Our quest to blend music and gaming has seen something of a boost this generation. I was originally going to say ‘renaissance’, but then I remembered the incredible works of Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Lumines and Space Channel 5) from last generation and thought that renaissance would imply a resurrection from nothing, which simply isn’t true.
Still, one can’t help but notice that ambience has been at the forefront of many more games than usual. The sublime puzzle game Auditorium from Cipher Prime is a beautiful and simple game to behold, the works of ThatGameCompany in creating a mode of play which is intended to ‘relax’ the player (with Flow, Flower and Journey) are truly a revolution in game design more generally, and Mizuguchi’s efforts this generation (Every Extend Extra Extreme and Child of Eden) are clearly honing an existing craft, rather than taking early stabs in the dark in a new direction for gaming.
Sound Shapes is out this week, and is the second game from another pioneer of the blending of music and gameplay – Jonathan Mac. Mac created Riff: Everyday Shooter, which used simple Asteroids style gameplay but with enemy types which were so complex and varied and objectives which shifted so rapidly that it was nervously impossible to play.
The game incorporates the words of songs into the gameplay, with words like ‘move’, ‘turn’, ‘break’ and ‘lose’ actually correlating directly to platforms you need to jump between.
Sound effects now gel with music, music shifts with the pace of gameplay, and gameplay can often be contrasted with the combination of the set ambience by being either way too fast and intense or way too slow and simple to blend in well (see Lumines for the best example of a game which does this overtly and intentionally).
We’ve passed the precipice of that moment when we’ve realised we can have music rise and fall in time with the gameplay, and now have well-established principles of how this works. Instead, we have people coming in to subvert the norms in order to make the player feel a certain way.
This trend could be seen as similar to the rise of photography impacting on painters. As photographs became an easy way to simulate ‘reality’ in portraits, the artists had to explore a more creative tract to justify their existence, and we were left with pointillism, futurism, Picasso and Matisse instead of those seeking to harmonise the real world with their art.
After the milestone was reached of creating harmony between music which shifts in time with gameplay and sound effects which specifically enhance a certain mood, we moved on to having them juxtapose one another or simply learned to use them with restraint.
And here we are – with the simple platformer Sound Shapes, arguably one of the most important steps forward in what I call ‘ambient games’ since Rez.
I argue this for two reasons. Firstly because the game incorporates the words of songs into the gameplay, with words like ‘move’, ‘turn’, ‘break’ and ‘lose’ in a track by Beck actually correlating directly to platforms you need to jump between, which hasn’t been done before. Secondly, because the game emphasises the artists and musicians which have collaborated on each ‘world’.
What’s vital for the public perception of games at the moment is validity of them as an art form. This means more than licensing existing cool music ala Tony Hawk. Rockstar Games booking Ennio Morricone to score Red Dead Revolver is a good example of a step forward, but to provide a platform for many artists, both now and in the future, to come together and create, is completely unique.
The Little Big Planet DNA is obvious in Sound Shapes, with users’ ability to create their own music and levels being front and centre. Almost as overt is the value Sony is clearly placing on having made a space where these artists can all work with each other.
Where PixelJunk: Eden was one major cross-collaboration between artists and musicians (and it too wore this fact on its sleeve), Sound Shapes is a virtual gallery of such collaborative efforts.
This means that not only are we witnessing the impact musicians can have on level and art design (a notion unheard of in previous generations), but we’re also able to stop and pause to appreciate the value of those musicians as well as the artists, who are never normally at the foreground of gaming.
Swords and Sworcery was an incredibly stylised game -- marrying modern graphic techniques to old-school pixel art in an elegant and distinctive way. Sound Shapes gives Superbrothers (S&S’s creators) more than just a place to create ‘more’ of their signature art style, it actively celebrates it by having it on display.
If we truly want gaming to be as recognised as other art forms, we need to respect the artists who create the worlds on an ambient level, not just those who design the gameplay as we have traditionally.
Sound Shapes isolates, identifies and holds-up the individual components of what goes into creating a rhythm game aesthetic, and is therefore one of the most important steps forward in gaming this generation.
By Leigh Harris