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.
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.
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)
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