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  • Games I Like: No Man’s Sky

    2016 - 09.20

    My third ship in No Man's Sky, the Green Meanie

    I like No Man’s Sky. That’s right, I said it. I’ll go a step further too: I like No Man’s Sky right now, one month after the PC release. This is not a popular viewpoint so let’s unpack it.

    Expectations can make or break the perception of music, movies, or videogames. From the very start this game had colossal expectations placed upon it, and I think that’s reason #1 behind the largely negative perception of the game right now. As documented previously I definitely rode the hype train hard on this title, but having put in well above 70 hours over the last month, right now I’m feeling like I actually got what I came for.  (Note that all screenshots in this post are captures that I took during my playthrough.  All were taken in 4k resolution although some are cropped; click to view them full size)

    red mountains and blue seas in No Man's Sky

    Solar eclipse (and moon!) over distant mountains in No Man's SkyReason #2 behind the negative perception of the game is that there’s a lot of things which were shown in trailers and talked about by the developers that were simply not in the game at all. You could call that a lot of different words. Mine would be strange and disappointing. Disingenuous might be another. But before we get too bogged down in the name-calling which inevitably results from dwelling on this for long, let me just back way, way up, and look at this whole thing from a top-level, macro perspective:

    No Man’s Sky has delivered a universe-sized universe and it’s magnificent. The thing I want to focus on more than anything else is the aesthetic, because that’s what drew me in long ago when I first heard about the game, and that’s what held my interest when lots of other space games started coming out but I refused to play them, intentionally waiting and keeping my outlook fresh. The look and the feel of No Man’s Sky is what keeps me playing now and it’s what blew me away when I picked up the mouse and keyboard for the first time. None of the other space games that compete in this same genre have this stunning artistic style to them. Right off the bat when you start playing the game it’s magical. Most players agree with that. And importantly, in regard to the overall aesthetic, the final game we have now is exactly what was shown in the trailers.

    Sunset on some ruins in a lush jungle world in No Man's Sky

    One of my favorite friendly dinosaurs I've encountered in No Man's SkySo my individual perception is admittedly slanted. One, it was mainly the look, the feel, the style I saw in the trailers that I wanted to get, and I got that. And two, I haven’t been playing other space games or really that many games in general. Witcher 3 was the only other game I’ve been putting serious time into during 2016. Ironically the contrast could hardly be stronger between these two games. Witcher is story-driven with huge set-pieces, has a lengthy list of characters, and is hand-crafted in practically all aspects. On the other end of the spectrum No Man’s Sky has only two reoccurring characters and turns you loose in a randomly generated universe that essentially has no objective at all! Sure, there are things you can do, but really when you boil it down, those objectives are not what you’re playing this game for. (“Wait a minute… we’re not playing the game to try to beat the objectives…???”) And that right there is what I think totally throws 95% of people off about this game!!

    I’m going to come back to that idea in a minute but first let me say this: I do think the main criticism being leveled at the game (boredom) would be there no matter what. If they added randomly generated fetch quests for NPCs, if they made the overall upgrade grind thirty times longer and more complex than it is now, if they made the periodic table eight times bigger, if they populated space with twenty times more bounties/battles/traders/cruisers—if they did all that and more, people will always get bored at some point.

    The "Wild Spineyback" forages in the dense tall forests of Big Things 50% modded No Man's Sky

    Just another amazing vista in No Man's SkyLook at a game like Skyrim. It’s packed to the gills with scripted quests, books to read, skill trees to expand, or just broadly speaking, stuff to do that some other human being took hours and hours to create for you. And still people say they’re bored with Skyrim because they exhausted all that or did enough of it that they felt the underlying repetition even though new tasks remained. So people start a new character and “roleplay” within the world of Skyrim, imagining boundaries of what their character will or won’t do, what their personal goals might be, and charting their own specific path through the world. In my own playing, this mentality is how I’ve had the most fun in No Man’s Sky.

    I would say this Skyrim roleplaying behavior, especially when taken to the extreme, is somewhat of an anomaly in the entertainment medium of videogames. Almost always, a game is telling you where to go and what to do. Sure you have choices and probably many other diversions but these ten quests and these five ways to build your character, these are what you’re supposed to be doing. Games constantly remind us, condition us to expect this framework. Broadly speaking, “task-completion” and “character-building” are the very foundation of practically all video games. And we expect that games will acknowledge this progression with a constant stream of trophies and points and pats on the back. This is the nearly universal “gaming mindset”. I do activities x, y, or z and the game tells me good job. Sitting on the couch and inventing some other activity for yourself that’s not an actual part of the game’s checklist—that’s not a normal game-playing behavior.

    For instance, visiting the inn and staying five nights there, talking to every NPC and inventing lines of dialogue or jokes that your own character may have said to each of them, that’s not something Skyrim tells you to do. Sure, you can do it, but the game doesn’t interact back with you when you do that. It doesn’t give you an achievement, it doesn’t unlock any new items, and moreover the game isn’t even aware that’s what you were doing. But those kinds of behaviors are what keep Skyrim fresh to many players out there, the kinds of activities that demand input from the players own imagination and a willingness to accept there will be no positive reinforcement for playing that way.

    Nothing like the feeling of blasting through space and landing on an unknown planet in No Man's Sky

    No Man’s Sky is a roleplayers game straight out of the gate. In this game it’s the opposite of what we normally expect. All main quests are all optional. Developing your character is optional. Both of these things, things which are usually the pillars on which nearly every game stands, are only excuses to drive the true “goal” in No Man’s Sky, which is simply wandering and finding something you personally think is weird, cool, or beautiful.

    The game doesn’t acknowledge when you succeed at that. There’s no points rewarded for seeing something cool. And I kind of love that. It’s true to life and it’s true to great art as well. When Wee Bay throws the soda can in The Wire, there’s no musical cue or camera zoom to blatantly telegraph “hey pay attention to this, this was the special moment that’s more important than all those other inconsequential moments! We’re going to bludgeon you in the face with obviousness right here because otherwise we’re afraid you might be too dumb to follow along!” When you succeed in real life it’s often just quiet moments in solitude where you did something right, possibly not realizing how important it was until later. And when you succeed at finding something really neat in NMS, there’s not much, if any, reward built into that from a game mechanics or player feedback standpoint. Seeing something cool IS the reward.

    The Majestic "Struttin Werewulf" in his natural habitat in No Man's Sky

    Chock full of life and giant green sunflowers on this arid planet in No Man's SkyAnd the universe is huge. So huge. It’s so indescribably huge. And you’re so tiny and mostly alone. The universe does not care at all about what insignificant resources you’re trying to scrap together to fix some broken thing you’re stuck on today. To the universe it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail in your small little goals, and when you succeed and raise your hands to the sky in triumph there’s just silence. You have to find your own meaning in things. You have to decide what matters to you personally and set your own goals. Then find your own motivation for completing them, and develop the ability to enjoy the good moments when they happen. The cosmos simply will not spell everything out for you. All that’s true to life.

    To me, the point of No Man’s Sky is to find beauty or majesty and capture that. With a screenshot or with your eye or with your sense of wonder. That’s my goal when I play. It’s an exquisite universe full of things worth seeing, no other game looks quite like it, and whatever you see is uniquely yours. Sure lots of other people will see very similar things but never ever will someone see precisely what you saw, in the context you saw it. It’s impossible! And that, like life, is what makes it special and worth experiencing.

    The No Man's Sky spaceship design aesthetic is just off the charts

    MASSIVE dogfights in modded No Man's Sky! 171 fighters in this battle!

    Would it be a better game if it had rogue planets in deep space, working portals, orbital mechanics, desert planets, binary stars, and all that other stuff people are clamoring for? Hell yeah it would be! But would those things change the overall feeling I get while playing, or drastically alter the moment-to-moment of what I’m doing in the game? Well, no, probably not. They’d expand the replay and immersion yes, but their absence doesn’t kill the feeling I have when I crest a ridge and see a forest of blue trees with dragon-like creatures flying above the canopy. Whoa. It’s that feeling that we’re here for to begin with. And I think it’s amazing how many people have glossed over this. We all want more replay, yes, but stop and appreciate this feeling that’s being created right now, as-is. It’s fantastic.

    At this moment in time the fan community is enraged, fixated on what’s absent rather than what exists. I understand the reasons why and I even agree with those reasons but obsessing over a hypothetical future and ignoring the present moment is the life-trap that Buddhists struggle to overcome. The present moment is sublime, if you can pause and truly see it. It’s like what astronaut Edgar Mitchell said about how our political squabbles seem so trite when you view the universe from a bigger lens, and how he wanted to take the political squabblers, “by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’” Look at it! The grandeur of the cosmos. Every time I hear some infant crying about lies or refunds or after 60 hours why they’ve given up on the game and it was only worth $20 I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck, show them the incredible screenshots and the wonder I have felt on my journey and tell them Look At That You Son Of A Bitch! They built a whole universe for you–a good one–and all you do is complain. It’s possibly the coolest-looking Sci-Fi random world generator ever made. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction, “What we saw was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge that!!”

    Spaceship #2, my favorite so far, "The Creamsicle" in No Man's Sky

    Starry skies on a "dark-space" system in No Man's SkyIt’s human nature to want more and to constantly be thinking of ways to make things better. It’s a strength that drives improvement but also need to be balanced against the knowledge that these tendencies are also handicaps that prevent us from enjoying what IS. By this point I’ve easily read 20 peoples different lists of what they wish MNS had in it or ways it could be better or features that they are hoping for. And I could make my own but I’m resisting that urge because let’s face it, Hello Games is 15 people, this is an indie game, and there will always be another list of “ten great features that could save No Man’s Sky”. Forget all that.

    So back to what I was talking about with expectations and the “gaming mindset”. People expect a firm list of goals, a questline, and a character expansion tree all of which will score points which are the end-all-be-all of playing every game ever. Before the game came out everyone kept asking the question “but what do you do in No Man’s Sky?” Many times the creators answered that question it was followed with the statement “Or you could NOT do that”, the subtext of which was that those proposed activities were not the real point of the game. Which turned out to be the underlying truth I think. The point is to be in the universe and to see it. To enjoy that.

    No Man’s Sky is sort of like the videogame equivalent of the movie Koyaanisqatsi; an ambitious, beautiful art piece that ditches all the usual tropes that bring people in.  No real dialogue, no real plot, no characters, none of that stuff.  It’s all up to you to find something for yourself within it.  Can a film be considered a great film if it’s purely incredible photography and practically nothing else?  Absolutely it can.  But if you walked into the theater to see Koyaanisqatsi and you were expecting a rom com instead, you’d almost surely hate it.  One it’s expectations and two, I think to even appreciate a film like Koyaanisqatsi you sort of have to know a little bit about what it’s trying to do and maybe even have someone else explain what you’re supposed to be getting out of it first.

    Dinosaurs surround my ship on a toxic mushroom world in No Man's Sky

    The underwater scenes in No Man's Sky can be quite striking tooPersonally, I predict that this game will be seen as a landmark title once the dust has settled and the years have passed. Right now there’s a ton of confusion over what it actually is, and that’s muddying the water. I think it’s going to be a lot like Mirror’s Edge. When that game came out it got lots of bad reviews in the game journalism world and negative attention in general, centered around how the combat was awful. But this was an intentional choice by the designers! In most games containing combat you’re supposed to do that, but in Mirror’s Edge combat is the quicksand that drags you down, something to be avoided unless it’s a last resort. So people took a long time to wrap their heads around that! People hated on it and hated on it until enough time went by that the haters just moved on to something else and the voices singing its praise won out. Maybe it’s a niche audience, maybe it was never meant to be grouped in with so many other AAA titles out there, maybe it’s just a little different and you need to go in expecting that to properly enjoy it… Sound familiar?

    Me, I’ve been loving my time in the Euclid Galaxy. I’ve seen more badass, sleek looking spaceships than I can remember, more strange dinosaurs, creepy insects, and peaceful forest animals than I can think of names for. The plant life is often times cooler than the animal life: vast meadows that flow in the breeze, space cacti, weird neon things that grow on toxic planets, giant 200 foot tall mushrooms, and all manner of trees from familiar to exotic. Then there’s the stuff that strikes you as you look around: the huge planet that hangs in the sky when you’ve landed on a moon, the sunset over a sea filled with schools of what look like banana-peels, the two spaceships which sail overhead as you walk out of a bioluminescence-filled cave, the feeling of sudden alarm as you jetpack over a deep ravine you didn’t realize was there. The visuals of No Man’s Sky are spectacular, end of story, full-stop.

    That feeling of safety inside a cave, and the cool view when you step outside it in No Man's Sky

    The wonder is real, and the Red-Dead-esque moments of captivation at the vistas are there. But if you’re pillaging through without slowing down to look around and smile at these little bits as you go along, too obsessed with 48 slots, too possessed by the grind, too hung up on all those video-gamey mechanics that prevent you from actually seeing what’s right in front of your face–you’re gonna miss the magic. That’s a fact, jack. First and foremost No Man’s Sky is a world generator, second an arcade-style space shooter, third a survival game, and lastly a resource-management trader/crafter/upgrader game. Sure, each of those categories could be more fleshed-out with deeper choices and consequences, but as it is today, it hasn’t stopped me from having fun.

    I just might be part of some specially-geared sub-set of players who always relished the exploration more than the explosions in GTA, or in the minority who felt “the map” was the true main character in so many plot-driven open-world adventures (yes, even Red Dead), but c’mon, the firehose of gorgeous scenery this game engine is delivering cannot be denied and that’s not nothing. If Hello Games can put their resources into polishing what’s here and expanding the busywork for players in this universe over the next year, I think history will still be kind to this intergalactic trip through endless book-cover scenes.

    On a verdant planet, goodbye from No Man's Sky

    Everything Matters

    2016 - 09.16

    A rousing bout of discussion among friends prompted me to search out a drawing I’d seen on the web sometime back concerning the “sad state of modern recording”. Basically it’s mocking the signal chain of recording artist to listener and I’ve created (ironically?) a more high fidelity version of this graphic for your enjoyment here:

    Modern Recording

    What is this saying from a musician’s perspective?  I guess that ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide what time/research/money they want to invest into music.  If a listener wants to be low-effort, they are free to do that although it really doesn’t demand that much money to get decently-good sound.  The image is mostly just for laughs but it does implicitly say something philosophical about the effort that recording engineers put into their craft of capturing something in exquisite quality.  I mean people don’t go tremendously out of their way to acquire just the right tools without knowing they’ll be rewarded for using them.  There is absolutely a major implication in the ingredients you choose when making food.  And a colossal difference between a carefully grilled steak versus McDonald’s.

    What touched all this off was the recent news that the iPhone 7 will have no headphone jack. I reacted to this news with laughter because it seemed so farcical, like a running joke that never stopped being funny for so long that it actually took wind and became a twisted reality. There was a time not long ago when I was interested enough in gadgets that I might have weighed in on this development with vociferous indignation but maybe I’ve stopped caring that much? It still does fascinate me that people will bend over backwards to rationalize this brazenly anti-user, anti-battery-life, anti-fidelity design choice. I mean I’ve got a few different sets of headphones which are each valuable listening tools for my own mixing/mastering projects and all of them would be incompatible with this “fancy” new phone without the use of a dongle. That’s just… bizarre.

    Apple’s had a long, rich history of incomprehensible design choices like the hockey-puck mouse, the elimination of optical drives, the elimination of USB ports, and the recessed headphone jack on the iPhone 1 which now seems like a strange foreshadowing. My friends were riffing that Apple had also done away with Bluetooth and replaced it with their own proprietary wireless format called “Courage” and it wasn’t until I searched the web that I could figure out if they were serious or joking. Turns out they were making a clever joke but I think Apple should do it. How far can they go? For the iPhone 8 they should eliminate the screen I think. Too many clashing colors and confusing aesthetics for the modern consumer. The next phone will be a chrome-plated egg shape to literally mirror the skeuomorphic designs of nature. It’ll have a single LED that communicates to the user via a system of colors and flashing patterns about Donald Drumpf’s latest assertion that kale is part of Obamacare and needs to be banished. Accessories will include a $37.95 polish iCloth to keep the chrome egg plating fingerprint-free (please stop touching it), and an optional dongle which connects the egg to an external iScreen, if you really are that old fashioned that you still need a screen, you curmudgeonly technophobe. People would be just frothing at the opportunity to defend those choices, I know it! I also do genuinely wonder if Apple has actually made their billions by trading the stocks of accessory manufacturers and releasing strings of products to manipulate the stock prices in their favor up or down.

    So that’s all pretty amusing but why do I care? I guess I don’t really. I’ve been content with Android for long enough now that whatever Apple does or doesn’t do has no effect on me so this rambling is all just for fun. And possibly part of my internal debate to answer the question, which is more stupid: continually voicing your unsolicited opinions on inane matters like what you’re cooking for supper, or continually saying nothing and maybe because of that having nothing to say? Of course the right place to land is somewhere in-between those two extremes but I feel I’ve been erring on the latter side too long so here’s a dishing in favor of the former:

    As the above graphic implies, there is a difference made with hardware choice. And everything matters. In my own music that I’ve been recording and mastering, I’ve been continually changing, tweaking, and improving my artistry, small step by small step. From stylistic choices about the philosophy of mixing (should all instruments be clearly audible or should a single instrument be firmly holding the “lead”), to technical choices about the mastering (how much compression on the overheads is too much on the mid-band) to hardware decisions (which mic should I use on trumpet or snare, what placement is best for upper Leslie horn), to the musical choices which happen during the moment itself—all of that plays a role in what comes out at the end.

    When I create music I am trying to get better at that for my own inner critic and my own inner enjoyment-listener. I do it to my own standard, or maybe more accurately I do it for the inherent accomplishment of having done it well. Never once does the sentiment “no one will ever notice” enter into my mind in this process because let’s be brutally honest here: hardly ever does anyone else even listen to begin with!! Besides my fellow musicians and maybe a random YouTuber now and then. And that’s ok. If I was creating music to please some hypothetical judge I’d be doing it for the wrong reason anyway. But my point here is that if the Sennheiser e609 sounds better than the Shure SM57 microphone when it comes to recording my friend Vince’s guitar, then I’m going to pick the better one because that’s what artistry is about: getting better at making your thing. A million different musicians all make choices like that every day and it all matters to them as individuals and to the overall quality level of the medium as a whole. If everyone gave up and said right we’re all using Fisher Price microphones going forward because why bother since the new iPhone wireless audio restricts the bitrate to 2800 baud or whatever, that’d be dumb as hell. And so it IS dumb as hell that Apple wants to get rid of cables which is indisputably a step backwards in terms of signal integrity, interference, and so on. Quality matters, end of story.

    I hope people vote with their wallets on this one because love em or hate em, Apple is a trendsetter. Maybe at worst this is the beginning of the end for the cult of Jobs, or at the least maybe a few die-hard loyalists might blink and realize that the world’s 2nd most valuable corporation isn’t a hip buddy who just wants to jam out with them over some cool tunes, they’re more of a malicious middle-man of sorts, who wants to water-down what’s great about music and take your money in exchange for the illusion of coolness that comes with this club that really just takes anyone’s $700 who’s dumb enough to hand it over. That’s right, iSaid it. Audio cables for life, people. Because music’s richness is in the fine details and as we firmly established, everything matters when it comes to that.

    Where the Magic Happens

    2016 - 07.31

    There’s been a few awesome milestones lately in my world of recording.  Let’s rattle em off:

    Electra MAXXED1. I’ve got “www.YouTube.com/ElectricTrumpet”!

    My YouTube channel now has enough subscribers that I could acquire a custom URL.  Now all of my Electric Trumpet exploits can now be seen at the easy-to-remember address of www.YouTube.com/ElectricTrumpet which is pretty nifty indeed (although the embedded link here takes you right to the full videos page).  I have continued to upload more content there and there shall be a steady stream to come as well so check it out both now and later.

    2. The size of my musical exploits is now crossing one Terrabyte in size!!

    As you can see by the hard drive properties in the screenshot at left, my recording hard drive is soon to be full.  The only thing on this hard drive is audio recordings I have made!  There is maybe a small bit of filler in there in terms of mp3s of songs I need to practice or other bloat like zip files of sessions to be uploaded and shared but it’s mostly jams, wavs, and things happenin.  It feels so great to see this.  It’s one thing to stack up a big pile of gear and spend a bunch of cash on the tools of the trade, but it feels a lot better to see the proof in the pudding so to speak, the walking of the walk in actually creating stuff.  There’s a ton of people out there who spend boatloads of money on expensive hardware, be it photography or music or whatever, but I always find myself internally asking the question, “Yeah, but what have you MADE?”  Here I am, earning the right to talk that trash.  Hell yeah.

    3. The input capacity of my setup has expanded to THIRTY!!!

    I’m pretty psyched up about the fact that I’ve now acquired enough gear to extend my recording setup from 16 channels up to 30!  I’m adding a sweet “The Moment Of Genesis” tag to this post for this milestone.  On the face of it, it seems like 16 channels should be plenty, right?  But as time has gone on I have expanded and expanded my methods of recording, and we’re now at the point that I’ve used the max of 16 channels for many consecutive sessions now, wishing that I had the capability to go higher.  If that seems unlikely, let me rattle them off: 1.overhead high-hat 2. overhead ride 3. snare 4. kick 5. electric bass 6. electric guitar 7. Leslie organ horn left 8. Leslie organ horn right 9. trumpet stand mic 10. Leslie bottom (15″) 11. trumpet pedalboard left 12. trumpet pedalboard right 13. trumpet clip-on mic (blended with stand for tone) 14. lower snare mic 15. room mic left 16. room mic right…  And there’s 16!  First thing I’m going to add over that will be 3 tom mics so that I can high pass the overheads, cutting the bass and the snare out of my overhead track without killing the life of the toms.  I have also been dreaming of adding an auxiliary percussion/conguero now and then, or having the ability to add other horn players, or a doubling of guitar or keys maybe.  So this unlocks all that capability although the main thing immediately is the addition of tom mics which I hope will clean up the low and high end overall.  Behold the glorious rack which will bring all that to life:

    recording rack setup 8/16

    No Man’s Sky moves from Dream to Reality

    2016 - 07.27

    One year ago today I put up a post about a forthcoming game that I am very excited about called No Man’s Sky.  One year after that posting, the release of the game is now imminent on August 9th.  There’s been a lot of attention on this game and a lot of hype about the boundaries it promises to break, so before it drops and we all find out what surprises it truly holds I want to wax philosophical one last time.

    One of the comments I heard that made me pause the longest was a person saying they hadn’t been this excited for a videogame release since Super Mario Brothers 2.  Just let that sink in for a second. Super Mario Brothers 2 came out for the NES in 1988.  Almost 30 years ago.  Which also says something maybe about the age-group of people who are really fired up for this game, and why.

    If tomorrow there was a Call of Duty game released which attained perfect review scores and was praised for design of the highest caliber with exquisite attention to detail and peerless action, I doubt I’d play it.  Why?  It’s not because I’d doubt the reviews, it’s just because… I’ve “done that.”  Not only have I done it, I have done it so many times, that it’s been done, completely.  Done into dust.  I’m simply finished with doing that.  Over.  Finito.  This can happen with any genre within an art form.  Like heavy metal music.  There was a time in my life when I was totally into it and now the page has turned and I just can’t stomach any more.  Maybe it’s because you become so familiar with the common devices and the tropes of the genre that even what’s new doesn’t feel new anymore?  A new Metallica album?  I just can’t.  It might be new, but it sounds so familiar.  What’s new is no longer new.

    This kind of fatigue has set in for me, and a lot of other players my age when it comes to games.  On top of that, as we grow older life expands to fill your free time.  Obligations, other hobbies, working, or broadly speaking other parts of life that you want to do—they all fill in the gaps and free time spent playing games gets put onto a smaller and smaller portion of the backburner.  And yet we still never forget this medium because we experienced the magic that it can contain.  We have seen, and felt that alchemy.

    There was an excellent, far-reaching piece at Kotaku (which feels strange to say, given their recent track record) discussing why No Man’s Sky is the most necessary game of 2016—a great read even for the mildly interested.  While that author focuses on world events and social norms my own reasons are simpler.  Personally the last game I felt this excited for was Red Dead Redemption.  One, because it was a very underserved segment of the gaming market (westerns) and maybe two, because I was moving to Texas right as the game was coming out.  Red Dead promised to do something new: put you “there” in the wild west.  And when I played the game, that’s exactly the aspect which made it so great.  In Red Dead it’s all about the little moments between the action.  When you walk up to the edge of a cliff to take in the scenery and a hawk flies over your head with a searing call.  When you camp out in the wilderness and see a bold sunrise above the rocks in the distance.  When you pause your horse to get your bearings and some faint trumpets remind you that you’re in Mexican territory.

    Little moments of color like those are what made Red Dead.  Before its release skeptics were panning it as GTA with horses.  And sure, there were plenty of action scenes where that’s pretty much what it was, but it also had its own tone going on, much different than GTA’s.  I never wrote about Red Dead on here, mostly because it was so loved and so praised by the gaming community that to heap a bunch more words onto that bandwagon didn’t seem necessary.  But action isn’t what made Red Dead—in fact it could have had far less action with worse mechanics and still been practically just as good, because the main strength of the game stood on atmosphere.

    That’s the connection between Red Dead and No Man’s Sky: Atmosphere.  Moods.  For me personally, that’s the biggest unknown question about what it can provide.  With No Man’s Sky, the creators have deliberately withheld a ton of information about the game, even this close to launch.  Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than the most recent trailers put out by Sony.  The whole premise of the “Fight” trailer is to showcase combat, yet we’re presented with 1 second quick-cuts showing just teasers.  Really?  Even with less than 20 days remaining until release we’re keeping things this close to the chest?  And the creators keep conflating the words galaxy and universe, in what I can only assume is either a running joke or more likely, a deliberate obfuscation of these terms to avoid any hint of what the “journey to the center” actually means.  This is in stark contrast to the information-rich, National Geographic documentary-style trailers that preceded the launch of RDR, which were some of the best gaming trailers I think I’ve ever seen.  This kind of secrecy right up to the 11th hour is maybe a red flag, but I’m going out on a limb and trust that Hello Games knows what they’re doing and just want to keep it fresh for individual players to discover.

    Putting all those questions aside, the thing I’m most excited for in this game are the vistas.  The dramatic scenery and strange discoveries.  And that is the very beating heart of the game, the core of what it promises to deliver.  I gotta say I’m knocked out by the fantastic aesthetics of the buildings and the spaceships in this game and I will definitely spend a long time hunting neat looking stuff for screenshots.  Procedural generation will also lend a strange sense of responsibility to actually “experience” your experience since everything you see will likely be yours and yours alone.  It’s guaranteed that new designs will always keep coming and something really rad will be truly rare to the point that a sweet looking spaceship might literally never be seen again, by you or anyone else!  Let alone something even harder to find like a neat cave or a cool nocturnal creature.  Given the sheer vastness of the NMS universe, even the most beautiful, enchanting planet you find will probably never be explored again.

    Which brings us back to the idea of “new.”  With that stupefying number of eighteen quintillion planets available to explore in this universe (Wait, galaxy? Universe?  Galaxy?), how many hours can we pour into No Man’s Sky before what’s new no longer feels new anymore?  How much exploring will it take before the feeling of predictability sets in, and I begin to think to myself okay, here’s another new Starfighter design that I’ve never seen… but I’ve pretty much seen that design before in a slightly different paintjob or with different wings.  Answering that question is perhaps the main journey of No Man’s Sky and getting there, almost with zero doubt, will be a fascinating, entertaining time whether it resides at the center of the 1st galaxy or my 5th.

    But backing up a step further, that journey isn’t the only factor in the longevity of NMS.  Obviously games don’t live or die by freshness, as the latest incarnation of Call of Duty 17 can attest.  Like in Red Dead, it’ll be the thousand little moments along the way.  The quiet moments between the action where you pause to look around, finding yourself transfixed by some calm scenery.  The sound of the wind as you stand atop a small hill on a planet of blue colored grasses.  The eerie stillness of a cratered moon, devoid of life.  The distant calls of three-headed dinosaur-like beasts moving in a herd on the horizon.  The feeling of relief as you find a cave to flee nocturnal predators on a planet where you explored until nightfall caught you off-guard, far away from your ship.  And the feeling of safety as you finally return to your ship, your spacefaring horse of steel, chock full of goodies you snagged on a dangerous planet, ready to escape to the nearest space station and cash in.  These moments are my hopes for the game.  We’ll see if I can find them among—without hyperbole—the largest explorable universe the medium of video gaming has ever produced.

    10 year anniversary: “Electro-Acoustic Workshop” @ Muse Cafe Chicago, IL 7/6/2006

    2016 - 07.06

    Today is the ten-year anniversary of a very memorable jam session for me, “The Electro-Acoustic Workshop” at Muse Cafe in Chicago IL on 7-6-6.  This session was the brainchild of one Mr Dave Marsalek who was part owner of the coffeeshop Muse Cafe and a talented drummer in his own right.  The Muse was his shot at opening a business that combined his love of coffee and experimental music.  Of course running a cafe is damn hard and eventually due to various factors it had to close, but for a period from 2006 to 2007 (?) I joined him and a host of other friends to create some  original and innovative music that ten years later still stands worthy of those adjectives.  There were a few reoccuring music series hosted at Muse Cafe worthy of note and one of these was the Electro-Acoustic Workshop.

    The theme of this particular session was, as the name implies, combining electronic sounds (effects pedals/electrified instruments/samplers/etc) with traditional acoustic jazz instrumentation.  This particular session was a standout among my recordings from that era for two main reasons: one, Dave had some excellent musicial friends amassed for this evening.  Kris Myers (Umphrey’s McGee) on drums and Chris Clemente (Kick the Cat) on electric bass were the heaviest hitters in attendance but the whole supporting cast and crew were all creative and energetic in their own rights.  Alas, many of these people I never did stay in touch with and their names elude me through the fog of memory.  But the playing still speaks for itself.

    Behind the excellent musicianship, the second main reason why this session is a standout to me is because of where I personally happened to be in my musical development.  I had started experimenting with effects pedals near the beginning of 2006 and by mid-year I had either borrowed or accumulated enough gear to do something interesting, and had also spent just enough time with it to somewhat know what I was doing or at least trying to do.  Thanks to the excellent cast assembled for this evening the grooves were guaranteed to be good and I was setup to do ‘my thing’ on the highest level that I could.

    In hindsight I sort of view this session as a fork in the road with my musical development.  I had always been fascinated with effects and combining them with the instrument I had been practicing my whole life was an intriguing new twist to put it lightly.  But was this a gimmick–a transitory phase on the way to something else–or was there real substance worth developing with the use of effects on my horn?  It would take a few magic moments to cement the idea.  Instants where something special happened thanks to effects pedals, instants which would not have had the same impact without them.  And that’s exactly what this session had in spades.

    I’ve always been a dedicated taper and archivalist of my own craft on the horn.  Most of the time these recordings have a short shelf life.  I try to listen to myself and identify what worked well and needs to be repeated, refined, and reiterated.  Most of the time it’s incremental improvements, maybe an unusually creative phrase, or a handful of spots where synchronicity of the group yielded a neat moment–this is what we’re usually hoping for when we play music.  Very seldom does an evening come along with a replay value measured in years, one where you say to yourself, “This is it.  This is what I’m working toward and what I’m trying to do.  I want to internalize this, be able to recreate this energy again.”  July 7th on 2006 was that moment for me, and it inspired me to double-down on playing with effects and commit to that as a core-element of ‘my thing’.  Of course there were many moments before and after that taught me how rewarding it is to play with effects, but this night and the many times I relistened to this night were probably the largest single motivational event that shaped my musical path foward.

    So for that reason it’s a very special recording to me on a personal/developmental level.  All that said, I also think it’s a fantastic listen even without that story surrounding it.  Several months back I uploaded it to YouTube.  This isn’t the entire evening, since the whole thing is quite long, but what we have below is the middle and ending sections which gel together with a cohesive flow and make, to me, a thought-provoking, smile-inducing, and at times eyebrow-raising musical journey, a pivotal moment catapulting me toward where I am today.  I invite you to join in and listen to that journey:

    Final round(s) of pictures from Washington 2015

    2016 - 06.25

    A year ago this month I was in Washington state to take in the scenery and learn some history at the 2015 Milwaukee Road Historical Association convention. It was the railroading trip of a lifetime for me for many reasons, foremost of which was that I was able to hear some MILW history from the people who actually lived it. As written about already, I have a personal connection with the area since my great and great great grandfather both worked for the railroad in this area. I may never take another pilgrimage quite like it again, but thankfully while I was there I shot plenty of video and photos to help keep my lousy memory fresh on what I saw while I was there.

    Possibly the coolest part about traveling, to me, is the moods or unusual feelings it creates. Those vibes from the pine forests of western Washington stuck with me over the next month and crept into my music at a special time. 6/27 and 6/28 were the final recording session for 100% Juice, which still reigns as my longest-running and most prolific musical endeavor here in Houston. All of the jams from those sessions were named after places I saw while traveling, matched with the feelings they had given me.

    On my Flickr page I posted a large number of photos from the trip, ending just recently with the pictures I shot in Tacoma of the Milwaukee Road S-Turn Trestle, which is scheduled to be demolished. These shots are geared towards model railroaders or people who are interested in things like bridge construction… but here is another album of shots I took while driving past Mount Rainier though an area literally named “Paradise, Washington” that should appeal to anyone.

    Click on the image below to see the slideshow, then click on any image twice to see it full-size: 

    Cascade Mountains 2015

    It was a trip to remember, and I’m glad I have these photos to help with that.

    Photos from the 2015 MRHA convention

    2016 - 06.22

    Here’s a collection of photos I took at the 2015 Milwaukee Road Historical Association conference in Yakima Washington.  These pictures have been up on Flickr for quite some time now although it occurred to me that I never linked to them on here.  This is a 120+ shot slideshow of cool railroad stuff I saw along the way, so, you know, only railroad buffs are allowed past this point…

    Click on the image below to see the slideshow, then click on any image twice to see it full-size: 

    MRHA 2015 Yakima Convention photos

    I’ve also got this 35 minutes of video footage I shot along the Milwaukee Road right-of-way between Easton and Cedar Falls Washington, also known as the Iron Horse/John Wayne trail which I rode on a rental bike during that visit. It sure is pretty scenery out there!

    The most complex electric trumpet setup to date

    2016 - 06.17

    I thought this photo ought to be captured here to document the state of my configuration on 5/21/16:

    Electric Trumpet Pedalboard and Leslie

    Since there was no organ on this session,  the horn is setup to run through the Leslie… Yo dawg I heard you like horns… so we put your horn though a horn!  As you might guess, the trumpet throught a Leslie horn can be exceptionally piercing.  Devoted readers may notice that my Leslie model 205 did not originally include the horn, which I have just recently added.  Horn through the Leslie is pretty neat although after trying it a few times I have concluded that organ (as one might expect) is still what makes it truly shine.

    Also new in this image are 3 rental pedals from PedalGenie.com, the Dr Scientist Tremoloescence, the Moog Minifooger flanger, and the Pigtronix Envelope Phaser.  Those three pedals aRe listed in order of increasing coolness for their effect on the horn.  I’ve had fun with all three although by this stage the bar is set very high for a pedal to be a “keeper”.  A new round should be arriving soon.

    Tape & Vinyl at center stage in The Lab

    2016 - 05.23

    Recently I decided to take some glamour shots of my stereo setup in “The Lab” and post them to a vintage audio usergroup for others to oogle and discuss. Some of the elements shown here have already been written about individually so I won’t recap that (get it?) in detail here. Clicking on any image will enlarge it, then right click again on the enlarged image if you want to see if in 100% resolution.  Below is a list of the components and links to more descriptive posts on these where available:

    The Cast of Characters:

    Speakers: Marantz HD-770
    Amp: Fisher CA-2310
    Turntable: Marantz 6100
    Reel to Reel: Ampex 960

    2001: A Space Funk Odyssey

    2016 - 05.02

    Triumphant AF. Officially endorsed viewing here: