If you’ve ever dabbled in music performance, particularly electronic music, you’re probably familiar with the thrill of creating responsive, interactive soundscapes in a live setting. It’s an intoxicating and energizing experience that seems it would fit rather snugly within the dynamic and potently expressive realm of videogames — If videogames would give it a chance.
Not long ago I was talking a lot about videogame soundtracks, bemoaning the industry’s tendency to leave this essential element of an interactive medium to model itself after other, non-interactive media. I silently pleaded for game audio to become more than just “background music”; something that conjures sight and sound as truly equal parts of the gameplay without becoming entirely about the sound a la Guitar Hero or that neat thing you downloaded on your iPhone. At this year’s E3, somewhere amidst all the high-profile PR razzle-dazzle, Toronto indie developer Jonathan Mak showed that perhaps this dream is closer than I thought.
Mak, whose one-man studio Queasy Games was responsible for the beautiful abstract shoot-‘em-up/interactive guitar jam session Everyday Shooter, has quickly become known for creating games that offer palpable autonomy over audio in addition to graphics and environments. His new title, Sound Shapes is something like a music app that happens to exist inside traditional gameplay conventions. Put simply, it’s a platformer (think Mario, Castlevania and countless others) that’s also a generative music experience.
Levels are designed through a process not unlike sound design and music sequencing. Only instead of piping it through a laptop and turning knobs, you’re actually ‘playing’ the song by traversing the environments your sounds have created. Every background element, pitfall or platform your little sticky ball-guy jumps to is the product of a sound designed by the level’s creator, an intriguing hybrid of conventional game elements and generative music-making. And it’s all happening on Sony’s new handheld game console, the Playstation Vita (neé NGP), which also made its official debut this week at E3.
If Sony can somehow manage to win back customer trust in light of its ongoing security SNAFU’s, Mak’s game stands a good chance at being a powerful system seller for the new console. For the ‘artsy games’ crowd, at very least.