Bioshock Infinite: can it really be called a “living, breathing world”?
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Critical Distance: This week in videogame blogging #1

Are we about to enter an “age of games”?

Critical Distance is proud to bring to the New Statesman a new weekly digest of its popular This Week in Videogame Blogging feature, which promotes the best, often little-known, incisive criticism and cultural commentary on interactive media. This week, we discuss the “ludocentricism” of games discourse and Ian Bogost tackles the idea that we are entering the “age of games”.

First up: a diverse body of games critics and scholars came together over Twitter to discuss the domination of play in critical discourses on games. Lulu Blue further elaborates on the interplay between play and context as the most crucial point of focus:

Much like a face drawn from lines, game systems carry assumptions made by their creators. If a man sets out to draw a woman and he idealizes a certain beauty standard, he's likely to draw women which conform to this beauty standard. If the same man sets out to make an RPG, he's likely to fabricate a world which systematically expresses these ideas about women as well.”

Elsewhere, Daniel Parker offers his own take, suggesting that compromising narrative to offer an illusion of play cheapens a game:

Games that employ post-cutscene design ideology tend to be marketed as ‘immersive experiences’ with ‘living, breathing worlds’. Bioshock Infinite is not a living, breathing world; it is a flashy museum with freaky animatronics.”

At Sufficiently Human, our own Lana Polansky writes that game design is too wrapped up in the fantasy of wealth accumulation to actually communicate anything meaningful. According to Polansky, the time may be to look outside of big-budget commercial games for a meaningful conversation.

At Kill Screen, Ray Graham explores depictions of torture in light of exposed CIA documents and wonders how culpable games are in the widely held (but misinformed) belief that torture is an effective method of gathering information.

Media philosopher Ian Bogost ended 2014 skeptical of Eric Zimmerman's “ludic century”, suggesting that instead of dominating our culture, maybe games should just be a small part of our ever complicating lives:

We don't have to scorn games (or comics, or YA fiction) to feel a little embarrassed at the prospect of a century with them at the center of the media ecosystem. And on the flip side, we don't have to discard games (or comics, or YA fiction) to scratch our heads at the wisdom of feeling satisfied by them.”

Lastly, some further reading for the week. The latest issue of Zoya Street’s game e-zine Memory Insufficient has hit the shelves, tackling alternative and speculative histories of games. The newest StoryBundle compiles ten great ebooks ranging from veteran games journalist Leigh Alexander’s Clipping Through to deep dive analyses of Jagged Alliance 2 and Super Mario Bros. 2. Finally, renowned interactive fiction author Emily Short has compiled a massive list of IF competitions, anthologies and shows for your perusal.

There is much more available in this week’s full roundup at Critical Distance! Tune in again next week and be sure to follow us on Twitter @critdistance for all the latest and greatest games writing from around the web.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State