Drums Keep Pounding Rhythm to the Brain

Last year, I lamented the lack of iconic, memorable music in today’s games, but it’s dawned on me — partly because I’ve been playing Nintendo’s Soundvoyager, more on which later — that I may have been a little harsh. The focus of my writing back then was on the catchy jingles older games excelled at providing, but while today’s in-game music may not be as well-suited to the world of ringtones, it does provide us with another gaming genre; that where the music is not incidental, but actually integral to the in-game experience.

So, I’m not just talking about games that have great soundtracks, of which I’m sure there are many. For instance, while the soundtrack to Beyond Good and Evil is easily good enough to justify owning on CD, and added a lot to an already excellent (and, naturally, sorely underplayed) game, it wasn’t essential — you didn’t need to hear the music in order to play the game, and the music was the same no matter what actions you, as the player, took.

What immediately springs to my mind when I think of audio-dependent games is pretty much anything from the rhythm-action genre, though even the best among these will consist largely of keeping time to popular, contemporary songs (usually covers). More notable, I think, are those that have their own soundtrack, such as the sublime Space Channel 5.

Ulala’s swinging report show!

Space Channel 5 was conceptualised and produced by Tetsuya Mizuguchi whilst working at Sega, and the game follows the standard ‘Simon Says’ pattern of many games in this genre, whereby the player simply repeats the on-screen instructions. Simple though it is, the audio is notable in that it reacts to how well the player follows the instructions — if you successfully complete a section where a guitarist or pianist — or even Michael Jackson himself at one point — is rescued, they will join you and play along in the background. Thus, reaching the end of a level successfully will result in the player having a far richer soundtrack than if they have only scraped through with the bare minimum of points.

Mizuguchi has made several other games that make creative use of music, such as Lumines, Every Extend Extra and Rez. Rez is a title that you may have heard mentioned here and there in hushed tones over the years, and is one of the many games you can throw into any ‘are games art?’ debate (the answer is: yes, they are).

Stripped down, Rez is a simple on-rails shooter with varying levels of difficulty making it quite approachable to the casual gamer. It is notable because the audio, as in Space Channel 5, reacts to the actions of the player, growing more elaborate as the player progresses, the proficient player receiving a more elaborate soundtrack. Not only that, but when played with a rumble-equipped controller, every single beat in the game’s audio manifests as an actual, physical beat right in your hands (or elsewhere, should you choose). This combination of touch, sight and sound makes for a uniquely immersive playing experience.

However, highly enjoyable though the games are, the audio in most, if not all, of Mizuguchi’s work only reacts in a limited way to the actions of the player — it’s either built up or stripped down depending on the player’s performance. If we start talking about games where the player is in total control not just of how layered the audio is but how the audio is assembled from the ground up then we can find some interesting games, though the boundaries between game and art start to blur even more, and the games console becomes more of an instrument than a toy.

Roll your own

Two instrumental games of note have appeared on the Nintendo DS: Electroplankton and Daigasso! Band Brothers. The former is pure play; there is no goal, no objective, no score — no game, in fact. The latter is a more traditional rhythm game with a bought-in playlist, but has some unique collaborative features, as well as an edit mode to allow the player to create their own compositions.

Electroplankton is the creation of Japanese interactive media artist Toshio Iwai, responsible for several audio-dependent games dating back to Otocky for the Famicom Disk System in 1987. The player creates music by using the DS touch screen or microphone to manipulate one of ten kinds of cartoon ‘plankton’ — watch this video for a better idea of what I mean. That’s really all there is to it, and without the ability to save your creations it’s also entirely ephemeral, but it’s also easy enough for anybody to pick up and play with. It’s not a game in the traditional sense but certainly worth mentioning here.

Daigasso! Band Brothers, also known in the US as Jam with the Band, is more traditional and, as mentioned above, comes with a built-in playlist. What’s more interesting is that it allows up to eight people to play, with each player taking responsibility for one instrument, as you can see in this video. Furthermore, not only does the edit mode allow the player to use the touch screen to input your own notes, but it allows the player to hum or sing a tune into the microphone and convert it into a usable game format. This combination of a traditional goal-based game and an open-ended edit mode possibly makes Daigasso! the ideal audio-dependent game — there’s something there for everyone.

Spin me right round like a record baby

Finally, there’s the aforementioned Soundvoyager, which, although it has some token graphics, is actually pure audio, easily played with your eyes closed — in fact, it may even be easier that way. This is a game released recently as part of Nintendo’s bit Generations series of minimalist, ‘pure’ gaming experiences for the Gameboy Advance (currently only available in Japan and through importers, and unlikely now to see a US or European release due to the diminished interest in the Gameboy line as a whole).

Easily the most unusual of the set, the idea behind Soundvoyager is simple: equipped with headphones, the player must listen for a sound appearing in either the left or right speaker, and then, using the left and right shoulder buttons on the console, move so that the sound is focused centrally. Once that’s achieved, another sound is played on top of the first, and the player must focus on that sound, followed by another, and another, and so on until an elaborately-layered jazz or techno track is playing, while somewhere is a slightly off-centre loop of a theremin or something that you have to find beneath the clamour.

I’ve found Soundvoyager to be utterly compelling, and anybody with a Gameboy and an interest in unique games needs to track it down — at the time of writing it’s only about seven pounds from Play Asia, so there’s no excuse.

I did play the recorder once upon a time

I’m not sure why audio-driven games appeal to me so much, as I don’t have any particular musical ability myself. Perhaps that’s why; unable to create or perform anything substantial myself, these games allow me to create, even in a limited fashion, my own compositions — music created directly by my own actions, either directly or indirectly, the audible equivalent of playing with crayons.

How about you? What are your thoughts on games that use audio in interesting ways? What did I miss?