Peace and Love on the Planet Earth

Happy New Year, everyone! Now that we’ve hit 2017, we should really start thinking about a rapidly approaching decision – Will “the 20’s” will refer to the 1920’s or the 2020’s?

Irrelevant slang aside, 2016 was a really tough year. Even for those of us who escaped 2016 personally unscathed, the events of the year still dealt a heavy blow to any remaining optimism we had in reserve. (And for those of you who couldn’t care less about the events of 2016 because of a personal tragedy that blacked out everything else… I have no words.)

Because 2016 was so trying, it seems like a good time to reflect and re-center ourselves. Toward that end, I’d like to suggest a certain animated show that I binged over the course of 2016, that always manages to make me smile and rekindle a bit of the hope that 2016 nearly snuffed out. That show is not:

This show is not the subject of this post.

Yeah, holy crap, no, it’s not Bojack. Also an amazing show, but WOW is it depressing. Not today. I’ll cover Bojack later. Rather, today I want to talk about:

They’ll always save the day! (And if you think they can’t, they’ll always find a way!)

Steven Universe! A Cartoon Network show I first started watching on my way home from Thailand at Ethan’s suggestion (thanks, Ethan!) that I have only become more obsessed with over time.

In short, the show centers around the titular character Steven, at center in the above image. In the most abstract sense, the show is about Steven growing up and learning about himself as a half-human, half-non-organic-alien (Gem) hybrid. The three beings around Steven (from left to right: Pearl, Garnet, and Amythest) are three Gems that make up Steven’s family and live peacefully among humanity as its self-appointed protectors.

Before I go any further, I know what you’re thinking: “Gems? Aliens? Cartoon Network? Really? So it’s a kids show and it only makes you smile because it’s simplistic, preachy, and sugar-coated”. In fact, you (the hypothetical you, anyways) couldn’t be more wrong. It would be a dire mistake to judge Steven Universe by its cover. Underneath that bright, saturated and lovably-rounded exterior, the show has:

  • An intense sci-fi plotline spanning the entire show, which is currently midway through its fourth season
  • A cast of deep and real characters, each struggling with their own personal demons
  • A cast that is, in terms of the voice actors for the main characters, majority female and majority non-white
  • Blunt and empathetic discussions about real issues that have no simple solutions, like colonialism and healthy relationships

Even while tackling depressing and difficult issues, Steven Universe remains positive and upbeat. The essential moral lesson of the show as a whole is that the right combination of empathy, patience, determination and self-value can overcome any challenge. In the face of insurmountable odds or a crisis of faith, you still have control over yourself and who you want to be. As 2016 showed us, the world can sometimes be terrifying, chaotic, and downright depressing. Even with the worst that can possibly be thrown at you, you can still try to be better than you were yesterday, to believe in yourself and those around you. Not because doing so will grant you magical anime powers to accomplish the impossible, but because if there’s a change to be made in the world around you, it has to start with you.

Really, watch the show. Episodes are only ~11 minutes long (with two fitting in a standard half-hour TV block) and the show starts to get good even within the first ten episodes, so think of it as if I were suggesting that you watch one episode of an hour long show. I’m going to end with a long quote from the season two episode “It Could’ve Been Great”, in which one character tries to convey this sense of optimism, despite everything, to another. Take from it what you will, and happy 2017!

1: Working hard is important, but feeling good is important too

2: What are you talking about? (Presses trigger of electric drill)

1: Hey! Bzzzz… What is that, a C? (Plays a C on their ukelele)

2: The drill? (Presses faster speed of electric drill, playing a G)

1: Oh my gosh, now it’s music!

2: Music?

1: Well yeah, it’s music. Like.. this. (playing) Do re me fa so la ti do! (Plays a chord)

2: Do me so do

1: (Plays a chord) Isn’t it pretty?

2: That’s exceedingly simple

1: (Plays a chord)

2: Do me so ti

1: (Plays a chord) We’re making music!

2: What is the point?

1: (Starts playing a song)

2: You’re not making anything

1: Well if it isn’t anything, then why does it sound so good?

2: I guess it’s just interest, do me so do, devoid of substance or purpose, a hypothetical pattern, do me so ti, for the satisfaction of bringing it to completion!

1: Sure!

2: Interest without meaning, solutions without problems…

1: And then you just add words. Here’s one I’ve been working on..

Life and death and love and birth,
And peace and war on the planet Earth.
Is there anything that’s worth more
Than peace and love on the planet Earth


Sing an Eb if You Agree

Not that much remains of the Spring 2015 semester. One more test needs taking, boxes need packing, and an apartment needs cleaning, but after that I trade in Ithaca for Sunny(vale) Cali. Before I begin my final checklist, I absolutely need to take a moment to reflect on the events of this afternoon. A few hours ago I journeyed to the Regal Cinemas in the Ithaca mall to see Pitch Perfect 2 with my favorite Jewish-themed A Cappella group, The Chai Notes. I can’t know how this movie will affect (or won’t affect) other people, but as the cap on three years of A Cappella, Pitch Perfect 2 hit me right in the feels.

To bring you uncultured philistines who haven’t made time to see the best sequel since Home Alone Two: Lost in New York (just kidding, it’s actually Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) up to speed, here’s your super-brief summary of both Pitch Perfect movies.

  • Music nerd Beca (yes that’s how they spell her name, apparently) goes to local college because her father works there. She has no intentions of auditioning for A Cappella but is ambushed in the shower by Barton Bellas member Chloe and coerced into auditioning.
  • Beca ends up auditioning (via the cup song) and getting in to the Bellas. From there she injects new ideas into the group, fueling their drive to the top
  • At the end of the first movie, the Bellas manage to win the national title and retire in fame back to college.
  • Since the first movie 3 years have passed, since when the Bellas have consecutively defended the national title. All of the returning characters are now seniors, with one as a super-super senior who has failed classes to not have to graduate.
  • An unfortunate choreography accident ends up embarrassing the Bellas to the point of their being suspended from competing in America or taking new members. Through reasonably sound logic the Bellas determine that their only path back to fame is to win the A Cappella World Championships.
  • Standing in their way is a german group called Das Sound Machine (DSM for short) who is intimidating in just about every way, and are also the reigning world champs.
  • After falling even further, the Bellas regroup at a retreat to rediscover themselves as a group and as individuals.
  • Coming back from that, they group up and take down the world championships with a completely original song written by freshman legacy Emily and produced by Beca.

The movie does a good job of depicting the career struggle that all college students go through. In the first movie Beca struggles internally to find her place in the world, and the the second movie she works to try and prove that she deserves a slot in that world after graduation. It also both criticizes and glorifies the organization-based bonds that are forged during college, specifically pertaining to A Cappella groups but with easy extension to greek houses and academic groups. Is the short four-year span we get to spend learning all we can about our new “family” a fatal flaw in the bonds we form during college, or the hottest fire that permits life-long friendships to be created during such a short span of time? The movie seems to suggest the latter, but adds a crucial caveat: when it comes your time to move on to that next step in your life, you can’t stall with one foot out the door. The final (and hardest) step of making life-long friends during college is knowing that when college ends you have to move on to bigger and better things.

These are all reasons why I think Pitch Perfect 2 is a pretty good movie for anyone. They aren’t, however, the reasons why I was tearing up at the final victory scene. More than anything else, I can personally say that Pitch Perfect 2 perfectly chronicles the internal struggles faced by The Chai Notes during my tenure here, and I would guess that many other groups at Cornell if not nationally can say the same. Over the duration of the movie, the Bellas struggle with two central conflicts which cannot be fully resolved – they can only be patched for this generation before coming up again with the next fresh batch of auditionees.

The first conflict is particularly applicable to collegiate A Cappella, an entertainment form that requires long hours on a very regular schedule and that is populated almost exclusively by students who have no desire to make professional music into their careers. Here we are, pre-meds and engineers, designers, architects and others, who spend 7+ hours/week in the music building. Doesn’t that seem insane? The obvious question this begs is the same one asked by Pitch Perfect 2 – why do we do it? What are we hoping to gain, on a scale greater than one concert for each semester? After all it seems that after we graduate all our effort will only amount to a resume line that quickly gets evicted in favor of more career-specific experience. There are two quick answers to the question of purpose: we do it because we enjoy it, or we do it because we want to make good music. On the surface these two reasons can coexist, but it isn’t too long into the lifetime of any group before they come into conflict. Fun is rarely hard to find at the start, but when it’s the third hour of the second extra rehearsal this week, the question of why we do it is on everyone’s mind.

Over my three years we’ve come awfully close to “losing the fun” on a few occasions. We were all working hard to put together the best concert we could possibly manage, and in the process we pushed the metaphorical engine too far. Everyone was frustrated with just about everyone, and as the fun disappeared productivity started to drain with it. At each point, however, the people in power took stock and made changes to ensure that the fun came back. Every time we went up to the brink of disaster we came back stronger than ever, and with new appreciation for the people who double the above time commitment to run the group.

The truth is that without fun there can’t be good music, and without good music there can’t be fun. If everyone is pissed all of the time and everything is a struggle nothing is going to sound good no matter how many extra hours are piled on. On the other hand, if it is common knowledge that the group isn’t good, it’s hard to enjoy the experience of producing sub-par music. Seeing the Bellas up on the screen dealing with their interpersonal problems and differing visions of the group was extremely cathartic. I’ve been in that position, when it simultaneously feels like one wrong move will irrevocably break the group you’ve tried so hard to build up, but that you also are so out of energy that you just don’t care anymore. I know how much effort it takes to come back from that position both from watching it and from being in the driver’s seat, and how great it feels to have group-wide happiness and unity once more.

The second question the movie asks is one faced by every group looking to actively improve, and so certainly applies to The Chai Notes. It takes time for the question to develop in the movie, but around the campfire it is eventually aired: Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be viewed as? In the movie the Bellas try to beat DSM by taking a page out of their book, but this only leads to catastrophic failure as their performances become more and more hectic. Only by returning to what made them great in the first place are they able to take DSM down and secure the world championship. This is an easy movie theme to spin (the power was within you all along!), but in reality is unfortunately only partially true. Collaborating with and learning from other competing groups around your own is a very worthwhile process, both in A Cappella and in life as a whole. I very often walk away from performances by other groups on campus pondering what my single favorite part of their performance was, and how we could better appeal to that aspect of performing. I consider myself lucky to be on a campus where each different A Cappella I see perform brings something new to appreciate and learn from.

During these internal one-sided discussions, however, I always hit up against the hard underlying truth harped on in Pitch Perfect 2 – maybe the reason that group was able to blend so well and that other group made my jaw drop from solo power was because those are just their things. Maybe instead of (or in addition to) trying to incorporate the best elements of other groups into our own we should be focusing more on what we do the best, and taking pride with that one aspect of our performance. After all, I joined The Chai Notes for a reason – I felt they were a group of people I could be comfortable around, being my regular weird self and expressing that in my performance. We let our fun fuel our performance. Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me. Just the like the previous question, this one can only be answered by a balance of the two extremes. You have to take some inspiration from outside sources, or risk becoming stale and both externally and internally boring. On the other hand, you can’t lose yourself so far into your pursuit of excellence that you forget what made your group unique, and why you joined it in the first place.

To this day I remain at the core that same quirky freshman, and I’m proud to say that our group environment hasn’t changed since. I’m also proud to say that if I were to audition today, I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t get accepted. We’ve come a long way in the last six semesters, and I’m honored to have been part of that well-earned ascension.

Not only has the group changed, but I have as well. Thanks to my time in The Chai Notes, I am now much more able to express myself, both on a personal level and on a stage. I’m more comfortable following someone else’s schedule, and I’m able to transition between being a friend and a board member as the scenario requires. I may be the same quirky freshman as before, but I’m a lot more prepared to take on the world than I would have been with only a B.A. in CS and Econ. If I had somehow been told during my first semester how big of an impact this group would have on me, I’m not sure I would believe it. Even more worrying, I’m not sure I would have auditioned with the knowledge that I would change so much. Change can be a scary thing, and I don’t trust my freshman self to have made the right decision knowing what was on the line.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t. I walked into and out of the audition worrying only about how well I had done. I showed up to the callback late because my instructions were vague, and immediately set to wondering if I had already blown my chance. Only after our first concert did I start to realize what I had gotten myself into, and by that point I was so enamored with the group that I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

To our seniors – Becca and Justin, you will be solely missed. Both of you are so talented in many ways and I know you’ll kick ass out in the real world. Don’t forget to drop us a line every now and again.

To the current members – Watching Pitch Perfect 2 reminded me to be appreciative of how far we’ve come. That’s not to say we should stop striving to make tomorrow’s group better, but after every event I think we’d be greatly mistaken to not take a moment and relish our successes thus far. As I’m sure you all know, we don’t have all that long in the group. Every performance, every rehearsal, and every party is sacred because starting from your very first rehearsal you are counting down to the day when you have to leave.

To those members that I haven’t met yet –  August can’t come soon enough. You’re about to embark on a journey that will change your college experience, and maybe even your life. You just don’t know it yet.

P.S. – This bulk of this post was written while listening to Dream On off of The Key Elements’ new album Catalyst. It gives an extra air of power to the post that I rather like. Check ’em out here.

Never Have to Change

“Remember when you were fourteen? You’d paint every picture so green…”

Seems like I’m doing posts in pairs. One more music post, then I’ll rotate through to another topic.

My music tastes have varied over time, but one artist has stuck with me for about a decade at this point. Back in the day, one of my middle school friends gave me a mix-CD with his favorite hits. It mostly consisted of late 90s and early 2000s hits like “All Star” (Smash Mouth), “Absolutely” (Nine Days) and “Clocks” (Coldplay). Nestled among what would become the most identifiable songs of the period were two songs I’d never heard before. Trusting my friend, I listened to the whole cd through and hit upon these songs. During my initial listen through I didn’t know that these two songs belongs not only to the same artist, but on the same CD – this was in the days of cd players, so I just saw “track-1”, “track-2”, etc. When I finally asked my friend for a list of songs so I could update the track listing, I was initially shocked that one band could pull off both of these orthogonal feels so well. A quick search found that the band in question was Guster; I had stumbled upon “Amsterdam” and “Keep it Together”.

Since then I have become a huge Guster fan. I own the bulk of their current music and I’ve preordered the next album. I went with friends to their concert when they came to Ithaca College last fall. Ever since I first listened to Amsterdam and Keep it Together I’ve known that Guster was something special musically. The catchy guitar riffs, dynamic drum lines, and unique chord progressions Guster uses in their music set them in a league all their own. While it means they might not achieve the flash-in-the-pan success that simpler songs like All Star and Absolutely did, their well thought out music stands the test of time, which to me is more important.

It took me time to realize, however, how interesting and complex the lyrics of Guster songs are. Amsterdam is not a happy, bouncy song – it is a slightly vengeful testimony of an ex-boyfriend who is cleaning out his apartment after his former girlfriend dumped him and left. Now, left among piles of her stuff, he is left alone with his thoughts and his guitar. Keep it Together isn’t song to inspire confidence – it begins with a group of shipwreck survivors who start a new society on their island, only to have it thrown back into chaos as the rest of the world finds them and forces its way of life back upon them.

For this post, however, I’m going to focus on a different song on the same album (titled Keep it Together), that I only discovered later when I purchased the remainder of the album for myself. Here’s “Red Oyster Cult”

Quick musical note for those who are unaware: a time signature designates how to count out a measure in a piece of music. In extreme brevity, 4/4 (read as four-four) means that there are 4 beats in a measure, usually equally or close to equally stressed. This means when a song is in 4/4 you can count 1…2…3…4…1..2.. (etc) at some speed and it will be “in time” with the song. Most every pop song nowadays is in 4/4. In contrast, 3/4 (read as three-four) means that there are 3 beats in a measure, usually with beat 1 stressed more than the others. For a good example of a classic 3/4 song, see “Over the River and Through the Woods” (could also be interpreted as 6/8 or 12/8, but that’s close enough for my purposes).

After my starting experience with Guster I simply had to have the whole album, so I bought it and ripped through it. Red Oyster Cult immediately attracted me because of its altering time signature – the song constantly switches between 3/4 and 4/4. Everything I’m about to note has thematic significance, so try to remember it all throughout. It begins in 3/4, but settles into 4/4 after just 8 seconds. From there the pattern seems to be verses in 4/4 and choruses in 3/4. The verses use a very straight 4/4 beat, with absolutely nothing to imply that a 3/4 feel was ever present. Everything is clean and polished. Then suddenly at 0:31 it breaks back into 3/4. The first two measures after this change are slow and quiet, but afterwards, at 0:34 we return to the same motif the song began with – a hectic, full rhythm that gives the sensation of lurching and loss of physical control. The chorus begins at 0:42 with a triplet feel rhythm within the 3/4 time (thus could be interpreted as a very fast 9/8). Mid way through the chorus voices join in with the solo, lending it power and making it more melodic. Then, suddenly, we are back to the straight 4/4 time at 0:58. This time, however, there is a triplet rhythm underneath, starting at 1:02. The 3/4 feel (chorus) is beginning to bleed into the 4/4 (verse). The same pattern follows – a few slow bare 3/4 measures and then back into a chorus at 1:36. The “bridge” – really verse three – at 1:54 is a final restatement of the verse feel and time signature. It is the barest and simplest of the three verses; the soloist is up an octave in his head voice, there is a whistle accompaniment, and the drum line barely supports him. At 2:17 we return to the simple 3/4 feel, and at 2:32, with a strong bass hum, the 3/4 chorus returns, finally dominating and destroying the 4/4 verse. From here the song continues as an instrumental, showing off varied riffs from the whole band.

Before moving on, let’s quickly look at the themes portrayed here. We have two separate worlds. One is simple and regular and unsurprising – the 4/4 verses. The other is drastic, wild, and just a little bit out of control – the 3/4 choruses. Finally, over the course of the song, the 3/4 choruses win – the 4/4 exhales its final breath at 2:16, and at 2:32 the 3/4 takes final control of the song to close it out. These are two different sides of an argument, two different world views. And when we are done, only one remains.

Now lets take a look at the lyrics. They take the general feel described above and give it a specific scenario and plot. The song addresses a person who is not the listener; I’m going to call this person Lewis, a normal name for a normal person who is thrown into anything but a normal situation.

Doesn’t it bring you down
So many lights and sounds

First of all, it seems the narrator is speaking to Lewis in the 2nd person, but that Lewis is unaware of the narrator’s presence yet. Thus the narrator is a person, Lewis is some other person, and they will come into contact. The narrator also seems sympathetic to the Lewis, and guesses or assumes that Lewis is currently feeling overwhelmed with his life and the world as a whole.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her you’re coming home

The narrator watches Lewis call his family and explain his woes. Lewis’ life isn’t working out the way he wanted it to, and above all he’d like to simply go home and have things be simple again.

Tell her there’s not a chance
You’re ever going to change the world

While talking with his family, Lewis says this key phrase. Lewis thought, at one time, that he was going to change the world. In the face of everything life has thrown at him, however, Lewis is giving up. This is when the 3/4 rhythm begins, a foreshadowing for what is about to occur. Our narrator has seen enough, and now decides to present himself to Lewis. During the instrumental break he enters Lewis’ apartment building and walks up to knock on his door.

If you want to be free, take a sip of this tea
Join the red oyster cult
If you drink the whole cup, you will never grow up
You will never grow old

The narrator waltzes past Lewis and dances around his apartment, brandishing a cup of tea in an oyster shell. He offers membership in the “Red Oyster Cult”, a group neither the listener nor Lewis have ever heard of before (thought “Cult” is certainly dubious). In exchange for joining the cult and drinking this tea, the narrator promises the ultimate reward – eternal youth. Rationally, Lewis refuses and shoves the raving narrator out of his apartment, slamming the door afterwards.

Remember when you were 14
You’d paint every picture so green

The narrator doesn’t leave the hallway, instead painting a scene into Lewis’ past. 4/4 time has returned, but all the while a triplet rhythm continues underneath. When Lewis was a younger artist, he apparently used a much more monochromatic color scheme. The point of this statement is that when Lewis was younger, things were simpler. He worried less about how his art took form, and was happier with his final products he produced. Not so anymore.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her your muse is gone
Tell her there’s not a chance
You’re ever going to change the world

Lewis’ parents call him back, and Lewis is again angrily explaining why he must come home. The narrator giddily dances outside the door while Lewis shows down his parents and hangs up the phone.

Just a few drops away, you’ll never want to change the world

The narrator carefully cradles the cup of tea, swirling it with a spoon. Only a moment more and Lewis back to his old self, with his old abilities, mindset, and even desires.

If you want to be free, take a sip of this tea
Join the red oyster cult
If you drink the whole cup, you will never grow up
You will never grow old

As soon as Lewis hangs up the phone the narrator kicks down the door, this time followed by a parade of children. They tear the apartment apart, wildly throwing pillows and ransacking dressers and closets. Lewis tries to stop them, but each time finds himself face to face with a flawlessly innocent face and wide smile, marred only by crimson red eyes. He is unable to stop them, and lets them go about their destructive work. Amidst the chaos, Lewis understands, just in time to be knocked unconscious by a thrown book. At this, the narrator nods and signals; everyone exits out the busted door.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her you’re coming home
Tell her there’s not a chance you’re ever going to change the world
Just a few drops away
You’ll never have to change

Lewis finally wakes up hours later, alone among the wreckage. Everything is in disarray, save his bedside table which has been placed at the center of his apartment. On the center of the table is a cup of tea, still warm. Pushing himself onto his feet, Lewis stumbles over to the table and picks up the oyster teacup. He stares at it for a second, then drinks it in a single swallow. The apartment is bathed in red light as the process begins; pulsing wind begins to swirl at Lewis’ feet as his clothes become baggy, and the doorframe gets taller. Moments later it is done. Lewis is gone, and in his place is a small child, grinning with youthful, demonic delight, crimson eyes glinting. Everything is simple as Lewis wanted it – just as it once was, and as it will always be.

The fountain of youth, or in this case Red Oyster Tea, comes with a dire and often under appreciated curse: to never change mentally. Yes, you may stay young forever, but you will also have only the desires and thoughts of a child as well. It means mentally limiting yourself to your aspirations that you desire towards today. It is forsaking all tomorrows for a singular, infinite yesterday.

Red Oyster Cult is about the struggle we all face going through life. Imagine your darkest, most desperate moment. What if, right then, a stranger appeared to you and told you he could make everything simple again. No catch, no strings, just to become a younger version of yourself and stay that way – forever. Lewis faces such a situation, and in a fit of anger, frustration, and desperation, gives in.

Life is first and foremost a journey. As with all journeys it has its rough spots, when all hope of improvement seems lost. To desire life to return to how it once was is to turn back on Life’s journey. In the real world, It’s not how things get better. Don’t look back and despair, rather take the next step forward and focus on how to fix the problems you face today.

A Pastel Worldview

For those of you who noticed, I had put up a post about the computer science curriculum and how it could be changed. After receiving a good deal of input, I’ve decided to take it down for the time being. I want to get the optimal chance of making a difference, and there are some official avenues I should try before I just through my thoughts online. End of that for the time being.

It’s been a long week, but now it is finally at a close. And so is the weekend… Back to the grind. Whenever I get to the end of a stressful period, I listen to one particular song to remind myself that everything, all of the struggle and frustration, is worth the effort. I didn’t always have this song, and before I did I recall constantly scrolling through my music library trying to find a song that epitomizes happiness. My problem was that while I had songs that were happy in some way or another, each was tilted towards a particular other emotion. For example, “We are the Champions” (Queen) is a triumphant, victorious happy. But what happens when you’re just happy, not because you’ve won anything or succeeded at anything in particular? “Gives You Hell” (All American Rejects) is on the same end of the spectrum – happy in an I-beat-you, vengeful fashion. There are an endless array of love songs that fit the category such as “Rollercoaster” (Bleachers) and “Out Loud” (Dispatch), but these don’t seem to apply as often as I would like. Finally, there are songs that come very close by trying as hard as they can to put happiness to words, like “The Important Thing” (These United States) and “Good Life” (OneRepublic).

While nearly hitting the mark, I never find these songs to be quite satisfying in defining happiness for me. I finally found my happy song off of an album recommended to me by a high school friend who I hear has gotten into comedy these days. That album is Endless Fantasy by Anamanaguchi, and the song is Pastel Flags:

From the opening 2, 3, 4 beats of the song Pastel Flags is pushing you forward. The half-time feel continues through the first four measures while momentum builds, then breaks to the (original) double time tempo to finish out the chorus. The solo synth line lays down a catchy progression that is played upon by periodic interjections from the higher harmony, only for the two to join together at the end of the first chorus at 0:18. The chorus resolves itself simply but firmly at 0:24. There is a brief interlude before the solo comes back in at 0:37. The solo line continues through the verse and into the chorus, with “breath” breaks filled in by harmonies that act as back-up singers. The beat keeps rolling with emphasis on 2 and 4 throughout except for part of the bridge at 2:15 where emphasis falls on the and of 3 and the and of 4. The final power drive of the song begins at 2:30, with the percussion filling every down beat, solo line re-stating all of the prior themes, and harmonies playing along with and through the solo. The song ends with a repetition of the last measure a few times, as if to draw out the emotion for just a few more seconds.

So that’s the song in a very dense nutshell. Without words, however, it seems strange that Pastel Flags can instantly and reliably make me happy. Let’s start with the title – what are Pastel Flags? In my mind, Anamanaguchi is picturing a room of children tasked with drawing the flag of whatever country they like. Hundreds of greedy hands reach into a worn cardboard box and come out with fists full of crayons, markers, and pastels. Only the brightest and boldest colors are included, all others tossed back in the box or over a shoulder. Lines are drawn haphazardly; stripes are uneven and symbols are misshapen. Most importantly of all, nothing is fully colored; white space peaks though all over the flags. Finally, a name is illegibly scrawled at the bottom of the paper, and they’re off! Off to recess, to story time, or to wherever else they are bound next.

Put this image and the song’s musical elements together and you get a wonderfully innocent and optimistic worldview. The world is full of bright colors, boundless joy, and incredible people. There’s no time to slow life down when there’s so many amazing things to do. The harmony parts are those who live life along with you, pushing you forward to be the very best you can be. Our words and actions are our pastels, our instruments of creating change in life. Everything around us is a marvelous pastel drawing that we run through and shape along the way, with crayons, markers, and pastels in both hands.

Just like the flags, though, this worldview is incomplete. There are white spaces, untouched by frenzied coloring, that are left unspecified. Similarly, there is tragedy and sorrow in the world. It is naive to pretend otherwise. Pastel Flags, however, isn’t denying that these blights are present. A Pastel Flag is perfect and beautiful, even if there are spaces left out. It reminds me that every now and again it’s good to feel purely, fully, and idiotically happy.

The End of the World (Part 2)

Turns out a lot of people actually enjoy reading my stuff. Whodathunkit? That said, the comment I’ve received from the most people has been “I didn’t read the heavy video game stuff but….”. What you choose to read of my posts is of course up to you. That said, I try to put everything I discuss in simple terms such that it is accessible to everyone. I suppose what I’m saying is perhaps you should give the heavy analysis a bit more of a chance. Maybe you still won’t like it, but maybe you will. Finally, to this point, I’m going to do a rotation of the topics I mentioned in my first post, meaning after this post I’ll do a few that aren’t about video games (maybe).

So back to Bastion. If you haven’t read part one, give that a quick review to catch up. From part one it is already common knowledge that I love Bastion and think the plot is amazing complex and one of my favorites of all time. Discussing it further, however, would edge too close to spoiling the game. Instead, I’m going to touch on some of the more subtle points that make Bastion incredible that a less ambitious game would have either ignored or executed poorly.

First up is Bastion’s score. Bastion features magnificent musical track that complements the game design and defines the tone of the game as a whole. Overall, the score is an interesting blend of western instrumentation and themes with the addition modern sounds. This creates a unique feel of a modern world that is unstable and gritty like the old west. Every song throughout Bastion was chosen to convey a specific tone upon the player to emphasize the narrator’s words and the settings the player is exploring. I’m going to write a bit about what I feel these songs are communicating, though because the first two are without words there is plenty of room for debate. Because there’s nothing to watch in these videos (just audio), set them to play while you continue to read.

First up “In Case of Trouble”, the main theme of the Bastion. It is the song that plays while you are home at the Bastion, where you return to after every level of the game:

Initially, in the game, the song has a more limited instrumentation, but as you progress through the game the bastion theme becomes more and more filled out – the version you are hearing is the final, completed song. Each added instrument is a new personality, cooperating with the others in its own rough yet harmonious fashion. The song speaks of hard-earned progress and human resilience against all odds, a fitting theme for the Bastion. It makes no reassurances about success in one’s toils – the frequent minor chords injected into the song warn of future challenges. But more than anything else, as the number of instruments grow and the base deepens, the song about the power to make the right decisions even when they are difficult, and the power to change one’s own fate. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s all up to you.

Next is “Twisted Streets” – the exploration song, which plays while you run through new areas.

The song begins grimly – the strong downbeat of cymbals on the first beat of every other measure accompanied by snare rolls throughout is reminiscently of a funeral march. Winds play along to with the darker notes, reminiscent of good times lost, with harsh pads combining to form terror. The song is about suppressed implications. The kid has a job to do but every passing ruined town burdens him further, mixing sadness at what was lost with horror at what has become.

Finally, one with vocals. This is “Build that Wall”, Zia’s theme.

The song speaks of two people – the singer, digging a hole, and some other person, building a wall. Many times, the singer alludes to the failure of the other person – “one day that wall is gonna fall” and “some day those tears are gonna spill”. The lyrics are very aggressive towards the other person: “so build that wall and build it strong ’cause we’ll be there before too long”, but the music doesn’t match. The singer knows that conflict is coming, but doesn’t rejoice or speak to her party’s strength. The lilting tone and simple plucked tones lament what will soon come to pass. At the same time, the singer expresses no emotion that would indicate the possibility of peace – all of the verb tenses imply certainty. Cities will be built, walls will fall, tears will be shed, and there’s no way to avoid any of it.

Overall, Bastion’s music is powerful and an ever-present force in the game. It conveys a number of emotions, but one is notably missing from the entire score: Happiness. There is accomplishment and pride, but all emotion throughout the game is accompanied by an undercurrent of remorse and regret. You’ll learn more as you play the game, but take my word for it that as the game progresses it is impossible for a character or the player to feel purely, simply happy about any turn of events.

Next let’s look a bit at the level design – the core level mechanic in Bastion is that the level assembles itself as the player walks along it. The first extremely clear benefit of this mechanic is that the player is never at a loss of where to go – just follow the self-creating path. Second, this mechanic lends itself to very narrow and uneven levels – terrain can follow any visual pattern because there is no surrounding terrain to connect it to. Finally, wide open areas gain significance. Where in other games narrow areas are more dangerous because of the possibility of being pinned down by enemies, wide open areas in Bastion are far more dangerous because they contain far, far more enemies, and every so often bosses.

Game Design Key Point: Terrain Graphic Contiguity. The terrain in Bastion is special specifically because it is so minimalist. Almost all of the generated terrain is walkable, and every bit of terrain receives extra focus as it moves into place from below the screen, perfectly suiting its surroundings. This is something that many designers forget – players notice when things look out of place. For an example of this, let’s take a look at the terrain of the Pokemon series.

Ruby/Saphire (GBA, 2002)
X/y (3DS, 2013)

In Ruby/Saphire (on right), everything is blocky and square aside from you, Prof. Birch, the Poochyena, and Birch’s bag. Therefore the terrain looks contiguous, with nothing out of place. Contrast this with the screenshot from X/Y (at left). Nintendo made a very conscious effort to make the terrain more real. The path curves well, the shrubs and trees are fairly well drawn, and the wild grass look like real ferns, though notably a bit too symmetric with one another. However, one thing is drastically out of place, and attention is drawn to it right away – the hills on the right. No dirt hill is an even 60 degree slant with perfect line divides drawn across it. It’s not the fact that these hills are so far off reality – clearly the hill in ruby/saphire, the brown line in the middle, is less accurate – it’s that the hills in x/y are the only thing that still looks unrealistic after the graphics update, and are now hilariously out of sync with their surroundings in terms of realism and quality. Players are willing to tolerate any level of graphic complexity – see the resurgence of pixel art games as of late – but seeing inconsistencies within a game’s graphics is like an un-sanded and un-painted edge on a piece of furniture. It speaks to a designer’s laziness in not finishing the feel of the game, even when that wasn’t the intention.  Designers have to be careful when asking for a graphics update, because performing an incomplete upgrade can do more harm than good.

I regret that I cannot talk more about Bastion’s plot, because it wouldn’t be fair to any who want to play the game for themselves. Therefore, that’s all for now. I’ll be back soon with something non-game related.