Pop-Culture Bullet Points

Yeasayer’s “Ambling Alp,” the first track from its forthcoming LP, Old Blood, may be the best single I’ve heard all year: If Willy Wonka grew a beard, moved to Brooklyn, and started a band, this is the sort of music I hope he’d make.

After a slow start, it’s turned out to be a rather good year for video games. I’ve thumbed-away dozens of hours (at least) on Borderlands, Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum in recent months, and the small bits of Assassin’s Creed II and Dragon’s Age: Origins I’ve played suggest excellent things about both.

I want to single out Batman: Arkham Asylum because it’s not just a great game — it’s a great licensed game. Typically, video games based on other properties are just out to cash in on name recognition. And even when otherwise visionary creative types get involved in game adaptations — Cameron’s Avatar game or the Wachowski’s Matrix game (which even went so far as to tell part of the story covered by the second and third films) — the results are frequently underwhelming. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, is both an engrossing game on its own and a nearly note-perfect adaptation, capturing everything that’s essential about its source character. It is, for all practical purposes, a Batman simulator, with smartly balanced stealth, action, and detective elements and a solidly pulpy script by Paul Dini, the longtime Batman scribe who created the excellent 90s cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series. What it offers is exactly what a game about the Dark Knight should offer: the chance to be Batman, and to play around in his world.

Meanwhile, on the world-creation front, Modern Warfare 2 suggests what’s ahead for the medium: Infinity Ward’s sequel, part action movie and part military simulator, is easily the best-looking game I’ve ever played, and the single-player campaign is thoroughly epic in a way that many games attempt but few achieve. In particular, the missions that occur in a war-torn downtown D.C. beset by foreign invaders are really spectacular. Shooting your way from the lawn of the White House into the Oval Office and through the West Wing adds so much to the game in part because it’s the sort of experience that only a top-shelf game can provide. Grand Theft Auto IV showed that it’s both thrilling and possible to create a detailed — and surprisingly alive — alternate-reality city; with its White House battles, MW2 takes real-world-replication further, pushing it into the world of first-person action and zooming in on a specific building and its surroundings. The game’s commitment to detail and accuracy is really impressive.

And indeed, I suspect we’ll see a fair bit of emphasis put on simulating (and modifying and destroying) real-world environments in future games. Imagine: If game designers can convincingly recreate iconic real-life locations, we could see games in which players play detectives in L.A. murder mysteries, hunt down mobsters in Depression-era Chicago, fight off terrorists at the Eiffel Tower a la Superman II — the possibilities for pulp mimicry are endless. Movies, of course, are much better at telling stories, but games, at their best, are most effective at creating a sense of place — complete and compelling virtual worlds that give players fantastic experiences they’d never be able to have otherwise.

I’m not typically much of a fan of live albums, but Nirvana’s Live at Reading is an unexpectedly powerful document of the band’s breathtaking energy at its peak. If you’re a child of the grunge era, do find the time to listen.