A purple beetle walks along a path strewn with collectible white dots and big, squishy bubbles. When left alone, its tiny beetle feet carry its body to the beat of Passion Pit's Take a Walk. With player intervention, the beetle soars into the air, wings frantically flapping, before landing on the ground. It jumps on the beat, it lands on the beat, it walks to the beat. Music is the reason the beetle moves.
In another world, two painterly figures linked by a chain try to work their way up a hill. The sky and the ground pulses to the hypnotic beat of Cut Copy's Sun God. Players propel the figures into the air and coordinate them to move each other forward and upwards by pressing keys on the keyboard. The figures writhe and spasm, slinging each other back and forth in a violent fit. Left alone, they fall, flopsy bodies tumbling down the hill as the pink sky continues to pulsate and the world around them sings Cut Copy's song.
These games are made to music, and music is what made these games. Earlier this year, independent music website Pitchfork and video game culture publication Kill Screen partnered to launch Soundplay, a project that invited five developers to design games for five songs. The result was the purple beetle with its tiny feet scuttling along. It was the pulsating world of the jittery figures slinging each other back and forth. The project produced five distinct interactive experiences — each with their own style and mechanics, their own look and feel, and very different takes on what it means to create a music video game.
It's not just a game
David Surman and Ian Gouldstone are the two-man team behind Pachinko Pictures, a boutique game studio based in Melbourne, Australia. When approached by Kill Screen earlier in the year to be a part of Soundplay, the brief was simple: here was a song, make a game. Each developer involved in the project was assigned a song chosen by Pitchfork. Each game had to begin when the song began, last the duration of the track, and end when the song ended. The songs themselves could not be tweaked and could only be played once. Everything else was up to the developers.
"The thing we really had to think about was what it means to make a music video game," says Surman, whose studio was tasked with developing a game to the first single on Passion Pit's most recent album, Gossamer: Take a Walk.
"We had actually built the game up to be something bigger than what the final form is," he says. "We had hazards and collisions and you had to collect things at the same time as avoid things, and we had death conditions," he says. "But we realized that if this is a music video game, you have to finish the game. If a song gets interrupted by a fail condition, that's so jarring. It's like if you're watching Michael Jackson's Thriller on TV and the power goes out."
For Pachinko Pictures, the game it was making would have to be something that any player could finish, regardless of whether their purple beetle collected any dots or made any jumps — there could be no fail state. At the same time, it didn't want to risk players switching off and finding no reason to engage with the game, especially if — even without their involvement — the song would continue to play and the beetle would continue to walk.
"We ended up producing something that was very much about giving the player a meaningful choice," Surman says. "So they have a score they can earn and they can decide what pick-ups to go for. They have score pick-ups [white dots] and evolution pick-ups [big bubbles]."
"We ended up producing something that was very much about giving the player a meaningful choice."
The score pick-ups encourage players to leap into the air at the right time to collect as many white dots as they can, which adds up to a final score revealed at the end of the game. The evolution pick-ups cause the beetle to evolve. Once a certain number of bubbles have been collected, the purple beetle evolves into a chubby green frog. Instead of leaping into the air and flapping its wings, it hops, takes a gulp of air, and floats through the sky, eyes wide, tummy bulging. The frog then evolves into a chicken, followed by a cosmonaut. Naturally.
"It's about choosing what you go for as you time your jumps," Surman says. "Having played through it once, it then invites players to consider having a second playthrough. It's like 'Oh, I finished as a frog and I got a good score, but what if I go for the evolution pick-ups? What am I going to end up becoming?' That was really the goal for us, to come up with a casual goal with a meaningful choice that really echoed the themes of the track."
Bennett Foddy (QWOP, GIRP, CLOP) made his game to Cut Copy's Sun God after receiving a brief from Kill Screen that he describes as simple but expansive: to make a game that was at the boundaries between video games and music. The result was the pinkest game in the series.
"I knew I didn't want to make a game and just set it to music," Foddy says. "I also didn't want to make a rhythm game for video game fans, like Osu! Takakae! Ouendan! since it was going to be hosted on the Pitchfork website and shown at the Pitchfork music festival. Most of the players would be people who never played games at all.
"Instead, I wanted to make a game that music fans could play as a way of experiencing a great piece of music, much like a music video. And they would probably only play it once, much like a music video."
Foddy says he didn't want his game to be strict or to force players to play on the beat like in Guitar Hero. Rather, he wanted there to be a subtle pressure to play the game on the beat — he wanted players to find themselves unintentionally playing along with the music, like dancing.
Pulsing suns and talking mammoths
Like the other games in the series, Foddy's Sun God is an oblique representation of the lyrics in the song. Even in Jake Elliott's take on M83's Intro, the game features lyrics transcribed directly from the song but interprets them in a completely different way to what M83 intended. The M83 lyrics are abstract and sing of "banners of gold shining in the cold," but Elliott's game takes the player on a ride with a wooly mammoth who tells the player stories about its culture and history. In Ivan Safrin's Lady by Chromatics, a 3D figure travels through a Rez-esque universe of triangles and stars — a far cry from the lyrics "Why do we fall in love / Baby I just want you to come back."
"I think that is a good thing," says Foddy. "I hate obvious, literal music videos, and I would hate literal music games even more, I think.
"Enjoying music for me is about experiencing a particular mood or a way of being, and a game or a video can, at least in theory, harmonize with that and resonate in a way that elevates the music.
"I tried pretty hard to match the emotionality of the look of the game to the way I feel when I listen to that track."
"Normally it's the other way around, of course, with music being the emotional powerhouse in many of the greatest movies and games. So I tried pretty hard to match the emotionality of the look of the game to the way I feel when I listen to that track. I'm not sure I can be more precise than that ... I guess 'a suffusion of pink' is the [feeling] I get when I listen to most Cut Copy tracks."
Foddy's first mock-up for his game featured an abstract sun object that pulsed in time to Sun God. Two players, represented by squares, would jump up to try to charge themselves on the sun by scooping energy from it, and then firing out energy-charged rays. He couldn't make it read well on the screen, so he changed his approach to something more direct. Instead of having a pulsing sun, he would have a pulsing earth. He decided to tether the two players together so that both would always be kept on the screen, and he employed a design strategy used in many of his previous games: to imagine motions or actions that he would like to do on the control surface, even if the computer was switched off.
"In the case of my new game, CLOP, that was drumming your fingers rhythmically on the keyboard," he says. "In the case of GIRP, it was stretching your fingers over the keyboard like in Twister. But in the case of Sun God, I imagined myself tapping the keys along with the music, like drums. Sometime I even do that with my wireless keyboard when I have music playing."
For Pietro Righi Riva and Nicolò Tedeschi of developer Santa Ragione, they chose to explore Matthew Dear's Street Song as a space that players could inhabit. The song, chosen by Dear himself, was an unexpected choice for the pair.
"At first we were really scared because, before we received the song, we explored Matthew's discography and we were sure he would have picked a more traditional, rhythmic song," Riva says. "We had been planning gameplay that would adapt to the beat and morph in time with the evolution of the song. Instead, Street Song — Matthew's pick — is a bit mellow and sounds very experimental. It's not the kind of song you can dance to easily, and that in itself makes building an interaction around it complex.
"At the same time, the song helped us to move away from a tradition of classic rhythm games — the absence of a strong beat forced us to explore the concept of the 'music game' from a different perspective."
The pair decided its game would not require a high level of concentration from the player because it wanted the music to be the focal point. It didn't want the game to be too plot-driven because it would distract from the song. But it did want the player to be continuously engaged, constantly moving, and constantly exploring. While the game has no fail-state as such, the player does have to actively interact with the game in order to get to the end of the song.
"We asked ourselves a few questions as we listened to the song," Riva says. "What is this song really about? What are the lyrics about? What does it mean to us personally? What memories or emotions does it trigger? How is the perception of the song going to change through repeated hearings?
"At the end of the day, it's undeniable that music, as a medium, has reached a level of maturity beyond that of video games. For example, not all songs aim to provide positive feelings, but with interaction you always run the risk of alienating players if you try to convey a bad feeling, such as frustration, paranoia, or hopelessness.
"At the end of the day, it's undeniable that music, as a medium, has reached a level of maturity beyond that of video games."
"During development we were often tempted to introduce more 'gamey' elements, or more traditional interactions. But Street Song is not an easy song. It's not easy to decipher, so why would the game be easy to understand?"
The developers came up with a game that they felt was a mix of the emotions the song evoked and playable experiences that could engage the player. They were mindful to not try to tell a literal story through images or to impose their interpretation of the song onto players. Jake Elliott says that Santa Ragione's game allows players to visualize and explore the musical space.
"They made this space rather than a narrative, and that's something that games can be really good at," Elliott says. "They're good at describing a space, even a space that you can't really put words to."
Passion Pit probably didn't have purple beetles and bloated frogs in mind when they wrote Take a Walk, but the collaboration between the musicians and the designers meant the former would provide the music and the latter would meet them halfway.
"As designers we have a vision, and I think our vision is to always be respectful of whatever source material we're responding to," says David Surman. "Passion Pit's song is essentially staged storytelling — each verse of the track tells a micro story of some particular kind of family that is struggling, and you have these little scenarios that are depicted in the song, so we knew that structurally, if we just made the song game reflect the different segments, then there would ultimately be a fundamental relationship between the track and what we delivered."
"I think our vision is to always be respectful of whatever source material we're responding to."
Surman and Gouldstone listened to the track hundred and hundreds of times and tried to unpack the idea of the most repeated line in the song: "take a walk." They knew they wanted to represent the idea in a literal way, hence the walking beetle and frog, but they also wanted to delve a bit deeper.
They looked into the concept of evolution, they drew on the way walking is used in the song as a coping mechanism, and using these ideas they cut together archival video footage to play in the game's background to tell a greater story. One about walking to grow, to cope, and to reach an unknown destination.
"It might not be immediately apparent or obvious, but the backgrounds during the verses — they're periods of strife — and during the chorus, it's periods of happiness," says Gouldstone. "The thing I like about the song is during each of the choruses, it's about walking as a coping mechanism, and it's neither optimistic nor pessimistic. And I think that's what I really responded to.
"What we tried to express through the game was this constant duress when you're trying to grab stuff, and stuff just passes and you have to keep moving on and just hope that there's a happy ending."
A deeper connection
Whether they invite the player to walk, to explore, to go on a ride with a mammoth, or to fall through a world that glows pink, the games in the Soundplay series invite players to engage with music in a different way. Surman believes that games provide players with a deep engagement, and if people can feel more connected to a track through gameplay, then that creates a memorable experience.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that there's such a strong memory of certain key boss battles in Final Fantasy when you think of Nobuo Uematsu's bespoke score for those battles," Surman says. "I think game developers have known for a long time that these music video games showcase that particular feature."
How deep that connection can be for games set to five-minute songs is yet to be seen. Foddy believes that a good music game would really harmonize with music in a way that puts the music ahead of the game — he thinks Sword and Sworcery, Lumines, and Rez come close, but he can't think of any games that have successfully pulled it off.
"I think dancing gives the dancer a deeper connection to music than watching a video, and games have the potential to let you 'dance' and watch at the same time — a complete kind of synaesthesia — so in that sense games could supersede music videos, at least in theory," he says.
"Probably the first person who makes the first really perfect music game will also be a person who loves to dance."
"I think my game is interesting and I am especially proud of how it looks, but I don't think I really pulled off the marriage between the game and the music. Probably the first person who makes the first really perfect music game will also be a person who loves to dance," says Foddy.
"Unfortunately, there is hardly any overlap between the set of people who love to dance and the set of people who love making video games!"
Pitchfork and Kill Screen's Soundplay series can be accessed here: http://soundplay.pitchfork.com
Pachinko Pictures, Santa Ragione, Jake Elliott, Bennett Foddy, Square, Sega