story is going.

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The stars, though, at least for me, were the four main characters. In every way FF15 plays on the bromance angle, emphasizing the deep friendship of Noctis and his retainers. The banter that happens randomly as you’re wandering the map, the little details that litter the game like the way Prompto will get up in his seat in the Regalia and turn around and talk with Noctis and Gladio in the backseat for a minute or two, the photos that you collect through the game (taken by Prompto and reviewed at each campsite or lodging area)…it all starts to add up to a kind of relationship that I simply haven’t experienced in other games before, to this extent. The developers really took the time to make the core relationships of these four characters a driving element of the game. It’s subtle, and it happens slowly — in that sense, the game’s 80+ hour playtime was well worth it — but I do feel like they could have pushed this even further and made the relationships even more real to the gamer by including (more) sidequests that helped explain and develop these characters in a more direct way. But I’m not going to lie, by the end, I felt quite deeply for this cast of four (helped in no small part by the A-list voice acting — the first time I can say that a Final Fantasy game has had good voice actors), which made the ending — and the game’s opening sequence I mentioned earlier — far more powerful than they would have been otherwise.

I do need to also call out the fantastic — phenomenal — cutscenes displayed throughout this game. Bar none, some of the best and most flat-out entertaining cinematics I’ve ever experienced in a game, on par with if not better than The Last Of Us. The developers spared no expense in this area, delivering stunning, beautiful cutscenes that heightened the drama in every way, every time. Even if you don’t play the game, it’s worth watching at least some of them on YouTube.

Finally — and I’m almost done, I swear — the endgame has generated some controversy so I feel like I need to address it. Starting in Chapter 9 (out of 14), the game completely drops its open-world element, trading it in for an entirely on-rails bullet ride to the game’s ending. Although there is a “time-travel” mechanic that allows you to return to the open world starting at this point in the game, anything you do to advance the story is done in an entirely linear fashion.

This part of the game is apparently what lost and frustrated a lot of people, but if you’ve read my full, long-winded review up to this point, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that this was probably my favorite part of the game. Not only was I unable to stop the story from happening, the story started to get really good at this point, and the lack of decisions to be made about where to go or what to look at was a massive, welcome breath of fresh air in an atmosphere that had grown incredibly stale with meaningless freedom. For many players, I think this part of the game brought back bad memories of FF13‘s primarily “push forward on the control stick to win” mentality, but as someone who has largely enjoyed that game, this didn’t bother me in the slightest.

I’ll be honest — I was more frustrated with this game at times than I have ever been with a video game before. It’s long, it’s empty, it’s deathly repetitive, and at its worst, it’s one of the shallowest games I’ve ever played. It can be unforgivingly difficult (if you want a long rant, ask me about my experience in Costlemark Tower), and some of the design choices are nothing short of impossibly mystifying. To put it bluntly, probably every negative thing you will read about this game elsewhere has more than just a little truth to it.

But.

For every negative thing I can say, I can easily balance it out with something positive. It has a relentlessly entertaining and engaging combat system, a deep leveling system, a unique take on magic, wonderful characters, top-notch voice acting (regardless of the language you choose to hear it in), a massive and emotionally engaging story, drop-dead gorgeous graphics, and eye-popping cinematics. The fact that it kept pulling me back, despite my notoriously short attention span and occasional desire to just drop the game altogether speak volumes, at least to me. And while I can’t give a blanket recommendation for this game to everyone who might be on the fence, I will say this: It takes a ton of risks, and a nontrivial amount don’t pay off. But those that do — oh man.

They do.

Scores
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Story: 8/10
Personal value: 7/10
Overall: 81/100


Weights as follows:
Graphics: 15%
Sound: 10%
Gameplay: 25%
Story: 20%
Personal value: 30%
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filling in the gaps #1

As I know I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m an avid CD collector. I remember in 8th grade I made a conscious decision to obtain as many CDs as I could — at that point in life I had really had no exposure to most music, simply because I had never actually given it much thought as a thing to be enjoyed. On Christmas of that year, my dad gifted me two CDs that changed my outlook and approach to music forever — those being U2’s Achtung Baby and Toad The Wet Sprocket’s P.S. It’s really difficult to overstate the effect these albums have had on my life, and now is not the place where I will go into very much detail on it, but my love of music and the way I consume it can be directly traced back to those two CDs.

My world opened up after that, and I remember saving up my meager weekly allowance to have my mom drive me to the used CD store and buy whatever albums looked interesting to me, or which came highly recommended from friends who were more musically aware than I was. I would spend a lot of time looking for the best deals to get the most bang for my buck, and then spend my free time after school holed up in my room just listening to CDs on my stereo, enjoying the simple act of hearing something I had never heard before.

As I got older my collection grew, and over time it became a huge source of pride for me — something I had that few other people did. As my musical vocabulary expanded I came to take a very specific joy in finding albums and artists that none of my friends knew about. Once I got a job and was able to drive I spent a lot of time at the used CD store — I knew that place inside and out, and I would often visit weekly if not more frequently than that. I came to love the hunt — and still do. The thrill of finding a CD that you’ve been searching for off and on for a long time — months, sometimes years — still makes scouring that store (and others, like Half-Price Books) worth it to me. Although any CD you could want is often easily available with the click of a button on Amazon or Half.com, I still tend to do my CD searching in brick-and-mortar stores, while they’re still around.

At last count (which would be the night before I’m writing this), I have 1,001 CDs (assuming I didn’t miscount, which is a distinct possibility/likelihood). This is the bounty of about 15 years’ worth of work and searching and money spent, and while I’ve gotten a fair amount of good-natured ridicule for spending my money on a medium that is, for all intents and purposes, outdated and pointless in the 21st century, I don’t intend on stopping anytime soon.

All that said, I’ve realized that, over the years, the collection as a whole has become more important to me than the actual contents. It’s gotten to the point where I will purchase CDs simply because they’re cheap and I might like them when I listen to them someday, and the excitement of actually hearing the music has taken a backseat to the excitement of adding one more piece to my collection. I thus have put off listening to many of my albums for years, and they’ve become forgotten and neglected. This is not only ultimately a waste of money, but devalues the collection as a thing to be enjoyed.

I decided to go through my collection and build a list of all the CDs that I either have never listened to or listened to only partway and don’t remember anything about. To my horror, I counted 231 albums — almost a quarter of my entire collection! I’ve decided to remedy this, by listening through each and every album on this list of rejects, in full. I want to document this journey, so I’ll also be writing about each album immediately after I finish listening to it, although to save myself (and you) from my verbosity I’ll be making an effort to be as brief as possible — only a couple sentences, ideally, with each album (although I’m sure I’ll fail here and there). [Edit after finishing writing this first post: I failed hard.]

I have no idea how long this will take me. I know for a fact that many of the albums on this list — maybe even most — I will not particularly enjoy. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised over and over again but I have no illusions about the quality of a lot of albums on here. As a result, I may reach dead spots that take me a while to get through simply because I need to take a break from listening to stuff I don’t like. I’m going to post my progress every time I get through ~25 albums, which means this will be a series of nine posts (give or take). This could take a couple months, or it could take a year or more. I don’t know, but it’ll be a (hopefully) entertaining ride.

Anyway, this has gotten too long already, so I’ll wrap up the intro by noting a couple other quick things: I’ll be going through this list in alphabetical order by artist name, and then in cases where I’ll be listening through multiple albums by the same artist, by album release date. I’ll also note the date I listened to each album or group of albums so I (and you) can track the chronological progression. Do you really care about that? I doubt it, but here we go anyway.

Feb 22, 2017

fast times at barrington highThe Academy Is… – Fast Times At Barrington High (2008)
Stupidly fun, catchy, and energetic pop-punk. This album is basically an idealized version of high school — the high school experience we all wanted — in musical form. I have a soft spot in my heart for this type of music anyway but this takes it to another level. Ironically, this is the kind of thing I would have found too saccharine and dumb in my high school days, but now am able to enjoy simply for its pop sensibilities. Excellent release. — 4.0/5.0

AC/DC – Back In Black (1980)
Never been a fan of AC/DC; I inherited this album from my dad when he decided he didn’t need a bunch of his CDs anymore (prepare for many more in this vein as we go along). This album was okay, I liked it more than I was anticipating, but Classic Rock Radio has more or less killed its explosiveness. Besides that, I’ve never been much for the drugs-sex-rock-and-roll culture that permeates every nook and cranny of this thing, and the blatant misogyny on display with “Give The Dog A Bone” disgusts me on a deep level. Probably will never listen to it again. — 2.5/5.0

Ace Troubleshooter – It’s Never Enough (2004)it's never enough
Once long ago, there were a bunch of CDs available for the taking in my church’s youth room, so I picked this up one day because it looked interesting and proceeded to not really think about it for the next 10+ years. I wasn’t missing a whole lot — generic pop-punk/alternative, although the singer has a surprisingly good voice and the opening two tracks are really, really good, along with the more downtempo “Helen Burns”. I liked this one, all told. — 3.5/5.0

Antony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now (2005)
I don’t mind Antony’s distinctive voice in small doses, but a whole album of it — even a sub-40 minute one — is too much. A few good songs on this one — most notably “Man Is The Baby” and “Fistful of Love” — but not something I will be returning to often, if ever. I much prefer Antony’s work in Hercules and Love Affair (“Blind”, of course, being the quintessential cut) to this. — 3.0/5.0

Feb 23, 2017

reflektorArcade Fire – Reflektor (2013)
I was pretty ready to hate this album — I’m just so over Arcade Fire and their bloated pretension. My enjoyment of their music has steadily declined over the past several years, and I had put off listening to Reflektor for so long because I knew it would be a chore to get through, and I was half right — the first disc is bland, boring, flat rock that did absolutely nothing for me. The second disc though was significantly better, with more of James Murphy’s production taking the spotlight (which is a good thing). Loved the funk on “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, but it was pretty solid all the way through. Still, my opinion on Arcade Fire wasn’t much improved, and I probably won’t be checking out anything more that they release. — 3.0/5.0

Asobi Seksu – Fluorescence (2011)
I picked this album up (along with Hush, which I’ve already listened to) simply because Asobi Seksu CDs always seem to be hard to find, and I really enjoyed Citrus so why not? Plus, I remember that this was cheap, only like $2.00. I looooooooved “Perfect Crystal”, but the rest of the album was immediately forgettable. It’s shimmery, hazy dream pop, the likes of which you can find in countless other similar bands. This is my whole issue with shoegaze/dream pop in general — by nature it’s so intent on making vague soundscapes that it often neglects things like melody and sonic hooks. Citrus was able to inject enough moments of pop clarity to distinguish it from the crowd, but with the exception of “Perfect Crystal”, Fluorescence had nothing similar to offer. — 2.5/5.0

The Ataris – Blue Skies, Broken Hearts…Next 12 Exits (1999)
Blaaahhh…I distinctly remember buying this album while on vacation with my family in high school. For some reason we stopped at a used CD store (probably at my request) and I found this, and knew that it was considered a good album by the type of people who like this kind of music, so I bought it but never actually gave it a listen for whatever reason. In reality it’s just really, really boring pop punk. “San Dimas High School Football Rules” is okay, but honestly this type of music is much better realized in other albums by other bands, not least of which is Fast Times at Barrington High, above. — 2.0/5.0

The Ataris – End Is Forever (2001)end is forever
This was a nostalgia trip…I listened to the first five or six songs on this album often in my high school years, but rarely (if ever) anything beyond that. Despite the stupidly juvenile lyrics (Kris Roe has always been a cringey songwriter, even 16 year-old me recognized that “I guess I’m giving up on love, ’cause it really kind of sucks” is lazy lyricism), I actually enjoyed this album, quite a bit more than Blue Skies, Broken Hearts…, although I have a generally high tolerance for this sappy, sentimental emo stuff so take that as you will. – 3.0/5.0

ATB – Dedicated (2002)
I braced myself for a trudge here, but this was better than expected, although not in a “Hey this is quality music” way, more in an “Oh look at this kitschy turn-of-the-millennium trance” kind of way. Listening to this album made me realize how much electronic music has changed and evolved in the last 15 years, and while it would be easy to write this off as soulless fluff, there is a certain something that kept me listening and enjoying this one through its hour run. I fear the dreaded hipster “I like this in an ironic way” response may be the only way I can justify it, but there seems to be no other explanation. — 3.5/5.0

Feb 24, 2017

audioslaveAudioslave – Audioslave (2002)
Weirdly good. I have fond memories of “Cochise” and “Like A Stone” playing on the radio right when I was starting to pay attention to music. I hate most other things Chris Cornell is involved in (“Black Hole Sun” would be on my shortlist of my least favorite songs ever), but Audioslave, or at least Audioslave as heard on this album, just works. I love the energy — there are some really intense songs on here, and I mean that in a good way. Loses steam in its final third, but overall quite a lot better than I was anticipating. — 3.5/5.0

Beach House – Bloom (2012)
I finished this 10 minutes ago and I can’t recall a single thing about it. Really, really mundane, impressionless dream pop. — 2.0/5.0

Feb 27, 2017

The Beatles – Beatles For Sale (1964)
I’ve heard every other major release by The Beatles, and while I love pretty much everything they’ve done, since I picked up this last, missing piece I haven’t been in much of a Beatles mood so I never gave this a proper listen. It’s pretty much what I expected — solid, but nothing too great. This seems to be the general consensus among most Beatles fans so I don’t feel too bad about it. If I was in the right mood, though, I might like this a bit more than I did today, so I’ll be returning to this at a later date I’m sure. — 3.5/5.0

Mar 1, 2017

Beck – Sea Change (2002)
Very boring to my ears, although I can tell there’s something here worth keeping. It had touches of brilliance here and there, but in general it just didn’t engage me very much. If I’m ever in the mood to listen to this type of music, Sky Blue Sky is and will probably remain my go-to, thank you very much. — 3.0/5.0

Mar 8, 2017

Belle and Sebastian – The BBC Sessions (2008)bbc sessions
I’m a huge Belle and Sebastian fan, so much so that I think I kind of sabotaged some of my enjoyment of this album by having listened to If You’re Feeling Sinister (an album that would easily make my Top 10 of all time if I ever decided to make such a list) so much that the arrangement and specific sound of those songs is completely burned into my brain. Anything that doesn’t sound exactly like I know it sounds on that album is just wrong. But, barring those cuts, this album is quite good — and I much preferred this album’s version of “Sleep The Clock Around” more than the album version, especially surprising as that’s always been one of my favorite B&S songs (and thus at least as sacred as anything off of If You’re Feeling Sinister). Good stuff! — 3.5/5.0

Mar 17, 2017

Better Than Ezra – Deluxe (1993)
There’s plenty more of this ’90s college rock stuff coming up, and I think my reaction to most of it will be about the same as this one: boring, generic, and forgettable. Being almost 30, it’s also now really easy to see through the pretty blatant lyrical pandering on display in songs like “Southern Girl” and “Teenager”. Not a fan. — 2.0/5.0

Better Than Ezra – How Does Your Garden Grow? (1998)
This was loads better than Deluxe, although it felt like a lot of other music, rather than anything unique. This isn’t a bad thing, though; parts of the first track reminded me of something off of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois…unexpected, but delightful. The second half of “New Kind of Low” sounds like something Radiohead might’ve made around the same time period. Kevin Griffin’s vocals on here are also a lot less obnoxious than on Deluxe. I enjoyed this. — 3.5/5.0

Mar 20, 2017

Big Head Todd and the Monsters – Sister Sweetly (1993)
You know what sounds I don’t miss? Pretty much every kind of sound that can be found on this album. Just look at the cover. You know what kind of music you’re getting into. — 2.0/5.0

Mar 23, 2017

your body above meBlack Lab – Your Body Above Me (1997)
Most of what I said about Audioslave can be applied to this album as well. I really dig this guy’s voice, but the music is pretty generic mid-’90s post-grunge/alt-rock so it struggled to leave any kind of impression. Still, “All The Money In The World” is fantastic — there’s something about the energy in Paul Durham’s delivery of the lyric “SWITCH the children, watch the women scream!” that I can’t really equate to anything else, and that song alone makes this album worth keeping in the back of my mind. — 3.0/5.0

Boysetsfire – After The Eulogy (2000)
Boysetsfire haven’t aged well. I used to be all over Tomorrow Come Today in high school (in fact, I’d say that it was one of the more personally influential albums I listened to at the time), but to my ears now…this band just kind of sounds like a parody of the type of music they’re trying to make. In fact, this is how most blatantly political music sounds to me these days — angry kids who think they know how the world works and want to scream about it. Whether or not the political points BSF makes are valid (not gonna go there), this album at least just comes across awkwardly at the best of times — case in point, the cringey “Where’s you anger? Where’s your f***ing rage?” coda at the end of the first song. I do enjoy “Rookie”, “When Rhetoric Dies”, and “My Life In The Knife Trade”, but the rest of the album is…pretty bad. –2.0/5.0

Brie Larson – Finally Out of P.E. (2005)finally out of pe
I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I bought this CD based off of seeing an AMV that used the song “Life After You”. I’m pretty sure it was a Girl Who Leapt Through Time video, but I can’t, for the LIFE of me, find any evidence that this video exists. It’s not on the .org (there are no videos which use this song listed on there) and I can’t remember the name of the video, or the editor. I would have gotten this CD back in 2006 or 2007ish, and the only way I would ever have bought something like this at the time is because of an AMV. It’s a weird mystery.

Anyway, the album itself is wholly unsurprising, aimed squarely at the female teen “rebel”, with all the baggage and poor songwriting that entails. It’s a lyrically stupid album (see: “Shoebox”), and it feels ridiculously manufactured, but that also means that it has its moments of pop euphoria (see: “Whatever”), and I can appreciate those. I actually enjoyed this album more often than not, but it’s not exactly something I’m going to go parading around that I liked. And the asinine lyrics put a pretty low ceiling on how high I’m willing to rate this. — 2.5/5.0

Mar 24, 2017

face the promiseBob Seger – Face The Promise (2006)
I have to admit, as I was compiling this list, I probably pre-judged this one harder than any other. If the cover art isn’t bad enough (and let’s be honest — it’s pretty bad), then the prospect of listening to a Motor City rocker from the ’70s in his 2006 incarnation certainly wasn’t helping matters. I was pretty happy to be pretty wrong about this one — although this is about as “safe” as this kind of music comes, it’s not at all bad, and man Bob Seger has good pipes for his age. I love his voice. I’ll take it farther and say that this was a shockingly good album, all things considered (not least of all that Kid Rock features on “Real Mean Bottle”, which is also, coincidentally, probably the record’s worst song), and while this type of heartland rock is really hit-or-miss for me with any artist besides Bruce Springsteen, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this one. — 3.5/5.0

Mar 28, 2017

Bright Eyes – Cassadaga (2007)
Solid album. I’ve been a Bright Eyes fan for a while now, and while I do remember listening to this album all the way through once, I don’t remember anything about it. There’s nothing surprising here for someone who’s familiar with Conor Oberst’s work; it feels very safe and comfortable for him, and has that trademark lyrical style where he just keeps stringing out metaphors and imagery, one line after another, pulling from a seemingly bottomless source of clever turns of phrase, all while keeping the music catchy and simple. I like pretty much everything Oberst does and this is no exception; although Bright Eyes’ best output is well in the past, this album makes perfect sense in their discography. — 3.5/5.0

Mar 29, 2017

the riverBruce Springsteen – The River (1980)
Of all the things I’ve inherited from my dad over the years, a love of Bruce Springsteen ranks up there as one of my favorites. I’m a fan of almost everything I’ve heard of Springsteen’s, but this album’s length is always what had put me off from giving it a proper listen. Hearing it now, I definitely enjoyed it, but there’s no denying that it’s a lot to sit through, and it’s not all A-grade material (a sizable portion of the middle just kinda drags, although since it’s Bruce, I’ll still take it over other albums that do the same thing). I can’t be too harsh though, because I was somewhat distracted while listening to a lot of this album, and the stories and vignettes that are woven into Springsteen’s music usually demand one’s full attention to really appreciate. I’m giving this one the benefit of the doubt, and look forward to hearing it again. — 4.0/5.0

Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
If anyone were to ask what my favorite Springsteen record were, I’d be torn between Born To Run and Nebraska, so it’s probably no surprise that The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is basically Nebraska pt. 2, found in me a ready ear. I loved this record; Bruce’s stripped-down, intimate approach sounds just as natural as his most explosive and energetic cuts, and it’s rare to find an artist who can so easily fill albums with songs of both styles. Great stuff. — 4.0/5.0

Mar 30, 2017

the risingBruce Springsteen – The Rising (2002)
The album starts off really strong — “Lonesome Day” and “Into The Fire” are both fantastic songs, and ends with a trio of equally great songs in “The Rising”, “Paradise”, and “My City of Ruins”, but most of the stuff in between is pretty forgettable. It’s not bad, I just wasn’t captivated by the stories the way I usually am with Bruce’s music. It was also way too long; this could have been pruned quite a bit and it would have made everything better. Unlike most albums I rate 3/5 though, I’ll probably return to this one to give it another chance, because, well, Bruce. — 3.0/5.0

Mar 31, 2017

Bruce Springsteen – Magic (2007)
I may be in the minority here, but I really liked this. It has a slightly more “produced” sound than a lot of the other stuff I’ve heard from Springsteen, but the lyrical content is still strong and unlike The Rising, it doesn’t suffer from being overlong. To me it has a feeling of nostalgic sentimentality that is different from that which resides in other Springsteen albums. I don’t know, at its core it’s a typical Springsteen record, but there just seems to the weight of experience and age behind these songs, which is quite distinct from Bruce’s older work, which tends in the exact opposite direction and channels youthful impulsiveness instead. It’s a different side of an artist I love, and I’m sorry I put this one off for so long. — 4.0/5.0

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise (2010)the promise
This was pretty great, but it’s clearly a B-sides album — lots of stuff that just doesn’t quite feel up to snuff from what is considered by many to be Bruce’s best period (The Promise being a collection of unused songs from Bruce’s recording of Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1977-1978). Still, Bruce off his game in the mid-late ’70s is still miles better than a whooole lot of other artists’ best stuff, so this isn’t exactly a bad thing. It is a double album though, and it’s just a lot to sit through, although I was entertained at pretty much all points. I will also say that I looooooved “Ain’t Good Enough For You” — one of the best Springsteen songs I’ve heard as I’ve been playing catch-up these last few days. — 3.5/5.0

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genome project journal #4: amv tracker v1.0.0

Well, it’s happened! A lot of what I’ve been working towards for the past 6-7 months has finally come to fruition. I’m excited to introduce AMV Tracker, a program I’ve been writing in that time and which you may remember in its original incarnation as gpGUI. Since I released that back in December, the program has undergone a massive facelift. The source code has basically been entirely rewritten in that time, and while the driving force behind the project was and remains the AMV Genome Project, AMV Tracker is no longer bound to a philosophy that puts the Genome Project at the center of its purpose. In other words, this project has been intentionally expanded to appeal to people who don’t care about the Genome Project but still want to track their AMVs.

Because, that’s what this program has become — a tool for cataloging, rating, and categorizing any AMV you watch. It’s designed to be simple and straightforward, while allowing you to maintain complete control over your database(s) and the information contained within. I wrote this in Python 2.7, using the PyQt4 GUI library, along with xlrd, xlwt, and xlutils for working with the spreadsheets.

Since the alpha release last December, many, many features have been added, and I’ve done my best to make the program as self-explanatory as possible. If it is not immediately obvious what something is/does, you can probably either (a) hover your mouse over it to get a fuller explanation, or (b) click it (if it’s a button) and it will explain its purpose before it does anything. AMV Tracker is a deliberately “safe” program in almost all respects, meaning that it’s going to be really hard to mess anything up without knowing you’re doing so first.

If this sounds the least bit interesting to you, please give it a look! All the details, instructions for use, and a link to the download, can be found here:

https://amvtracker.wordpress.com/

If you decide to check this out, PLEASE do me a favor and leave feedback. I don’t care if it’s a single word like “cool” or a 10-page dissertation on why it sucks, just knowing that people are interested is awesome. I’ll be continuing to develop this further in the coming months, as well; the next planned major update will feature all sorts of statistical analysis tools for analyzing the data contained in your database, but if anyone asks for features, I’m all ears and would be happy to entertain any and all ideas you might have! I really want to move the Genome Project from a one-man operation to include anyone in the community who’s even slightly interested, and this is the next big step in that direction. If you have ideas on how to improve this program, PLEASE tell me!

Thank you for reading, and hopefully also for checking out AMV Tracker!

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flying low #13: dive

I’ve had this blog for about two and a half years now. I’ve written about countless AMVs, those known, those unknown, and once about my own videos. For as much as I love AMVs, and writing about AMVs, I have yet to write about a single one that, at the time of my writing about it, I would have considered it amongst my all-time favorites. To be honest, the main thing holding me back is that the very idea of doing so intimidates me; with the exception of two or three videos, none of my “all-time favorite” AMVs would have been released within the last seven years or so. As such, these are videos that have had so much time to sit and grow and (some might say) fester, that they’ve kind of warped themselves into larger-than-life embellishments of themselves. This happens with anything that anyone holds close to themselves — it’s something that becomes immune to criticism, impossible to attack from any angle, always good, never bad.

I’d be lying if I said that nostalgia doesn’t play a huge role in how I feel about these videos as well. As far as AMVs go, perhaps nothing else does more to manipulate my feelings towards a piece — even videos that I may not have liked when I first saw them years ago when I was first getting into the hobby would probably result in feelings of tenderness rather than the merciless critique I can usually throw at such videos when the mood strikes me, were I to watch them now. The emotions that I associate with that time in my life — the excitement, the unlimited potential for creativity, the fondness for all the new geeky friends I was making — flood over me when I watch a lot of these videos, and (I admit) it becomes less about enjoying these videos on their own terms than reliving, at least in part, a time in my life that has become extraordinarily special.

This is part of the reason that I don’t watch these videos very much. And when I say that, I mean it in a very literal sense — I will watch these videos maybe once or twice a year, if that. I don’t want any of these videos to become too tainted with the here and now, because that’s not what I cherish them for. I want their existence in my mind to forever be tied to my freshman dorm room, or my sophomore apartment (much as I hated it), or the cafeteria where, as I served food to other students, I would pass the time by playing these videos over and over again in my head.

So it’s with a certain amount of trepidation that I make this post. For one, the effectiveness of any video that ranks among my favorites is, in most cases, going to be lost on literally anyone but me. When so much of my affection for a video rests on personal experience that simply cannot be shared with someone else, much of that affection will be lost in translation. The sights, the sounds, the smells that I associate with this video — I can’t implant these things in your brain. No matter how well I may describe them, it would be a facsimile of the real thing, and a poor one at that. More importantly, though, because so much of what I love about this video relies on inaccessible sense data, it seems somewhat trite to post anything at all. If I were able to look at this video objectively, would I even like what I saw? Would I want to look at this video objectively, if I could?

Yet I feel drawn to say something. This is a video that, back when the .org was a thing and people cared about their profiles and actually kept them updated, we had these “Top 10” lists embedded in there (I mean, they’re still there, but no one uses them anymore). I proudly put Dive there shortly after I first watched it, and it hasn’t moved since. If you pull up my profile now, Dive is still sitting there, and although I will probably never update that list for the sake of posterity, I don’t know if I could ever move it anyway.

Calling this my “#1 All-Time Favorite AMV Forever” may be a stretch. Actually — yes, it’s a huge stretch, and it’s probably not true. Over the years, various people have asked me what my favorite video of all time is and I’m pretty sure I’ve given each person a different answer. I can be fickle about certain things, AMVs not least of all, and to call any video my “favorite” seems absurd — although if you asked me to list my favorites, I’m sure I could do that pretty easily (you’d have to give me a hard limit though, otherwise I could go on for a while). Asking for one’s favorite AMV would probably get you an answer from most people, but in the same way that asking for one’s favorite color would — and then if you starting asking for their favorite color for different objects — types of clothing for example, or cars — you might get a different response. So with AMVs — what’s my favorite drama AMV? Action? My favorite to watch on a sunny day? On a rainy day? When I want to feel nostalgic? When I want to be uplifted? Every one of those would net a different response from me, and any one of them could probably be counted among my “favorites”.

But anyway — Dive. Okay. Trying to talk about this one is difficult because, despite my earlier objections, I know this is a heavily flawed video, and one that will probably not appeal to a lot of you. It’s long, it doesn’t use anime in a strict sense, and the story is somewhat juvenile (a video game…within a video game). But man, is it epic. The song choice works incredibly well with the footage — car chases, space fights and all, it feels huge and there’s something to be said for that. The climax and post-climax are still, to this day, some of my favorite AMV moments ever — massive adrenaline charges that set off huge chain reactions of emotion in me that have little to nothing to do with the nostalgia I’ve spent so much of this post talking about. It’s not even that anything emotional really happens, it’s just the surge of serotonin that naturally follows an adrenaline rush (don’t take these biological claims as fact, I may or may not have the slightest clue as to what I’m talking about).

I love the way the video flows and moves, the way it reacts to the music and seems to be driving it at the same time. I love the kitchiness of it, the niche approach that these days may seem quaint or even cheesy. I love the detail in the effects work — the text, the animated HUDs, the blue light rays that precede the climax. This is not a video that would be made today, even if you ignore the fact that no one seems to remember that the Xenosaga games ever existed in the first place. It’s either too clever of an idea or too stupid, depending (I suppose) on how you decide to look at it.

But even so, it’s one of my favorites. It’s something that nobody remembers these days (and it was never very popular even when it was released), but that I still — and will always — hold very close to my heart. And while I won’t make a habit of posting these videos which are among my favorites, especially because so many of them rely very heavily on my own sentiment, I am happy to share this one with you, even if you don’t share my enthusiasm for it. It was a time and place thing and yeah, you kinda just had to be there, in my dorm, watching this video for the first time on a bulky, beige, 16″ CRT monitor with the noise of other college kids leaking in through the door and the window the computer was set by. You had to understand the feeling that videos like this were imparting to me at the time, and the overwhelming sense of “rightness” I felt when I did anything AMV-related. Dive is one of those videos that cuts right to the heart of my life as an AMV editor, and it’s not something that fits into a specific mold of what I “like” about AMVs. The two paragraphs above this one tell only a small part of Dive’s impact on me at the time, and even smaller why it continues to be so important. I think, on some level, every AMV fan can relate — even if it’s not with Dive.

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