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Hey everybody! Better Call Saul is back with a whole new season, and I’m here to…

…wait. We’re still on season two? Crap.

Yes, back when I was reviewing Better Call Saul in more or less real time, I was still reviewing ALF. And there was a new season of The Venture Bros. And…basically…one of those shows had to forgo coverage, if there was any way I was going to retain my sanity. I ended up choosing — more or less by circumstance — Better Call Saul. There was no right answer, really, but I’ve regretted it ever since.

The show deserves respectful coverage. Prompt coverage may not be as important, but the problem is that I never caught back up with it. I moved on…and then didn’t go back. Until now, at least, when my Facebook wall is flooded with people crowing about Gus Fring being in season three and I figure, well, I might as well catch up with my spoilers.

Part of the reason it was hard to go back, though, was this episode. Not that it was bad. It wasn’t. But the problem was that I watched it. I didn’t have time review it, but I watched it. And after enough time had passed that I couldn’t review it from memory, I didn’t feel very compelled to go back and watch it again.

Shows like Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are a bit like that. You don’t watch an episode over and over. You enjoy one, and then you enjoy the next, and then the one after that. None of this is to say that the episodes don’t deserve multiple viewings, but I will say that, with some exceptions, multiple viewings don’t benefit them in isolation. They are parts of longer arcs, longer stories, longer passages. Every episode functions like a middle chapter. It keeps the momentum of what came before, and pushes the story just far enough ahead that you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time.

Drop back into one episode you’ve seen — just one, alone — and it feels like a strange excerpt. It almost feels wrong, like eavesdropping on the middle of a conversation.

“Gloves Off” is unquestionably a middle chapter. It makes no secret of that. It picks up where last week left off, and it makes you want to dive right into whatever next week will bring. And yet, it does something interesting: instead of ending the episode with a moment that suggests narrative progress, it opens with it.

That’s not something I’m sure I’ve seen before on this show or on Breaking Bad. Yes, we’ve certainly had plenty of episodes that opened at the end, with the episode itself being a kind of flashback establishing how we got to whatever chaos we’ve just seen. To use a thematically fitting example, there’s “Grilled,” which opens with Jesse’s car bouncing up and down in the aftermath of a gunfight. But this is the first time, I think, that we’ve opened with a major evolution for a character.

In this case, it’s Mike. And what I mean by “major evolution of a character” is that it’s not a question of how his face got bloodied and bruised; it’s a question of how he became the guy who sits alone in the dark, obviously battered, lifting his fist in silent triumph. Sure, we wonder what he’s proud of, but mainly we wonder about the change. About the seeming rewiring of who he is. Mike has been so calm and collected across two shows now* that whenever we see the veneer crack, we know to pay attention. Last season it cracked in a tragic way in the great “Five-O.” Now it cracks in celebration.

That’s Better Call Saul‘s way of saying “listen up.”

This means something.

Mike is changing.

The ensuing episode tells us what happened to him, but, more importantly, it tells us what happened inside of him.

But we’ll get to that. This is the Jimmy McGill show; not the Mike show.

Or, rather, it’s Better Call Saul, and “Gloves Off” has a moment of great fun teasing that inevitable change of name for our protagonist. Honestly, isn’t it pretty wonderful that we’re rolling cleanly through season two without the guy’s name even being Saul?

This week Jimmy attempts to seduce Chuck with the offer to abandon his legal ambitions forever. “No more Jimmy McGill, esquire. Poof. Like he never existed.” It’s a cute moment, and I honestly wonder how long they’ll be able to drag out the Jimmy era of Saul’s life. Personally, I’d be kind of happy if it lasted as long as the show does.

The conversation happens because Chuck and Howard seem to have taken Jimmy’s ill-conceived commercial out on Kim, and there’s a lot at play here. (I say “seems to have” because Chuck, unconvincingly, attempts to paint the entire situation as Howard’s decision.) There’s Kim’s nearly blind loyalty to Jimmy, and her obvious questioning of what it’s done to her career. There’s Jimmy’s clear (and almost touching) protectiveness toward Kim, to the point that he’s willing to back out of his career entirely just to put her back where she was.

And, of course, there’s our hero’s relationship with Chuck, which continues to be utterly devastating and painful to watch. (It may even be more painful than Mike’s physical beat-down that ends the episode.) I’m looking forward to seeing just how deeply this show digs into their dynamic, which is believably complex, sad, and toxic. Watching “Gloves Off” the second time I’m able to appreciate how fired up Jimmy is when he arrives at Chuck’s house…only to drop the offense entirely when he sees his brother is suffering.

He brings him water. He brings him an extra space blanket. He sits with him all night. When the morning comes, he makes him tea.

…at which point Chuck takes the offense, and unloads on Jimmy instead.

It’s a deeply sad turn, and one that we know we haven’t seen the last of. Jimmy has always been and always will be the little brother. The fuckup. The one who can’t be trusted…in spite of whatever he achieves, whatever his investigations turn up, however well his plans turn out.

His is a path downward. He’s reminded of that every time he tries to move up. For obvious reasons, it’s always the most painful when it’s his brother pressing him down.

And, sure enough, his commercial was a success. The phones are ringing constantly. A very small financial investment netted Davis & Main, Jimmy’s new employers, a boatload of Sandpiper clients.

But Jimmy didn’t go about it the right way. He went over peoples’ heads. He made a decision that his employers wouldn’t have made. And that’s inexcusable. Throughout the episode there’s a lot of talk of reputation, which clearly means little to Jimmy. He doesn’t care how Davis & Main looks; he cares about the work that they do. The strong implication is that Davis & Main — like Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill — care about how they look. That’s what made all the difference in last season’s “Hero”; sure, Jimmy may have done the work, but he comes off like “the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.”

Jimmy’s playing a game of appearances as though it’s a game of merit. The tragedy isn’t that he loses…the tragedy is that there’s no room for him, and he eventually embraces the flaw he’s been told he had all along. He becomes Saul Goodman.

Mike’s story also has some nice playfulness. There’s the return of Krazy-8, who would eventually be Walt’s first deliberate murder victim in Breaking Bad. There’s Mike taking a “trophy” from a defeated Tuco, just as Hank will eventually do. And there’s Mike warning Nacho that if he bumps off Tuco, it’ll draw Salamancas like flies…which is indeed what happens when Tuco is bumped off in that other show.

But it’s not a playful story overall. It’s the story of how retired-policeman Mike becomes hyper-competent-fixer Mike. And that’s what he’s celebrating on his couch at the beginning…covered in his own blood…face swollen…Tuco’s charm in his fist. He’s celebrating the fact that he did something his way…and that his way worked. He’s suspected that he could do this before — for the memory of his son, for his daughter-in-law, for his granddaughter — but now he knows.

And he can do it, for now at least, without being blood thirsty. Without stirring up undue trouble. Without taking lives. He can do it on his terms…which is all he asks.

…and which will also lead him down a much darker path when those terms are forbidden to him, one by one.

In theory, his non-fatal solution to the Tuco problem might set the stage for the mercy he shows Walt several times over in Breaking Bad. He let Tuco live, and still solved the problem. In Breaking Bad he lets Walt live…but things go a bit differently there.

His confrontation with Tuco here is an easy highlight of both shows. It’s a perfectly tense several minutes of television, with Mike working Tuco effortlessly. Playing the dim old man when he knows it’ll anger him the most, shifting into antagonism when he needs to keep Tuco’s ire up, and then shifting right back into playing the helpless elder to keep Tuco from suspecting anything.

It’s a masterful, incredible scene…one that makes you admire both Mike’s cleverness and Better Call Saul‘s. And I have to admit there’s a fantastic, unspoken narrative brilliance in the ultimate solution. When the initial plan involves Mike killing Tuco, the recurring concern is how Mike will get away unseen. The brilliance is that the plan Mike ultimately comes up with turns that problem into its own solution: he leans into the fact that he will be seen, and we get a much better, much stronger, much more intelligent sequence because of it.

We never do see what happens when Jimmy shows up late to work, or if Kim gets wished back out of the cornfield, or what the next inevitable cloud of fallout from the commercial turns out to be…at least not this week. But that’s okay, because it’s just a middle chapter. And nothing that might have happened in those threads could have compared to Nacho’s weighty, episode-ending query:

“You went a long way to not pull that trigger. Why?”

Mike doesn’t answer him, and so we don’t get the answer, either.

But I think we all know the answer.

The answer is that he went the long way around to see if he could do things his way. Not Nacho’s, not Tuco’s, but his own.

And he can.

And one of modern television’s best characters is born.

Note: I want to point out that I didn’t just stop reviewing Better Call Saul; I stopped watching it as well. Yes, I saw “Gloves Off,” but after that…nothing. I wanted to wait, because I knew I’d be coming back to this series. And now, hey, I am back! So please steer clear of major story spoilers in the comments. For you, this season is almost a year old. But I’m watching it for the first time, and I hope you enjoy that these reviews will still retain their “by-the-episode” approach as opposed to one that looks backward with a greater sense of where these threads lead.

—–
* During my ALF reviews, I mentioned that Todd Susman, who appeared in the episode “Hide Away,” played the P.A. voice in both M*A*S*H and Futurama, making him one of very few people who got to play the same character in two of the best shows ever made. I think we can add Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk to that short list as well.

Phish, A Picture of Nectar

So maybe I could be a fly…

Track List:

  • Llama
  • Eliza
  • Cavern
  • Poor Heart
  • Stash
  • Manteca
  • Guelah Papyrus
  • Magilla
  • The Landlady
  • Glide
  • Tweezer
  • The Mango Song
  • Chalk Dust Torture
  • Faht
  • Catapult
  • Tweezer Reprise

Hello! It sure has been a while since I’ve done this. Forgive me; I’m still getting used to being able to write about things I like again. And, hey, A Picture of Nectar is a thing I like!

My previous installments about Junta and Lawn Boy involved a lot of hesitation to embrace the albums completely, but here, for the first time in Phish’s studio history, the balance tips. For my money, A Picture of Nectar contains more to recommend it than to detract from it, and it’s the first sustained evidence that they could function as an effective studio band. (Their legacy as a live band was never in question.)

Having said that, it’s also their most scattershot album to date. The band tried everything they could to find their studio footing once and for all…and it’s an exercise under which you can feel the album straining. As such, there are a lot of skippable tracks, but when the band hit upon something that worked — which it did quite often here — it really worked, and a few of these tracks are among the best they’ve ever recorded.

A Picture of Nectar is also the first time that the band’s playfulness was captured for the home listening audience, and it’s more successful for it. When the band has fun, we have fun, and A Picture of Nectar is absolutely a portrait of a band having fun.

We’re still a couple of albums away from Phish truly delivering a thorough studio masterpiece, but with this album they learn both how to do it, and how not to do it. It’s an experiment that’s thrilling and frustrating, but moreso the former, and if you don’t mind trimming a few of the lesser tracks from your playlist, A Picture of Nectar gets even stronger.

Llama


Speaking of lesser tracks!

…okay, okay, “Llama” isn’t really that bad. But compared to A Picture of Nectar‘s true accomplishments, “Llama” feels like filler.

Choose not to compare it and you end up with a pretty fun — if shallow — rocker with some incredible percussion and a great, swirling synth to carry it along. The lyrics are deliberately impenetrable (people debate to this day what the chorus even is), and putting this at the very front of the album feels like a promise of incoherence to come. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s not your thing, you may want to skip ahead a few years and pick up a different Phish album.

The band is experimenting, and figuring out what works is neither an easy process nor, necessarily, a crowd-pleasing one. “Llama” lets listeners know that whatever’s to come may be fun, and may be catchy, but it won’t necessarily be polished. In a live setting, “Llama” is an energetic palate cleanser. On disc, it’s practically a dare to keep listening.

Eliza

…which is what makes it odd that it’s followed up immediately by the quiet, pretty instrumental “Eliza.” In fact, “Eliza” is the second part of the mission statement of A Picture of Nectar. If “Llama” disarmed you, “Eliza” tries to convince you that it’s worth pushing through the rougher patches. You just might find something beautiful, wedged between two monsters.

And it’s right; there’s a lot of beauty to find here. But I do have to admit that “Eliza” is kind of empty. It sounds pretty, and yet also sounds like nothing at all. It’s there…an airy coda to its rampaging predecessor, but it doesn’t register to me the way some of Phish’s other “pretty” interludes do (see “Bliss” or “The Inlaw Josie Wales”).

It’s there. It’s fine. And it lets you know that the whole album isn’t “Llama.” Mission accomplished.

Cavern

“Cavern” is one of those Phish songs that all of the fans know and seem to love, but which never really clicked with me. It’s not awful, and I can appreciate a lot of things about it (read on!), but its popularity and frequency of appearances in setlists always confused me.

Wait, have I been down on all of these songs so far? I really am a miserable human being, aren’t I?

So, okay, fine, it doesn’t work for me on the whole. Ignore that small detail, though, and I appreciate how well it manages to take nonsense lyrics and weave what feels like an actual story. It’s a bit of an illusion, admittedly, as it relies on the instrumentation to build the atmosphere, set the pacing, suggest narrative climax where — strictly speaking — there is none, but that’s sort of the point of songwriting in general, so it’s no kind of cheat.

The plodding rhythm, the echoing drums, the repetitive grind of the groove…everything serves to underscore an idea, an atmosphere, a setting. And, largely, it works. “Cavern” is a journey I’d have a hard time summarizing, but it’s one I can feel.

Interestingly, “Cavern” isn’t the only song on the album that does this; “Stash” also spins a tale of nonsense that seems important in a way that transcends — or at least has nothing to do with — words as we understand them. But we’ll come to that soon enough.

The other thing the song does well is its triumphant concluding verse — from which the album takes its name — repeated with increasing enthusiasm as long as it takes to really sell the infectiousness. It’s a great conclusion to an otherwise fairly pedestrian track, and it’s why the song works so well (and so often) as a set closer.

On a live note, a horn section enhanced the rave-up swirl at the end of the song several times throughout the band’s live history, and that’s a nice variant to seek out if you’re interested. Personally I do think the brass adds something to the excitement, but the vocals do a good enough job of selling the triumph on their own, so it’s not a make/break situation; it’s just a pretty cool thing to hear after you’ve experienced the hornless version so many times.

Poor Heart

A simple bluegrass ditty by bassist Mike Gordon about somebody swiping his tape recorder. It’s…man, I am not doing a good job of selling you on this album yet, am I?

It’s not bad. It’s fun. It’s a bit of a one-note experiment, but it’s brief and toe-tapping enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But…well, that’s it. It’s just sort of there, and it’s nowhere near Mike Gordon’s best composition or the band’s best dalliance with bluegrass. (See the next album’s “Fast Enough for You” for that honor.)

Stash

Now we’re talking. Honestly, don’t the opening notes convince you enough of that on their own?

“Stash” is just…man.

Just…just listen to it. “Stash” is fun. “Stash” is dark. “Stash” is silly and urgent and an incredible meld of composition and musicianship. “Stash” is Phish. And while I’m sure others would point to something like “You Enjoy Myself” as their singular example of what the band is, I think I’d have to point to “Stash.”

It’s an absolutely perfect listening experience. And, yes, it’s a song that takes on new life again and again on stage, with long jams teased out of it unexpectedly or just fiery straight versions played to audiences lucky enough to be there and feed off of it, but its studio version, I think, merits attention.

This is a chance to appreciate the song’s twisting melodies, its tense stop/starts, its masterful interplay between instruments which seem to having important conversations of their own — certainly more important than anything the lyrics have to say.

And yet the lyrics feel like they are saying something important. The story they weave — whatever it’s about, whatever happens in it — has a sense of significance, of weight, of value. And while the lyrics on paper, with all their talk of tunic yankings and solar garlic, seem frivolous, in performance they’re anything but. I couldn’t tell you what anything here is supposed to mean, but I could sure tell you how much it feels like they have meaning.

It’s evocative. What you don’t understand, you still experience. Trey’s guitar work in particular is thrilling. It evokes an endless rush of panic. Near misses. Narrow escapes. The sense that you reach the end of each bar alive by the skin of your teeth.

It’s just all around great, and I think it says something that a song best experienced live is still so solid in the studio, without the energy of the crowd to bolster it, without the benefit of nightly surprise and experimentation, without the freedom of slipping into and out of other songs at will.

“Stash” is one of my favorite compositions, and one of my favorite examples of studio Phish. It doesn’t capture the band’s experimentation, but it does capture their raw, burning power when they’re at their cohesive best, and this one goes down in history books for me.

Manteca

Here’s a great joke: a band well known for their inventive covers of other people’s work finally records a song they didn’t write (one by Dizzy Gillespie) and it’s just them repeating some nonsense that sounds vaguely like the original song.

Ha ha.

Guelah Papyrus

The best song on the album, and one of Phish’s best ever.

Listening now I don’t know why I didn’t list this along with “Cavern” and “Stash” as a nonsense song that still tells a story. Maybe it feels less to me like a story than an evocative scene. Maybe it feels less like nonsense. Whatever the reason, “Guelah Papyrus” seems like a truly unique composition…one I’d have a lot of trouble finding direct comparison to.

It’s lovely. It’s gorgeous. It’s rocky and smooth. It’s got an incredibly addictive beat that often finds me playing the song several times in a row. And its instrumental section manages to feel like an organic part of the composition in a way that it actually isn’t. (It was originally an unrelated tune called “The Asse Festival.” So, yeah, the title “Guelah Papyrus” is a definite trade upward.)

It meanders and it drives. It lounges and it hurtles. It spouts nonsense and suggest profundity. It’s a truly great song, and one of the few that I’ve always wanted to hear in concert and never, so far, have been fortunate enough to catch. It’s also, along with “Stash,” evidence that Phish was finding out how to use the studio…how to enhance their compositions rather than distract from them, how to achieve a kind of musical precision they couldn’t rely on otherwise, with embellishments like the echo effect applied to the backing vocals filling out the song in ways that feel natural and not calculated.

I love “Guelah Papyrus.” If I were able to take only one studio Phish song to a desert island with me, it might well be this one. Which is fitting, as the lyrics seem to outline the spidering thoughts of some endlessly drifting, hopeless protagonist who crossed the wrathful, mysterious Guelah herself.

Who is she? What did she do? The chorus claims that “this is the work of Guelah Papyrus,” but what is her work?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is how it affects our singer.

And us.

And it affects me in ways that I’m almost glad I have trouble expressing; that means they stay specific to me.

Magilla

Our first Page McConnell composition, and by no means his best. Page is my favorite member of Phish — his keys anchoring nearly all of my favorite songs and favorite jams — but there’s no denying that he was a bit uncertain of his talents for much of the band’s life.

Later compositions would be marked improvements, but it wasn’t until he embarked on a career outside of Phish (first with Vida Blue, then under his own name) that he really found his voice as a songwriter.

Still, “Magilla” is good. It’s a minor, jazzy interlude that doesn’t do anything wrong, but definitely fails to live up to the rest of the album. It’s also disappointing that the piano-heavy song by the band’s pianist is entirely bowled over by a far superior piano song that takes over as soon as this one ends.

The Landlady


As “Guelah Papyrus” contained “The Asse Festival,” “The Landlady” would go on to be absorbed by “Punch You in the Eye,” a live-only song that fairly gracelessly plopped this tune into its middle when it needed an interlude.

That’s kind of disappointing, as “The Landlady” feels to me like it deserves to be more than breathing room in a different song. On its own, here, in the studio, it’s a great, rollicking salsa that manages to feel like more of a successful genre experiment than “Poor Heart” or “Magilla” did.

Those songs achieved what they set out to do — chart some more sonic territory for the band — but “The Landlady” succeeds at being…sort of great. Not complex, not revolutionary, but great within its own tight boundaries. And it’s an excellent spotlight for both Page’s nimble fingers and Trey’s screaming fretwork. It’s chilly and fiery at once, and it’s one of my favorite studio instrumentals from the band.

Falling where it does on the album, right here in the rough middle, it’s easy to overlook but worth seeking out. It’s a chance to observe the band growing into itself, setting out to dabble and ending up mastering.

“The Landlady” isn’t just a rough Latin sketch…it’s a Phish song. And a good one. “Punch You in the Eye” may have long outlived it, but I really enjoy the evidence that it once had a life of its own.

Glide

“Glide” feels like a novelty song that happens to have some very impressive musicianship behind it, namely in Trey’s guitar line. There’s a nice musical evolution that unfolds behind the simple, repeated lyrics, depositing us in some unexpectedly dark places, but ultimately it’s a trifle. One of many experiments on A Picture of Nectar that you can’t fault the band for trying. But it’s also not something I’d recommend seeking out.

Tweezer

“Tweezer” is mainly an excuse to screw around with a genuinely irresistible hook. On stage, though, it’s massive. Hour-long versions are not uncommon, and it’s right up there with “You Enjoy Myself” and “Mike’s Song” for sheer unpredictability. You may recognize the opening notes, but there’s no chance you’ll predict the song’s journey from there.

And that’s both its biggest claim to fame and its curse. When “Tweezer” starts up live, you know you’re in it for the long haul. End up with a great, inventive version with some playful momentum to keep it going and you’ll probably be pretty happy. But end up with the band struggling to find its footing and you could find yourself listening for a huge chunk of the set to four musicians floundering for cohesion.

It’s a crapshoot, and it’s one I’m never willing to bet on. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Simple” or “Ghost” or “Split Open and Melt,” I get excited. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Tweezer,” I worry.

Sure, it could be great. And, let’s be frank here, it often is.

But at least as often, it’s stuck in neutral. And as “Tweezer” doesn’t understand the concept of brevity, it’ll be stuck there for a while.

“Tweezer” rarely kills a night, of course, but it does often, to me, feel like it’s taking up a lot of time that another song could put to better use. When you hear a great “Tweezer” you know it, and it’ll make everything I’m saying here sound more like hogwash than usual. But I don’t think it’s great often enough to claim as much real estate as it does.

The A Picture of Nectar version clocks in at around nine minutes…a hefty chunk of the disc. But this version, while, of course, lacking much room for freeform experimentation and reluctant to stray too far from its backbone, is pretty good. While I don’t seek it out I also never feel compelled to skip it. It’s a nice taste of the band loosening up a bit in the studio, without the structural demands of “Stash,” for instance, keeping them from surprising themselves.

So, no, the studio version of “Tweezer” is not revelatory. But it’s reliable, and I always know it will be worth listening to, which is more than I can say for “Tweezer” in general.

Sue me. I like it.

The Mango Song


Another story song? Maybe. As with “Guelah Papyrus” I can’t really decide, but it’s certainly another great example of how nonsense lyrics bring to life distinct (if not necessarily clear) images, situations, scenes.

The abundance of nonsense lyrics on A Picture of Nectar — and, indeed, in Phish’s general output from the time — can seem more wearying than it actually is; because the songs all sound and feel distinct, and behave in such different ways, and serve such different purposes, it doesn’t feel as though they’re using the same excuse too often. And, what with the deadly serious lyrical approach of the next album (on the whole…), perhaps they were unknowingly getting this out of their systems, making way for the more poetic, Tom Marshall-penned lyrics to come. Those would require respect. (A kind of respect.) Here they were free to be kids.

But I’m getting away from this album, so we’ll complete that thought next time.

“The Mango Song” feels less important than songs like “Stash” or “Guelah Papyrus.” It’s more obviously playful, with the lyrics spinning an obscure joke as opposed to an indistinct adventure. It’s cheery. It’s one long punchline. And it’s fun, like so much of A Picture of Nectar, while also being musically complex.

Vocals overlap to produce a kind of sidelong harmony with conflicting lyrics. Melodies chase each other around. Focus on any one instrument and it will sound like it’s working its own, independent magic, that just so happens to fit what the other instruments are doing around it.

It feels like a beautiful accident, and I mean that as a compliment. The studio version gets at least a few bonus points, as well, for the song’s comparative rarity in the live setting. If you want to hear “The Mango Song,” you’re best served by reaching for the CD. And you’ll be happy if you do, because the performance you’ll find there is pretty great.

Chalk Dust Torture

If you want to hear “Chalk Dust Torture,” though, for God’s sake, ignore this one at all costs. That’s easy to do, because the band’s played it frequently at pretty much every point in its life, leaping between blistering, punchier versions and longer, oddly moody, jammy versions…but even the worst live version is sure to be better than this disappointingly lifeless rendition.

That’s not to say it’s bad, but it sure feels limp. The band doesn’t seem all that engaged with it, really, and it feels like they’re more focused on on hitting their marks than playing with much feeling. But the worst part is Trey’s vocal, which is artificially deepened and/or slowed down for reasons I could not possibly try to explain.

It makes the song nigh unlistenable, and while I understand — and appreciate — the many avenues of studio experimentation A Picture of Nectar immortalizes, this version of “Chalk Dust Torture” is poorer for it. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to have a clean version of this great, bluesy rocker to dip into now and again. Instead we get one that answers the question of whether or not it would be a good use of studio time to make Trey sound like Cookie Monster. (THE ANSWER SOMEHOW IS NO.)

Again, it’s not horrible, but those vocals feel like a painful miscalculation.

But, hey, it’s not the last time we’ll hear “Chalk Dust Torture” on disc…

Faht

Drummer Jon Fishman wrote a song that’s exactly what you think a drummer picking loosely at an acoustic guitar would be. Evidently this was recorded as some kind of joke at the expense of new age music, or something. Needless to say, it’s hilarious.

Wait.

It’s a waste of a track. That one.

Catapult

Okay, yeah, the last stretch of songs on A Picture of Nectar isn’t really notable for anything beyond its willingness to experiment. But “Catapult” is something a little different. It’s only a few seconds long, and it’s just bassist Mike Gordon singing a brief little verse through what sounds like an office PA system, but it’s actually had an interesting journey through the band’s live shows.

Since the album version has no instrumentation behind it, Gordon is free to sing it wherever he pleases, overtop totally unrelated jams or other sonic stretches. And sometimes he does. (Or did. I’m not quite sure when its last appearance was, but it may have been some time ago.) Sometimes Trey does, too.

And so “Catapult” has often become a verse in other songs, just because its lack of anything but a few words to remember means it’s easy to launch into whenever the spirit moves somebody.

But…that’s about it for “Catapult.” Its studio version doesn’t even offer a chance to hear the lyrics more clearly, as the distortion renders it just about as intelligible as you’d be able to glean over crowd noise anyway. It’s kind of cool to experience it in its entirely unassuming, weightless original form, but it’s a novelty, and by no means an intriguing one.

Tweezer Reprise


But we end with something kind of cool! A much shorter reprise of “Tweezer,” with an adjusted and key-shifted riff that heralds a great — if predictable — album-ending cacophony. It’s a nice celebratory end to a collection of songs that deserves to be celebrated, even if many of the individual compositions don’t.

A Picture of Nectar found the band trying everything — with each member contributing something they wrote independently, which I don’t think would happen again until 2004’s Undermind — just to see what would work. The unspoken flipside of that is that they’d also see what didn’t work, and this album immortalizes as much of that stuff as it does the successes.

From here on out, they’d know what they were doing. And we’d get some truly great albums out of that knowledge. Our next entry, Rift, is a brave next step. And if it stumbles, it will be the kind of stumble you can only make after you figure out what you’re doing, and start trying to do it as well as possible.

I’ll see you there in 2029.

Oh, but, man, before I go, I have to say that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really great pun that I never see anyone acknowledge, so let me just acknowledge now that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really, really great pun.

Ah, the poor Wii U. It never did quite capture hearts the way nearly all of its predecessors did, and I’ll be the first to admit that it never came close to reaching its potential as a home console. Nintendo had the odd strategy of baffling consumers with it and then plopping it onto shelves in the hopes that it would somehow take care of itself.

It never did. We know that. And just four short years later, Nintendo quietly killed it off, like a cast member it could never figure out how to integrate into plots. Last night the company hosted a live debut of The Switch, the Wii U’s replacement console. It’s officially dead, and it’s never coming back.

But there is one small benefit that comes from a console with such a short lifespan: it’s pretty easy to pinpoint its highs. And because it struggled for releases I can honestly say that I’ve played an uncommonly high percentage of games available for the system.

As such, I’d like to present to you the ultimate top 10. And, no, there’s absolutely no Mario here. (Perhaps that was one of the problems?)

As secondhand Wii Us become more plentiful and less expensive, this list might help you decide what to pick up in order to build a collection. And, you know what? If you just played these games, I bet you could trick yourself into thinking this was one of the best systems yet.

I will point out before we start that downloadable games are not exempt from consideration…but none of them made the list. I don’t think there was anything in the Wii U eShop that really demanded download, the way the Wii had with World of Goo, the two classic Mega Man reprisals, the BIT.TRIP series, the Art Style series, Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth, and lots more.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that as much as people referred to it as a “first-party system,” there’s a good amount of third-party releases on this list. I honestly didn’t expect that, but I was pleased to see it.

The Wii U had some truly great games. It’s just a shame they were destined to be overlooked.

10) Sonic Lost World

I have no idea why this game gets brushed aside the way it does. I suspect it’s just because of the (rightful) prejudice that’s developed against modern day Sonic the Hedgehog games, because Sonic Lost World is a great deal of fun, and certainly one of the best titles in the series post-Genesis. I do remember reading a lot of grumbling about how closely the game attempted to emulate (or…rip off) Super Mario Galaxy, but having played it myself, I can only conclude that those people are parroting conclusions they couldn’t have possibly reached themselves. It’s nothing like Super Mario Galaxy…unless you count all the times that Sonic runs upside down or on the sides of walls, in which case the series has been ripping off Super Mario Galaxy since 16 years before that game was released. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun, unfairly dismissed, and one that’s definitely worth appraising on its own merits. It won’t change any lives, but it’s a very enjoyable few hours.

9) Nintendo Land

No, it wasn’t Wii Sports. No, grandma didn’t want to play it. No, it didn’t show off the console’s abilities in as urgently engaging a manner. But Nintendo Land was a legitimately great pack-in. Granted, on its own it was pretty dull, but playing with others was a blast. The concept — a themepark-inspired collection of minigames based on Nintendo’s various properties — was solid, and while the games weren’t of a uniformly high quality, the experience had a lot to recommend it. There were arcade games, adventure games, racing games, and even games that were more like puzzles. It was fun, and easily the best implementation of the Miis on the entire console. What’s more, the Luigi’s Mansion game is still probably the single best use of the gamepad, allowing some genuinely tense games of hide and seek between a group of players sitting next to each other on the couch. I’ll admit that I didn’t play Nintendo Land much, but whenever my friends and I did pull it out, I was reminded of just how much fun video games can be.

8) Batman: Arkham City

I’m noticing at this very moment that this is the only game on the list that was never exclusive to the Wii U. I think that may say something. As much guff as the Wii U got for lacking exclusives, the ones it did have were pretty darned good. Batman: Arkham City was playable on all of the major consoles of its generation, and I’m not going to tell you that this is the best way to play it. I don’t know that for sure, and I certainly don’t remember the gamepad giving me much more than a (welcome) map. But I will say that the game was great, superior to its already excellent predecessor Arkham Asylum in every way…except perhaps in focus. Arkham City probably had a bit too much going on, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, I distinctly recall fatigue setting in a few times over. If you self-police, though, and refuse to let yourself get bogged down in the far too numerous sidequests, instead cherry-picking only the ones that seem most interesting to you, you’ve got a great game, with some of the most satisfying combat I’ve ever experienced. Some will tell you that Asylum is the better game. Others just as quickly point to City. Either way, though, you’re in for a soaring, dark, bone-crunching treat.

7) Bayonetta 2

I’ll admit, Bayonetta 2 makes this list due at least in part to the fact that the game came with a complete, remastered version of the first game…for no extra charge. I’d never played Bayonetta, so this was the perfect opportunity to do so. It was even better than the rave reviews led me to believe. It was brilliantly excessive and often deeply funny, with an attitude of unbridled, over the top abandon. And, somehow, the sequel had even less restraint. But what really made the game — both games — great was the combat, which seems confusing until you actually start trying the things the game teaches you. It’s the kind of game that seems to have endless combinations of buttons to remember, and which necessitates practice screens to get them right, but once you’re in the flow of an actual fight, it just…works. What seems impenetrable is revealed to be natural, and that’s a fantastic trick. To this day I’m not sure if I ever learned to play the game properly, or if Bayonetta and its sequel are just that good at making your mistakes look so stylish. Bayonetta herself is also one hell (ahem) of an engaging protagonist. Kudos to the games, as well, for taking a hyper-sexualized character and not making her seem hyper-sexualized at all. Bayonetta is just who she is. If that happens to be sexy, then so be it. You can stay there in the gutter; she’s got other places to be.

6) Rayman Legends

Rayman Legends is vastly inferior to Rayman Origins, its predecessor on the Wii. It doesn’t feel as inventive or unexpected (the uphill battle faced by all direct sequels, admittedly), and its mandatory gamepad sequences are, to be blunt, pretty awful. They entirely break the flow and pace of the game, and I can honestly say that I felt my heart sink every time I saw that I was in for another one of those levels. The fact that they seem to take the place of the mosquito-based shoot-em-up sequences from Origins made them even more disappointing; those levels broke format in a way that was exciting and fun. These just clog up the machinery. So why is it on this list? Because it’s still great. It says a lot about how fantastic Rayman Origins was that its far worse sequel is still wonderful in its own right. The levels (the standard ones, anyway) are all fun to play and full of surprises. The animation is fluid and downright gorgeous. The soundtrack is brilliant. And the musical levels? The musical levels are rightly lauded, and deeply rewarding to perfect. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the Wii U’s best games sees the gamepad being its biggest detriment. I’ll give Ubisoft credit for trying, though, and I mean that as a genuine compliment. But in the end, it was just a stone around the neck of an otherwise perfect platforming experience. And even with that hindrance, it’s a standout title of the entire generation.

5) Lego City Undercover

Grand Theft Auto is a fun series, but Lego City Undercover proves that you can have a lot of creative fun in an open world without having to lean on the appeal of mindless violence. (This isn’t meant to take anything away from Grand Theft Auto and its ilk; it’s just a genuinely nice surprise.) I adored Lego City Undercover. It was every bit what I imagined my little cities to be like when I built Lego structures as a kid. Racing around, finding new locations, tearing down and building up new buildings and objects…it was just fun. Much ado was made about excessive loading times, and that’s absolutely a fair complaint, but once you’re outdoors the entirety of Lego City is yours to explore, unbroken, and so the loading times don’t interfere with the action so much as they draw a line between chapters of the story. The writing and voice performances are also brilliantly funny, with silly jokes and sharp wit sitting side by side, peppering every conversation with laughs and making the game that much more of a delight to play. Lego City Undercover looked like a cute, simple kiddie game. But it was actually one of the best open world games I’ve ever played, and one of the few that kept me coming back long after the story was finished. I’m hoping that, one day, we can get a better-loved sequel.

4) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I remember when Donkey Kong Country Returns was announced for the Wii. People went ape. B-) ok but really tho, there was a huge amount of excitement about the return of the classic SNES-era platforming series. And, surprisingly, once the game was released that excitement was actually justified. Donkey Kong Country Returns wasn’t just another sequel; it was a great game. Less fanfare greeted Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That was to be expected, as it didn’t have the immediate “wow” factor of its predecessor. But that’s also a bit disappointing, as Tropical Freeze is absolutely the better game in every regard. Its levels are more varied, its soundtrack more memorable, and its character roster doubled. (The ability to play as Cranky is every bit the reward we always knew it would be.) It also seems to have a much more rational difficulty curve. Whereas Returns hit unexpectedly hard early in the game and never really eased up after that, Tropical Freeze feels more like an adventure of satisfying ups and downs. I’ve played through this one multiple times, and I’m sure I’m not done with it. I’d even say it’s the best Donkey Kong platformer yet. And if you don’t agree, brother, you’re…bananas. B-)

3) Yoshi’s Woolly World

I expected to like this game, but I never expected to love it the way I do. I was a big fan of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I think most people were…even if they wished for a higher level of difficulty. I never understood that criticism; Kirby games certainly didn’t have a reputation for being anything beyond “pretty damned easy,” and, frankly, the fact that you couldn’t die didn’t make Kirby’s Epic Yarn a cakewalk; there were optional collectibles for those seeking a challenge, and many of them were very well hidden. The reason I bring this up is that Yoshi’s Woolly World not only addressed the difficulty concern — both through collectibles and tough as nails secret levels — but it’s a better game overall. What’s more, I’m not even a particularly big fan of the Yoshi series. This one won me over with its perfect blend of platforming and exploration, fairly pitched challenge, and visual aesthetic that clearly lands on the all-time-best list. It’s one of the few games from this generation that I bothered to 100%, which was surprisingly difficult to do so. And I loved every moment of it, and I’m currently playing through the entire game again with my girlfriend. Yoshi’s Woolly World could have rested on many things: its cuteness, its series pedigree, its visual invention. And yet, every aspect of the game goes at least one step beyond expectation. It’s sweet, charming, and deeply fun. It reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. And that soundtrack is just so pleasant and comforting…I can still call to mind specific songs from certain levels, which is something I’m not sure I’ve been able to do since the SNES days. Yoshi’s Woolly World is the best of classic gaming combined with the best of modern gaming. It’s this generation’s unexpected masterpiece.

2) Pikmin 3

Whenever a new Nintendo console is released, you can expect to hear the same questions about a few of its franchises. “Where’s Metroid?” “Where’s F-Zero?” “Where’s Star Fox?” Well, I don’t join in those particular choruses, but I sure as hell wonder where Pikmin is. After skipping the Wii entirely (ports excepted, only one of which, I think, was even available in this country), the series returned on the Wii U. And it wasn’t just the comforting return of a great series…it was the best title, easily. I loved Pikmin from the moment I played it on the GameCube. In fact, much of what I loved about that game came from the biggest criticism other people had about it: the strict time limit. I felt that it added some real stakes and facilitated a different kind of approach to problem solving than I would have employed otherwise. Normally I’m a careful guy; give me a strategy title, and I’m going to take a lot of turns to accomplish my goal, but I’m also going to come through relatively unscathed. Take too long to accomplish Pikmin‘s goals, though, and you suffocate on an alien planet. The game encourages and requires a sort of artful carelessness, which often fences you into having to deal with the consequences of a decision you previously made in a fit of panic. It was beautiful, it was fun, and it was my favorite GameCube game. Sure enough, the sequel eliminated the time limit, and felt inconsequential as a result. I never even bothered to finish that one, whereas I played through Pikmin many times, eventually earning the best ending. Pikmin 3 offers a great middle ground. There is a time limit, but it’s one you can extend by playing well, giving you the chance to progress more or less at your leisure…but punishing you with much tighter deadlines if you don’t take your task seriously. In short, it’s the sequel the first game always should have had. It looks better, it plays better, it sounds better, and it’s a thousand times more focused than Pikmin 2. Pikmin 3 would have been destined for this list even if it was a lazy reprise of the first game, because the first game was just that good. But what we got was a phenomenal experience, and one I’d be grateful for even if I enjoyed nothing else on the Wii U. And it’s still not the system’s best title…

1) Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

The Wii U didn’t have a distinguished life. It was never well-loved. It may not even be remembered fondly. But the games on this list aren’t good ones; they’re great ones. And yet when I sat down to write it, I know immediately what the best of the best would be. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is my favorite game on the console, and one of my favorites in years. It’s an incredible, fun, addictive experience that didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved. It was also one of the few to use the gamepad in any truly meaningful way, turning it into the interface for a messenger app used by the characters. So, that’s nice. But it’s not what makes Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE so great. No. That would be the incredible, colorful, memorable visuals. The absolutely stellar soundtrack, consisting of some great, original J-pop songs. The brilliant combat that occupies perfectly the space between complex and frustrating. And the characters. Oh, the characters. While Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE gets flak for its story — which, to be fair, is pretty light — it’s really a game about its own characters. As much as it often seems to be otherwise, it’s not about finding and fighting a big monster. It’s about people discovering who they are. Figuring out what they want to be. Finding the right ways to get what they need. It’s a game about friendship, about support, about coming to understand each other. It’s a game about teamwork, and about the power that comes when you find yourselves pulling together in the same direction. (Ellie best girl btw) It’s an adorable, unforgettable experience, with a long campaign and lots of optional sidequests that flesh out the world and the characters that occupy it. I found myself seeking out as many things to do as possible, just to spend a little more time with the game…and that’s not something that I do often. There was a bit of disappointment surrounding this title when it was released, due mainly to the fact that it was initially pitched to the public as a crossover between the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei franchises. The result is a game that isn’t much like either, and that’s understandably disappointing for anyone who was hoping for the best of both. But Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a near-perfect RPG in its own right, and one of the most engrossing I’ve ever played. Not because I wanted to see what happened next…rather because, for once, I didn’t want to leave.

The Joy of Knowing Nothing

January 6th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games - (3 Comments)

Some time ago I picked up Tales of Zestiria from a PSN sale. It was an impulse buy; basically it was priced very low and I’d vaguely remembered hearing good things about the larger series. I didn’t, I hasten to add, pick it up because I had any specific interest in it or time to play it.

It sat on my home screen, waiting for me to give it a try, wondering if I’d really play Spelunky atrociously for the thousandth time again instead. At one point I did try it. I didn’t play for very long…just long enough to start to feel overwhelmed by the battle system. I figured I’d pick it up again, eventually, when I had the patience to really learn it.

And I didn’t touch it again for ages. I was intimidated by what I felt to be a needlessly complicated set of controls. I didn’t abandon the game, but I definitely decided I didn’t have the time to dig into it just yet.

Video games occupy a pretty interesting position in entertainment media, in the sense that gamers don’t really feel obligated to start a series at its beginning. Final Fantasy XV just came out, and if my Facebook timeline is to be believed, there are an awful lot of people diving in not because they have any familiarity with the series, but because it looked fun on its own merits.

The same thing happened with Fallout 3. With Ocarina of Time. With Skyrim. With Persona 4. Heck, it happens all the time. With very few exceptions, any series will be visited (or not) by an audience that dips in here, dips in there, samples one title, gets immersed in another, and probably isn’t following along in sequence.

It’s a bit odd. I’m sure relatively few people picked up the fourth Harry Potter book first, because it looked the most interesting. I don’t think anyone starts with Back to the Future III. People, on the whole, start series in other media at the beginning, and decide with each installment (or during each installment) whether or not they’d like to keep going.

I’d be tempted to compare video games to television episodes in that regard, but in the era of easily available back seasons and an increased reliance on serialization (even in silly sitcoms), people may not be dropping into and out of shows at disparate points as much as they used to.

Video games, though, are embraced in that way. In fact, developers bank on that fact. There’s no way Final Fantasy XV would have been greenlit, for instance, if Square Enix expected it to be purchased only by those who had played all fourteen of its main-series predecessors.

We count on people hopping in and out of game series. We’ll remaster or port an older installment for modern systems now and again, but almost never is it intended that gamers play each entry, in order, before grabbing whatever interests them most.

I know what you’re thinking: with few exceptions, video games series don’t have consistent plot threads. Characters from an earlier game might show up in a later one, and we all enjoy finding some visual or aural nod in a new game to an earlier one in its lineage, but stories are self-contained. Link is on one quest, and in another game he’ll be on the next. (And he probably won’t even be the same Link.) Mario still needs to rescue the princess. The members of STARS need to find — and stop — whatever’s behind this particular outbreak.

Experience with earlier games in the series might give you a deeper understanding of what’s happening, or help you to appreciate echoes and resonance that a newcomer wouldn’t recognize, but it’s not a prerequisite. You just need to jump in, find out what you need to accomplish, and then set about doing it. It’s a short story more than it’s a chapter in an ongoing narrative.

It does have some negative side effects, however. My experience with Tales of Zestiria was tainted almost immediately by the overwhelming controls. There seemed to be a preposterous number of button combinations to learn, which would trigger various actions that would then require their own button combinations to trigger the next set. It was too much.

I was fighting weak spiders in the intro dungeon* and slaying them easily…but I was only pressing one button. The tutorial windows and hint stones and menu explanations kept telling me how much more there was to learn. Sometimes they’d come in such rapid succession that I wouldn’t even be able to practice what I’d been told before I was being told something else.

For everything I had the chance to actually try, 10 different windows would be trying to teach me things I didn’t. It was noisy. And it just never seemed to stop. No matter how many I’d seen or how far I’d gotten, the game just wouldn’t stop telling me things.

I was still beating enemies with simple combinations and strategies, but I know that couldn’t last forever. At some point the game was going to ask me to use 50 things I’d learned to defeat a boss, when I would have retained only five. I had no hope of catching up. Hints and advice and guidance multiplied with every step I took.

It was too much. I stopped playing.

And yet, someone who had played the previous games probably wouldn’t have been overwhelmed.

I certainly can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the absurdly complicated controls of Tales of Zestiria evolved over the course of the fourteen previous games. They didn’t arrive fully formed; they started with some degree of complexity, and developed gradually from there. Fans of the series may have had some new things to learn in Tales of Zestiria, but I had to learn 15 games’ worth of new things. Those tutorial windows were there for me. Most people could blow right through them. “I remember this.” “Yes, yes.” “Oh, this is new…”

Me? I had to read them all. And feel crushed beneath their weight.

Game series don’t often have a crucial inter-title continuity…at least, not in a narrative sense. In the sense of game design, they nearly always do. Super Mario Bros. teaches us that Mario can stomp on enemies, but later games don’t bother, because they assume we know. A Link to the Past teaches us that link should cut grass and smash pottery. Later games assume we know. I hadn’t played Donkey Kong Country for years (or very much) before I played Donkey Kong Country Returns, and in that game I missed a lot of collectibles that relied on me “remembering” that Donkey Kong can leap out of a roll while falling.

You might know things; you might not. Games don’t expect you to remember (or even experience) all plot details, but they do expect that you understand the basic mechanics.

I don’t know why I stuck with Tales of Zestiria, or even why I went back. The story wasn’t especially engaging, but I did very much like the visual aesthetic. The soundtrack was also pretty incredible. And I think I was at least a bit seduced by the chance to play as an angel, which must hold some inexplicable appeal to me, as I remember that being something I also very much enjoyed in Dragon Quest IX.

But I did stick with it. At some point I felt so overwhelemed by the controls that I looked up a “how to play” video on YouTube. Again, I wasn’t doing poorly in the game; I just didn’t understand so much of what was being told to me that I expected to hit a wall at some point that I wouldn’t be able to get over. (Something I didn’t very much enjoy in Dragon Quest IX.) I only watched a little bit of the video, because something** was said that made everything click for me. I went back to the game…and played regularly from then on until I finished it.

And I loved it.

I genuinely fell in love with the game the more I played.

I loved the world. I loved navigating it. I loved the characters, who engaged me and felt important and distinct. I loved the animated cut scenes. I loved the music more and more with each new area I discovered. I loved tracking down the gigantic monsters that decimated my team earlier in the game to cut them to ribbons now that I’d gotten stronger. I loved finding sidequests, not because they were varied and exciting (they were often neither) but because the towns and NPCs felt real, and I actually felt like I was helping people. Like my assistance made a difference. Indeed, revisiting older towns to hear NPCs share rumors of my accomplishments helped me to feel that way.

I wasn’t a guy steering a video game character through challenges. I was helping people. What’s more, I was on an actual journey with my teammates. I could see and feel them change. I could see the world becoming a better place. I could understand how — precisely how, step by step — my character went from being a well-meaning nobody to being a savior. And I believed in the transition.

When I finished the game, finally, I looked it up. I read about it. I wanted to hear interpretations of its themes. I wanted to see people talking about how it tied into other games in the series. I wanted to get some sense of which characters (and stories) appealed to players on the whole, and which did not.

Instead, I found a lot of complaining. A lot of discord. A lot of people who felt let down by the experience. That was a bit strange to me, since I enjoyed it quite a lot, but the stranger thing was that they were taking issue with much of what I specifically loved. The music. The characters. The environments.

And what they were doing was comparing them, unfavorably, to the games that had come before.

When I played Tales of Zestiria, I could appraise it only on its own merits. It was necessarily its own experience. Maybe the soundtrack was a letdown compared to previous titles. Maybe the character design was a step backward. Maybe the story was, relatively speaking, simple and too predictable.

But I couldn’t possibly say any of that for sure.

And so I was free to enjoy it.

Which I kind of love.

The players experienced with the series likely weren’t as baffled or frustrated by the controls as I was, but they also didn’t enjoy the experience the way I did. And, of course, I wasn’t baffled and frustrated forever. Eventually I got over my misgivings. Did longtime fans get over theirs?

I don’t ultimately have advice to share, or a point to make, or much of anything to convey, really.

Except that, sometimes, knowing nothing might be its own reward.

—–
* “Introdungeon” is a portmanteau that’s almost too perfect when discussing video games.

** I could explain it here, but it’d only bore you. Suffice it to say that the game wasn’t teaching me new things the way I thought it was…it was giving me multiple ways to understand the things I’d already been taught. It encouraged me to complicate my strategy, rather than attempted to redefine it. Once I realized that I was free to concentrate on getting very good at just a few things, it made all the difference.

’16 Going On ’17

December 31st, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (7 Comments)

So ends everyone’s favorite year, ever.

I don’t think anyone within my circle of friends — real life friends and online friends alike — made it out totally unscathed, but that’s what comes with surrounding yourself people who still have shreds of moral decency, I guess. The point is: we made it through the arbitrary stretch we’ll all look back on as “2016,” probably while rolling our eyes or making a sour face or something.

It was a rough year, but I don’t need to tell anybody else that. And as we look forward to one of uncertainty (unless you’re one of my readers who is already on January 1, in which case it’s probably at least a little more certain)…this blog’s future follows suit.

No, I’m not shutting it down. (TOO BAD.) But my longest, most consistent project ended this year. I have a few other balls in the air, and some ideas, but it’s going to come down to where (and when) the inspiration finds me. I don’t have a specific direction right now. I do plan on running a reader’s survey* again very soon, so I can gauge what it is you would like to see here, but…frankly, I don’t know what 2017 will bring here.

If that sounds worrying or depressed or anything else along those lines, it shouldn’t. It’s exciting. I’m going to discover what comes next right alongside you. And I do have ideas for some posts that I know I’ll enjoy writing.

But…overall…

I don’t know.

And that’s okay.

There’s a lot that we don’t know as 2017 begins.

I just want to thank you all for making my year a little bit brighter. Every comment, email, Facebook message, or anything else I get from a reader makes my day. Even when they call me names or ask for my address so they can mail me ALF puppets.

You guys are great. And I’m thankful every day that I have an audience willing to indulge me in my bottomless, neurotic nerdery.

That’s the highlight of every year.

Thank you.

Now go have fun. Okay?

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* And please participate! I’ll have a prize or something, but, mainly, these surveys are tremendously helpful to me, and I want you to make your voice heard.

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