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Miscellaneous

Celeste, Tackling Anxiety with Synths

On January 25, 2018, a small team led by Maddy Thorson and Noel Berry at Extremely OK Games (EXOK) released Celeste. The game quickly grew in popularity as a 2D platformer with smooth, intuitive movement, a heartfelt narrative, and a stellar soundtrack. The impressive levels of depth to the game also helped launch a vibrant speedrunning community as it is the 6th most active game on speedrun.com.

I want to dive deeper, though, into how the music in this game ties together those other elements. Between Lena Raine’s composition and Power Up Audio’s sound design, Celeste has been nominated for (and won) 7 different awards for its score. There will be spoilers for the first 7 chapters that comprise the main game, so go play Celeste first if you haven’t already.

Lena Raine, composer and producer for Celeste. Photo courtesy of Sara Ranlett, under Creative Commons.

Opening Anxieties

Chapter 1, Forsaken City, establishes our protagonist and her goal of climbing Celeste Mountain. Madeline travels through an abandoned town with run-down steam machinery as her theme plays in the background. Using a high-pitched synth in a major key, the theme sounds hopeful and optimistic.

Along the way, she meets a fellow climber, Theo, who mostly just wants pictures for his Instapix followers as opposed to actually reaching the summit. Eventually, she finds an old campsite with a memorial “dedicated to those who perished on the climb”. The music dies down, leaving just a piano repeating the same three notes softly, and the chapter ends.

Chapter 2, Old Site, introduces Madeline’s antagonist, who refers to herself as “Part of You”. The community has instead nicknamed her Badeline so I’ll use that name here. She casts doubt on Madeline’s journey and reflects her anxieties, uncovering Madeline’s true motivations for climbing Celeste Mountain.

About halfway through the chapter, she begins chasing Madeline by imitating the player’s movements, killing her if they touch. Here, the music intensifies as Badeline’s theme begins playing. The same synth for Madeline’s theme plays a similar melody, but lowered an octave and slowed down, creating a spookier, haunting melody that echoes on. The parallels between Madeline and Badeline are obvious through gameplay and music, though their ideas still clash.

Screenshot of Chapter 2 of Celeste. Photo courtesy of Maddy Makes Games, under Creative Commons.

Books and a Breakdown

Madeline makes it up to a hotel on the mountain for chapter 3, Celestial Resort, which is often considered harder than the next two or three chapters. A soft piano introduces the chapter as Madeline meets Mr. Oshiro, the hotel owner who appears to be a ghost. As the player progresses through the level, Oshiro continues to grow more insecure about Madeline not wanting to stay.

Badeline tells Oshiro that Madeline only wanted to help him to satiate her ego, which Madeline tries to argue against. A boss fight with an enraged Oshiro ensues, and the music grows violent. An 8-bit synth mixes with Oshiro’s ghastly theme as vibrant drumming intensifies the interaction.

Madeline: If I disappear now, Mr. Oshiro could have a meltdown.
​And maybe I can actually do something good. For once.

Quote from Chapter 3 of Celeste.

Madeline was advised earlier by Theo not to try to help Oshiro with his anxieties for her own safety, but she refused, saying she wanted to “do something good for once”. So, Badeline was not that wrong in what she told Oshiro, leaving players with a sense that Madeline and Badeline are not as good and bad as they seem to be respectively.

Magnifying Mirrors

Chapter 5, Mirror Temple, delves into a visual representation of Madeline’s worries through a labyrinth of puzzles. The score is quiet, subtle, and devoid of either Madeline or Badeline’s themes. As a result, players feel alone and lost in the temple, allowing doubt about their own abilities to creep in. Madeline eventually gets sucked into a mirror where she enters rooms now occupied by seekers.

The temple amplifies the mountain’s ability to bring out a part of oneself that they despise, so these seekers represent Madeline’s worries about climbing the mountain. She feels they’re attacking her. The same vibrant drums from the boss fight with Oshiro return, indicating that Madeline feels as stressed now as she did then.

Revelation and Reform

Chapter 6, Reflection, opens with Madeline telling Part of Herself that she doesn’t need her anymore. Badeline is only slowing her down. It seems like Madeline has finally defeated Badeline as bold, optimistic synths come in. And then, Badeline breaks. She begins berating Madeline for thinking she can just neglect Part of Herself and Madeline begins having a panic attack. Badeline worsens her stress and they end up falling all the way back to the base of the mountain.

They meet again later, and the last boss fight in the game commences. The music swells louder and more complex than ever. Madeline and Badeline’s themes alternate now as the fight progresses. Everything feels so grand that this difficult section feels invigorating rather than discouraging to play.

Madeline tries to keep calming Badeline down until they are both beaten down. Madeline tells her counterpart that she was wrong to leave instead of helping her, and that they have to work together instead of separating again. They merge into one character and the player unlocks a new mechanic.

Chapter 7, Summit, ends the game by progressing through remixed versions of each of the previous chapters. Now each chapter’s music is accompanied by triumphant strings and a piano version of both character’s themes. The progression of the game becomes much more vertical as it feels like they are speeding up the mountain far faster together than they ever did separately.

Screenshot of Chapter 7 of Celeste. Photo courtesy of Maddy Makes Games, under Creative Commons

The last section features a series of checkpoints counting down from 30 as players are encouraged to jump, dash, and climb their way to the summit. As the player reaches the final checkpoint, the score fades into the background so a sense of relief can wash over. Madeline was really able to climb the mountain. The player was able to climb the mountain.

Closing Thoughts

Aside from the contents of the music within each level, there are a couple other elements I wish to praise. No part of the score ever grows stale, since there are so many small variations of each chapter’s music. They never seem to loop on themselves.

The way EXOK handles anxiety in Celeste is remarkably original as well. Much of the story was created through Maddy Thorson’s own experiences, and there’s even a genuinely helpful strategy at the end of Chapter 4 for alleviating panic attacks, both for Madeline and the player.

Although Celeste’s narrative was primarily focused on anxiety and how to reckon with it, many trans people have found the narrative to describe their experiences very well too. In fact, this coincidence likely comes from Maddy’s experiences as well, since she came out as trans not long after Celeste released. In a follow-up DLC to Celeste, the last cutscene shows a trans pride flag on Madeline’s desk, confirming that Madeline the character is also trans, which is a nice touch.

Anyway, play Celeste if you haven’t before, so you can greater experience this indie masterpiece. And if you have played it before, replay it and see what connections you can make to your own life. Keep on a lookout for EXOK’s next game too, Earthblade.

Categories
Miscellaneous

I See You, Opal – A Review of Jack Stauber’s Magnum Opus

On Halloween, 2020, Adult Swim released a series of short films titled “adult swim smalls”. Many of these featured the work of Jack Stauber, an animator and pop musician who uses many different styles and genres to create moving, eccentric pieces of art. One of these works was “OPAL”, a 12-minute amalgamation of ballads, pop songs, and animation.

Now, I highly recommend you go watch this film before continuing on with this review. It’s a fantastic work of art and the music is pretty neat I think. Also this review will just make more sense. You will find so many different analysis videos talking about “OPAL”, so instead I’m going to discuss my own experience and feelings watching it for the first time.

“OPAL”, a short film created by Jack Stauber.

Opal and the Plot Summary

I’m going to give a brief overview of “OPAL” here for people who refuse to watch the actual video. The opening scene shows a family gathered around a small, likely malnourished child named Opal as she picks up a burger and subsequently starts dancing around with it in her hand. She sees a dark, decrepit house across the street before the shutters on the top window swing open, releasing cries of anguish and despair as a ghastly presence spills out around it.

Still, she gets curious and sneaks over to this dark abode. The first thing she encounters is an old, obese smoker who calls the girl Claire. He seems to be her grandfather, and he asks her to bring him some cigarettes before launching into a tirade about how Claire shouldn’t try to get him to quit smoking because he’s fine, actually. Also, he’s likely blind.

After a while, he gets suspicious that this girl is not actually his granddaughter and starts chasing after Claire as she runs up the stairs in fear. She’s stopped by being seen through the doorway by a man surrounded by mirrors who we can believe to be Claire’s dad. He’s clearly dealing with narcissism coupled with insecurities about his appearance and hardly ever talks to Claire directly. Also, he never sees Claire’s face.

Eventually, she runs off and ends up being grabbed by a drunk, pill-abusing woman who we can assume is Claire’s mom. The mom keeps calling herself similar to or the same as Claire even if that’s not actually true. Also, she never sees Claire in focus.

Opal finally escapes and ends up in the room with the top window mentioned earlier. Through that window, she sees a billboard for “Opal’s Burgers” with the same family from the opening scene, but a healthier, well-fed girl. Claire begins to have a mental breakdown and retreats into her own head while her (probably actual) family bangs on the door to get in.

Opal and the Hamburger

The opening scene and everything to do with the first house is honestly kinda confusing to open with. I mean, it makes sense by the end, like a Tarantino movie, but it makes the later tragedy even harder to stomach. Opal’s here having a good time actually being seen by people she can consider family.

“We See You, Opal” is more of a thematic intro ballad than an actual song, so it doesn’t really leave much impact, especially since I didn’t know what “OPAL” is about yet. However, the pure, innocent joy that Opal gets just from picking up a burger is infectious.

Opal has a family who cares about her and doesn’t try to project themselves onto her and it’s really sweet. Of course, we’re only 2 minutes into the film at this point, so things were bound to get worse. The cries that come from the dark house are genuinely chilling. Opal’s dad’s warnings not to look at or think about the house are pretty spot on to how suburban parents handle local crime, homelessness, drugs, and Black bad people. Or maybe that was just my family.

Opal and the Cigarettes

A pile of used cigarettes.
Cigarettes, Photo courtesy of Ardfern, under Creative Commons

The scene with Opal/Claire and her grandfather is such a dramatic shift in tone delving into the abuse Claire faces on what is probably a daily basis. The way the grandfather’s head seems to snap around at the sound of a wood block is extremely disconcerting.

“Easy to Breathe” during this scene did not really have much going for it to be honest. I mean, thematically it works really well with how Claire is never seen for herself throughout the film, but the music itself is bland. The piano uses very simple chord progressions and the drums add basically nothing interesting. The backing vocals singing “la, la, la, la” are fun though.

Also, something I didn’t notice first time around was how claymation was implemented into “OPAL”. I’ve seen other Jack Stauber shorts before so the clay heads of the first family and Claire were not a shock, but it’s weird to see them placed in the frame so that they basically just cover the head of Stauber’s body in different outfits. Claire is the only character to get her entire body in claymation, probably so that her malnutrition can be exemplified.

Opal and the Egomaniac

On first watch, the scene between Claire and her father felt both refreshing and familiar while still bringing that disturbing touch that Stauber is often known for. Although I don’t think it’s Stauber’s intent, the father reminds me of being an “ally” to marginalized communities. He’s completely unaware of his own biases while still seeing himself as a “tiny growing thing” on a journey. And of course, he refuses to lose the audience that sees through his narcissism while he ignores any and all issues at hand.

The song “Mirror Man” in this scene creates such a dichotomy with the previous song in that this feels so sterile and clean compared to the dirtiness of “Easy to Breathe”. Also, “Mirror Man” is much more in line with the sound of Stauber’s discography outside of this film, including the voices, which he uses often. Overall, this track is definitely the most fun and enjoyable in the film, which is probably why this scene is the least impactful to the emotional punch at the end.

Now I sit here in reflection chamber

Fixing myself so that all can savor.

Lyrics from “Mirror Man” by Jack Stauber

Opal and the Booze

Seeing Claire’s mother for the first time creeped me out far more than any other character thus far. Her drunken stupor is clearly something that happens quite often for Claire to have to deal with. Her narcissism is probably the most traumatizing for Claire, as Claire has to fight fear and hopelessness in order to be better than her mother who sees Claire as a reflection of herself. Her dad is more neglectful than directly abusive, and she seems to almost exist in a sort of business relationship with her grandfather.

And that song, “Virtuous Cycle,” is just so chilling. The piano is something straight out of “Friday the 13th”. The song’s breakdown at the end as a montage of the mother’s abuse plays is by far the most haunting part of the whole film. It’s unclear whether these are the mother’s own traumas that she’s relaying down to Claire or whether these are just a collection of abuses towards Claire. Either way, the use of “Mama” in the song is the most disrespectful thing to happen to Claire that we see. Claire is fully justified in not seeing that woman as family, let alone her mama.

Opal and the Hamburger (reprise)

That ending is just a punch to the gut. Opal and her family don’t actually exist, they are just the closest thing to a loving family that Claire has reference to. Her house is so isolated that she may not ever see anyone other than her relatives. The reprise of “We See You, Opal” has such a twist of irony to it now that Claire’s troubles are not “miles away” but right outside her bedroom door.

I still don’t think I’ve seen anything as creatively diverse in medium and unified in theme as “OPAL”. Stauber was responsible for all of the singing, all of the acting, much of the animation, and most, if not all of the music. I highly commend his work as an artist, and I hope you all go on to visit more of his projects.

Categories
Miscellaneous

The Music of The FitnessGram Pacer Test

In 2011, the Cooper Institute dropped an eight track instrumental mixtape of back to back bangers. However, after seeing that the market for instrumental mixtapes was oversaturated, they overlaid a recording of a tired sounding man counting from 1 to 247. They then marketed their mixtape as an “exercise program” and it was distributed to elementary, middle, and high schools all over the United States.

This was the birth of the FitnessGram Pacer Test as we know it today. The test is simple. Run the length of 20 meters in less time than it takes for a chime to ring out. After your second time of coming shy of the 20 meter mark, you’ve finished the test, and you can go sit on the bleachers.

When most people think back on the FitnessGram Pacer Test, it draws to mind memories of pain, sorrow, and harsh blows to self-esteem. For some, the standout memory of the test is the spiel of instructions at the beginning. But why do people forget the most important aspect of this sweaty school gym gauntlet? Why do people always forget about the music? Let’s go through each and every song in the FitnessGram Pacer Test and look at the best, the worst, and those that shouldn’t exist.

Song 1: Level 1-2

The nice relaxed groove that everybody knows. The electric wah-d out guitar funkily shreds up the track. It also throws in a sound byte of a person coolly saying “feel it” on occasion. It’s laid back, and encourages listeners to pace themselves. This track sounds like it could be a water level in Mick And Mack Global Gladiators for the Sega Genesis.

Man with a beard, glasses, and hat holds up a copy of Mick and Mack Global Gladiators for the Sega Genesis. On the cover, there is a cartoon of a big green goop monster in the background with two adolescents standing in front of it. The title of the game is in big letters at the top of the box.
Average Mick & Mack Global Gladiators connoisseur. Photo courtesy of Mike Mozart, under Creative Commons.

Song 2: Level 3-4

The instrumentation, the beat, the everything. The drums are so crisp. It’s all so groovy. The flow matches beautifully with the pace of the test. This is also where the challenge starts to pick up. If you’re scouring for a runners high, this is where it’ll be found. There’s a great sense of depth to the track. It retains the cool-ness of the first track and expands on it. It’s hard to hear over the deafening squeak of sneakers against the gymnasium floor, but there’s a lot of detail going into this song. This is without a doubt the best track you will hear in the FitnessGram Pacer Test. 

Song 3: Level 5-7

Very synth oriented, but the brass isn’t to be counted out. There’s subtle arpeggiation in the “chorus” of the track, when mixed with the high up string really pushes you forward. The keyboard solo around lap 54 is also a neat highlight. Unfortunately, much of this track feels flat, especially when compared to the last track. The drums are weak, and the whole mix feels cheap. It’s still a mildly catchy melody though. Certainly not the worst track.

Song 4: Level 8-9

Bringing back the funk in a big way. Huge emphasis on the slap bass, with guitar highlights and a lead coming from the horns. Total fanfare for the tuckered out prepubescent soldiers still trooping through the middle school gymnasium. There’s also a nice sax solo tucked away in the song that deserves a shoutout. Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3 (2007) would dance to this.

Song 5: Level 10-14

Intimidating and minimalist. This is some Terminator music. If you are still in the running at this point, your gym teacher is going to turn into the Terminator and you will have to fight them to the death. It sounds like if Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack for Donkey Kong Country. It does a weird little switch up and turns into a total rip off of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. Even the music sounds bored at this point. It’s no longer trying to push anyone forward. It’s now speaking to the classmates of the one person still left going. “Look at this guy go,” it says, “you’re just going to have to wait this one out.” 

Song 6: Level 15-16

I guarantee you’ve never heard this song before, because this song is the start of part 2 of the FitnessGram Pacer Test, which no gym teacher has ever felt the need to put on. Regardless, it exists. The highlight here is this bizarrely stilted saxophone which winds up sounding like a quartet of clowns honking their noses. Aside from that, this track is pretty forgettable. No components of this track make an effort to stand out. I’d say it’s towards the bottom of the tracks in the FitnessGram Pacer Test.

Song 7: Level 17-19

This music should not exist. It is too upbeat. Between the fast paced organ and the midi piano, it’s just too much. Other elements come into the song to round it out a little better, but it’s not enough to save it. It’s cheap, awkward, and doesn’t properly hype up whatever superhuman This is the worst song in the whole thing.

Song 8: Level 20-21

This music should really not exist, but I’m sure glad it does. It’s a four-on-the-floor banger with nice chimes ringing out in the background. It’s a nice change of pace compared to the music we’ve gotten before. The beat is simple, but the sheen on the production is more than welcome after the rough quality of the last track. The synths fade out nicely as the final lap is called, and the test ends.

Conclusion

The pace at which you’re running by the time you’ve gotten to the final 247th lap of the FitnessGram Pacer Test is roughly 6 meters per second. This is about three times faster than the pace from the first lap. After running just over three miles at an average pace of 7 minutes and 26 seconds per mile, this is an astonishing feat.

I could only find evidence of one person completing the FitnessGram Pacer Test. I have to wonder if they even acknowledged the music as they were chugging along. Did they bob up and down to the beat? Did they match their strides with the notes? Or did the music remain banished to the background, with not so much as a thought passing through the champion’s mind?

Whatever the case, I’ll always be thankful for the musical highs and lows of the FitnessGram Pacer Test. While the tracks were oftentimes cheesy and antiquated, they kept me company. It made the whole ordeal bearable. Thanks Cooper Institute.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Holiday Season: Locally Owned Stores

As the holiday season quickly approaches, for many it’s time to start thinking about gathering gifts and presents for friends and loved ones.

As a little background, I grew up in Cary, NC and my parents have been living in Cary since the early nineties.

The Triangle Area has gone through a ton of changes in the last few decades. This includes an increased population, more housing developments, tech industries entering the area and more stores.

The rise of online shopping has also severely increased.

These developments have in many ways overshadowed and threatened the existence of locally owned small businesses throughout the area.

If you are looking for some great locally owned stores, I have highlighted some of my favorites in the Raliegh and Cary area. Hope you all have a happy and healthy holiday season.

Unlikely Professionals / Edge of Urge

Location: 212 E Franklin St, Raleigh, NC 27604 

If you are looking for gifts that are unique, modern and well made– this duo is perfect when shopping for that person you are unsure what they would like. These stores truly have something for everyone.

This family-owned business has a wide collection of clothing, jewelry, beauty products and oddities. In Unlikely Professionals they also make a collection of handmade leather goods.

They are located right across the street from one another, and their collections complement each other beautifully.

Not to mention, the stores are absolutely stunning. Great decor and friendly staff make the shopping experience that much more enjoyable.

They also have a great online store where you can look at their products in the comfort of your own home.

So & So Books

Location: 719 N Person St, Raleigh, NC 27604

Located right next to the Unlikely Professionals, this lovely little bookstore is a great place for some peaceful reading and shopping.

Airy and open, this store is a breath of fresh air in the shopping experience.

Although it has a relatively small collection of books in-store it has a great range of genres including fantasy, cookbooks, children’s books and poetry.

City Garden Design

Location: 117 W Chatham St, Cary, NC 27511

Nestled in the heart of downtown Cary this plant shop has a great assortment of greenery, pots and accessories for indoor house plants.

I have yet to find a plant shop that is as beautiful and diverse as this one. They have a great selection of plants, from airplants to succulents to large leafy plants.

The other element I love about this shop is that all the plants are very healthy.

A brief disclaimer, I do not have the biggest green thumb. However, I have brought many different types of plants from this shop and all of them have been healthy, happy and have survived for years.

Sometimes you can buy plants that are unknowing already dying and have been mistreated, but that is not the case at this shop.

The shop is run by a mother and son duo– the son has a degree in Horitculture from the University of Georgia. It is clear upon entering this store that the owners deeply care about growing great plants and sharing their passion.

Cary Gallery of Artists

Location: 200 S Academy St, Cary, NC 27511

Also located in downtown Cary, this gallery space is a great opportunity to admire and purchase locally made art and crafts.

Every time I go here, I have been greeted by the sweetest staff. It is a pleasant experience to look at the galleries even if you are not looking to purchase.

They support and showcase dozens of local artists; this shop is yet another unique experience.

Science Safari

Location: 1255 Kildaire Farm Rd, Cary, NC 27511 

Last but certainly not least, has been one of my favorite shops as a kid. This toy story and science education center has been in Cary for decades.

Defined by their friendly staff, science classes and unique toys, this shop is great for finding gifts for the younger relatives and siblings.

They also have live animals in store, including an iguana, chinchilla, turtles, frogs and fish. This shop is extremely unique.

They also offer free giftwrapping and offer personalized shopping closer to the holiday season.

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Miscellaneous

My Five Favorite Horror Movies for Halloween

Halloween is right around the corner which means it is officially scary movie season. My favorite Halloween activity is sitting down on a couch with some friends and watching a bunch of horror movies.

I wanted to share some of my favorite horror movies that I’ve seen over the years. If you’re a horror movie fan I’d highly recommend any of these movies for a movie marathon.

Ranked in order from least to most scary (in my opinion):

House (1977)

This Scooby-Doo-esque Japanese horror film from 1977 is the most fun you can have watching a scary movie. A cult-classic, this movie is famous for how off-the-walls it is. The plot is quite simple, a girl and a group of her friends go to visit her ailing aunt’s home out in the country for a vacation and come face-to-face with a bloodthirsty piano, skeletons, evil spirits, and more.

The first time I watched this movie, I had an absolute blast. Each time I’ve watched it since, I’ve had just as much fun but also come to appreciate the film in new ways. “House” plays on gender roles and implements themes of post-war trauma and the role of family through the use of humor and horror.

I would definitely recommend this movie to finish a horror movie marathon as a chaser to movies that would otherwise keep you from getting a good night’s rest.

The Thing (1982)

“The Thing” is a classic. I was shocked to hear that this movie initially flopped in the box office when it came out in 1982. Kurt Russell’s performance, the practical effects by Rob Bottin, and the unravelling mystery written by Bill Lancaster are all top-notch, still this day.

This movie centers itself around a group of twelve scientists in Antarctica, trapped in the dead of the Antarctic winter collecting data. They uncover a mystery that if not contained, would destroy humanity.

This is my favorite movie by John Carpenter, and would definitely throw it on for a horror-movie marathon with friends.

Nope (2022)

Jordan Peele’s newest movie is my favorite by him. I won’t say anything about the plot because this movie is best experienced going in knowing nothing about it. I truly believe that in 20 years, “Nope” will be marked down as a classic.

This movie brilliantly uses horror elements to provide commentary on spectacle and trauma. Peele has finally mastered balancing comedy and horror, which grounds and creates investment in the story for the viewer.

There are two scenes in this movie that are most likely the scariest scenes I have witnessed on-screen. If you didn’t catch this movie while it was in theaters this year, I would definitely recommend watching it this Halloween season.

The Shining (1980)

“The Shining” is the most well-justified classic I have ever seen. There are too many classic scenes in this movie to count. The blood from the elevator, “Here’s Johnny!”, red rum, and more. No matter how many times I watch this movie, it’s bone-chilling.

A masterful dive into madness and commentary on abuse, if you haven’t seen this movie, this Halloween is the time. The three leads in this movie are each excellent in their roles, their performances sell the horror of this movie more than anything else.

Hereditary (2018)

Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is gut-wrenchingly terrifying. I was lucky enough to see this film in theatres in 2018 and I have not stopped thinking about it since. A family tragedy that breaches into the supernatural, this movie feels like classic horror but turns every fear-inducing element up to 11.

This movie creates a pit in your stomach and does not let it dissipate until well-after the credits roll. This was the first real horror movie I viewed in a theater, and it’s still the scariest. While I’ve been meaning to rewatch it for a while, it’s hard to get the courage to go back to it.

If you want to make your horror movie marathon truly one to remember, put this movie on your list.

Conclusion

Now is the perfect time to sit down and watch some horror movies. As someone who doesn’t usually seek out horror, Halloween is a great time to give myself an excuse to watch it. If you want to watch some movies but don’t know what, this list is a great start. Happy Halloween and happy viewing.

Categories
Blog Miscellaneous Non-Music News

North Carolina Renaissance Festival

The North Carolina Renaissance Festival is an annual event located near Charlotte that is open every weekend through October and November.

The festival features elaborate costumes, acrobatic performances, jousting, immersive scenery, fortune telling, fall foods and treats, along with handcrafted art and goods. The event provides a great fall atmosphere and lovely little escape from daily life.

In my experience, Renaissance Festival has something for everyone. It is extremely family friendly while appealing to more mature audiences with a large variety of shows and activities.

For the past few years, Renaissance Festival has been such a staple fall activity. I have been attending Ren Fest since 2016 and I was happy to be in attendance again this past weekend.

To summarize my experience and highlight my favorite events, I have outlined my three favorite things about Renaissance Festival. If you want to find more that the festival has to offer or want to purchase tickets you can do so at the Carolina Renaissance Festival website.

Renaissance Garb

If you enjoy or have an interest in costuming, this is the event for you. It is amazing to see the large variety of costumes and outfits at the Faire. I have seen pirates, knights, fairies, steampunk outfits, dungeon and dragon characters, jesters, vikings, beautiful dresses and the list can go on.

Every year I look forward to making a new outfit, and each year I try to do something drastically different from the year before.

Costumes are a great way to both express yourself and step out of your normal persona. I find a lot of joy in wearing clothes that are typically out of the norm– but at Ren Fest the abnormality is encouraged. The sense of community surrounding costuming at the festival is contagious.

As an example, one of my friends decided to dress up as a jester this year. He had a vibrant, jingling jester hat and neon green garb. His costume instantly brought him into the environment. Shopkeepers and complete strangers at the festival would put on a character and ask him to tell a joke — he would do so.

The power connectivity of costumes at this event is magical. Although, there are plenty of people who choose not to dress up too. Admiring the neat costumes around the festival is magical within itself.

Barely Balanced

A large attraction to Ren Fest is the sheer amount of shows they have each and every weekend. By shows I mean various performances from acting, to comedy, to dangerous stunts, to soothing music and daring acrobatics.

One of my favorite performances from all the years I have been is a trio of acrobats by the name of Barely Balanced.

This performance has equal parts silliness and skill. I was absolutely amazed by their tricks when I first saw them. Their name speaks truth.

I also want to note how great of a stage presence they have. This trio is extremely charismatic. After and before performances they walk around on stilts and chat to families and individuals enjoying the festival. They radiate a lot of positivity and love for what they do.

They will be performing every weekend at Carolina Renaissance Festival.

Artisans

There are so many vendors and artisans at Renaissance Festival. The goods at the event range so much; from delicate glass blowing to stunning jewelry to handcrafted swords.

In big events or conventions like this sometimes all the goods can blend together– this is not the case at Ren Fest.

Each shop has such character and charm. There is truly something for everyone here. It is also a great place to buy unique gifts for family and friends before the holiday season arrives.

I have bought some of my favorite pieces of jewelry here and always look forward to what new things they will have.

Tips and Tricks

Renaissance Festival is a great place to escape reality for a little quiet. If you are planning on attending this year or next, here are a few tips and tricks to improve your time there:

The hours of the festival are 9:30am to 5:30pm. Be sure to leave before or around 5:00pm to beat the traffic out of the festival. There can also be a long line to get into the festival in the morning, I found arriving around 11am typically avoids the traffic.

Time goes by very quickly, be sure you plan the shows you want to see as soon as you get there. I found that I can fit two to three shows maximum in a day. I recommend minimizing the shows you see the first time you go to Renaissance Festival so you have a chance to see all the shops and sights throughout the entire festival.

Due to the time of year, it can often be quite chilly. When planning a costume or picking out your outfit be sure to check the weather beforehand. North Carolina weather can be dramatic, so have some flexible layers to your outfit.

Lastly, bring cash. Many food vendors do not accept card and the lines to the atm can get long. I recommend bringing some cash with you if you plan on partaking in the food or drinks at the festival. Also, the caramel apples are very good.

Closing Thoughts

The Carolina Renissance Festival has a lot to offer. I was really amazed by the wide variety of people and personalities at the event. There is a charm to the event that is difficult to find elsewhere.

This event brings me a lot of happiness, and I hope it has the same effect on you.

The festival will be open every weekend until Nov. 20.

I hope you all have a wonderful time if you attend. Have a excellent fall and renaissance season.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Every ULTRAKILL Level Ranked By Music

The ULTRAKILL soundtrack by Heaven Pierce Her is awesome. It’s fast, it’s hard, and it pushes you to go absolutely nuts with the game. Here is my ranking of every level based on their music. I will not be covering any secret levels or Prime Sanctums, but all other levels are here. Also, if you haven’t played ULTRAKILL yet, there will be minor spoilers in this blog.

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25. Court of The Corpse King

Title image for the Court of the Corpse King. Features the giant boss, King Minos, peering down at you.

The only real music in this level is the ambience leading up to the boss fight, which sets the tone well, but once the boss fight starts, there is only more ambient noise. Maybe if there was some more substance, I would rank it higher, but there isn’t enough music in this music.

24. Cerberus

Cover image for the level: Cerberus. Features a hallway with a pool of lava.

The first major boss fight of the game has a disappointing score. There is a nice rumbling ambient buildup leading up to it, but the music during the fight itself is a bombastic intro set on a roughly 30 second loop. It sounds cool the first time, but it gets old very fast.

23. Waves of The Starless Sea

Cover image for the level: Waves of the Starless Sea. Features a boardwalk with a storming sea around it.

Despite being one of my favorite levels, I have to rank it low on this list due to a complete absence of music for the first half of the level. Even as the level progresses, the music is kept to a minimum, with a single violin accompanying the sound of rain and crashing water. As the Ferryman boss fight at the end of the level unfolds, it’s too little too late. The Ferryman’s theme gets too repetitive, even for the short time it’s there.

22. Sheer Heart Attack

Cover image for the level: Sheer Heart Attack. Features a heart shaped pool of water.

This level is fast and confusing and stressful, and the music perfectly reflects this. The main melody is harsh, but not in a particularly interesting way. There are some great guitar riffs sprinkled in here, but it is mostly forgettable among the better parts of ULTRAKILL’s soundtrack.

21. Bridgeburner

Cover image for the level: Bridgeburner. Features a dark pink sky with a tower looming in the distance.

The best quality of this track is the layering of synths that ease you into the digital lust realm of Layer 2. The first thirty seconds or so of the song meshes well with the gritty dystopian cityscape. After that though, the music becomes pretty forgettable, as you move on to something a little more intense.

20. Death At 20000 Volts

Cover image for the level: Death at 20000 volts. Features a city courtyard at night.

This level adapts the melodies of Bridgeburner and gives them a stronger backbone. The music feels sleazy, as a realm of lust should be, but again, compared to most of the music in this game, it becomes fairly forgettable.

19. A One-Machine Army

Cover image for the level: One Machine Army. Features a hexagonal hallway.

By the time you get to this level, you will be sick of the song. It is used in the first four levels of the game, with this level being the last of them, thus its ranking below the others.

18. Double Down

Cover image for the level: Double Down. Features four orange pillars of light.

The music is a little more fresh on this level, as this is only the third time in a row that you’ve heard it.

17. The Meatgrinder

Cover image for the level: The Meatgrinder. Features a room with a statue in it.

The theme from Into The Fire continues onto this track with slight variations to keep it fresh. There’s an extra bassline or two, and the drum breaks are a bit different. Unfortunately, as the levels continue, that freshness starts to go away, but the track has enough substance to push the player forward through the mechanical halls of the prelude levels.

16. Into The Fire

Cover image for the level: Into the Fire. Features a room with two statues in it.

Here we are. The music from the very beginning of the game. Not only is this the first time you hear the breakcore take on DOOM-like music that ULTRAKILL is known for, but there is also a nice buildup, adding to the anticipation, before being thrust right into the action.

15. In The Flesh

Cover image for the level: In The Flesh. Features a room with a giant heart suspended in midair.

As you approach the end of Act I, an organ starts to ring out through the organs that surround you. As it turns out, this is actually a piece written by Johann Sebastian Bach called, “I Call To You, Lord Jesus Christ.” Tunneling through the fleshy walls of King Mino’s insides leads you to a giant open chamber where guitars ring out in epic baroque fashion. It’s very fitting for a boss fight, but it loops a touch too quickly.

14. God Damn The Sun

Cover image for the level: God damn the sun. Features Egyptian ruins covered in sand. In the background the Big Ben clock pokes out of the sand.

The heat of the desert sun beating down on you introduces a super heavy sludgy sound that fits the level well. There is more of a reliance on drum breaks to carry the intensity of the song forward than the other heavy desert level music, but the unique elements of this track still stand out.

13. Belly of The Beast

Cover image for the level: Belly of the Beast. Features twisting staircases.

The music on this level starts out slowed and disoriented as you try to gather your surroundings, but once it picks up, you can’t help but feel inspired by the violins and pianos doing runs up and down and the sick drum beats urging you on.

12. Leviathan

Cover image for the level: Leviathan. Featuring an underwater path of lamps.

Perhaps I may be a bit hypocritical here with my comments about ambient music in this game, because I adore the ambient beginning of this stage. There are chimes mixed with reversed chimes to create this super haunting effect as you bound across the bottom of the sea. It’s a warning. A premonition of things to come. The boss theme itself is pretty average. It has enough scope to make it work, but it’s definitely not a standout. The music in the beginning of this level though, makes it one of my favorite moments in the game.

11. Heart of The Sunrise

Cover image for the level: Heart of the sunrise. Features a small pavilion with a fountain in the middle.

After going through the intensity of the first major boss battle, you might be caught off guard by what comes next: sunny blue skies, a scattering of trees, and a cute little wishing well. With this confusing sight comes a relaxing piano tune that rings out with a harp-like cadence. But as you poke around, you start to realize that something is wrong. None of this is real. This is when the music ramps up and enemies start to appear. Fast drum breaks and tense melodies played on high pitched piano keys turn Limbo’s relaxing façade into an arena for battle.

10. Slaves To Power

Cover image for the level: Slave to power. Features a pyramid with a sun behind it.

Slaves to Power features a mix of a stereotypical videogame desert level sounds and sludgy metal riffs. Double kicks and grimy guitars will get your head banging while traversing the sands of greed. There is also a healthy does of drum breaks to keep the breakcore theme of the soundtrack tied together, with layered vocals also helping to widen out the track.

9. Hall Of Sacred Remains

Cover image for the level: Hall of sacred remains. Features a giant door with two statues on either side of it.

Who would have thought that harpsichord and guitar distortion would go so well together? This track moves at breakneck pace, introducing more harpsichord layers and guitar distortion as it progresses. The main melody has a nice chromatic decent making for a perfect cinematic backdrop to a level with lots to explore. It also helps that this tune is super catchy.

8. Aesthetics of Hate

Cover image for the level: Aesthetics of hate. Features the boss Gabriel playing at an organ.

Bach once again marks the beginning of the end. The final level of Act II opens with a different rendition of “I Call To You, Lord Jesus Christ,” but this time in a far more sinister tone, with some chimes ringing in first as a prelude. The archangel Gabriel turns to face you, and a beefier stronger theme from In The Flesh rings out over a pool of blood. A great way to end the current levels in the game and leave people waiting for what’s coming next.

7. Clair De Lune

Cover image for the level: Clair de lune. Features a room with stained glass windows.

This level starts fittingly with Debussy’s “Clair De Lune,” setting a romantic nighttime mood. Then the acoustic guitar comes in. An intense multi-part boss theme fills the room as you fight V2, a twin version of yourself. This fight is hard. You will hear this song over and over again. Unlike some other boss themes however, it’s hard to get tired of this one. The theme is diverse, which keeps things fresh dozens of deaths in.

6. Clair De Soleil

Cover image for the level: Clair de solil. Features the boss V2 sliding down a pyramid.

The V2 battle theme from Clair De Lune carries over to Clair De Soleil, but much like V2 itself, the soundtrack is stronger this time. It’s more intense and fits the faster pace of the boss battle. It also ranks higher than Clair De Lune due to the music leading up to the fight using the same motifs and contributing to the atmosphere of the pyramid, without relying on a preexisting song to build atmosphere.

5. The Burning World

Cover image for the level: The burning world. Features a stone tower surrounded by trees.

This level uses the same music as Heart of The Sunrise, building the expectation that this will be a nice tame level just like the last one. Then, everything is on fire. The pretty polygonal trees are burning to a crisp, the earth is scorching. Pained industrial squealing drowns out any sense of safety you thought you might have had, which is why it lands so high on this list. This is the level that says to you, “Be ready for anything in this game.”

4. In The Wake of Poseidon

Cover image for the level: In the wake of Poseidon. Features an underwater ruins.

They say that water levels always have the best music, and this level certainly makes a strong case. The music remains a sloshed haze while under the water, with percussive elements poking through. But where the music on this level really shines is when you’re out of the water. The tone is both tranquil and sinister, highlighted by a smooth saxophone section. The music takes the traditionally calm aesthetics of water music in other games and mixes them with intense drum breaks to make something truly unique.

3. A Shot In The Dark

Cover image for the level: A shot in the dark. Features a large dark room with green lights lighting up platforms.

The music in A Shot In The Dark is a perfect example of the music of the level evolving with the atmosphere of the level. It starts out with only a small vocal chorus and an eerie marimba. As you explore the pitch black insides of an ancient pyramid, the chorus slowly starts to expand. Percussive elements are introduced, adding to the intensity. Its reserved in its use of percussive elements, which makes it stand out in a soundtrack where fast drum breaks are common. Even a harpsichord joins in at one point. It all comes to a head in the final room, which is a huge disorienting arena with spinning merry-go-round lights. An organ cuts through the track, spinning a dizzying melody that perfectly fits with the grandiose nature of the surroundings.

2. Cry For The Weeper

Cover image for the level: Cry for the weeper. Features a headless corpse hanging upside down, dripping blood into a pool.

Cry For The Weeper starts out with super intense industrial noise that sounds absolutely crushing. It shifts and evolves, and if you listen to the music carefully, it sounds like it’s breathing. What makes this level special though isn’t the beginning. After the noise starts to fade away, you’re dropped into the rest of the stage, where a brand new version of the Belly of The Beast (#13) music starts to play. The instrumentation is turned up several notches, and there are motifs and nods to the music from the very beginning of the game as well! The shredding guitar and the double kick drum only make things more epic, and to top it off, the final battle on this stage is yet another remake of previous music, this time from Hall of Sacred Remains (#9). It’s a musical reminder of how far you’ve come while also being an epic musical peak. This is probably the single best song in the game, but there is one level that has this one beat for music.

Honorable Mention: Cybergrind

Cover image for the endless cybergrind mode. Features a giant floating cube.

The music for Cybergrind, ULTRAKILL’s endless arena mode, had to have been made in a government lab as an experiment to see how well a person could be kept in a flow state. It’s not technically a level, but you can’t talk about ULTRAKILL music without bringing up the Cybergrind music.

1. Ship of Fools

Cover image for the level: Ship of Fools. Features an upside down winding staircase.

Ship of Fools is a masterclass in how to build atmosphere with music. Right out of the gate, you’re met with a violin that immediately screams “pirate ship.” Before your eyes have even registered what you’re looking at, you already know from the swing of the tune, that this is a boat level. The main tune could easily be the theme of the deadliest pirate gang in the seven seas. The guitars and piano are intense, but accessible and catchy. There is also a neat horn section that appears from time to time to add an extra layer to the track that makes it less “pirate-y” and a bit more smooth. There’s even a bridge that features an accordion. What is more pirate ship than an accordion? The track is so much fun, and always feels fresh.

But then, the boat is flipped over. The level is upside down. Water floods the halls, and the lights are dim, and the music reflects this change perfectly. The track slows down, keeping the same melodies, but with an entirely different rhythm and instrumentation. The harp is really what shines on this track. It sent shivers down my spine when I first heard it. This track creates an eerie and somber mood, perfect for trekking back through the wreckage of a massive ship. The music in Ship of Fools is an excellent reminder of why video games have music in the first place: to make the places you explore feel alive.

Categories
Miscellaneous

“Babel” by R.F. Kuang Book Review

“Babel” is a dark academia historical fantasy book by R. F. Kuang set in 1830s Oxford University. “Babel” utilizes fantasy elements to highlight the cruelty of imperialism all while creating an engaging story full of fleshed-out, interesting characters.

I have been following Kuang’s work since the release of her first novel, “The Poppy War”, in 2018. She turned “The Poppy War” into a trilogy and announced earlier this year after the end of “The Poppy War” trilogy, that she would be releasing her fourth book, “Babel” in August.

I was extremely excited to hear this and immediately pre-ordered a copy. I finished “Babel” and must say, this book lived up to and exceeded my expectations. Kuang’s prose continues to get stronger and her stories more elaborate and nuanced.

The Magic System

The most brilliant thing about “Babel” is its magic system. My main problem with many fantasy books set in the real world is the magic system has no impact on the world outside of the scope of the story.

“Babel” does not have this problem. Babel, which the book is named after, is the world’s center of translation and silver-working. Silver-working is the art of manifesting meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, creating magical effects. In this alternative world, silver-working is what has made the British Empire an unparalleled power.

This is, in my opinion, an excellent way to incorporate fantasy elements into the real world. It is subtle but has such a large impact on everything going on in the world of the story.

The Novel

“Babel” covers revolution, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire. It follows protagonist Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton and plucked out of China by a wealthy and mysterious Babel Professor, Richard Lovell.

Throughout the book, Robin becomes a student at Babel and comes to learn that serving Babel, creating silver, would be a betrayal of his homeland. What’s more, as his studies progress, he gets caught between Babel and the mysterious revolutionary group Hermes.

Throughout this book, Robin is constantly grappling with the question: can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

This book does a great job handling the heavy themes it tries to tackle. Robin and Robin’s cohort feel like a very dynamic, alive group of characters. Often in fantasy books, I feel that characters are merely plot pieces waiting for the next moment to move the plot along. However, I did not feel this way with “Babel”.

This book also does give equal footing to both sides of the question Robin grapples with. However, Kuang is not afraid to take a firm stand when the question must be answered.

This book is great and is an excellent use of fantasy in the real world, which is rare to see. I look forward to Kuang’s next book, “Yellowface” coming out in May 2023, which will be stepping away from fantasy.

Categories
Blog Miscellaneous

Overcoming and Appreciating Creative Block

It is important to not only listen to your body but also your mind.

A quick disclaimer, I am not a psychologist or a doctor. I will be speaking from my own experiences with creative block and from observing the effects it has had on my peers.

As a college student in a creative-oriented major, I face creative block quite frequently. However, many students outside creative fields are met with creative block without realizing it.

Creative block is often defined as lack of inspiration. It can be associated with burnout, where there is a void of motivation altogether. 

In my experience the symptoms of burnout are overshadowed by creative block. 

Burnout often has a clear solution: rest. Creative block is more ambiguous.

You may find yourself asking, “Will I ever have another good idea?” or “Am I ever going to be able to create again?”. Creative block does not have a simple solution or does it have a distinct end; leaving the individual with doubt and insecurity. This doubt often pushes individuals to keep working until they find some creativity again.

However, I truly believe creative block can be a beneficial step in a design process.

Creative block is a signal to stop, stand up, and unplug. Most of all it is a signal to experience something different or new.

Taking a Break

This is not as easy as it sounds. Between the pressures of professor expectations, deadlines, and competitive peers; taking a break sounds impossible at times.

When a break feels impossible is the exact moment we should be taking a break. I am not encouraging to ignore work altogether, but rather to redirect one’s productive approach.

Building in breaks is seen to increase productivity and communal health.

Went we take breaks we are not only performing a different activity but we are experiencing different sights, smells, and feelings. This passive presception can contribute to our creativity immensely.

I believe when we experience something new we are charging our creative battery.

Redefining Rest

In college there is certainly a culture of pulling all nighters for the sake of studying or finishing an impeding project. 

I would like to highlight that everyone has there own circadian rhythm and ideal work periods— so I am not dismissing all nighters. However, I do think overworking and  lack of proper rest is a direct contribution to creative block.

Proper rest means more than just 8 hours of sleep.

It’s very important to make time for the things you enjoy. Although academics are a priority for college students, it is vital to recognize that life is more than academics.

Whether that is sports, games, reading, tuning into WKNC, meditating, etc.

To maintain a healthy mind and therefore a creative thought process, we must have compassion towards ourselves.

Conclusion

It is clear that creative block can plague the music world and beyond.

Although it is difficult to wait for your favorite musicians or bands to make a new release; it is important for everyone to take their time completing a creative project.

In my opinion, some of the best music is created through overcoming creative block and taking lots of time. It often leads to new sounds, new explorations, and a happier performer.

So next time you are faced with creative block, try to avoid beating yourself up or doubting your abilities, but rather thank your brain for telling you to take a break. Go take a break.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Exploration of Themes in “House of the Dragon”

“Game of Thrones” Sundays have officially returned. After the massive let-down that ended the HBO pop-culture phenomenon, fans have been awaiting a return to the world of Westeros. “House of the Dragon” promises the return.

Set 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones”, “House of the Dragon” takes a dive into Westeros with House Targaryen at the height of their power. From the first episode alone, “House of the Dragon” will explore themes of succession, sexism and classism.

Fantasy as a genre allows for the exploration of themes in a way that is not possible through regular media. Fantastical settings and events allow the creators of these stories to explore themes hyperbolically. “House of the Dragon” uses the Westeros to give perspective and insight into real-world problems that viewers may deal with.

A Prologue

The first episode of the show focuses heavily on succession to the Iron Throne. From the first scene, all three major themes are put on display. In a scene that takes place 15 years before the following scenes in the episode, King Jaehaerys I Targaryen elects a council of mostly male lords to decide who will be his successor to the Throne. The two primary candidates are his two grandchildren, cousins Rhaenys Targaryen, eldest living descendant to the Throne, and Viserys I Targaryen, eldest living male descendant to the throne.

In this scene, while Rhaenys is the eldest, giving her precedent to the Throne. However, Viserys is elected to inherit the throne by the council of over a thousand lords of Westeros. This biting undercut to the succession of the Throne made by this council sets the tone for the rest of the episode and surely for the rest of the series.

A Battle on Two Fronts

We are brought many years into the rule of King Viserys later in the episode. His wife, Aemma Targaryen, is about to give birth to their second child. The king is certain the child will be male. To celebrate, he holds a jousting tournament to celebrate the coming birth of his male heir. As the bouts begin, Aemma begins to give birth.

During a brutal interweaving of scenes, we watch Viserys’ brother, Daemon Targaryen, use his royal status to cheat his way to the final bout of the joust while Aemma struggles in labor. In the final bout, Daemon is beaten by a man who was otherwise unknown before this tournament, Ser Criston Cole. Criston’s defeat of Prince Daemon is a satisfying scene, highlighting that the only thing separating Daemon from anyone else is his rank.

In this world, much like our own, a man’s choice has the power to override a woman’s. This is put into horrifying effect in a scene at the end of this inter-splicing sequence. King Viserys chooses to sacrifice his wife in order to save his male heir, unbeknownst to her. Their son lives for mere hours before dying anyways, leaving Viserys with only his eldest daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen.

Viserys, only after sacrificing his wife, realizes the foolishness in the precedent of a male heir. A precedent that won him the Throne. At the end of the episode, Viserys goes against a 200-year tradition to name Rhaenyra his heir. This sets up what will be a primary conflict for the episodes following the premiere.

A Promising Premiere

Those were only the biggest highlights of the major themes throughout the episode. However, many other scenes and sequences beautifully portrayed the key themes which will hopefully remain present throughout the entirety of the show.

While this episode was not the bombastic start of “Game of Thrones”, “House of the Dragon” begins as a slow-burning, highly thematic cousin to the show which first aired over 10 years ago.

May the luck of the Seven shine upon you,

-Hüttemeister