November 29, 2013
I’ve always wanted to have a more depth conversation surrounding music in games. There’s been extensive back and forth about narrative and design, and now we see games and play using narrative techniques unique to our medium. Narrative designers are a thing, even if it’s still new. Now that we’ve moved past that, I feel like things are churning for music as well. Not that there hasn’t been innovation in music already, just that more examples of it lately. I’m mostly thinking of recent work featuring David Kanaga’s stuff, like Dyad and Proteus. These are more abstract, but I think music in there is part of the design and is required for the player to establish a relationship with the experience of play.
A clear example is Sequence, an interesting RPG ‘rhythm’ game by Iridium Studios. I have scarequotes around rhythm because I don’t think it’s the proper term; games that heavily feature music tend to be ghettoized into a music games category, and I don’t think we really have good words for them. The main challenge of the game is the protagonist fighting monsters, where fighting is juggling between three DDR screens. One screen is the defending screen, where you must complete steps in order to avoid damage; the next is the mana screen, which has a continuous stream that you can tap to in order to refill MP; and lastly is the casting one, where after you call on a spell, you must successfully hit the arrows to actually complete the spell. On top of this, you have many different songs and bosses with strange abilities like flipping the arrows backgrounds or fading them out until just before you have to hit them. It’s as hectic as it sounds, but not gimmicky.
Why I find this interesting is how this intersects with RPGs. It is usually a genre on the mostly abstracted end of things. You usually enter a command and things play out, numbers ticking both on stage and behind the scenes. More contemporary RPGs have tried to get the player more involved with play instead of mostly watching and reacting to numbers. A lot of weird games came out with varying success with very ‘immediate’ feeling battles, like Final Fantasy XIII. Musically-inclined critics like Kirk Hamilton would comment on how the music of battles, like the rhythm, cadence of button pressing and action on the screen, felt off and the player internalizes the dissonance from it. Eventually you will just button mash or go full auto-pilot. In reflection, I feel like I’ve mostly outgrown menu-driven games like the majority of RPGs because of how tedious they are, and now crave a process that connects with me on a more sensory level. What could that be without injecting generic action elements? That’s where Sequence comes in. What seems like just a rhythm game feels more like an RPG battle than any RPG has been able to do for me. Since the main way of interacting with battle happens between three different screens you need to switch between, you develop a rhythm of attacking, defending, and recovering.
What kind of song represents the enemy is the most important when defending against attacks. The beats per minute and density of the track translates into arrows you have to hit, and sets up the entire rhythm of the battle. It’s common sense, but it is really neat to me that the small agile creatures will have fast, short bursts of weak arrows while stronger monsters will have fewer arrows, but they will hurt more if you miss them. Because different color arrows hurt you more than usual, there will be times you need to switch from something important you’re doing to defend against big hits. But often you can shrug off some damage if it means you’re going to pull of a successful spell. There will be times you have to miss entire streams of spell incantations in order to save the bulk of your health from a slower, denser song enemy, and I find that super convincing opposed to the usual conventions of saving throws or other accuracy calculations. Instead, I gain habits and feel the battle instead of observing and manipulating it, detached.
The recovery screen is the full stream of the song to gain back up mana, and really is the anchor in the entire battle. It’s helps you get into the headspace of that particular battle since it doesn’t have selected samples used as attacks, and you aren’t penalized for missing them. I felt like it was an analogue to a battle stance, bouncing from foot to foot, ready to spring to defend or cast a spell. The song appears here in its most literal form, and when the track is good, you really get into it. Eventually, your fingers don’t just press buttons on the keyboard, they dance. And I think this is what’s fundamentally missing from action scenes in RPGs, and why many devs think quick time events will solve it. Mostly, individual battles in that genre don’t have their own soul like they do in Sequence.
To cast a spell, you press a hotkey and eventually a sequence unique to that particular incantation scrolls down the third screen, and you have to hit them all successfully in order for it to work. It is the part that is the most out of sync with the rest of the battle, heightening the contrast between this learned ability and the more organic flow of battle. This aspect made it feel like I was literally concentrating and trying to execute something in the heat of battle, because very often in tougher battles a stream of attacks are bound to appear while casting. Many spells have synergy with each other, while some have straight up utility like healing. I found myself finding a certain order to which I’d always cast spells, and the challenge came from trying to act out this ritual while dealing with the varying quirks the song monsters gave me. The game realizes this, I think. Instead of making you feel like you have a whole bunch of choice and you can do whatever you want, it knows you’ll get your own rhythm and will have to learn how to dance with many enemies.
This is definitely something you have to play to really feel and understand, but it showed me how music isn’t just a layer on top of the game, but can be used as an aspect of design as well. I think this is the more blunt example, so it’ll be useful when seeing how music and sound work subtly in more conceptual work. I think we could reverse engineer some clunky design conventions and have music reconnect it with the player, much the music design in Crypt of the Necrodancer with turn-based aspects of roguelikes. And because I’m not a musician, I might not be the best person to head off this conversation, but I definitely would like more consideration to senses outside of vision and their relationship with play. Sequence was one of my favorite games of 2011, so check it out here on Steam if it seems interesting.
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