Level Design: A Level Full of Rhythmia

Every game, with all its enemies and doors and health bars and platforms, has a set pace. A pace in how they move, when they move, how fast they move. And that pace, the pace of everything on screen, dictates the pace that the player can plan out their moves and it dictates the window that the player has to perform their plan. But when the pace of everything on the screen is rhythmic, meaning that the pacing matches a particular interval, is matched by the rhythm of the player to plan and perform within the window that the game gives then a sort of harmonic resonance can develop between the player and the game, and that can be a wonderful feeling to have.

Crypt of the NecroDancer
Crypt of the NecroDancer

I talked a bit about it in a post earlier this year when Crypt of the Necrodancer was getting a bit of buzz in Early Access because the game took this idea to its most extreme. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you are bound by the music in the stage, bound to the beat of the song as are all enemies on the screen. That beat is what dictates when you can move and when you can attack, but just as importantly when the enemy can move or attack and the window of time that you have to figure out how to get around the problem. Move to the beat, lest punishment for two left-feet. The world became the conductor whose metronome dictates all instruments on stage and you just another musician managing the instruments of success and punishment on stage in every verse.

Without the Visual Metronome

With the Metronome

This is a full evolution in using music when compared to how games used music in the past where the music was more of an accompaniment of the game. At its worst, the music was just background noise with little to no coherence with the set and setting of the stage. At its best, the music became an expression of what the game was trying to be. A fun loving, upbeat song to keep you carefree or a dissonant ominous disorder to keep you suspenseful and cautious, and I’m just talking about NES era Mario Bros.

Mario Bros 1-1

Mario Bros 1-4

I’m not going to go into too much depth with the evolution of how music became a more synergized accompaniment to the gameplay on screen, though you can look at Legend of Zelda: Windwaker to Skyward Sword as great examples of this, because it could be a fairly lengthy exploration and detract from what I really wanted to talk about.

Axiom Verge
Axiom Verge

What I really wanted to talk about was Axiom Verge  which was released at the end of March 2015. The game isn’t a music game in definition, but at its core it has the same metronome that is keeping the beat as Crypt of the Necrodancer, and the musical stages of Raymen Legends, New Mario Bros and Donkey Kong Country Returns which I talked about earlier this year. (Videos for these at the bottom)

Jump to 2:22 for the relevant parts

While it may not be as obvious as more the traditional musical stages of platformer games or immediately obvious as rhythm games, the levels and the enemies in Axiom Verge have a metronomic pacing much like those in Raymen Legends and Donkey Kong Country Returns. As the sci-fi grunge trance plays in the background the level pulses to the beat, your UI flashes its indicators in rhythm to the music, the enemies move to the beat and you have free reign to move outside the confines of the songs pace and the enemies hate you for it. You live outside of the song, disrupting the harmony of having everything synchronized to the level so you must be punished for living outside of that synchronicity. All of the instruments on stage follow the conductor to play their sci-fi grunge and you’re walking through the orchestra blowing your trombone in the ears of the other musicians because you feel that their playing is getting in the way. The rogue musician.

But there’s a different feeling to running around in a world that pulsates to the music. You start to exist in a world that is listening to what you’re listening to, a world that expresses itself based on the music around it. It’s closer to a living in a music video, levels that are an expression of the music instead of the other way around.  The gameworld itself having a rhythm resonating in confluence of synergy and harmony. Where other games had a bombardment of arrhythmia adding an uneasy dissonance to the levels in a musical sense, Axiom Verge was able to counteract that, at least until you disturbed that rhythm with your can’t-keep-a-beat running around.

The rhythm of each level influencing your play but not dictating it. But because of that free-will that you possess, to live outside of the music, there is a punishment for it by every other being that has to march along to the metronome.

 Other Musical Stages

Twitter: @GIntrospection

Story Design – Teaching Others What They Won’t Experience

What are you able to show to someone that they don’t already know? Can you make them change their mind about an idea or way of thinking because they’ve been indoctrinated into an idea for years? Can you prove a misconception, shine a light on the dark unknown that we know nothing about? Can you help us see a part of a life that we might never get to experience and help us understand that everyone has it hard, some in different ways and many in ways that we’ll never be able to experience firsthand but maybe we can get a small understanding from the wisdom of those who have experienced it?

There is something to be said about the power of storytelling. Having a story, filled with characters with flaws and faults, having well-meaning intentions fall through because they went about it in a way that played to the desires of another. Stories filled with morales to help us see our own faults and showing the dangers of being blind how those faults can affect others, be manipulated against us, and play to the prejudices and misconceptions that others hold tightly.

And what kind of views are stories lacking in telling? Stories that people that can relate to and that people have always related to will have plenty of stories with many points of view to get a clear understanding of their picture shown in the many hues that you can filter.

The stories that are missing, the ones that can teach us a better understanding of the nuances of the human condition, are the ones that are relatively new and where people have started to learn and understand only recently and who have the relatable vocabulary to express and the mediums that work best in portraying such a nuance.

If you take PTSD for example, movies have only started to show people dealing with PTSD fairly recently. That’s not to say that PTSD hasn’t been in film in the past, but showcasing someone with PTSD as a means to show that was affected them, and someone who is coming to terms with the symptoms of PTSD and actively trying to deal with the repercussions of living with PTSD is something fairly new. Movies like Rambo and Forrest Gump show people who have developed PTSD and are riding the razor’s edge between living in the present and snapping back into the adrenaline-filled survival mode. Ironman 3 on the otherhand showcase a Tony Stark coming to terms with his near-death experience in Avengers, identifying that it’s putting a barrier between himself and the people around him and learning to get help about for it.

Ironma 3- sleep stress

 

This is a much more mature approach of using PTSD as a plot-point and a teaching tool over the past use of having PTSD be the natural man-living-on-the-edge staple for a post-war veteran.

Wake up after nightmare

So you want to show your main character has a troubled past, huh? Just have some war flashbacks and them waking up in cold sweat while flailing their arms like a drowning man in a river. Mmm, PTSD was so useful in the past.

I just wished more media would take the approach of using their medium as a platform to teach others of something to give them a better understand of an experience. This can be done on top of having a fun/exciting game and most notably it can be memorable to them because it will have given them something novel that only a few other games can portray. Teaching the difficulties that we would never quite understand but other have to live with on a daily basis like mental health issues, living with a severe disability or the harassment and disappointment that a lifestyle has to those around us.

You usually have to dig deep within the indie-bin for games that tackle such intimate personal issues and the stigma around them, but finding one that can be a brutally honest representation about a difficult moment in the developer’s life and can help you experience an event that you would never be able to experience is a gem that should be treasured but shared, not coveted.

papa

Papa and Yo is the relatively modern example of a child’s delusions and conceptualization of dealing with an alcoholic father. You play as a Quico who finds a giant creature none as Monster. Monster seems quite playful and a joy to be around, but once Monster eats a frog they become enraged and chase Quico until he can calm Monster with some rotten fruit.

Papa Likes Frogs
Papa Likes Frogs

The complexity of alcohol abuse isn’t something that a kid would easily understand and takes a more grown up view to really know the issues around it. An issues where someone actively seeks something that would make them hurt others, through the eyes of a child, seems nonsensical. Why would you go looking for something that turns you into a mean person? The only way for a kid to make sense of what was going on is to wrap such a disturbing situation in a more relatable way, a Monster looking for food some of which turns them into a mean hurtful creature. A way that is easier to process for a kids mind and easier to digest for someone who can’t understand the realities of living with someone in the clutches of alcohol abuse.

Papa likes this, too.
Papa likes this, too.

Coming Out Simulator is a game where an even smaller portion of the populace would have a directly relatable relationship to, but one that can reflect just one hardship that others go through. The game deals with a traumatic moment of “Coming Out” to you parents. Not the fun-loving “do what you want with your life”-parents, but the “we have a strict plan for your life and taking a dick in the ass isn’t one of them”-kind of parents. Having closed minded parents is one thing, but having parents that are actively trying to hinder what you feel is a defining quality for you is something that people can relate to.

asian parents

The awkward tension in the air from those that raised you expecting you to live up to an ideal image of “their child”. The verbal dance that you orchestrate, “maybe you hang out with that Jake boy a bit too much,” but you pass it off with a “Oh no we’re just friends” masked truth or push back with a “What do you mean by…wrong idea”

wrong-idea

But that awkwardness isn’t something completely foreign to the non-LGBT community. We come out to parents in many ways and lead to many difficult conversations and add to the strains in our relationship with them. “I got a girl pregnant.” “Yes I’m dating a black man, what’s the big deal.” “But I have an affinity to My Little Pony, you just don’t understand.” It’s not that we have an active rebellion against our parents, but anything that we think goes against their ideals, ideals that they’ve tried to instill in us from a very young age, we know that ideas and activity that go against their indoctrination will be met with awkward tension, highly-heated friction, and scars in your relationship that are hard to heal. I’m not trying to devalue what “Coming Out” means at all, more to the point that it is an extreme version of any social friction that people have to come across when their choices are in direct conflict with the ideals of others.

bisexual

The important thing about these games and many others is that they not only tell us a story, but they tell an experience that many of us will never fully understand but they give us the tools and to help us understand. These stories are relatable and honest representations of hardships and can help those of us who won’t go through these situations appreciate and better understand these situations. And importantly, they are memorable and after experiencing them we can look back on them and the faults that they teach us, about the our inability to fully understand situations until we can make them relatable, or the prejudices of others even those that we love and that love us causing conflict, or mental disorders and building a story where the disorder and experienced, identified and worked towards resolution instead of just being a plot-point or character trait that is never really addressed.

What are you able to show to someone that they don’t already know? Can you make them change their mind about an idea or way of thinking because they’ve been indoctrinated into an idea for years? Can you prove a misconception, shine a light on the dark unknown that we know nothing about? Can you help us see a part of a life that we might never get to experience and help us understand that everyone has it hard, some in different ways and many in ways that we’ll never be able to experience firsthand but maybe we can get a small understanding from the wisdom of those who have experienced it? I can think of a few things that can, but there’s still many more that don’t.

Twitter: @GIntrospection

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