F.A.N.G. Issue #1 Cover

FANG Cover #1
By Owen Gregory


Borderlands of Opportunity

Ahhh, Pandora, a land of milk and honey — and by “milk and honey” I mean “blood and bullets.” What makes this dangerous planet so special? It’s the setting to the videogame Borderlands. A merchant in-game says that only a fool would search for something of value here, yet the draw of opportunity brings many aspirants, including myself, to this barely inhabitable rock.

borderlandsEDITv2Daring adventurers brave Pandora in search of a mythical treasure trove known as the Vault, but my own motivations are less grandiose than fame and fortune. I came to this wasteland with a single purpose in mind: to play through Borderlands and then review it. In my attempts at meeting that goal, however, the opportunities presented to me complicated my stay on Pandora to the point where I became part of this world as much as it was part of mine.

signUpon starting Borderlands and first setting foot on Pandora, I quickly realized that I would not survive here alone.The local threats read like a list of sci-fi tropes: alien beasts and insects, dystopian criminals, grotesque mutants, futuristic soldiers, and otherworldly beings. Once I had chosen from the rugged mercenaries to protect me on my excursion, I became more at ease with exploring this land of foreign dangers and foreign opportunities.

classesThe unique abilities of Borderlands‘ playable characters influence one’s avenues to victory in combat. The Hunter sends a pet bird to pick off enemies and scavenge items; the Siren turns invisible to ambush foes with her health-draining effects; the Berserker enters a full-on bloodlust to increase his speed, defense, and melee damage; the Soldier deploys a turret to establish a defensive position on the battlefield. Though all four classes are well-tuned against the enemy hordes, they never force the user to depend on said predefined strengths. The focus of combat remains with gunplay and relies on the abundant firearms scattered across this otherwise barren planet.

weaponAccounting for the munitions present all over Pandora, Borderlands‘ weapon creation system can produce over three million distinct results. By procedurally generating each gun’s attributes, it can form combinations that defy expectation. I recall finding a submachine gun that empties its clip in less than a second, a pistol with sniper-like accuracy, and a shotgun that fires rockets. The weapons on Pandora follow no clearly defined rules, and one cannot predict what havoc the next may unleash.

poseAfter familiarizing myself with the capabilities of my allies and the planet’s all-access armament buffet, I began to enjoy the unavoidable clashes with Pandora’s violent inhabitants. Spread over the desolate surroundings, hostile forces congregate around spawn locations that habitually cause wonky or comical results. Enemies pop into existence from nowhere, and the occasional hut or cave opening resembles a clown car with foes streaming out one by one for minutes on end.

packThe glut of enemies per battle creates intense yet crowded combat situations that start out tactical but end up mindless and frantic once overrun with attackers. Thankfully, enemy weaknesses offer some variety to the mindless killing. Certain species are weaker to elemental damage while others allow the player to shoot vital areas of their bodies.

enemiesAgainst such opponents, the landscape is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, combat requires the player to maneuver around threats for the best position — a savvy combatant might climb up to a vantage point for better view of a monster’s weak spot. On the other hand, character immobility is the most fiendish and reoccurring problem in Borderlands. Strafing around hostiles only to become wedged against a rock is unacceptable in a do-or-die shootout. While navigating a busy firefight, the frustration at being stuck on environmental objects outweighs the opportunity to use them for a strategic advantage.

vantageFunnily, the same issue with environmental collision befalls the inhabitants of Pandora, too. Better yet, AI behavior sporadically breaks to the point where hostiles don’t notice me standing beside them while I blast away. Taking potshots at oblivious or immobilized baddies isn’t honourable, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the end of Borderlands and onto my review. When the majority of gameplay involves shooting at things or being shot at, I welcome a respite from the return fire.

immobilizedThough the combat in Borderlands can reach tedium at times, key mechanics borrowed from role-playing games eliminate the dullness normally tied to repetitive gameplay. This action game hybrid uses an experience system for improving character proficiencies. As players progress along a hierarchy of upgradeable skills, they develop specialties that shape their role in battle. For example, the Berserker can become a damage-resistant tank, a beefed-up brawler, or an explosives expert. As always, the choice remains up to the user, and there are so many choices to make…

skillsPandora conceals more than just the Vault, many things to distract the fortune seeker as well as the game reviewer. Incorporated with the other RPG elements, quest lines define Borderlands‘ main narrative and side-story progression. Quests range from the commonplace (turning on a town’s power generators) to the heroic (saving the friendly populace from bandits) and the mysterious (uncovering clues about the Vault).

Side-quests, usually retrieved from the planet’s network of bounty boards, exemplify one or two things: Pandora is neither a friendly nor enjoyable place, and the Vault is the only thing worth idolizing on this godforsaken rock. Overall, I find the game contains too many missions that repeat sentiments. Five hours of content could disappear without negatively impacting the story or pacing.

folksThroughout my time playing Borderlands, opportunities piled up before me until I didn’t know what to do with them. At first, they manifested as straightforward choices like picking from the four playable classes. Soon enough, a steady influx of weapons, abilities, and quests diversified my options. The paths I took then furthered my potential but seldom delivered me to a final outcome. Every step forward elongated my stay on Pandora without directly helping me finish Borderlands or reach my review. My in-game decisions, which first appeared beneficial, delayed progress towards the goal I had set, as decisions often do in real life as well.

caveEventually, I beat Borderlands and was ready to review it, but the myriad opportunities available to me soon fragmented my writing. During my play-through, I had thought up many points to include in the review, but finishing Borderlands once proved insufficient to confirm them. I conducted extensive research by replaying the game numerous times. With each replay, I discovered new directions to take with my writing. Budding thoughts grew into content worthy of their own pieces. By the end of my research, I had several full-fledged concepts to write about.

Each article required its own planning, composing, editing…all the effort done many times over yet with no final result because I couldn’t focus on a single project. I saw the scope of my endeavours and began to feel burnt out — investing so much into a fool’s errand like Pandora will do that. After a while, I went catatonic with the review; I stopped playing Borderlands, and I didn’t contribute to my writing for months.

stoopIn the real world, I carried on with my day-to-day activities. In the back of my mind, though, I was stranded on Pandora, slouched on a stoop in some putrid commune just waiting for my ticket off of this place. I was rotting here, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to think outside the box. I knew that, to escape Pandora, I needed to write myself off. So that’s what I did, and that’s what you are reading. The only way for me to leave was by writing about how I was stuck.

titleDespite its outer image showing a destitute planet of dunes and slag, Pandora is practically stuffed to bursting: weapons littering the terrain, enemies spilling out from spawn holes, tasks covering bounty boards, limitless choice and boundless opportunity. Borderlands‘ content emerges from the overabundance on Pandora, but a blend of action gameplay and RPG structure deftly hides most excess from view.

With Borderlands‘ multi-faceted nature, I can focus on whatever aspect is most appealing. When I feel satiated by the bloody combat, I shift to developing my character’s abilities. Once that bores me, I switch to exploring the planet for more quests and then return to the action with newfound opportunities. Every time I change focus, the subject matter differs enough to retain my interest. The guns have randomized stats; the enemies exhibit varied weaknesses; the quests send me to diverse locations around the map. Slight alterations allow me to perceive similar content as fresh experiences. Only when I dwell on a single element for too long do I notice the repetition.

lootIf I fail to look away from a particular angle, Pandora’s bleakness shows itself again. Borderlands‘ combat would get monotonous without the supporting structure of quests and character growth to segment the action. Likewise, its RPG shell would be vacant without gunfights providing the necessary gameplay through which to grind. Borderlands‘ individual components appear simple and bare, but together form a beguiling combination that casts a favourable light from nearly any perspective.

vistaAnd there lies Pandora’s paradox: from so little comes so much thanks to endless amounts of potential. The source of all that potential, though, is false hope. People arrive on Pandora touting dreams of discovering the Vault. While the pursuit is admirable, anyone who strives toward a goal must first come to terms with an important fact: along the way, one will encounter unforeseen delays only resolved through mundane activity. Hope-filled opportunity seekers venturing across Pandora need supplies and safety before they can set out to find the Vault — or to beat a game and write a review.

Inevitably, the hopefuls succumb to Pandora’s wicked charm: turning mundane activities into what appears new and enticing. Once the routine seems enticing, partially-relevant opportunities show up everywhere. No sane person would want to scrounge for food among the garbage heaps of Pandora unless he or she were on the planet that promised treasure of incalculable value. People come for the Vault but stay for every other reason. It’s the only way this place retains a population.

foodSettling into routine can be all too easy even when it means sweating out existence on a planet of dust, guns, and death if only for another crack at a fading, idealized opportunity. Even I, not a vault hunter but a videogame reviewer, became victim to Pandora’s unassuming attractions. With my time spent on this planet, I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of many hopefuls, and I’ve reached a few conclusions.

For various and unpredictable reasons, people’s goals often become unobtainable. Suppose the treasure hunters succeed at finding the Vault. After all the strife they would have endured getting there, the contents could never meet their expectations. The same goes for other motivations; reality can solidify any dream into false hope. At such a point, one must settle on something more feasible. Otherwise, one risks getting trapped in a cycle of misleading opportunities.

vaultI was caught in the same predicament after experiencing Pandora for myself. The review I had planned from the start became impossible to write with my other ideas dragging it down. At the same time, I couldn’t replace my original article with one of my side-projects because that would sacrifice the initial goal for a tangential one. To solve the dilemma, I needed to divert my attention away from the unreachable and falsified opportunities of Pandora and to pursue instead a new motivation that was in itself realistic and of my own volition. By writing this article and escaping Pandora’s clutches, I have achieved that goal.

roadAs I pen these last few lines, I am packing my bags to leave Pandora. Will I ever return? I had so many ideas dug up from this planet that had also dug into me. Nevertheless, I doubt I will write about Borderlands again. There are other videogames to play and other places to explore. Besides, I prefer not to grow any fonder of this diamond in the rough. If I look at it for a second longer, another glint of light, another facet of opportunity, will surely catch my eye. It’s Pandora’s way.

planetplay-time: ~165 hours (eight playthroughs)
score: 7.8

List-ening to Girl Talk’s All Day

On the first of March 2011, the DJ known as Girl Talk performed at the Montreal venue Metropolis. I know this information so readily because I own a ticket to the event. It remains intact, unused since I didn’t bother seeing one of the world’s best mash-up artists at a live show.

I knew a Girl Talk concert would be the tits. Still, I felt I shouldn’t join in. For one, my swag levels are not superior enough to hang with the upper-crust socialites who congregate at a Girl Talk concert. More importantly, I would rather listen to a DJ mix alone and in private than amidst people at a concert.

In the former situation, I have control over my listening experience. I can play the music at the volume and in the order I prefer. Without the risk of shit-faced public humiliation, I can pursue an optimally inebriated state for the musical festivities.

And that’s precisely what I did one night: I smoked a j, drank some brew, listened to Girl Talk’s All Day, then listed out my favourite parts of the mix. Have I transposed public humiliation from the dance floor of Metropolis to a blog post on my website? Yeah, that seems to be the result. Oh well, sometimes you gotta give’r.

All Day contains over 370 samples across its seventy-two minutes. There’s simply too great a selection for a single list, which is why I made two Top Tens: samples and mash-ups. The lists vary considerably in definition and criteria. No song repeats across either list so that I may present a wider view of my musical tastes.

Top Ten Samples in Girl Talk’s All Day

Here I rank the individual songs that made me happiest upon discovering them within the mix. Some entries appear for only a second while others span over a minute. These songs made the cut because they stood out for me against the remaining sonic backdrop.

10. N.W.A. – Express Yourself

I class Express Yourself as excellent granny rap: something to show the older generations who resent rap music. Put on a smile, play this track, and say, “See, Granny? It ain’t all bad.” Pretty hilarious considering the other songs performed by this outfit.
“Sonny, this music is good after all, but what does the group’s name mean?”
“Oh, Granny, it’s an acronym that stands for ‘New World Activism.'”
“How pleasant.”

9. Jackson 5 – I Want You Back

Sure is nice to hear something funky in the spotlight. All Day features other soul samples too, but a Jackson 5 track offers rich opportunities as backing instrumental. Jackson 5 is about the only Motown group I’m familiar with, though I’ve heard a smattering of the label’s roster in the Motown Mix by Madlib, a favourite DJ of mine. That mix comes highly recommended. It’s an amazing musical lesson that spans such notable Motown artists as Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Supremes, Jacksons, Four Tops, Commodores, and others. Yes, I’m trying to sound like a music nerd by mentioning Motown so much.

8. Third Eye Blind – Semi-Charmed Life

Girl Talk uses the intro from this track as a truly sublime drum fill. The split-second sample is difficult to catch unless one is already familiar with the song itself. This track comes from one of the biggest albums of my adolescence. Looking back, I don’t see how it was fit for me to listen to college rock at twelve years old. I used to appropriate emotions and situations from the music that didn’t apply to me at all. At the time, did I have a dead-end relationship or a friend with suicidal tendencies? Fuck no, of course not, I was twelve, but I got to pretend that I did while listening to this music.

7. Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out of my Head

This song gets notable points for being part of my music video boner jamz as a pubescent kid. Maybe that’s where I first found the appeal. Nowadays, the elegant keyboard and synths drive my love for this track. Kid606, another mash-up artist, puts it to superb use, better than Girl Talk. Mind you, he takes six-and-a-half minutes dedicated to retooling the song’s entire structure from rhythm to lyrics—quite a feat while remaining loyal to the source. Kid606 did it up so well that I included his cut in a mix of my own. So that’s three mixes where this song rocks (to varying degrees).

6. Daft Punk – Digital Love

I listened to this track a bunch as a teen. In retrospect, Discovery was an album formative to my musical tastes. I really dug the layered synths and happy melodies, including the auto-tune in the vocals. Daft Punk incorporated that effect better than most who have tried to ride the auto-tune wave. This track enlivens the samples put over it. A mirth bubbles up from the synths that lighten the accompanying sounds.

5. Belinda Carlisle – Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Hearing this reminds me of the time when people were belting out karaoke in a friend’s apartment while I sat high as fuck and glued to a couch in another room. I was just staring forward, hardly cognizant, swimming in my head, when I heard a group of people who I couldn’t immediately identify shouting these lyrics at the top of their lungs. I sat there the whole time not knowing what to do, but you can know for certain that I appreciated the performance. This song makes the list based on sentimental value.

4. Dr. Octagon – Blue Flowers

My jaw hit the floor when I heard this clip. Dr. Octagon definitely inhabits the shadowy side of hip hop, so I was surprised to find him in a Girl Talk mix. Not that I think it’s above Girl Talk (not at all, the guy knows music), but more so because I assumed Girl Talk caters to the popular songs that most people like. Spotting a sample from one of the ultimate underground hip hop albums made my day.

3. Crystal Waters – Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)

Here’s my quintessential house music sound, although my preference for the song likely stems from my inexperience with house music in general. This riff shows up everywhere, so I’m most familiar with it. I really do love this track; the beat doesn’t ever go wrong, and Girl Talk’s selected vocal samples all fit. Layered on top of Gypsy Woman’s slick keyboard synth, they swish around like sweetened cream in my tasty auditory mug.

2. Rihanna – Rude Boy

Yeah, what can I say? I love this. If mass-produced media is becoming more sexualized, this is the way to do it. My absolute favourite sign of the times. I think Girl Talk might have tweaked Rihanna’s vocals to make them even more sensual. Her voice is like velvet gloves caressing my ear canals. Hot stuff, all class.

1. Ghost Town DJ’s – My Boo

Girl Talk salvaged my perception of this song. I initially heard it in a mix by Daedelus, a DJ known for using quirky samples. I loved the track immediately and wanted to learn more about it. Some internet digging helped me find the original artist and title, and a Youtube search after that provided me the music. I was excited to hear the song in full as it was considerably different than how it appeared in the Daedelus mix. Both versions developed my appreciation for the song.

Then, in an obvious error in judgment, I began reading comments on the Youtube page. Most of them expressed nostalgia from people who remembered hearing the song new, but a single comment mentioned it as being the “soundtrack” to a website. My curiosity got the better of me, and I investigated the Web address only to find a bona fide shock site. It’s definitely not the most offensive shock site, but viewing it alongside my new favourite song left me bad associations whenever I listened to the music afterwards.

Neither the Daedelus mix nor the original song could right the negative feelings I associated with My Boo. I maintained this sound aversion for months before listening to All Day. Hearing My Boo sampled by Girl Talk, for everyone to hear, relieved my anxiety. I was proud again to enjoy the music I liked. Girl Talk changed my life. Thanks, Girl Talk.

Top Ten Mash-ups in Girl Talk’s All Day

The mash-ups I list combine two or more samples edited together within the mix. While my favourite samples focus on my familiarity with the songs, my favourite mash-ups contain some tracks I had never heard prior to All Day. I don’t judge a mash-up by how well I know its elements. Instead, I listen for how the samples play off each other and, especially in Girl Talk mixes, how the unexpected combinations surprise me.

10. John Lennon – Imagine + Rich Boy – Drop + UGK – One Day

The first mash-up on my list is the last one of the whole mix, which ends after such high energy with a poignant, meaningful message. Of course I mean UGK’s rapping, but I suppose Imagine contributes to the sentiment as well. I like how the backing “yeahs” from the rap samples agree with Lennon’s closing words.

9. Black Sabbath – War Pigs + Ludacris ft. Mystikal & I-20 – Move Bitch

Coming in right after the final mash-up is the very first one. They both do well to bookend the mix with messages against strife. I’m pretty sure the War Pigs + Move Bitch combination represents a commentary on the World Police military agenda effectuated by the United States. Then again, I was high when I thought up that morsel so it may make no sense at all.

8. Radiohead – Creep + Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Shimmy Shimmy Ya

Mash-ups like this make my mouth water. There’s much disparity between the musical styles involved, yet Ol’ Dirty Bastard croons so naturally over Radiohead’s loser rock, always finding the space between Thom Yorke’s squeals and the swells in music. This pairing exemplifies Girl Talk’s highest standards as a mash-up artist.

7. Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes + Nine Inch Nails – Closer + Foxy Brown – Hot Spot

With three choice samples going at once, this mash-up is tied with #10 for most complex on the list. The final piece of the puzzle here is the gritty drum beat from Closer. Once that gets going, the elements hit a tight groove and work together as one of the best layered moments in the whole mix. Too bad it’s only fifteen seconds long.

6. General Public – Tenderness + Jay-Z ft. Amil & Ja Rule – Can I Get A…

Here’s the quirky, bubbly remixing I expect from Girl Talk, but I would be hard pressed to find another DJ pull it off the same way. The mash-up gets a good vibe going, fusing an underdog rap track with 80s pop song (hear also: T’Pau – Heart and Soul + Skee-Lo – I Wish later in the mix for similar execution).

5. Aphex Twin – Windowlicker + Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em – Pretty Boy Swag

Aphex Twin and Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em!? *cough* Yes. I was all over this before I knew it featured the one and only Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em. After learning the truth, I was a little embarrassed, but I still dug the combination. On top of that misunderstanding, I originally misheard the lyrics as “Pretty Boy Sweat” instead of “Pretty Boy Swag.” I think my brain heard the former as it’s the perfect complement to the irresistible grossness that is Windowlicker. This is seriously what it takes for me to enjoy Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.

4. Derek and the Dominos – Layla + B.o.B. ft. Rich Boy – Haterz Everywhere

Eric fucking Clapton, people. That’s all there is to it. The rap I never heard before this mix. It has an aggressive, cooler-than-you style, but I can dig it. I’m not a musical brain, but I swear there’s some crazy harmonizing at play here. Also, the rap has subtly clever lyrics to pair with Layla. Don’t be a hater, George.

3. Rick Ross – B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast) + Basement Jaxx – Where’s Your Head At?

Wow, this is heavy as FUCK! Quite an uplifting mash-up that combines a positive message with a banging instrumental. Keep your head up, folks. This is probably the best legit remix in All Day. I could see it getting commissioned by the musicans involved if the music industry ever worked that way.

2. Mr. Oizo – Flat Beat + Waka Flocka Flame – Hard in da Paint

Oh, what’s this? A rap and an instrumental that both go hard as fuck? And they mix perfectly together? Dat’s my word. I seriously lose my shit when I hear this mash-up. It’s nearly too bonkers. Funny how Flat Eric goes harder in his office than Flocka ever does in da paint.

1. Miley Cyrus – Party in the U.S.A. + M.O.P. – Ante Up

What might seem like a horrid combo is legitimately the best mash-up from All Day. Girl Talk expertly splits the vocals and instrumental of Ante Up between foreground and background of two different mash-ups, but we’ll focus on just one of them. (Hear also: the split for The Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop as another example of this technique.)

Once Party in the U.S.A. shows up with M.O.P. vocals, the bombs start dropping. YAP! ZAP! There’s real power behind M.O.P.’s lyrical delivery. Girl Talk plays it smart by avoiding the shallow lyrics of Party in the U.S.A., instead using the song strictly for its instrumental. I reluctantly say so, but Party in the U.S.A. wins the award for most obnoxiously pleasing synth sounds. My ears love that shit, and I can’t help myself but to enjoy it. Lastly, when listening to these tracks together, I imagine the members of M.O.P. meeting Miley Cyrus to “gat that fool” and “kidnap that fool” for cash since they’re “nine hundred and ninety-nine thou’ short of a mil.” Excellent stuff right there.

Those are the lists. I’m going to end here before I divulge any more embarrassing information. I hope I didn’t puke anywhere. Peace.

Linking the Past

Continuity within the Legend of Zelda resembles a faulty Rubik’s Cube. Try as one might to find order, glaring contradictions pop up no matter the pieces’ arrangement. The puzzle grows more complex with each subsequent release. How can all sixteen games in the main series fit together? It boggles the mind.

A counter-explanation adopted by certain fans proposes that the Zelda games are separate entities retelling the same iconic legend from varying perspectives. Ardent timeline chronologists swear there exists a linear progression from one game to the next, but my view sits alongside the segmented theory. As such, I’ve had no attachment to playing the games in chronological order. I started with whichever title felt right at the time and continued thereon.

Including this article, I’ve reviewed three Legend of Zelda games: Twilight Princess in 2007, Ocarina of Time in 2008, and A Link to the Past in 2012. Only now, during A Link to the Past‘s twentieth anniversary, have I ventured to beat this hallmark in the franchise. What took me so long?

The question struck me ages ago, long before I visited the Hyrule of Super Nintendo. While searching for an answer, I too became a Zelda chronologist, one delving into a far simpler conundrum than the search for Hyrulian linearity. Instead, I dug through an entirely personal timeline — my own history with the Zelda franchise — to find out whether I should have played A Link to the Past earlier in my life, and whether the delay marks a significant loss to the foundation of my gaming self.

When I was younger, I fantasized about The Legend of Zelda by planning out how to play through its storied history. In my fantasy, I put A Link to the Past first because it seemed like the right introduction to the series. I wasn’t looking for the technological dawn of Zelda or the rumored point of origin. Simply put, I wanted to start with the game that would get me to love The Legend of Zelda.

In 2006, I abandoned any premeditated order to my timeline when I received a Wii console for Christmas. With it came the launch title The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. As the first Zelda game I officially owned, it would be the first one I officially played. That much justified the start of my timeline.

Ocarina of Time came next, and with it my highest expectations for any game. I frequently heard praise for Ocarina of Time, some people calling it the best game ever. Of course, I was intrigued to play the so-called best. I should have taken the proclamations with a grain of salt, though, because they seriously affected my interaction with the game.

For me, Ocarina of Time fell drastically short when utter frustration ruined my first playthrough. Inevitably, I reached a point where I couldn’t progress. After trying what I thought was every possibility, I sought an FAQ. The walk-through provided a solution to my impasse, but the answer was so simple that I felt embarrassed for not arriving there myself. By reading the guide, I had betrayed my gaming ability for no reason but petty annoyance and impatience. This fall from grace plagued my mind; I couldn’t think about Ocarina of Time without shame.

I waited four years before moving on to the next chapter in my Zelda timeline. Finally settling on A Link to the Past, I tried keeping my hopes in check after they were dashed by Ocarina of Time. Even so, I was excited to play the game I had wanted to be my first. Upon my initial boot of A Link to the Past, I watched the opening cut-scene three times in a row…with respect to the Triforce pieces of Courage, Power, and Wisdom, naturally.

A Link to the Past continues the Zelda tradition of real-time adventure. Once again, I found the genre difficult to grasp. The game often served me grueling stretches of exasperation followed by moments of pure joy. In one instance, I spent hours combing the Light and Dark Worlds, searching for a spell needed to open the next dungeon. I wandered everywhere…except Death Mountain. Of all the places in Hyrule, I felt least comfortable there, darting between the boulders that constantly fell. In a last ditch effort, I braced myself to navigate the perilous mountain.

Lo and behold, my objective was located in the last place I looked on Death Mountain. When at last I saw the monument containing my much-needed spell, I felt as though I had reached the promised land. The elation that surged through me for that discovery was unmatched during the rest of my playthrough.

At other points along my quest, I amazed myself by how quickly I parsed the given clues to arrive at a solution — like associating the correct tool from my inventory with an object in the environment, or learning an enemy’s weak point and developing a strategy against it. Almost instinctively, I could follow the exact sequence of tasks in a dungeon from point A, to B, to C, to the nefarious boss. The ease and ingenuity that can, at times, come from progressing through A Link to the Past is a testament to its design.

Nevertheless, A Link to the Past contains apparent errors in user guidance. Take for example the quest involving Flute Boy, an NPC who tells you to dig up the flute he buried. The text box saying where to dig appears only once. While accepting the quest, I skipped over the flute’s location too quickly to read. I had no idea where to dig. Luckily, I didn’t overwrite my save after talking to Flute Boy, so I was able to reload my file and see the text again. Otherwise, I would have entered a dreaded needle-in-haystack scenario. My only options would have been to dig in all conceivable locations, to look up an FAQ, or to restart from the very beginning. Surely, that is not proper user guidance.

What could my Zelda history have been if A Link to the Past was at the beginning? I would have likely played a game released in 1992 earlier than 2006 when my actual timeline began. In doing so, I would have gotten more time to experience and enjoy such a quality title. Then again, I would have been much younger and perhaps not yet suited to Zelda puzzles. As evidenced by Ocarina of Time, I wasn’t yet ready for them in 2008. My favourite part of A Link to the Past was solving the puzzles using my wits and determination alone. I couldn’t sacrifice that feeling of accomplishment just to have played the game sooner.

With A Link to the Past now officially the third game in my Zelda timeline, I’m quite content with its placement, and I feel no remorse for waiting so long. A Link to the Past provided me the perfect roller coaster of a difficulty curve. The ups, downs, frustrations, and revelations made for an exhilarating first playthrough.

I aspire to build upon my Zelda history in a way that makes sense to me. Thanks to A Link to the Past, I have gained the added resolve from this point on to beat each Zelda game I play without using a guide. Now that’s a genuine first, regardless of its belated position within my timeline.

Playtime: ~42 hours (two playthroughs)
Rating: 8.8

Occupational Hazard

Or, Occupation au Hasard

It’s the dawn of November 12th, and Occupy Montreal has been going for almost one month now. The rough, east coast winter is licking its chops and getting ready for fall to let it off the leash. You might not feel the bite on your cheeks just yet, but there’s a distinct chill that rattles your spine, reminding you of the cold season ahead.

Take a walk through the Montreal camp and you’ll be left wondering what exactly they’re protesting. There are feminists, anti-corruption crusaders, hardcore environmentalists, weekend anarchists who think owning a Guy Fawkes mask and a pup tent makes them Heroes of the Underground, philosophy majors desperately trying to recreate the spirit of the 60’s, anti-capitalist hippies, McGill and UQAM students upset about tuition fees, veteran activists scuttling about trying to organize discussion panels, and, as a more recent development, the city’s homeless who came running when they heard there was free grub to be had.

Despite this menagerie, the camp is surprisingly well maintained. A cursory glance at the schedule reveals that regular cleaning and maintenance is pretty much enforced; that’s one of the reasons why the city hasn’t tried disbanding the camp. Occupy Montreal organizers know very well that they have to watch their collective asses. Warnings about safety and cleanliness are posted everywhere.

It doesn’t hurt that several local businesses are lending a hand. A nearby café shares its wi-fi connection with the camp, a boon for spreading the (mixed) message and coordinating with other Occupy chapters. Food donations come from restaurants and independent citizens alike; people respond well to the vague populist agenda. “It’s great because we’re getting people that aren’t directly involved that heard about us, and they recognize there are problems we all need to look at,” says Richard Tessier, a second-year Med student at McGill.

Keeping the camp in peace and order has really helped. The last thing OM organizers want is for the municipal government to follow in the footsteps of other Canadian cities pressuring the Great Unwashed from their public parks. Police in London, Ontario took a hands-on approach to the problem by simply disassembling the camp and standing around ominously in riot gear until the dismayed crowd dispersed.

The mood at camp OM seems tepid. It’s as though they’re just now asking themselves what the fuck they’re doing, a month after they started. They’ve settled into a routine of wake up anywhere from ten in the morning to one in the afternoon, swing by the kitchen tent for some soup or an apple, back to the tents for chatting amongst themselves, back for more food, then maybe take in a free concert from a third-rate local folk singer riding on the patchy coattails of this global initiative, or perhaps attend the screening of a movie related to the cause, then back to the tents. Watch out, Wall Street Fat Cats.

Sensing a general void where the purpose should be, OM organizers have begun scheduling discussion panels in the hope of reaching a direction and lending their group some much-needed credibility. It remains to be seen whether that will happen.

One thing all 99% protesters seem to agree on is that, financially, the deck is stacked against them. Government, Big Business, and Banks (the three-headed dog that’s tearing society apart) set forth policies that make the future appear bleak at best for the common person. The protesters believe that it’s time to eliminate the ways of the past and pave the way for a new, glorious future. Such romanticism is needed to sustain this camping trip in the months ahead.

OM pitched its tents in Victoria Square, the closest place Montreal has to a Wall Street. “It’s perfect,” says occupant Leo Druzzi, sipping tea from a plastic cup, pointing at each surrounding building in turn. “We’ve got the World Commerce Center, the CIBC, the National Bank, the TD, and even Québecor Media! This is the scene of the crime.” The crime, apparently, being the trading of stocks, the managing of people’s personal income, and the broadcasting of television programs such as Elvis Gratton: Ma Vie My Life and Des Kiwis et des Hommes.

That’s OM’s strategy: fling rhetoric at the wall until something sticks, and, in the event that something does stick, repeat it ad nauseum until the words lose all meaning. Such meaningless rhetoric includes the “We Are the 99%” tagline. This PR gem was cooked up in New York because of Wall Street’s admittedly shady tactics. The movement purports that, with the vast majority of wealth and opportunities resting on a select few who have made it their life’s work to accrue vast amounts of money, the society we live in is therefore skewed in favour of the richest 1%.

And so, the protesters took it upon themselves to speak for 99% of the population. Sounds like a good backing. I mean, who’s going to cross someone who speaks for 99% of us? Of course, if you look at the number of people attending the Occupy rallies and living at the camps, you’d get a figure that looks more like .0099%. The truth is, while a decent chunk of the global populace agrees today’s world is a little messed up, that chunk would rather earn a raise or save up for a new car than start a revolution.

In Montreal, the 99% revolutionaries are looking for specific ideas and plans to implement. “We’re hoping to use this amazing energy we’ve been cultivating and help create some lasting changes,” says Anne Pellerin, a philosophy student at Concordia. “This is happening all around the world. No one can deny that a lot of people identify with us.”

Fair enough, but for every reasonable response like that one, there’s two or three guys that go on for ten minutes about the Illuminati, or how the National Bank logo looks sort of like a swastika if you fold it like so, or how all the world’s monarchs are shapeshifting, reptilian extraterrestrials that have been the secret chiefs of the Earth since time immemorial.

One phrase I heard and saw a lot of was “We want a piece of the pie.” On one hand, they’re sending the message that we must make huge changes to the way the global markets and governments operate, Viva la Revolución and all that, but why are they asking for these things? For justice? For equality? Or is it that they simply want to have more disposable income to go out and buy the latest iDevice and/or their favourite narcotic? Without working for it, of course. If these protesters, who are mostly younger people in their twenties, went out and worked, they might actually get to enjoy a piece of the proverbial pie.

Better still, if they focused on education rather than protesting, they might be able to get a bigger piece of the pie, afford newer iDevices and better narcotics, and even reach a position to create some lasting changes in society. We’ll have to wait and see how many changes OM can create by squatting in a public park and knitting colourful blankets to wrap around street-lights while hiding their resentment and disgust for the homeless who have infiltrated their ranks.

The early morning chill of November 12th gave way to clammy, rainy dampness in the afternoon, and the protesters of Occupy Montreal started shuffling around, setting about tasks for themselves, and maintaining their little slice of delusion on some prime downtown real estate. Their second month is rolling around. Even if the city does nothing to pressure them out, how long will they have the resources to keep this up?

As I asked myself this question, I looked up at the CIBC building. There, on the third floor, I could see two guys in suits approach the window overlooking Victoria Square. They appeared to be laughing, sharing a little joke, presumably at the expense of these misguided protesters. Only for a moment, though, before going back to their desks to tear apart the fabric of society and rob us of our humanity.

By Adam Roussel

The Trial of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist


Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist is not intended for people with photosensitive epilepsy. This article, however, is intended for everyone.

“All rise for The Honourable Judge Stuart Matheson. Case 111624: Randy Balma vs. the Municipality.”
“Please be seated. Let’s begin.”
“Mr. Balma, what do you have to say for yourself?”

* * *

Hey, you ever hear of a guy named Randy Balma? He’s sorta famous around these parts — the talk of the town. A trial is taking place right now concerning Mr. Balma. Personally, I’m not interested in what the legal process sees in a man. I’m more curious to know who this guy really is, and what I think of him.

Searching for clues on the internet, I found a videogame developer by the monicker Messhof, real name Mark Essen, creator of Nidhogg, Flywrench, Punishment, and one titled Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. I figured that Messhof, at some point in time, had ties to Mr. Balma. At least, he knew the guy well enough to include him in the title of a videogame.

I hoped that Messhof could provide me with genuine information on the man of the hour. I emailed Mr. Essen asking for an interview, but he never replied. I felt as though he purposely withheld information, as though there was something that needed to be kept secret.

Questions about Mr. Balma still burned in my head. To learn whatever else I could about Randy, I decided to explore Messhof’s game for myself.

Opening Comments

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist conveys its meaning through abstract imagery. I include extensive screenshots with the following descriptions, but these accounts pale to the game in motion. So please, download this game (it’s free) and play it. If you cannot, then take in the following as though you were investigating the mystery of Randy Balma for yourself.

Booting the game shows a loading icon of white text and a baby’s hand followed by the title screen/tutorial page prominently indicating the deceptively simple controls. Overall, the title screen presents a bleak and foreboding entry point to the game, like the unlabelled VHS tape to some unknown horror film.

The opening cutscene pictures a disgruntled man with yellow skin, red lips, and burning eyes locked in an empty stare. The words “i feel like i been awake before but i can’t be sure and i’m drugged up on drugs and i think they are affecting me” scroll across the screen in red letters. A pulsing gray circle opens up between the man’s eyes, expanding to fill the entire screen. The enveloping grayness transitions to the first playable section.

Exhibit A – Stage 1

Stage 1 is most easily described as the “bus on freeway” scene. The user controls a yellow vehicle reminiscent of a children’s school bus. The user must drive the bus down a lengthy road while navigating an obstacle course of red cars.

Hitting a guardrail or an errant car triggers a cymbal or drum sound, which adds comicality to the dangerous driving. Rimshots play out after the implied joke of bumping into things. Pileups perform cacophonous percussion arrangements.

Despite the constant threat of car crash, safety isn’t a primary concern while barrelling down this freeway. The frantic cars cannot damage the bus, but they will likely knock it off course. Impact with a car shoves the bus around in wild swings.

To make matters worse, the controls switch direction at random intervals. Pressing the left arrow key may turn the bus right and vice versa. This faultiness in steering contributes to the destruction ultimately caused by the user. It’s difficult to finish the level without moments of pure carnage.

Oddly, huge wrecks look appealing instead of gruesome. Explosions billow rainbows of colourful smoke, which morph into pixelated smudges that obscure the freeway and lead to more crashes. Stage 1 successfully combines vehicular mayhem with comedic sound effects and delightful colours to produce an uncomfortable mood that is tough to ignore.

The bus eventually reaches its final destination: a stopped gas tanker intersecting the entire road. Ramming into the tanker cues another crash of sound. Rainbow smoke spews from the collision and covers the entire screen. The game then loads an introduction to the second level.

This cutscene shows open sky with clumps of land in the distance. A shimmering beam of light shoots up, and a red projectile erupts from the multicoloured terrain. It climbs the screen and ascends into the atmosphere.

Exhibit B – Stage 2

Stage 2 commences, providing a better look at the unidentified flying object. Up close and without the burning redness, the projectile is clearly a clock tower flying through the air. Archaic satellites litter the sky as the clock tower’s prey. Hitting a satellite breaks a piece off the flying tower and destroys the target, causing more raucous drums and colourful explosions.

The control in this level once again disadvantages the user. The clock-rocket accelerates quickly and turns with extreme sensitivity, making it easy to spin out instead of executing a gradual turn. In addition, the rocket expels a thick, smokey exhaust that challenges the user to make heads or tails of the situation.

Destroying all the satellites requires careful turning and a clear understanding of the gravity present. Without any more targets, the clock tower is free to soar up to the highest point in the level. Flying off-screen proceeds to the third stage.

Exhibit C – Stage 3

In Stage 3, the player is a small, yellow spacesuit who floats within a circular arena. The arena itself appears to be a complex, layered clock found in space. Various orbs inhabit the clock along with the yellow spacesuit. The larger orbs come in different sizes and depict baby faces, while the smaller, more elusive ones pulse bright colours. The coloured orbs are the targets of this level. Arrows point out their locations at all times.

The spacesuit looks quite helpless while propelling through space. The intrepid suit can swim around the emptiness, sometimes latching onto orbs that block its trajectory. Navigating the space-clock can be tricky because invisible currents pull the player towards the outer rim. When trapped in a current, the suit’s swimming stroke becomes ineffective at best.

Successfully landing and pushing off from a coloured orb pops it and cues an incessant beeping added to the level’s ambience. The sound intensifies by breaking a second orb, and it doesn’t stop until the player eliminates the third. When all three coloured orbs are popped, the whole space-clock collapses, sending the yellow suit, the remaining baby orbs, and huge multicoloured explosions drifting out to space. This solemn scene lingers for a while before cutting to the fourth stage.

Stage 4…I had a difficult time deciding whether to include Stage 4 in my article. At first, I felt it had to be experienced on one’s own. I wanted to omit it entirely so that people would play the game to find out, but I knew of two groups who would never get to see this level first-hand.

The first group includes those with health problems. Stage 4 is the real reason an epilepsy warning sits atop this article. I think most of the game is safe to play for the photosensitive, though Stage 4 uses a constant strobe light effect and should not be attempted by those at risk.

The second group includes those who simply do not care to play. Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist might be too shocking or weird for some to experience in person. I hope that is not the case.

Not wanting anyone to miss out on the fun, I will now divulge the contents of Stage 4. Here it is:

Exhibit D – Stage 4

I like to call Stage 4 “The Creature”—a strange octopus composed of baby parts. Its main body is a large baby head. Dozens of mouths link together forming eight tentacles with hands at their tips. The Creature is the playable character of the level, situated in an environment that looks to be nothing more than rapidly flashing lights.

Stage 4 no longer implements the directional arrows that previously pointed out objectives. Instead, the user must look into the eyes of The Creature for guidance; its irises gaze in the direction of its nearest target. Amid the strobe lights, The Creature hunts down more baby orbs from Stage 3.

Annihilating all the remaining baby orbs causes The Creature to rest momentarily before bursting in the game’s final explosion. The title appears on screen, and fragmented black lines spurt from The Creature’s resting place. So ends a playthrough of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.

Closing Comments

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist incites emotion from any manner of appreciation. The title alone is provocative. Randy Balma is a unique and eye-catching name in itself, but the second half makes for a whole other beast. The term “Municipal Abortionist” is an interesting one. Abortion is a heated topic in society, so mentioning it is bound to rile some people. What takes the cake, though, is the word municipal before Mr. Balma’s trade. Adding the thought of a municipality, a very local area, makes the title far more personal than if it were “Randy Balma: Abortionist.” Randy is municipal. He’s in your area.

The game excels due to its narrative or lack thereof, depending on one’s point of view. Going from one playable stage to the next may give the user a sense of progression, but nothing directly indicates that the levels are connected as part of a complete story. The user is the one who must connect the dots, who must string together cutscenes and levels to perceive them as a single thing. The gameplay in each level is disparate from the next, and the cutscenes are nearly incomprehensible, yet together they feel cohesive as they develop the themes and atmosphere of the game as a whole.

Among its themes, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist toys with concepts of control. The first three stages have elements that hinder the user by obscuring the field of view or by supplying improper movement. Such methods of disorientation make the user feel less capable of controlling the player, and they depict a mix of confusion, inebriation, and powerlessness within the main character. Supposing this game does relate to Randy Balma, how can we criticize his actions if we are not fully in control either?

In truth, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this game really is about Randy Balma. Labelling the bus, the rocket, the spacesuit, or the Creature as Mr. Balma would be a stretch. All gameplay characters are reduced beyond a single human entity. So where is Randy?

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist assaults the senses. Presented so abstractly, its supreme bizarreness leaves the user questioning what they see. The game communicates through feelings and moods, not necessarily by the direct visual representations on screen. Its discordant elements unite to express not an idea but an elaborate, perhaps frightening, concept: the concept that is Randy Balma. And Randy isn’t out to prove a point; he means to make you feel a certain way.

The verdict? Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist does good work. I respect its angle, you might say.

* * *

“The case is dismissed. All current charges are laid to rest.”
“You’re free to go, Mr. Balma.”

Play-time: ~10 minutes (single playthrough)
Rating: 9.7