I’ve never really been into platformers, so the fact that I’ve been playing two of them this week is pretty unusual. Mostly for lack of other games to play, I’ve been messing around in Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (I’m just going to call it “Runner”, if that’s okay) and Dustforce, and while my lack of experience with any platformer other than Super Mario Bros is pretty difficult to overcome, I’ve managed to really enjoy these two games. Despite my inexperience with the genre, I’ve found that these two games feel wildly different, and exactly how those differences emerged from a top-down design philosophy is something I want to explore, because, coincidentally, both games have a very interesting relationship with their respective soundtracks. Music usually serves as background to gameplay, designed to enhance emotions, but rarely taking center stage. In both of these games, music has a unique effect on their game feel, and, given that I wrote about a rhythm game last week, this seems like a great time to dig into just how each game uses music to more effectively communicate its specific design philosophy.
Dustforce is a very strange game for me because it has one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming, but I hadn’t played more than ten minutes of it before this week. The soundtrack was created by electronica artist Lifeformed, and while I’m not knowledgeable enough in music genres to be able to more accurately explain his music, it’s generally a very calm and dreamy take on electronica, with some woodwinds tossed in for good measure and heavy use of echo effects. I bought the soundtrack when I first picked up the game, and even though I gave up on the game itself, I listen to the soundtrack pretty regularly. A soundtrack this relaxing would seem to clash with a platformer that ramps up the difficulty as quickly as Dustforce does, but strangely enough, it fits it perfectly. Every aspect of the game is designed to assist the player in reaching a sense of flow, from the fluidity of the animations to the smoothness of the visuals, and this music fits in perfectly. With a game as difficult as Dustforce, that leads to as many retries as its levels demand, keeping the player from crushing their controller and rage quitting is a persistent task for any developer, and Hitbox Team helped address this in a few clever ways, many of which overlap with this design aesthetic of flow. The game’s restarts are incredibly quick, absent of any load times, and don’t linger on your character’s death in the same way a game like Dark Souls does. You’re right back in the action in a few seconds. The music itself doesn’t even stop or react in any way, with an indifference to the player’s performance that stands in stark contrast to Runner2, or really most games out there. The game wants to keep the player calm so they are okay with trying over and over to perfect their runs of a level without turning into a rage-consumed troglodyte. This doesn’t mean the music takes a secondary role in the player’s experience, however, it means that the music creates a rhythm where a slip up and retry isn’t a jarring experience like it is in most games. You still fail – the game certainly isn’t pulling any punches – but the music keeps going even when you do. In addition to making restarts less frustrating, it also makes successful runs feel even better, as the player feels like they are matching the tone and mood of the music with an effortless-looking run. The jumps the player is making may, in actuality, be pixel-perfect, but the music, animation and game feel make it look natural. The combination of all of these elements, from visuals, to music, to game feel, to level design, create an experience that encourages to player to enter a focused, zen-like state of calm persistence as they slowly perfect their runs of a level and increase their mastery of the mechanics. The game wants to keep the player’s focus in the specific moment of the moves they are trying to pull off, and uses the music to narrow the player’s focus more effectively. For example, the game’s scoring system is designed to distract the player as little as possible, with the player being graded on two, easily and quickly identifiably variables: completion and combo. Completion is obvious to the player without requiring much additional mental effort, they just need to see if they have cleared the entire map. The combo meter is also straightforward, and simply requires the player to move quickly between objectives. With how easy both of these variables are to keep track of, the player can focus on the one variable that really matters: time. As a result, the player is always focused on their immediate concerns of moving as quickly as possible, because they do not need to spend time thinking about how to max out their combo meter or how to juggle other abstract systems. Without a focus on complex systems, the game can tell the player to focus on the immediate flow of the level, making the music match the tone perfectly.
Runner2 takes a different approach to the platformer as a genre, and implements its music in a different way as well. In contrast to the precision jumps and mid-air reversals of Dustforce, Runner has more in common with the endless runner games that grew up on smartphones. The player character is moving to the right by default, independent of any player input, and nothing the player can do can stop or slow him. This creates a sense of momentum in the gameplay that Dustforce requires mechanical mastery and map knowledge to reach. However, Runner iterates on this momentum by making nearly all its game pieces momentum-stopping obstacles that the player must avoid in some way. However, this doesn’t just maintain the default momentum, which would create a monotonous experience. Instead, each action contributes both to the momentum and the soundscape of the game. The game plays some sort of fun-filled animation (a consistent aesthetic choice throughout the game) to make the obstacle avoidance look good, but then plays a sound effect in sequence with the music. While Dustforce’s music was defined by a non-reactive indifference to the player’s performance, Runner’s music is so synced up with the player’s actions that it’s practically a rhythm game. This makes sense given that previous Bit.Trip games were actually rhythm games themselves, a genealogy that is clearly evident in Runner2. The music starts with a melody-heavy foundation inspired by chiptines, in fact, many of the game’s contributing artists got their start working in this retro-themed genre. Runner2 continues that genre’s strong emphasis on catchy melodies, brought on by the technical limitations of early NES music that could only support three tones at a time. However, the game builds on this with multiple musical layers, at first with only a background instrument or two on top of the melody, but eventually growing in complexity as the player picks up four power ups in the level. Each one plays a sound effect, displays a colorful notification on the screen, and adds another layer to the music, making the final few seconds of a level feel like a busting musical landscape. In addition to these power-ups, the level is also filled with thirty to fifty gold bars for the player to collect, all of which play a note or two when collected, also in sync with the music. Avoiding obstacles in the environment plays a different sound as well, each one placed at a point in the music that it feels natural. This is iterated on further in the boss fight for World 4, which uses a call and response structure as the foundation for the level’s music. The boss readies obstacles to throw at the player while playing a series of notes to let them know what obstacles to prepare for, then the player jumps over/ducks under/destroys these obstacles as the response is played. All of these aspects lead to a final audio track for each run of a level that is unique to that player, based on what collectibles and power-ups the player grabbed, and if they hit them at the correct time. This results in an aural experience that is much more reactive than even most rhythm games, where the player is expected to perform the audio the game wants rather than dynamically create their own. The end result is a more reactive take on flow, that feels just as elegant as Dustforce, but while Dustforce wants you to feel a detachment between the music and the gameplay, Runner2 wants you to feel like you are helping create it. Both takes are incredibly effective for each game’s specific design goals, but when compared, I think they provide interesting examples on how music can be used creatively with regards to game feel.