Get Out Of the Background: Music Gaming for the ADD Generation

It’s probably just me, but I’m very bad at listening to music. Though watching television and movies are similarly passive, they’re engaging multiple tracks of the mind (audio and visual), and somehow manage to keep me more engaged. That’s why Guitar Hero and Rock Band were more than a Zeitgeist-y thing to me; they helped me really interact with the music as something more than the background noise playing on a trip from point A to point B and got me engaged with can’t-sit-still rhythms and an appreciation for lyrics that I’d otherwise have probably glossed over.

Then again, it couldn’t have just been me, because the gamification of music has been racing ahead, showing that plastic-powered console games were more than an intermediary between performers and a karaoke bar: they were a transformative leap in the way that the next generation would listen to music, i.e., they would now experience it, not just in a mock (or serious) garage band’s jam sessions or (no-matter-how) creative YouTube parodies, but as something more than a gym’s soundtrack (and really, televisions are now stepping all over the Walkman’s erstwhile turf). That, at least, seems to be what Harmonix is banking on with their new next-gen Fantasia: Music Evolved (see, it’s right there in the title), a game that packages classical and contemporary styles both in homage and creative interpretation of the classic Disney film. Of course, no matter how cleverly programmed, there’s something genuinely depressing about having to re-buy music over and over again as you move from game to game, which leads me (as it always must) back to the independent games.

See, you don’t need a big-screen adaptation of music to interact with–bells and whistles are nice, but the point is that a person like me simply needs to be doing something else while listening to tunes. Hence there are games like Drop that Beat Like an Ugly Baby and Audiosurf that take the contents of your existing libraries and procedurally generate games out of them, working off the overall tempo and sound effects to create obstacles that force you to really pay attention to the feel of a given song. Digital music is all just 0’s and 1’s anyway–this is just reinterpreting that data in a new form that gives an entirely different meaning to the word “playable.” But the best of the genre that I’ve found so far is Symphony, a 2012 title that’s currently part of a fairly decent bundle on Amazon, and which goes a step further in actually supplying your music with a plot.

It’s not a particularly heavy plot–there’s a musical demon that’s locked up five famous composers in order to power his Symphony of Souls, and you’ll have to “purge” your music of his influence in order to free them all–but it’s the thought that counts. More than just reinterpreting notes as obstacles, Symphony gives you a compelling reason to dive into a library (the lengthier and more diverse the better, though I’ve found that the game fails to recognize some albums and file formats, regardless of the conversion process). It also relies upon another tool in the gamification arsenal, by randomly distributing items as you complete each song. Your ship begins with four blasters, but each time you finish a track, you’ll be able to purchase and/or upgrade new weapons that’ve been “found” in the song you just cleared, like a subwoofer that shoots a powerful musical note to the beat of the bass line or a crescendo which charges up into a powerful laser blast. (Okay, you’ve got standard blasters, rockets, backward-facing cannons, and spreadshots, too.) Each time you entirely defeat a demon boss (each has three progressively difficult forms, scattered in three different songs), you’ll have the opportunity to select the next highest difficulty, at which point it becomes necessary to rethink your ship’s composition. (The harder the level, the more kudos, the in-game currency used to level up your weapons, you receive.)

There’s more here, in other words, than mindlessly flying through a song–especially if you’re trying to set a high score, as this requires you to not only destroy all the enemies, but to pick up and chain the “inspiration” they leave behind at the right time–just before your combo meter expires. Because death only sets you back a few seconds, you can play casually, especially once you return to lower difficulty levels with your souped-up ship, but thanks to the variable difficulty, boss fights, strategic customization, and scoring system, you can get pretty involved. Well, for the first three pages of the Symphony, at least, after which the game simply gets punishingly harder without any discernible rewards for soldiering on. Because you have to complete more songs late in the game before you can lure out the demon bosses, playing for the story becomes a bit of a grind, and money soon becomes useless, as you’ll have long-since bought everything you needed. That said, even when Symphony starts to falter as a game, it still excels as a music player, and I can’t wait to see where the gaming industry goes next with its incorporation of your music and their twisted designs. (For instance, is this not clearly the next evolution of the Bit.Trip series?)

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