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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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
A bit of both
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.