Sunday, April 25, 2010

I Swear, I Wasn't a Music Major in a Past Life

In case you missed my last posting, here's a sliver of what you missed:


Speaking of Steam (crap, that was a hint, wasn't it?), I spotted a new music game in the store the other day. It's called Beat Hazard, and to quote the game's description, it's "A new experience in gameplay mechanics... Gameplay Powered by YOUR Music!" Huzzah, we've never experienced such a unique concept befo-- Oh wait.

Okay, in fairness, it's not the same thing as Audiosurf. While Audiosurf is a Guitar Hero-esque reflexy music game, Beat Hazard is a Asteroids-esque shmupy music game. You play as a spaceship that moves around with the arrow keys/WASD, and goes pew pew with the mouse. You shoot things that are flying around, you collect powerups, you get points, you try not to die. Not that complex of a game, and at that, not too original.

Theoretically, the main selling point is that your music (sorry, YOUR music) is what changes the actual gameplay experience. As the music gets more "intense", you get swarmed by more or more powerful enemies. Similarly, you can pick up powerups that make the music louder (more intense!) which gives you stronger bullets. Or perhaps the music itself makes the bullets stronger. Or something like that, I'm not quite sure, frankly. (Now would be a good time to mention that like so many games I review, I really can't afford to buy full versions all the time, so I'm working off a demo that limits you to only ten games.)

Sketchy memories of the exact rules aside, the graphics are nice and bright, although flashy to the point of seizure-inducing (as early as the title screen). One problem is that as more enemies flood the screen, it's hard to tell the active enemies, the dead wreckage, the volatile shards of space junk, the visualizer-esque background, and even your own ship apart. I tried to grab a screenshot to give you a taste, but, well, all I could really get was a black screengrab, so there's a bunny for ya. Also, I didn't want to steal the snapshots posted on Steam, because not only are they less than impressive, but they also have captions written right on them that make looking through them feel like reading through an overly-eager father's photo album of a family vacation. ("I love pwning those bad guys to heavy rock!" Yeah, that bad.)

As I mentioned before, the gameplay is kinda lacking any fresh bells or whistles. Move with one hand, fire with the other, and blow stuff up. Quieter/calmer music seems to give you more non-combative debris-like obstacles to shoot (think "Asteroids"), louder/more active music seems to give you enemies in small salvos that fly around and fire back at you (think... Oh dear, I don't know about that many shmups... I'm just gonna throw in Rapture Capture because it's one of the few shmups that I've ever really enjoyed). But there's very little evidence that the music actually corresponds to the game being produced. Sure, it can pick out little spikes of sound in the waveform, but is that really it? To a certain extent, it almost seems like it's just a standard shooter with a really flashy visualizer in the background. If you need a little bit more of an elaboration on this thought, consider the boss battles which seem to appear more at certain time intervals instead of in conjunction with the music, and the visualizer itself which sometimes looks as though it's pumping out beats at a different tempo from the one in the music being played.

In order to remedy this rash of people claiming that the difficulty of the game is determined by the music that's playing, I'd like to propose a system for analyzing this fluctuating corelation. Each game would be rated by a few different criteria, each getting a score from one to ten, indicated by the box above (black out colored bars for scores less than ten, and put the name of the specific criteria in the bottom half of the box... and yes, it did take me two minutes to whip that up in Paint, thank you very much).

The tricky bit in devising such a system is coming up with the actual criteria to grade on. Two obvious ones would be "How well does the game reflect the dynamics/volume of the music?" and "How well does the game reflect the rhythm/tempo of the music?". Frankly, almost any game with a decent music analysis system should be able to look at the basic waveform and pull out those two things. The volume factor comes from the amplitude of the waves, the rhythm (mostly) comes from the wavelengths, or the clusters of waves that make up each sound (drum hits, instruments playing notes, syllables of lyrics, etc.). These are physical characteristics of sound, or at least, physical in the sense that they are observable and recordable.

Honestly, those two criteria could be enough to rank songs with, although it'd be a very bare-bones rating. It'd be nice if there was at least a third criteria, possibly to explore the corelation between the general mood of the music or the instruments used and the shape of the gameplay. Actual "intensity" is so hard to analyze in a song, unless you're actually hearing it and experiencing it.

What I'd like to ask is your opinions on what could be used as criteria for judging the relationship between music and gameplay that is theoretically based on it. Any ideas? I sorta like the criteria of volume-matching and tempo-matching, but what else is out there?