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September 16, 2005

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

SKU'd perspectives

Here's the problem with Vanessa Schneider: despite all appearances, she's got no rhythm.

P.N. 03 is a game that should have had musical aspirations. The heroine, Ms. Schneider has a battlesuit with the glossy white texture of an iPod and a pair of earphones that constantly pump bass-heavy techno. The environments surrounding her look like a Bjork video. All of her moves are stylized and dance-like--even when she's standing still, her body twitches with the beat. And the enemies she faces are predictable, repetitive robots acting in patterns. Surely this is a game with a groove.

But the elements never gel. Everything in P.N. 03 tries to be centered around a techno aesthetic, when it should be centered around the beat itself. So where the music should act as a hub, there's only an empty space, and you're left with an avatar who doesn't control well, environments that can't hold interest, and enemies that kill you the same way, over and over and over again. The game flies apart like clay on a turbocharged spinning wheel.

For obvious reasons, music games are near and dear to my heart. I first stepped on a DDR machine while in Xi'an, and when I stepped back off (surrounded by politely voyeuristic Zhongguoren staring at the White boy with the grin and the Chuck Taylors) it had been a real revelation for me. It was the same giddy feeling I'd had when I stepped into an arcade for the first time. I suggest that we need more music games--not so much with scrolling arrows, but with that same visceral pull.

We've reached the point where music is a part of games the same way it's part of movies--we mainly notice when it's done badly. Will Smith or Nick Cage reaches for a gun, something explodes in slow motion, and Michael Bay triggers the same march music that he's been using for ten years now, thus proving finally that if a thousand monkeys were put behind a thousand video cameras they still couldn't make something worse than Armageddon. It's laughable--and then we play Halo and (for all its cleverness and skill in execution) no-one so much as chuckles at the men's choir swelling behind the ridiculous majesty of your pulse rifle.

...Forgive the phallic nature of the image. But you see what I'm trying to say.

Where were we? P.N. 03. Right. Like most games, it doesn't use music of a game in any way other than as background and a mood-booster, even while it's clearly trying to do more. But why is this, exactly? Why is it that sound in games has to be like the walls of a pre-Half-Life shooter: no matter what you do, you just can't leave a mark? And their composition is always the same, so your tactics share their immutability.

Some people get it. I've never played Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez, but his Meteos reacts to the player--joining the puzzle pieces triggers chords, sound effects, and other parts of the music. The effect isn't much more than the beeps of Space Invaders, but it adds just as much to the game as the visuals of the different planets. I would have taken even just that level of involvement from P.N. 03--the game's bullets move slowly enough that a clever designer could even have cued more elaborate musical sequences in response. Give me a soundtrack that reacts to my every move--uses that same cue system to encourage play to match--and I could forgive the sluggish controls, the Death Star interiors, and the repetitive enemies. Like P-Funk, I'll put up with a lot for the sake of a good groove.

It's been almost five years since Jet Grind Radio kicked out the jams on the Dreamcast. When the game fades into the past, the reputation that remains will be its cel-shaded graphics--and they are extraordinary, no doubt. When someone mentions the music, it'll be for its j-pop flavor--and it is extraordinary, as well. Nonetheless, the reason I still snap the disc into its little white console is because of the extraordinary way that it mixed that j-pop from track to track on the fly, complete with DJ-scratches and interplay between the songs. You really have to hear it to understand: JGR lets you grind down the side of a building, spray paint in hand, and if Guitar Vader st-st-st-stutters in just as you hit the ground: even without any actual interaction between player and soundtrack, you feel a little bit more punk. No chorus necessary.

Well, that's an experience I think we need more often. We need more music games--not in the DDR all-about-the-music sense, but to the effect that the music becomes an interactive part of the gameplay along with the visuals and the feel of the controls. It won't show up in a screenshot, and many players may not even notice the change. It certainly won't feed the designer's Quentin Tarantino fetish. It will have players tapping their feet while they're tapping the buttons, and any musician can tell you how addictive that becomes.

And a-one, two, a-one two three four--

Who else wants to talk?

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