Podcast Spotlight: The Adventure Zone

Yup, it’s time for another McElroy show. Already? Yes. As much as I want to avoid falling into the “good, good boys” fanboy trap, these—uh… These… These boys are just that good (good).

The Adventure Zone is a bi-weekly, “actual play” Dungeons & Dragons podcast, which basically means it’s not scripted. (Or, well, it a D&D podcast. Now I suppose it’s just a more general role-playing podcast, since the newest mini-arc has moved onto a new system, but I’ll explain that later.)

For those unfamiliar with the concept of D&D (I imagine there are very few of you reading this, since D&D podcasts are pretty common nowadays), it’s a tabletop game in which one person acts as the “Dungeon Master” (DM). This person makes up story scenarios for 1+ other players, who can approach the scenarios with the tools given to them by the game’s system.

For example, a DM might say “The three of you are walking down a path. Suddenly, 10 goblins jump out of the bushes and demand you hand over your weapons. What do you do?”

Then the players can choose to respond however they wish: “I draw my sword and ready myself to attack,” or “I act like I’m going to hand my knife over, but at the last second I draw back and attack one of the goblins,” or even “I try to reason with them using my impressive interpretive dance skills.”

Then, so see if the players succeed, they roll a 20-sided die. If they roll a number higher than the one the DM has decided they need to beat, they succeed. If not, they fail. It’s sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but the choices and outcomes aren’t pre-determined.

The reason D&D podcasts are so common right now is that this system allows for spontaneous storytelling that’s easier to produce than scripted narrative. It also leaves room for out-of-character comedic elements and narrative commentary, which makes it much more palatable than heavy-handed amateur radio dramas.

The first 69 episodes of The Adventure Zone collectively tell what the McElroys have dubbed “Balance,” the story of three adventurers discovering the secrets of the mysterious “Grand Relics” and of their own pasts.

The “Balance” campaign began in December 2014 and wrapped up this August, and the almost three years of storytelling paid off. What began as a one-off bonus MBMBaM episode turned into a masterfully crafted, truly epic tale. It’s certainly a commitment to binge the whole show, but it’s so worth it.

Speaking of “Commitment,” that’s the name of the show’s latest campaign. Since the end of “Balance,” the McElroys have decided to start experimenting with short, “experimental arcs” to see what kind of story they (and their fans) want the show to focus on in the future.

The first experimental arc, “Commitment,” tells the story of a group of superheroes called the Do-Good Fellowship. This time, the McElroy’s father, Clint McElroy, is running the game. With the first episode having just debuted on Thursday, Clint’s story is shaping up to be an interesting one.

So far, his DM-ing skills certainly aren’t on the same level as Griffin’s, but that of course can’t be expected, since Griffin’s been doing it since 2014.

As far as recommendations go, I’d say your best option is to just marathon the whole show. But if you need some more convincing, I’d definitely recommend checking out the “Murder on the Rockport Limited” arc. It’s a great example of one of my favorite, hyper-specific story premises—train-based murder mysteries—and it has some really great humor and fun story twists.


Come back next weekend for another podcast spotlight. ALSO, stay tuned to my Twitter account (@CCJ1997) for some exciting, D&D podcast-related news. I should have some fun developments to share with you shortly.

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Podcast Spotlight: Kotaku Splitscreen

It’s about time I wrote about a video game podcast. The first podcast I ever listened to (at least as far as I can remember) was IGN‘s Podcast Beyond Episode 250,” published in August 2012.

In the five years since then, I dabbled in IGN‘s Game Scoop!, but mostly I was a loyal listener of Podcast Beyond until Greg Miller and Colin Moriarty left IGN to start Kinda Funny Games in 2015. I listened to the Kinda Funny Gamescast and PS I Love You XOXO until Colin left Kinda Funny earlier this year.

Without the iconic Greg-Colin duo I’d been listening to for years, I had to find another place to get my video game podcast fix.

Enter Kotaku Splitcreen, the video game news/discussion podcast from Kotaku‘s Kirk Hamilton and Jason Schreier. I knew of Jason from the many times Colin had spoken of his journalistic prowess, so seeing that he and Kirk had a podcast of their own peaked my interest.

Splitscreen is a pretty straightforward games podcast: the hosts run through the news of the week, discuss recent game releases and talk about what they’ve been playing. But what sets it apart is Jason’s in-depth knowledge of the video game industry.

Every time something interesting happens in the world of games, I make sure to tune in to hear Jason’s take. He has years of connections throughout the industry that give him a unique insight into the latest happenings.

Take, for example, his article about the infamous Mass Effect: Andromeda: “The Story Behind Mass Effect: Andromeda’s Troubled Five-Year Development.” Here, you can see the incredible access Jason is able to secure, something few other journalists have.

As far as Splitscreen itself goes, the show’s E3 2017 coverage was particularly interesting. Kirk and Jason produced episodes after each day’s press conferences, discussing the news from each. “E3 Episode 4 (UPDATED): Luke Smith On Destiny 2, John Garvin On Days Gone” is especially worth a listen for the interview with Destiny 2 game director Luke Smith.

But, honestly, like many other news shows, it’s hard to recommend any particular episodes of Splitscreen because much of its value lies in its immediate analysis of news topics. My advice is just to listen to the latest episode if anything in gaming news has caught your eye.

That being said, here’s a few of my favorites from the past:

“94: Twelve Straight Hours Of Video Games”

“93: The Great SNES Classic Preorder Disaster”

“90: Adam Ruins Video Games”

“E3 2017 Episode 6: The Best And Worst Of E3”

“E3 2017 Episode 1: Microsoft, EA, Xbox One X”


Alright, that’s all for tonight. Tune in next weekend for another podcast spotlight.

Podcast Spotlight: My Brother, My Brother and Me

Yes, it’s time for that post. I’ll try to keep it from being too fanboy-y. But this show is just that good.

It’s My Brother, My Brother and Me, “an advice show for the ‘modren’ era.” Hosted by Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy, this show consistently ranks in the top 25 comedy podcasts (it’s at number 21 at the time of writing this post, immediately followed by the McElroy’s The Adventure Zone at 22) for good reason.

This show, along with the rest of “the McElroy family of products,” has to be some of the best comedy I’ve ever heard. Many of the show’s bits would feel perfectly at home in a stand-up comedy routine.

The show’s basic format is that the brothers answer questions submitted by listeners and questions they find on Yahoo Answers. It’s a simple premise, but it’s the perfect platform for the brothers’ “good, good” comedy.

As brothers, the three of them naturally have years and years of playing off of each other’s goofs, and it helps that the way they talk in itself is funny. Justin and Griffin, in particular, constantly use weird phrasing and put emphasis on random words/syllables to create a wholly unique comedic style.

And the brothers have an excellent understanding of improvisational comedy, something listeners only realize because of how transparent they are about the importance of “committing to the bit” or “playing in the space they’ve created.”

That’s what really sets MBMBaM apart. The McElroys are totally open about the fact that they’re trying to be funny, and they often make jokes about that fact in hilarious “meta-comedy” bits.

Take, for example, this clip from MBMBaM 293: Dark Ages Teen Life” (animation by Isahowdy):

bag

Isahowdy – “MBMBAM Animatic Edible Bean Bags/ Cut Out the Middle Man”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoOrEHkWG6s

The brothers seamlessly transition into the “bean bag” bit, playing off each other with almost no prompting, creating a scenario all around the fact that Justin made a bad joke (which he made as a joke in the first place).

Anyway, in talking about comedy, the best thing I can do is just show you some more examples of why this show is so good. Here’s two more animations; first, an animation by Louie Zong of a bit from MBMBaM 354: Beanfreak”:

bean

Louie Zong – “griffin’s bean gets freaked”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH7jPAvFTU8

And next, this is possibly my favorite MBMBaM bit of all time (because of the brothers’ Jigsaw hilarious Jigsaw impressions and just the complete absurdity of the whole bit); it’s MBMBaM 358‘s “Detective Jigsaw, My Very Best Friend” (animation by Alexander Jenson):

jig.PNG

Alexander Jenson – “Detective Jigsaw – MBMBAM Animation”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjsYnr_L_8s

MBMBaM is the kind of show that shows up in your feed, and you just can’t wait to listen to it. It’s excellent.


I missed last week’s post because I was at my brother’s wedding in California, so I’ll be back in just a bit with another podcast spotlight. Stay tuned!

Podcast Spotlight: More Perfect

The benevolent podcast gods blessed me with a new episode from one of my old favorites just as I was wondering what I’d write about this week: it’s More Perfect, from Radiolab.

More Perfect is a Radiolab spin-off series (Radiolab‘s first) that explores the stories behind America’s most landmark Supreme Court cases. The show is a personal favorite of mine because it carries the same fast-paced, complex editing techniques Radiolab is famous for and focuses-in the show’s subject matter to turn it into into something consistently interesting and engaging.

The latest episode, titled “American Pendulum I,” follows the story of Fred Korematsu, who sued the United States in the wake of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese citizens in America.

I love the way this episode kicks off. It begins with Korematsu’s daughter telling the story of learning about Korematsu v. United States in class, having no idea that her father had been through that.

She tells of how her classmate (and fellow Japanese-American) gave a book report about the case—surprising her as much as anyone else in the class—and of how she rushed home afterwards to ask her father about it. It’s such an interesting story, and it simultaneously functions as both a hook for the episode and as a perfect introduction to any listeners unfamiliar with the case.

Overall, the episode does a great job bringing a personal angle to a little-told story most have only heard mention of.

But it’s not just the storytelling that makes More Perfect—and Radiolab‘s main series, as well—special. The show has a unique, risky editing style that almost always works in its favor.

The show will often have multiple voices interrupting one another and finishing each other’s thoughts. If you just listen to a sentence that features this technique, it makes sense as a continuous thought, but—honestly—if you pay attention to the changes in voice, it can get sort of exhausting.

Even so, it helps the show to pack much more information into a shorter time period than other audio productions, and it certainly helps keep your attention. I can’t even imagine the amount of time the reporters and editors spend going over every interview, finding gaps in the quotes that they think are worth being filled, filling those gaps with other quotes that phrase it better than they could, and then actually piecing all that together… It’s just astounding.

Worth noting: More Perfect has also thrown in some fun, goofy storytelling tactics, taking Radiolab‘s tradition of experimentation to comedy. At one point in “American Pendulum I,” a character from the American Civil Liberties Union is introduced, and beneath the following reporter track, a weird, whisper-y, robotic voice sings “A-C-L-U, A-C-L-U.” I honestly don’t know if it was supposed to be funny, but its goofiness at least kept me engaged.

Another episode, “Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer,” includes an increasingly ridiculous song/chant of the episode’s title (a mnemonic device to remember the names of America’s Supreme Court justices at the time) that plays at the end of the episode. It’s so unexpected from such a well-respected program like Radiolab, and it really just cements the casual-yet-educational format of American public radio (and, by extension, that of many podcasts) as my favorite form of content delivery.

It’s so not-pandering, not-condescending and not-pretentious. It meets listeners where they are, and it shows that podcast creators know they don’t have to sensationalize news and information to make it interesting. They can just talk to us about it like they would a friend, and that’s enough.

One last episode to check out: “More Perfect presents: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.” This one’s actually an old Radiolab episode presented by Radiolab Presents: More Perfect [the show’s full title], so that’s a little confusing and maybe redundant. But hey, either way it’s a good pod. Check it out!


Join me next week for anther podcast spotlight.

Podcast Spotlight: Rough Translation

NPR’s Rough Translation is a show with a pretty vague premise, but its vagueness works in its favor.

According to the show’s description, “host Gregory Warner tells stories that follow familiar conversations into unfamiliar territory.” The first two episodes, “Brazil In Black And White” and “Ukraine vs. Fake News,” follow that mission statement pretty closely as they examine race relations and “fake news”—topics that have obviously been at the forefront of many American socio-political conversations—from the perspective of citizens of other countries.

But Rough Translation‘s best episodes yet aren’t so clearly on-topic. “American Surrogate” and “Anna In Somalia” instead tell seemingly-random stories that cross national boundaries, but they lose nothing from looking into more obscure issues.

“Anna In Somalia” tells the story of an imprisoned man whose sanity is saved by a doctor in an adjacent cell. The doctor keeps the man grounded by reading him Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina through the wall via a tapping code-language. It’s a great tale of empathy and the power of human contact, and it has an unexpected ending that reminds you that real-life stories are rarely entirely poetic or romantic.

“American Surrogate” is even better. It hit me like a truck.

The episode, hosted by David Greene and reported by Marianne McCune, follows the story of an American woman named Jacquie as she acts as the surrogate mother for a Chinese woman named Jessie. (To protect the women’s privacy, only first names were used.)

Throughout the Jacquie’s pregnancy, she tries to foster a friendly relationship with Jessie. But for reasons that you can listen to the episode to find out, Jessie is hesitant to oblige Jacquie, and the pair’s relationship becomes even more complicated when some problems arise late in Jacquie’s pregnancy.

It’s a heart-wrenching episode. I came close to crying at least three separate times when I first listened to it sitting at my desk. And, like “Anna In Somalia,” its ending leaves you a bit unsatisfied, but for good reason.

Both of these episodes highlight the complexities of human relationships, and though their endings leave you wanting something more fulfilling, they do so in a way that reminds you of how real life doesn’t always end up how we’d like it to. It’s a nice break from Hollywood depictions of love and friendship, if still a little jarring.

Rough Translation is a well-produced, well reported show. I’d challenge you to find someone who isn’t at least a little surprised by the subject matter of one of the episodes. The topics are unique and intriguing, and the show is just good.


Join me again next week for another podcast spotlight.

Podcast Spotlight: Outside/In

Change of plans! Since a lot of the podcasts I listen to are pretty stylistically similar (either NPR-style non-fiction or your standard conversational round-table), I’ve realized that trying to talk about what makes individual episodes unique without just summarizing the content would be pretty difficult and would probably result in a lot of repetition. 

Instead, I’ll be highlighting the podcasts themselves. Each week, I’ll write aboust a podcast I enjoy and link to a few particularly good episodes. 

Let’s get started!


OIPodcast_A

Source: http://outsideinradio.org/

Outside/In from New Hampshire Public Radio is a podcast “about the natural world and how we use it,” as host Sam Evans-Brown describes it, and it’s the best nature-centric podcast I’ve come across.

The BBC’s Costing the Earth is okay, but only because its old, European-style radio conventions aren’t as in-your face as Deutsche Welle’s Living Planet, whose shouting announcer makes you feel like you’ve just tuned into a 90’s Australian T.V. broadcast. Michigan Radio’s The Environment Report is good for bite-sized environmental news updates (and is probably worth listening to in its own right), but that makes it naturally less compelling listening than longer shows. And don’t get me started on PRI’s Living on Earth.


Whoops, I got started. Here was my experience with that show:

I listen to an episode. I’m not a big fan. I unsubscribe. I subscribe again several months later to give it another chance. I hit play.

Cheesy jazz music plays.

Steve Curwood, the host, enthusiastically announces that recovery from hurricane Harvey will take lots of time and teases some stories. The bad jazz music continues to play beneath some sound bites.

Steve says “STICK AR-AAAAAHHH-OUND.”

Steve continues dramatically summarizing Harvey’s damage. Steve introduces a reporter, welcoming her to the podcast. She responds:

“Thank you, Steve. Glad to be here.”

At this point, Steve tries to make a funny joke:

“Yeah, I guess at this point though, maybe the show should be ‘Living on the Water’ for you, huh?”

Steve did a bad job. You’re being insensitive, Steven.

Later, after Steve interviews the journalist in a weird, detached tone of voice that makes you think maybe he’s some sort of alien who doesn’t know how to talk to people like a normal human being, I stop the episode.

I try another, thinking maybe it was just a fluke. After a segment about the worth of national parks, a Mary McCann hosts a segment called “BirdNote.” She enthusiastically describes bird calls. You can hear the uncomfortably big smile on her face.

With that same spooky smile, she concludes the segment with this awful, tried, stupid, no-good, very bad pun:

“Now that’s somethin’ to crow about!”

I unsubscribe.

So, uh… Yeah… Anyway…


But Outside/In isn’t like Living on Earth. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s very, very good.

Most episodes of Outside/In focuses stories. Ironically, this is basically all that sets it apart from the rest—well, that, its more casual, NPR-style tone, its high production value, its aesthetically appealing logo design and its tasteful music and sound mixing.

The other podcasts I’ve mentioned mostly focus on issues. They try to make their listeners want to listen based on the content of the news, alone. Maybe that’s why they amp up their “radio voices” so much—so they can try to make things interesting that aren’t.

Outside/In takes environmental issues and distills them down to human stories. And that’s why I think it’s so good. In my experience, if you want someone to care about the environment, you have make them love it. Throwing scary facts about the dying planet at people won’t do anything if they don’t care about the planet they’re hurting in the first place.

Outside/In makes takes all the little things that make the Earth fascinating and nurtures them into their own little stories. It shows listeners the kinds of cool adventures there are to be had in the natural world.

My favorite episode, hands-down, is called “Lime and Tobasco.” It’s about two turtle conservationists who figured out how to collaborate with turtle poachers in Mexico in order to prevent the turtles’ extinction. It’s a super compelling listen, and, as I’ve said on Twitter, the story itself is a really cool example of conservation without colonialism.

The episode perfectly exemplifies the show’s knack for storytelling. I’ll admit, the first four minutes are a little slow, but stick with it. It’s got smooth editing, natural-sounding host and reporter narration and well-chosen sound bites. If you’ve got a spare half hour, give it a listen.

But yeah. I love this show.


Here are some more links to a few really good Outside/In episodes: 

“Healing Hands of Nature”

“The Death Machine”

“After the Flood”


Join me again next week for another podcast spotlight!

Podcast Spotlight: The Black Tapes 301 – “Sins of the Father”

I’ve already spoken about this on Twitter, but it’ll still be the subject of my first post on account of the fact that I’m under a bit of a time crunch and that this episode really irked me enough to write about it twice.

I’ll include my previously-shared thoughts below, but essentially The Black Tapes has gone from one of my favorite podcasts of all time to just another jargon-filled, amateur sci-fi show.

For the uninitiated, The Black Tapes is a Serial-style, fictional mystery podcast about a journalist investigating paranormal happenings in the Pacific Northwest. Its first two seasons were well-produced and (mostly) well-written, but the season three premiere threw all of that out of the window.

I’d be really curious to talk to the show’s creators to find out what happened, but I have my suspicions.

There was a year-long wait between seasons two and three, compared to just three months between season one and two. I’ve seen enough video games be delayed and then released at mediocre levels of quality to know that sometimes such a big creative endeavor can get away from you when you’re lost in the weeds.

As soon as it was suddenly announced this May that season three would be the last season, that it would only have six episodes and that it still wouldn’t be coming out for another three months, I worried that it would be one of these situations. And sure enough, it was, at least for season three’s first episode.

There’s a chance that the rest of the season will be better –  that the premiere’s poor quality was just shoddy because the creators were a little rusty, but that remains to be seen.

For more details on my thoughts, read/listen to the stuff below.


Here’s what I said in the tweets:

“The Black Tapes asks us in its logo ‘Do you believe?’ The show’s season three premiere has made me a non-believer, at least for now.

The Black Tapes was once a compelling mystery that kept listeners hooked with every cliffhanger and revelation, but with this new episode, it has fallen into the same pitfalls that made me stop listening to its sister show, Tanis: it’s become muddied in its mess of capital-‘n’ Nouns to the point of engendering disinterest. And it feels like the main characters are just as disinterested as I was, or at least as uninformed.

Alex’s narration is stilted and unnatural. It’s just so obvious that she’s reading. When you listen to real-life journalists like Brian Reed or Sarah Koenig, their narration comes off as if they’re just telling you about something they’re very knowledgeable about. Alex’s narration lacks much of the genuine fascination and ‘eagerness to share’ that these journalists display, and feels more like she’s reading a book out loud to a group of elementary schoolers. And this issue permeates the show’s dialogue, as well.

When you listen to Alex and Nic discuss the show’s events with one another, it’s as if nothing surprises them. There’s no like’s, no um’s, no hesitation. It sounds like someone talking to themself. It’s just so obviously a fake conversation. Seriously, go back and listen to their conversation from 26:10 to 28:08:

Nic: ‘Anything new with Strand?’

Alex: ‘Nothing really. Just one inexplicable oddity after another.’

N: ‘Including the man himself.’

A: ‘He’s definitely an inexplicable oddity.’

N: ‘I think he’s warming up a little, isn’t he?’

What?

And later:

A: ‘There were dozens of them [black tapes] in that back room, just waiting.’

N: ‘That many?’

A: ‘Well, it’s gonna take forever if we’re gonna be thorough about this.’

N: ‘Anything that relates to [PROPER NOUNS]?’

A: ‘Or [PROPER NOUNS] or [PROPER NOUNS], or any of the dozens of unrelated mysteries we’re trying to connect.’

N: ‘You think they’re unrelated?’

A: ‘I don’t know what to think.’

N: ‘Are you not sleeping?’

A: ‘I just… I need a dog. That’s what I need.’

N: ‘Yeah?’

That’s not a conversation. People don’t talk like that. Even journalists who are following the same story don’t talk like that. If someone answered ‘Are you not sleeping?’ with ‘I need a dog,’ you might catch their meaning, but you wouldn’t just say ‘Yeah.’ You’d be like, ‘Haha what? A dog? Do you mean ‘cuz that would help with your stress?’ SERIOUSLY. Just listen! Their line delivery is so damn immediate and flat. You hear this crap and you can just picture them sitting next to each other in front of a mic, looking down at a piece of paper with a script written on it.

The show has also fallen into Tanis’ tendency to punctuate every bit of dialogue with a dramatic sound effect or musical cue, which only serves to emphasize the characters’ lack of enthusiasm for what they’re saying.

I’m going to keep listening to The Black Tapes to see what happens, and I think the story has potential to pick up as the season comes to a close. But, for me, The Black Tapes no longer demands I stop typing emails or texts to give it my undivided attention. GOD, I’M LISTENING TO THE END OF THE EPISODE AGAIN, AND THE WAY ALEX REACTS TO SIMON’S CREEPY, CRYPTIC NONSENSE IS JUST SO BAD. SHE’S SO MONOTONED [sic] AND REHEARSED AND UGH.”


Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next week with a more fleshed-out take on a different pod. Talk to you then!