What’s the Amplitude, Kenneth? A Music Game of the Mind

One of the most fascinating thoughts–the one that drives my criticism, actually–is the idea that we all see things differently. The shifts in our perspectives and spectrums might be minute to the point of things being the same, more or less, much as 0.9 repeating is essentially equal to 1. But they might also trigger us in completely different ways, and this effect is easiest to notice when dealing with sound, the rhythm that almost unconsciously pulses through us, to the point at which we are moving without even realizing it. From there, too, it’s only a few steps to synesthesia, the point at which one sense is replaced by another, such that you might feel a sound or smell, or taste a color.

Not to oversell Amplitude (2016), the recent reboot of Harmonix’s beat-matching rhythm game, but that’s the effect the game gloriously achieves mid-way through its final tracks, as particle effects that have until then only been background “noise” overwhelm the screen’s visuals, subsuming everything to the point at which you’re as much feeling your way through the rhythms as you are actually following the charts with your eyes. You can read the full review over at Slant, but I wanted to take a more intimate moment here to express my admiration for Harmonix.

This Kickstarter-based project had no need to be more than a work of nostalgia or vanity: the fans clamored for more, and the studio responded, secure in the knowledge that development had already been paid for. Instead, however–shocking, given how lackluster Rock Band 4 was–the game actually added a story, and created a fifteen-track concept album of brand-new music to serve as that narrative’s vessel. Granted, some of this was probably creative problem-solving, given that a fan-funded title would have a hard time licensing tracks from well-known artists. But that situation and its unspoken need created an opportunity, one that Harmonix seized to assert that Amplitude wasn’t just a quick buck (like Rock Band Blitz), but an essential part of the gamer’s life. In truth, the plot revolves around a comatose patient–a woman, overwhelmed by her senses–whose neutral crossings are being re-stimulated by the beat-blasting nanobot you’re guiding through her mind.

Music games are rarely “beautiful,” especially those with peripherals (like Guitar Hero Live, which relies upon fresh full-motion or existing music videos to liven up the backdrop), and many, like Dyad or Audiosurf, coast by on the minimalist scene, or one that’s procedurally generated based on the music. But Amplitude, like Rez, is a game that’s built entirely around its own aesthetic, so while it’s a rhythm game at heart, it’s also something more: It’s a musical odyssey.

More games–especially on the indie scene–ought to be as ambitious as Amplitude. They should aspire to do more than simply entertain or to be a one-note (or in this game’s case, “three-note”) pony. To be less than essential is, well, to be less than essential, and who would feel compelled to play a game like that as anything other than a distraction, a thing which, by nature, is forgotten almost as soon as it’s played? The irony to Amplitude is that while you might forget its soundtrack, you less likely to forget the actual game.

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