Everything in pop culture builds off what came before, but sometimes it’s not so obvious exactly what inspired your favorite video games. Luckily game recognize game, and Source Code is where Playboy explores games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
It was a typically brain-boiling summer afternoon in Chicago, and Bit Bash, the local indie games festival, had a line of fans around the corner melting in their rubber soles. As people began to filter in, it became evident that this year’s lineup of games weren’t located in just the moderately less sunbaked Threadless offices. Parked inconspicuously, almost strategically in the small parking lot across the way was a bright, steel camping trailer. Only, it wasn’t a trailer. Out in the dead heat, it had become a liquefying sweatbox, and though it wasn’t part of their original plan, for two indie game developers, it was the perfect embodiment of the feeling they wanted players to walk away with.
Thumper, billed as a “rhythm violence” game by developer duo Drool, aims to redefine what rhythm games can achieve. This isn’t Rock Band or Guitar Hero; it’s not so much about a good time with friends playing the latest Foo Fighters single, as it is about being a space beetle hurtling through a cosmic fever dream towards Crakhed, an insane giant head from the future. You know, like you do.
Players must respond to an increasingly intense set of visual and audio cues in time with an original soundtrack, all while learning an evolving list of moves in order to beat monolithic bosses that explode in a shower of psychedelic debris.
Developers Brian Gibson and Marc Flury, both veterans of Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Dance Central creator Harmonix, have used their experience with music to strip down the core of rhythm gameplay for the most physically violent experience possible.
“Having worked on music games and seeing that it was very much about finding the music that had already been constructed on its own, by artists without any consciousness of it being in a video game, I’ve been interested in the idea that a game could inform the music and the music can inform the game and be this complete whole,” Gibson said.
For the more enthusiastic music fans out there, if Gibson’s name rings a bell, you might have seen him standing like a totem in a sea of chaos while playing bass for the infamous noise rock band Lightning Bolt:
That sonic fury plays a huge role in the cerebrally demanding experience Gibson and Flury hope to create.
“I like it when art and music just speak for itself,” Gibson said. “When I’m playing in Lightning Bolt, I’m just channeling all my focus into playing. It probably looks like I’m in this sublime state but I’m actually super-focused.”
In addition to demanding players’ focus, emphasis has been placed on stripping down the gameplay to easy-to-learn motions that still demand intense concentration.
“I think having the confidence to keep it simple and even just do things like sequences where there’s not a lot of gameplay, just space and atmosphere, I think that took confidence we didn’t have at first,” Flury said. “When we talk about other games, for me it’s always been about a hard psychedelic feeling, more minimal, you feel more grounded in the world. It’s not just about weightless layers between you and the world; it’s more like a music visualizer as opposed to a game world.”
What Flury and Gibson couldn’t achieve at the more commercial environment at Harmonix is possible with Thumper, a unified vision of what music games should be.
“I find I’m always seeking something that’s very simple and powerful when I’m making art, and that’s something in video games that can be taken further,” Gibson said. “It’s a struggle even with Thumper, distilling it down to an essence that’s evocative and powerful in a way that I feel good about it. Lightning Bolt does that for me.”
For Gibson, that similarity between the intensity of a Lightning Bolt performance and the visceral nature of Thumper is very intentional. There’s enough footage and personal accounts online of the kind of mental sweat Lightning Bolt induces in fans during a show to make the comparison clear. While evenings might be spent surrounded by sweaty headbangers while Gibson and his bandmate launch their assault, it’s that same cathartic feeling of lucidity that’s ultimately the goal for Thumper.
“I keep discovering what this game is,” Gibson said. “It’s hard to describe, and it sounds cruel that you want people to be addicted to something, this feeling of going deep, deep into this world and this type of experience, physically interacting and getting sucked in. Your mind is connecting with this world in a way that’s very profound and I want people to just go very deep down this rabbit hole to the point where they’re just not aware of anything else and suddenly they die or have to stop and their hands are shaking and they wake up. It’s kind of a catharsis, a lucid dream. How can we take people as far away from themselves as possible?”
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.
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