Games as Music: The Emotion of Rhythm
by Joel Jordon
Much has been made recently about how games may be less like narrative mediums like films and books and may more closely resemble music or poetry in form. A certain quality of well-designed games makes the comparison to music feel logical to me, and that quality might be best described as rhythm.1 Games that exhibit this rhythmic quality best do so because player input results in consistent audiovisual feedback at fairly regular intervals. Music might serve as the best metaphor for these games, and this metaphor might help broaden our understanding of games and explain why some games offer more satisfying play experiences than others.
Music games of course provide the most obvious example of this rhythmic quality. Many games in this genre play like a musical Simon says, with the player being required to press the correct buttons (or stomp on them with his or her feet, as the case may be) in time with music. The player is judged for how well his or her button presses conform to the rhythm of the song and the game’s concurrent visual cues.
Music games that venture from this established formula are few and far between, and that may be because this kind of gameplay represents the most precise possible relationship between player input and game feedback. Dance Dance Revolution has been criticized for how its play in no way resembles real dancing, but I think that misses the point of the game: real dancing can come in so many styles and can even be improvised on the fly, but played correctly, DDR asks the player to move his or her feet in what is basically one way only. Always keeping track of just how rhythmically accurate the player’s stomps are, the game consistently notifies him or her of the accuracy of each stomp with words like perfect, great, good, and boo that appear on-screen along with a combo counter indicating how many stomps have been made without any misses.
The satisfaction of playing the game comes not from dancing inventively but from hitting all the buttons at all the right times and seeing a string of perfects appear with a high combo number.2
Games in other genres can have a rhythm to them, too, though it may be more subtle. Many platformers provide apt examples. Mario has always been fast and has always responded immediately to an A-button press with a jump and a sound. When the player runs along and makes a succession of good jumps from platform to platform, a rhythmic flow of button presses is accompanied by satisfying audiovisual feedback.
Particularly rhythmic platforming can be found in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, a game that is actually played with a set of bongo drums—a controller that, perhaps unsurprisingly, was originally intended for use with a music game. Unlike most other platformers, DKJB uniquely employs a combo system, with a multiplier that increases with each new kind of jump the player performs without touching the ground (the first instances of, for example, a wall jump or a jump from a vine in a combo sequence result in multiplier increases).
Because the multiplier resets when the player lands on plain ground and stops jumping from one thing to the next, the combo system encourages the player to keep up a consistent jumping rhythm.3 Many of the stages are designed like tracks that allow the player to maintain a rhythmic flow of jumps, and good rhythmic play results in high multipliers and larger numbers of collected bananas—satisfying game feedback similar to DDR‘s perfects and combo numbers.
Games in other genres can be rhythmic in more subtle ways, and they can show how rhythm as it manifests in games isn’t always fast but also sometimes slow. A slow rhythm doesn’t necessarily make a game less satisfying to play—what ultimately matters to this end is not the speed of the rhythm but whether or not it’s consistent.
Resident Evil 4 is a third-person action game whose rhythm is slow but consistently paced. Unlike in many other games with guns, the player cannot move while aiming, and both turning and aiming are slowly accomplished. To accommodate this and give the player a chance to fight them off, most enemies also move slowly. Action typically takes the form of crowd control: the player must carefully shoot at each enemy or group of enemies, first warding off the ones that are getting closest and then the ones that are farther away. Every shot counts, and the good player falls into a rhythm of moving the aiming reticule from enemy to enemy, shooting, reloading, aiming, shooting, and reloading.
Use of the shotgun particularly illustrates this rhythm, as it shoots more slowly than other weapons because it has to reload after every shot but it also exerts a powerful force that can knock whole groups of enemies down. The process of sweeping from one group of enemies to another and knocking each down in turn can quickly develop into a rhythm that offers the consistent satisfying feedback of a loud, steadily beaten percussion instrument. Bad aim and missed shots can mean disrupting that pleasing rhythm, especially because when enemies get too close to the player it becomes almost impossible to shoot at them, leaving him or her totally vulnerable to their attacks.
The game is slowed down still more by its elaborate inventory system, which can only be managed in a menu screen that pauses the game’s action. Some light criticism has been aimed at the game for how this inventory system disrupts the gameplay, but I think it actually adds even more rhythm to the overall experience. Inventory management requires making careful adjustments to the placement of items on a grid, and each movement the player makes with his or her cursor on that grid without an item selected result in a soft, squishy sound, while each movement of an item after selecting it results in a clicking sound. It’s subtle, but these sounds in sequence can create simple rhythms that help make inventory management enjoyable.
Resident Evil 4 was a major influence on many forthcoming third-person shooters, like Gears of War and Uncharted, but these newer shooters ratchet up the speed of gameplay. Shooters now that seem to play as slowly as RE4 does are typically criticized for their lack of speed compared with other modern shooters. But I maintain that it’s not the tempo that matters so much as it is the rhythm.4
A game many are taking notice of at the moment for having been a big 2D platformer release in 2011 is Rayman Origins. Considering the rhythmic qualities that can be found in its gameplay, maybe it should come as no surprise that the Rayman series has always seemed concerned with music. The original Rayman includes a whole world made up mostly of musical notation, and Rayman Origins includes a world clearly inspired by that one made up mostly of musical instruments.
But it’s the rhythm in the gameplay that lends Rayman Origins the kind of flow similar to that found in Mario: the player is given the speed to run through levels and the responsive controls to jump at precisely the right moments to avoid pits and enemies. Music is even brought literally to the experience of movement in the game when the player jumps to collect a row of what are called lums and a melodic series of sounds elicits from them.
But although Rayman Origins is a good example of what it means for a game to be rhythmic, it is oddly enough also a good example of what it means for a game to be arrhythmic. That’s because when there’s a lapse in a consistent rhythm, it’s noticeable. There are big lums in the game that, when collected, cause all nearby lums to turn red and dance and sing, indicating that they’re worth double their normal amount; most of these red lums are placed in a row and are meant to be picked up by the player quickly before a timer runs out and the lums turn yellow again and become worth their original value. Successfully collecting the lums while they’re still red requires quick, precise, rhythmic maneuvering. Faltering rhythmically here can mean failure.
Even more rhythmically precarious situations arise out of the game’s chase sequences. Because the screen scrolls automatically to the right in these sequences and the player is constantly placed in near-death positions, he or she must perform all jumps with almost flawless timing or else die.
Missing a bunch of red lums or dying in these situations can be frustrating largely because it means failing to play the game with rhythmic precision; but collecting all the red lums or surviving can be satisfying because it means playing the game with rhythmic near-perfection. The experience of playing Rayman Origins often wavers between satisfaction and frustration in this way. The difference between the two is the difference between hearing a song that plays to its conclusion without missing a beat and hearing a song that skips and fumbles through different tempos.
The way in which satisfaction and frustration can be felt along this bumpy road of rhythm might be extrapolated logically and lead to the conclusion that other emotions—like happiness and disappointment—can be felt over a longer play experience. If this rhythmic quality of games can be understood as creating emotions in the player in the same way that music does, it could open up the definition of games as art to include many more games that wouldn’t fit it by other metrics (such as whether a game explores meaningful ideas in its narrative or has good visual aesthetics).
But this range of emotions that rhythmic games can create in the player is currently very limited compared with that which music is able to elicit in the listener. Few games seem to have been successfully designed to cause players to feel more complex emotions, and going forward, this might be a worthwhile goal for game designers to aim for. If satisfaction and happiness are the main emotions this rhythmic quality can currently create, it could indicate that—right now at least—this quality is capable of delivering little more than aesthetic pleasure. This calls to mind the timeworn debate between whether art should aim to provide only aesthetic pleasure or whether it should also provide moral insight. While on the one hand an understanding of the rhythm of games could help to broaden the spectrum of which games are considered art, it could also restrict the design of games that aim at other kinds of artistic expression.
1 Rhythm is well-defined and explored as a characteristic of games in this excellent article.
2 There is a challenging way of playing the game called “freestyle,” in which players attempt to put on something more like a dance performance while still hitting all the buttons correctly. But since not many people play the game in this way, I think the best way to eliminate criticism of how playing it fails to resemble real dancing would be to rename it Stomp Stomp Revolution.
3 I would argue that Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is an almost perfect platformer in a literal sense because it accomplishes exactly what all platformers should set out to do in definition: the game’s combo system compels the player to be in the air—to jump—as often as possible.
4 Resident Evil 5, for example, might have played better if only it kept the slow, methodical rhythm of its predecessor. Instead, in an apparent attempt to modernize, it sped up enemies and other parts of the gameplay (like the inventory, which is simplified and must be managed in real time) while leaving others (like many aspects of the controls as well as the player-avatar’s animations) as slow as before. These halfway changes left in their wake a game marred by rhythmic imprecision.