Archive for the 'Music Games' Category


Audiosurf

At a casual glance, Audiosurf looks a lot like an early Harmonix game, like Frequency and Amplitude: the player drives a little spaceship down a twisting multi-lane highway in an abstract environment, trying to hit colored spots in time with the music. But the similarities end there. Harmonix, even in the days before Guitar Hero, has always been about capturing the feeling of performing music. The player’s goal in their games is to add something to the soundtrack, to build up a piece of music note by note, by hitting the right buttons at the right moments. In Audiosurf, the music is there regardless of what you do, and buttons are strictly for voluntary use of special powers not directly related to the music. You don’t even necessarily want to activate all of the colored spots, like you would for a perfect performance. That’s because you’re not in any sense performing the music. You’re reacting to it.

Or, to be precise, you’re reacting to the level design, which is generated automatically from the music. Procedural generation of game content from music has been done before — Vib Ribbon, released in 1999, may be the earliest released example, but it came too soon to take advantage of ubiquitous networked digital distribution of music the way that Audiosurf does, providing built-in iTunes and Last.fm integration, as well as a small weekly roster of songs to download from the Audiosurf servers. (As I write this, it’s Jonathan Coulton week.) Not that you’re limited to this content; any song you have in a DRM-free format is useable, provided it meets certain requirements such as a minimum length.

And that’s a snag for such as me. This game is really meant for playing with your own music collection, and I don’t own a lot of music. I never went through a music-collector phase like most people; my collector instincts attached themselves to games instead. I have a handful of CDs left over from my college days, back when people still bought CDs: several They Might Be Giants albums, some Satie and Prokofiev and Philip Glass. I have a few recordings of bands that friends of mine were in. And I have the DROD soundtrack CD. This is little enough that I don’t even really consider it representative of my own musical tastes. Still, there are a bunch of songs there that I haven’t listened to in a long time, and this is as good an excuse as any to drag them out.

So, how well did it handle the music I had available? It varies. It’s probably at its best with dance music, or things resembling dance music. Playing Satie’s piano works, mainly quiet and slow things, the burbling electronic sound effects of the game itself felt very weird; I suppose I could turn them off, but then I’d lose a valuable channel of feedback. Moreover, the whole way it detects the tempo and intensity of the piece seems tuned more for the way pop music works than for classical-ish stuff. For example, in one of the Glass pieces, a very steadily-paced work throughout, the path tilted straight downward simply because a bassoon joined in. This is supposed to be what happens in more intense sections; sedate stuff has the path tilting upward. (Why not upward for rising tension? Because the slope determines how well you can see what’s ahead of you. Downward slope means limited visibility.)

Still, some of the less modern stuff works well. The “Montagues and Capulets” theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet — you’d probably recognize it if you heard it — made the road satisfyingly bumpty in just the right places. And sometimes even TMBG was awkward, as in the opening of Ana Ng: the speed at which you go down the road varies with the music volume, and the unnaturally sharp and echoless cut-offs here made the vehicle jerk and judder like it was having engine trouble.

audiosurf-floeI think the most satisfying ride I’ve had yet was in Floe, by Philip Glass. It’s almost like he wrote it with Audiosurf in mind. I mean, just look at that intensity graph in the upper left of the screenshot. (You’ll have to click on it to see it; it’s invisible in the thumbnail.) Most songs have spiky and irregular graphs, but here, it looks like it’s made of circular arcs. The effect on gameplay is a smooth progression from easy to difficult.

According to the leaderboards, only four other people have tried that song. Most of my songs, no one else has ever tried. But that might be misleading: there may be other people playing Prokofiev, but they wouldn’t show up as competing with me if they’re playing a different recording. (And quite right, too: different performances could vary the level design in nontrivial ways.) This is another way in which my music collection isn’t ideal for the game. But I suppose it could be worse. With the company I kept in college, I could have easily wound up a fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In fact, I’m kind of tempted to download some of his stuff to see how well the game copes with it.

New Failures

Games on Steam that I’ve tried and failed to play in the last 24 hours:

Majesty 2: Sequel to a game that I quite liked. Steam had it on sale for $10, so I picked it up. Before I was done with the tutorial, it triggered the spontaneous-shut-off problem that I first observed in Team Fortress 2. This has happened in a few other graphically-intensive games lately.

Audiosurf: Included in that Steam indie sale pack that I’ve played most of by now. (Mr. Robot was in the same pack.) Launching it with Steam already running brings up a featureless white window that either goes away after a fraction of a second or freezes up and has to be killed through the task manager. Launching it without Steam already running somehow lets it get far enough to put a bunch of text in that window, then crash with the error “Questviewer.exe has encountered an error and must close”.

Gish: Part of the same sale package as Audiosurf, although I already had a registered copy from pre-Steam days. After twice temporarily feezing up with a dusting of random pixels and then coming back with a video driver error saying that the hardware had to be reset, it finally turned off the machine like Majesty 2. This from a 2D game.

I’m really going to have to get a new video card. I’m willing to put it off for a while, though. There are still plenty of games that don’t need it.

Everyday Shooter: Ending

After some more Single-mode practice and the purchase of another life, I have finally reached the proper ending of Everyday Shooter — and a proper ending it is, with a credits montage and everything. Mind you, since the game was developed by one person, it’s short on credits and long on montage. But it serves its purpose, which is to celebrate the player’s victory and enhance the illusion of accomplishment, one of my bigger motivations for playing games in the first place.

I also find the ending satisfying because of the way it breaks the midgame’s biggest drawbacks. It may seem strange to say this about a somewhat-old-school 2D shooter, but Everyday Shooter plays a lot like a CRPG. It’s the accumulative aspect. Instead of killing monsters to get XP that raises your level, you’re collecting points to buy additional starting lives, but the end result is the same: repetitive grinding makes it easier to survive the difficult bits. The problem with this isn’t just the tedium of grinding (if carried to excess), but also that it makes the difficult bits less interesting. But, as I described in my last post, the final boss in Everyday Shooter isn’t something that you can simply smother in extra lives.

Also notable is the delay between defeating the end of the final boss encounter and the end of the level. Regardless of whether you’ve defeated it or not, the song has to finish playing. The post-boss segment isn’t at all difficult, but if you won, it’s an excellent opportunity to get loads more points. (I had over 7000 by the end.) So there’s a cushion between the victory and the congratulations, giving the player time to process the fact that the long struggle is over, even as the game remains meaningfully interactive. This is an interesting effect, and one I haven’t seen in many other games.

Everyday Shooter: End Boss

I’ve managed to survive to the end of the last song in Normal mode, but it’s clear that I haven’t really finished the game.

Level 8, “So Many Ways”, is, like level 6 and arguably level 4 before it, a level with a boss. By “boss” I just mean a unique abnormally tough enemy with lots of firepower. Bosses in shooters usually have one other attribute that these bosses don’t: they block progress. They’re generally the last thing in a level, and the way to finish level is to defeat the boss. But in Everyday Shooter, every level ends when its song is over. That’s so basic to the mechanics of the game that bosses aren’t allowed be an exception. The level 4 boss explodes into a kajillion points 1This is an estimation. You can only pick up less than thousand points before they fade away, but extrapolating from the density of those picked up, I can say with some confidence that the total number is approximately a kajillion. when killed, and, of course, stops shooting at you, which makes things a lot easier for the rest of that level. But killing it is optional. And, in fact, while the time limit imposed by the song has the effect of making it easier to pass the level, it also makes it harder to defeat the boss.

everyday-endbossLevel 8’s boss is a large circle with a pair of segmented tentacles, each segment bearing a circle that can shoot at you. The way it moves, together with its white-and-transparent color scheme, suggests jellyfish. The song is another three-section A-B-A deals like level 4; the boss drifts in at the beginning of the B section and leaves when it’s over. There isn’t nearly enough time to kill it simply by shooting at it: you pretty much have to lure it towards other objects that can be made to explode, and that’s not easy when you’re dodging its bullets. (Much of the time I accidentally detonate the thing I’m trying to lure it toward prematurely.) If you manage to defeat it, the large circle drifts to the center and becomes a point fountain. But I only know this because of Single mode, where I can play with diminished fear of death. 2Diminished, but not entirely gone. When you die, there’s a second or so before your next life begins, and that’s a second in which you’re not shooting at stuff. The song does not stop during this time. Losing a second or two probably won’t make the difference between beating the boss and not beating it, but if you’re dying frequently, it adds up. In Normal mode, I’ve managed to survive the boss, but not defeat it.

Whenever the game ends, you get an ending screen that reports how many points you accumulated and what percentage of the current level you cleared. (In Single mode, where I usually survive through the whole level, this is normally 100%.) When I passed the final song, something a little different happened: the jellyfish boss swam onto the screen again, and my completion was displayed as 99.9%. Without words, Jonathan Mak has clearly told me that I need to beat that boss to really finish the game.

I suppose I can understand the intent here. Despite its peculiarities, Everyday Shooter aspires to be a shooter in the classic mold. And in classical shooters, the player’s ultimate triumph consists of beating a difficult boss. The mechanics here mean that you can always pass a boss without beating it, so the game has to provide motivation for not doing that. It all makes sense in retrospect, but it came as something of a surprise to learn that I hadn’t beaten the game after all.

   [ + ]

1. This is an estimation. You can only pick up less than thousand points before they fade away, but extrapolating from the density of those picked up, I can say with some confidence that the total number is approximately a kajillion.
2. Diminished, but not entirely gone. When you die, there’s a second or so before your next life begins, and that’s a second in which you’re not shooting at stuff. The song does not stop during this time. Losing a second or two probably won’t make the difference between beating the boss and not beating it, but if you’re dying frequently, it adds up.

Everyday Shooter: What Is Music?

I’ve described Everyday Shooter as a music game. And certainly, shooting stuff produces musical sounds. But can we really describe the end result as music? A cat walking on a piano keyboard also produces musical sounds, but we don’t call it music. Unless, I suppose, it’s used as part of a deliberate musical composition — sampling can turn pretty much any sound into music, like the barking dogs in The Beatles’ Good Morning or the rattling of a door in They Might Be Giants’ Hearing Aid. The cat on the keyboard lacks intentionality, but by being sampled and placed into a work, it becomes at least as intentional as Duchamp’s urinal — as if that were a convincing argument.

But even with intentionality as a criterion, the sounds in Everyday Shooter occupy a middle ground: the individual sounds were deliberately chosen, but their arrangement is left up to the player’s actions, which are guided by a desire to score points and avoid death, not an intention to produce music. The player might as well be a random number generator. But random processes have been used in composition before. The only difference here is that the random component occurs after it’s left the composer’s hands. Or, to put it another way, it’s rather like windchimes. Do windchimes produce music? I honestly can’t answer that.

For that matter, perhaps intentionality isn’t all that important. Coincidentally, about a month ago, a friend emailed me with some youtube clips of the arcade games Pulsar, Qix, and Zookeeper, asserting “These games are better electronic music than most electronic music out there.” Of the first, he said “I have entire glitchcore CDs that sound like this, but not as musical” (emphasis mine). This for sounds that were created by a very similar process to the ones in Everyday Shooter, but were not intended to be musical by the player or the creator. From this point of view, the important thing is merely the way the sounds are perceived.

And that, for me, is where Everyday Shooter fails. As is usually the case when I play a game a lot, I’ve had the music going through my head when not playing. And the music that goes through my head is just the background track, without the incidental player-initiated sounds. So clearly, on an automatic and intuitive level, I’m perceiving those sounds as not part of the music. It’s possible that I would perceive them differently if the background music weren’t there, because the consistency of the background music is so much more musical (repetition being the backbone of music) that it drowns out any perceived musicality of the foreground. If so, it’s ironic, because the author clearly intends the background music to encourage us to think of the foreground sounds musically.

Everyday Shooter: Reaching New Levels

Well, I’ve reached the penultimate level: Earthworm, which seems inspired by Centipede. Mostly superficially, it must be said: there are segmented bugs to blast apart, and spiders appear here and there, but neither the bugs nor the player bahave like their arcade counterparts. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have thought it similar at all if I hadn’t been anticipating the appearance of a Centipede-like level, due to all the other references to arcade shooters of yore.

Deliberate attempts at reaching new levels in this game involve some tension between going after points to buy extra starting lives, and simply trying to survive — that is, aiming for eventual or immediate progress. There’s always a bit of this balancing act in any game where points yield extra lives, but usually it’s a wash if you lose a life in the process of gaining one, and that’s not the case here. I’m finding that I generally decide at some point what the purpose of a particular session is, and therefore what kind of risks I take for the big scores. It get interesting when I change my mind about this mid-match, when I’ve gotten further along than I expected and suddenly feel like I have to start trying to survive.

Everyday Shooter: Controls

Like I said before, I really knew very little about this game going in. One thing that I only just recently learned is that its original platform was the Playstation 3. Which means that it was designed for a PS3 controller, with its dual analog sticks. Which isn’t really all that surprising, given the gameplay…

Suddenly it struck me. I’ve been using the wrong controls. I had been using the keyboard, which limits me to eight directions of movement and fire, when I should have used my PS2 controller and USB adapter to get the intended 360-degree rotation.

I suppose I failed to think of this sooner because of the obvious Robotron influence. After all, Robotron used a pair of 8-direction digital joysticks. And for many years, in the days before dual-stick gamepads became standard, the best way to play Robotron adaptations or imitations at home was with a keyboard. 1This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem. But Robotron is far from the only game to influence Everyday Shooter, or be referenced by it. Level 4, for example, draws heavily from Time Pilot, a game whose feel is more or less defined by the smooth rotation of an analog stick.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get my PS2 controller working under it. I don’t know why. The game makes provision for a gamepad under Windows, as evidenced by its options menu, but it just doesn’t recognize mine, no matter what I do. And this gamepad works without problems in other apps, so it’s not a hardware problem. Perhaps the game’s PS3 origins mean that it won’t accept anything so antiquated as a PS2 controller, even though it seems equivalent for this game’s purposes. At any rate, it looks like I’m stuck with keyboard for the time being, which makes certain parts harder than they should be. Fortunately, extra starting lives will compensate.

   [ + ]

1. This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem.

Everyday Zuma

The title “Everyday Shooter” can be taken two ways. It can mean a shooter that’s ordinary, the sort of dime-a-dozen thing that you see every day, or it can mean something that you play on a daily basis. And that’s got me thinking: both Everyday Shooter and Zuma are built for everyday play in the second sense. They both seem to want players to engage them casually but over an extended period of time. But they encourage this in different ways.

There are common elements, sure. Both games are skill-based, which rewards frequent play as the way to keep your skills intact. And both games discourage extended play within a single session by providing limited lives, and making the player start over when they’re gone. Once I’ve reached or even extended the apex of my achievement, I don’t really want to get kicked back to the very beginning — at least, not until I’ve taken a break and cleared my head. Where they differ is in their treatment of permanent progress. In Zuma, progress plateaus. It lets you skip over chambers you’ve cleared, but progress within a chamber is transient. If, like me, you play the ninth chamber repeatedly without reaching its end, those sessions are effectively wasted, except insofar as they provide practice that increases your skill. Everyday Shooter, on the other hand, does not let you skip levels, but at the same time, no session is wasted. As long as you get at least one point per game, those points build up over time and eventually let you buy additional starting lives.

Consequently, Everyday Shooter has an implicit promise that you will eventually beat the game if you keep playing it for long enough, even if you have to buy hundreds of lives to do so. (I said before that the cost of life increased exponentially, but in fact it seems to be capped at 20000. I’m currently earning about 3000 per session, which means I’d get a life per week if I play the game once daily.) Zuma makes no such implicit promise, but has a high enough luck factor to offer players hope anyway — sometimes you catch a break and the game delivers just the right sequence of colors to let you rack up a massive Chain Bonus and beat the level easily. The difference is a bit like saving up your spare change versus playing the lottery. Or, to put it another way, continuous versus variable reinforcement. So, even though Everyday Shooter in some sense gives the player more motivation to keep playing every day, the motivation in Zuma is of a much more insidious and addictive sort. (And I don’t mean “addictive” in the positive sense used in game advertising.)

Everyday Shooter: Music

I’ve asserted that music is central to Everyday Shooter, but I haven’t gone into much detail. This is because I basically lack the vocabulary. I am not learned in the ways of guitar. Nonetheless, let me give it a try.

The first song, “Robot”, is fairly relaxed, with the background music mainly consisting of simple chords repeated to a rock beat. This is the one level where nothing actively tries to kill you; things made of rectangular boxes just appear at the edges of the screen and drift across, like in Asteroids. For the most part, they take one hit to kill, and produce a simple guitar twang when you do so. There is one type of thing that fires bullets, but it doesn’t actively aim at you. It’s also important to the music, because destroying it plays a six-note motif, the only real melody that this level has. The fact that this motif can come in at any moment probably explains a lot about the background music.

Song #2, “Root of the Heart”, is based around stationary, electrically-vivid blotches that shoot various things at you (fans of bullets, ships that home in on you, slow-moving clouds, etc.) The blotches are easy to hit, but require quite a lot of shooting, the precise amount varying with their size. As a result, the player spends a lot of time just dousing them with bullets. This produces notes in very rapid descending sequence, reminiscent of Indian sitar music — which the guitar has been adjusted to imitate.

The third song, “Lush Look Killer”, is the first one that has any real structure. It alternates between two phrases, one very melodic, a sort of country thumping, the other consisting of strummed chords. There’s a large and lumpy eye in the center of the screen. During the thumping sections, truck-like boxes bring stuff to the eye that makes it grow larger if you don’t stop them. (It’s a little reminiscent of Sinistar.) During the strummed sections, the boxes disappear and tiny eyes drift around the entire screen. For the duration of this level, at least, melody corresponds to purposeful action. Strangely, I don’t recall how the player’s shots affect the music here. The effect of the two phrases seems much more significant.

“Porco in the Sky” has, as you might expect, a sky-like look, with two suns drifting about, emitting flocks of dots with triangular wings that chase you. There’s a lot of echo on the music, which starts with a longish and twangy melody, repeated twice. If you focus on destroying the suns, it takes about the length of that melody to finish off each of them. Regardless of whether you do so or not, they disappear for the next section, another bit of lazily-paced strumming, during which you’re periodically attacked by a red biplane, similar to the one in Atari 2600 Combat. (Or three such planes, if you managed to kill both of the suns.) The plane is apparently the “Porco”, presumably a reference to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. After its time is up, there’s a reprise of the sun melody, accompanied by another sun. Pretty much the only sound the player generates during this entire process is that of destroying the clusters of winged dots, which emit a little two-note wail like a bird’s cry.

“Build 88” is next, based around an insistent “Kathoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-WAH-wah” motif. The music is fast, but ironically, the enemies (various sorts of tanks and tank generators) are not. Instead, they are numerous and unstoppable, which I suppose also fits the “driving beat” idea.

I’ve managed to get to the level beyond this, “Bits of Fury”, but only once. Consequently, I don’t remember the music. I remember the gameplay, though — mainly, you have to shoot red circles to make them blow up and destroy the massive quantities of stuff that’s flying through all the time and which would otherwise kill you. I suppose this shows that I was paying more attention to the action than to the music. You really need to play through a level a few times for both to register in a way that you can remember.

Everyday Shooter: Points

Everyday Shooter makes one really big departure from standard practice in shooters: in most cases, you don’t get any points for shooting stuff. In fact, you never get points just for shooting stuff. At most, shooting stuff releases square chips that you can then collect for points, possibly wasting valuable time or putting yourself at risk in the process — and these chips are the only source of points in the game. But most things don’t even release chips, unless they’re destroyed as part of some kind of chain or combo.

You might wonder why I care. I’m seldom concerned with score, unless it affects game mechanics somehow. Which it does. Certain milestones yield extra lives, of course, and while they don’t come as fast as in Robotron, I always seem to manage to get a few. (The first extra life is at 200 points. I’m not sure how it goes after that. I typically seem to wind up with something over 2000 points per game, but I don’t think I get anywhere near 10 extra lives in the process.)

More important are the unlockables. See, your points build up from game to game, going into a pool that you can spend on stuff. There seem to be three categories of things you can buy: graphical effects that make no difference to game mechanics, additional starting lives, and the ability to play specific levels in isolation without going through all the previous levels to get to it. (For that last one, you have to actually reach the level normally before you can buy it.) Obviously the first few lives are must-haves, but the marginal price seems to go up exponentially. (And I do mean exponentially. That word gets misused a lot, but not on my blog.) I can foresee a point when the single-mode levels become a more attractive expenditure: when I’m having difficulty mastering the most-recently-reached level and want to practice it without wasting time on levels I’ve already mastered.

Because, in the tradition of the arcades of old, there’s no permanent progress within a game. When you run out of lives, all you can do is start over from the very beginning, which becomes tiresome. I suppose the buying of unlockables is an attempt at finding a compromise between this uncompromising design and the more modern approach, where progress is regarded as your right just for playing a lot. And really, it works pretty well, but I think I’d be happier if it worked a little faster.

Older Posts »