Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The new Bit.Trip.Flux trailer is up, promising more of the Rez-meets-Pong gameplay that made Bit.Trip.Beat such a brainwashing gem. While I've enjoyed the other Bit.Trip games, none have had the unholy power of Beat---Core was marred by the Wiimote's unsatisfying thumbpad (has the art of making thumbpads just been lost, like medieval stoneworking techniques?), while Void and Fate had to accommodate a greater range of player action, which made Beat's musical precision impossible. And Runner, though fun, never sounded quite right to me---only after I turned my stereo's treble way down did the gold-grabbing sound stop cutting through the music.

It's only Beat that perfectly melded music and gameplay, producing a powerfully immersive experience that's surprisingly accessible. I've proffered Beat to a number of casual or non-gamers, and they've all been equally taken in by it, enjoying the experience from the start with none of the reluctance to waste their time on this nonsense that non-gamers typically have to overcome. A lot of that is due to its immediately accessible gameplay---pretty much anyone technologically savvy enough to use a telephone has seen Pong, so the how-do-I-do-it? barrier is low. Equally important is how the musical gameplay works on the player like a physical seduction, starting with gentle touches and building to a point where you couldn't walk away if you wanted to, and you've forgotten what it would feel like to want to walk away.

Okay, maybe I'm overstating some, but not by much. The basis for video games' power to compel is interaction: There's something incredibly appealing about "I can make the puppet do things!" The Bit.Trip games merge that with the physical dynamism of music, an art form with tremendous power to subliminally influence and control people in no small part because it's the art form that inflicts itself on the viewer's body (I always remind actors that to make an audible sound is to have a physical effect on your scene partner). Unlike more direct music games, Bit.Trip titles make the link between music and gameplay subliminal, and thus even more powerful---you don't quite realize your hands and ears are being enlisted in a technofrenzy crusade until your eyeballs have crusted over from not blinking.

Of course, the above also describes Rez, arguably the most successful of all the music-games-that-aren't-music-games. What Gaijin brings to the table is something rare among current developers: an unabashed willingness to fuck with the player. There's been a backlash against easy games lately, leading to the surprise triumph of a willfully difficult game like Demon's Souls. These hard games make a point of being tough but fair---critics praised Demon's Souls for always making clear what you had to do to beat a monster, so when you died, you had no one to blame but yourself.

Bit.Trip.Beat isn't like that at all; on the contrary, its most charming characteristic is the developer's gleeful sadism. Physics change in the middle of a level, dots will suddenly disappear, even your controls will abruptly change with little warning. The effect is surprisingly charming---the simplicity and consistency of Gaijin's games already make them feel more like an individual artwork than many made-by-committee titles, and the willful sadism paradoxically makes the game feel even more personal, even weirdly friendly. As designer Douglas Wilson notes, deliberate game designer sadism creates a dialogic relationship between the player and the designer, and it makes the latter much more real to the player, and therefore more human. You don't feel tormented by the world so much as specifically targeted by a human designer, who's cast himself in the role of your mean-but-loving older brother.

It's the simplicity of the Gaijin aesthetic that makes this enthusiastic messing-with-you so congenial. Look at a screenshot of almost any major-release game, and count how many elements on the screen have nothing to do with gameplay. If the designers started changing the rules on you, the player would soon find themselves completely lost, indignant, and frustrated. But when the player only has to look at a few on-screen elements, the designer can demand that they look much closer.