Game Design: MusicXGameplay – Playing a beat.

I’ve always had a soft spot for music games. The synchronous harmony of action and rhythmic reward, getting your movements in tune with the game. For many games, it’s not about progress through the game, but progress of the self. You can get to the end of the level on easy mode, but have you developed your reaction, fluidity equaling dexterity to get through the medium difficulty or harder? It’s about challenging yourself at the same pace as the music as much developing the skill and time-specific accuracy that makes me enjoy music games, in general.

DDR
DDR
Rock Band 2
Rock Band 2

The formula helps create a deeper immersive-connection to the game as you play it because you’re forced to involve more senses to interact with one another and influence one another. In this case, you’re forcing your ears and your eyes to influence your movements and reaction time because every action corresponds to some beat.

But that doesn’t mean traditional music games are the only kids in the playground that try to force a player to express themselves with the rhythm that they exclaim.

There’s no real insight in the obvious notion that background music in games can help develop a mood of the level and elicit a mood from the player. Fast and hectic tones eliciting a rushed-anxiety, awkward and dissonant tones instilling dread, minor and augmented tones creating a melancholia response, etc… But the evolution of this is much closer to a marriage of background music and diegetic music, a music that you experience and that you have influence over or that has influence over you.

Music that you influence

Everyday Shooter
Everyday Shooter

Everyday Shooter is a game where you and the music are in direct connection of one another. The background music plays as it normally would and things start trying to kill you on screen as you fly around the stage in this twin-stick shooter. As you kill them, though, you actually add to the tones on the screen. Killing certain enemies creates a certain tone, tones which change the auditory experience from the multitude of guitar strums, plucks and whammies that you have within the game.

But of course your skill in the game and how well you perform changes over time with how adept you become at learning the mechanics of the game so every new playthrough of the game creates a wholly different auditory experience of the game because you influence how the game sounds.

Gameplay:

Sound Shapes
Sound Shapes

The same creator of Everyday Shooter also created Sound Shapes, creating a similar aesthetic visual with the minimalistic pallete but more importantly a similar connection with the player and their influence on the music within the game.

Sound Shapes is a platformer rather than a shooter, but the player now gains the ability to change the music by not the things that are killed but the things that they collect within the game. Think of it like this: if Mario collected coins, then where he collected them would create a tone depending on where the beat lay in the measure.

Gameplay:

You treat each stage like a measure of sheet music and each element on the screen is a sound at a certain beat. What you place creates a tone at that beat and placement creates rhythm. When you collect something then where you collected that object creates a new sound on that beat.

LaunchpadMini-xlarge

Beatpad in action

Same principal as Everyday Shooter, your actions create the sound experience and ever sound experience will be different.

Music influencing you

New Mario Bros Wii
New Mario Bros Wii

New Mario Bros Wii introduced a small effect where the koopas, goombas, cheeps and many of the enemies spread throughout the Mushroom Kingdom are plagued by the music in the game. The music affects them so much so that they are forced to dance to the beat every so often.

New Mario Bros Wii: World 1-1

But this creates a connection between the player and the music. The player can now use musical cues to help dictate what they should do in case an enemy is in the way or a particular placement of enemies are makes it difficult to manage. Likewise, if you expected an enemy to be moving and the music forces them to dance in place for the half-second, you could be running face-first into a new-life.

New Mario Bros Wii: World 1-4

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze took the approach to a full stage sort of thing. All of the platforms on the stage, all of the enemy patterns are dictated by the music on the stage. It gives similar audial cues as New Mario Bros Wii for when you should move through the stage to avoid being harmed but it also creates a rhythm in your movement because it is more persistent than the once-every-half-minute cue that New Mario Bros handled. You play the stage at you own pace, but that pace is forced to revolve around the musical patterns of the stage you’re in.

Gameplay:

And let’s throw up the Rayman Legends video because their musical stages are always fun to play, although closer to a direct platformer interpretation of the traditional music game model of DDR and Rockband because you’re playing is at the pace of the game/music only and not your pace

Rayman Legends
Rayman Legends

Gameplay:

A bit of both

Crypt of the NecroDancer
Crypt of the NecroDancer

Crypt of the Necrodancer is a bit of a quandry because the game is an amalgamation of the two above descriptions. You have influence over the game and its soundscape but the game has a direct influence on how you play it. Depending on where you are on a stage, the sound scape is different. Different enemies on screen create a different sound scape. Moving to new levels changes the sound background altogether.

The beat is everything in this game. Your actions, your movements.  But so are the enemies. All of this is dictated by where the beat lay. If you move outside of the beat you take damage. This generates a dilemma for the player because all of their actions need to be to the beat and on beat. Your decision making window is relegated to the beat window forcing your decision making to not only be fast but on beat.

It is easy to get involved in the game because of the amount of connection you develop to the beat. Your thoughts, your movement, your actions all influenced by the metronomic musical presence that you hear and the dangers that you see.

But creating a strong coupling between music and gameplay isn’t new. It’s been done for a long time and I wanted to write about some of the games that do it well. But it does bring up the question of how to involve other senses to influence how we play in hopes of creating a deeper immersive experience and something that I hope more games explore in the future.

Twitter: @GIntrospection

Let’s Talk About: Early Sonic

In preparations for a future project, I’ve been playing all of the old Sonic games for the Sega Genesis to get a feel for how the franchise has evolved over the years. These early Sonic titles were picked because they are widely regarded as being the better Sonic games and on the better side of platformers of the 16-bit generation. But somewhere on its march towards the present the series has consistently stumbled and tries to pick itself back up. But this interpretation of the Sonic’s past is a bit muddy because even at its roots, the games have been a playground of trial and error for how these games want to represent the Blue Hedgehog.

sonic over time

At least for the purposes of this article, I’m limiting the games to Sonic, Sonic 2, and Sonic 3.

Defining the Sonic series

The Sonic games have always had one big commonality among them. Platforming and Speed. But, when push comes to shove, which are the developers going to make the priority? You can’t always balance these two aspects when making your game, so one will supersede the other at some point.

Sonic is advertised as built for speed, so why should speed take second seat to platforming? If speed was really the only then you can have a flat infinitely long stage where you can run as fast as you want forever.

Sonic-Long

That would mean that there needs to be some challenge involved in the level, so platforming is introduced with enemies and running areas scattered about the level. But, the more clustered the hazards, the slower the gameplay becomes.

There’s an inherent problem with having too many things on the screen to pay attention to. You not only need to divide your attention to each individual object, but add to this the cycling of old objects off of the screen and new objects onto the steadily moving screen at a heart-pounding pace, then you might find it hard to follow everything that you should and should not be able to do in the game.

This means that enemies are not good for speed. More importantly, enemies change the momentum of speed.

When you’re running on the sidewalk and things fall in your way, tree branch that you have to hop over, skunk you need to avoid, car that almost runs you down, the speed at which you’re running gets hindered. Or, you’re driving down a road at a brisk 45 mph but you suddenly hit a traffic jam, changing your pace of constant movement to stop-and-go, then it dramatically shifts your perception of movement.

But what would feel worse, moving along at 60 mph and hitting a traffic jam or moving at 20 mph and hitting a traffic jam?

Aside from the actual movement at the higher speed, you were perception was becoming accustomed to moving at the higher speed, processing the visual information and making judgments at the higher speed, so the sudden shift in speed from fast to slow is more jarring to your perception than it would in the 20mph case from moderately fast to slow because the change is much more drastic.

To talk about this in Sonic for rest of the article, I’m going to just use the term Perceptual Momentum.

The Three Sonics

Sonic1

s1-box

Sonic 1 took the idea of balancing platforming and speed in many variations, testing the impetus of Perceptual Momentum. The game opens up in Green Hill Zone where the emphasis of the level is devoted to speed. The level has several different routes where you can exercise your ability to move quickly through the world, loops and springs to help the Speed come across with very little penalty for running into the hazards of the stage. The only real penalty is taking a different route than you’d otherwise take.

Sonic1-Loop

It’s strange that the game would then follow Green Hill Zone with Marble Zone, where the pacing of the level strongly de-emphasizes speed in favor of heavy platforming mechanics. You wait for moving platforms and traps to move away at what feels like a snails pace in contrast to how you normally move. In fact, the majority of the levels in Sonic 1 felt relatively slowly paced, outside of Green Hill Zone and stage 3 Spring Zone (aka the Casino Level).

sonic-marble-zone

There are moments of speed in each level, but never enough to feel like the game was a speed with platforming, instead of a platforming game with a speed ability.

Sonic2

s2-box

Sonic 2 opens up similarly to Sonic 1 with Emerald Hill Zone, a level highly motivating speed with little emphasis on platforming. Sure, there is some platforming to worry about, but with opening up multiple routes to travel through, there is no hard-penalty for failure in platforming early on in the game. There is a punishment in that the lower routes tend to have more hazards to worry about, but Perceptual Momentum is still at a high pace and doesn’t come stumbling to a walking pace for failure.

s2-ehz-act1map

The next level is Chemical Plant, a level that has you moving at a high speed, but has a greater penalty for messing up.

s2-cpz-act2map

 

The level is generally lax about its penalties., At worst the level makes you redo certain areas because you got impatient, but for the most part you never get slowed to a crawl. Except for that one area where you might drown yourself. That’s just annoyingly slow.

sonic2-chemicalplant-drowning

The other levels, have a much higher emphasis on speed than those in the Sonic1, but I did want to talk about Mystic Cave Zone in Sonic 2 because it is one of the slower levels of the game, but is still feels much better paced than the level in Sonic 1’s later stages.

Mystic Cave Zone

sonic2-mystic-cave-zone

Even though the level has plenty of hazards to worry about, your focus is never interrupted because the momentum of the level never allows you to gain full speed. Instead, the level is designed to feel cramped and filled with hazards, so even running at half speed gets you to feel fast. You’re jumping from ledge to ledge, grabbing at switches and pullies while avoiding being crushed. Your speed helps you to navigate the level better but not necessarily to get to the end faster.

The level is a great example of perceptual speed only being necessary, and not true speed. You feel fast in much of the level because you’re navigating obstacles quickly, not just because you’re moving (in the traditional sense) through the level quickly.

s2-mcz-act1map

Sonic3

s3-box

Sonic 3 opens up much differently than Sonic 1/2. Angel Island Zone never really emphasizes speed in its level. In fact, speed is never really emphasized in any of the levels as part of the gameplay. You open up with heavy ledge-to-ledge platforming and traps that keep you moving slowly or even send you backward. Have you ever felt like you made negative progress when playing a game? This game is great to teach you that feeling.

Sonic3-NegativeProgress-2-100p

All of the levels have nonsense like this. You aren’t only penalized for not performing well, but your Perceptual Momentum is consistently low throughout the game. What’s worse is, in most levels speed is a shortly given reward for progression instead of the default design of the game.

This is Angel Island Zone

s3-aiz-act1map

These are the areas where you can run for a short while.

s3-aiz-act1-highlighted

More for later

What’s interesting is that these elements of not understanding how Sonic should focus itself persist throughout the franchise. The franchise has always been in contention with how to represent itself, either as a fast-game with platforming or a platformer with fast sections, how should patience and accuracy be rewarded, how should replayability be rewarded.

I say replayability being rewarded because the more you play the game, the better you remember where the speedy places are so you make less mistakes, being penalized with slower areas less often. 

These symptoms can be found across the full Sonic franchise and the games are at its best when speed and platforming are at its most balances, the games most fulfilling when speeds are high and Perceptual Momentum uninterrupted.

Twitter: @GIntrospection

 

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