Much hype has been made around Rez Infinite, a PlayStation VR-inspired return of the beloved fan favorite rave rhythm game from the SEGA Dreamcast era. I really enjoyed my time with the rejuvenated classic, but after demoing a handful of PlayStation VR games at Sony’s Game Developers Conference event, I’m convinced the headset’s most enjoyable experience is a different and new rhythm game. Thumper is like a blacklight roller coaster or a pack of unmarked pills: I’m torn on whether it will be, for virtual reality newcomers, a mind-opening experience or an overwhelming trip.
Thumper is simple. You play as metal beetle — okay, it’s not that simple — and speed down a never ending snake of a highway. On marked beats, you jump, and on turns, you lean. For a series of barriers, you clinch and bust through. Effectively the track is a long instrument. Hit each on cue, and you produce music to the beat. If you manage to play multiple cues in a row, you'll fire a pod or raw energy up the highway, awakening increasingly unsettling critters, like spirals of kaleidoscopic insect legs and a goliath demon head.
I say "unsettling," but I’ll walk that word back a couple step. Thumper is beatiful the way great death metal is beautiful: intimidating and alienating at first, but in time, it becomes impressive and seductive. The sizzling, bold neon font on its poster is a wink to the work of film director Gaspar Noé and his 2009 masterpiece, Enter the Void, in which a freshly shot Tokyo drug dealer turns into a disembodied spirit and zips through nightclubs, dank passageways, and human orifices. Enter the Void’s famous amongst film school types for its opening credits sequence, which begins, fittingly, with a sound akin to a beetle hissing into a tiny microphone, and is followed by a two-minute long epileptic trigger.
Drawing a direct line from Enter the Void (above) and Thumper (below) is effortless, so I’ll let you do the honors.
What’s striking about Thumper, versus many of the games displayed at Sony’s event, is that the game was originally designed without VR in mind. In fact, the game will still be released on PlayStaiton 4 and PC, and will still be overwhelmingly psychedelic, especially with a good monitor and a loud sound system. I saw a demonstration of Thumper a year ago on a traditional screen in front of a crowd of a couple hundred people, and it still dumbfounded everyone.
A loud, scary, demonic ride for the whole family
But VR, I predict, will be the best way to experience a game like Thumper, a game that wants to swallow the player whole. Other VR games make an effort to coddle the player, or to make a show of how believable its virtual world can be. We might get to explore cabinets or knock over imaginary blocks or fight a giant boogeyman or, in the case of Rez, travel through electronic space as a hovering body. Thumper has no patience for any of that familiarity. It’s fearlessly unpatronizing. You are a metal beetle. You are on a road to hell. The music and visuals are so loud, so concussive, so demanding, and so sharp that you can’t think about what’s happening off screen. Virtual reality for Thumper is a tool then, a set of handcuffs for your eyes and other senses.
Welcome to hell, says Thumper. You can’t escape, and you won’t want too. Sincerely, it's a space you are horrified by and maybe, possibly never want to leave. What’s staggering is, and perhaps this speaks to our country on the brink of political self-emulation, is that I think I’m not the only person who will enjoy being trapped in this madness. I wonder if Thumper’s appeal could be broader than anyone would think by its log-line. The most aggressive, brash game on PSVR has the potential to be its hit.
And there you have it: the PlayStation VR’s showpiece is the acidic road story starring a metallic bug on the path of darkness.