I just recently (quite literally 2 hours ago) got my hands on the DS and Wii releases of the Rhythm Heaven games and upon playing them I found myself laughing harder than I think I ever have with a video game. The game just kept bringing me back and not just for the charm or cute art style. I felt rewarded for doing well at the game and wanted to push myself to do the best I could. I went back to challenges I enjoyed but also to ones I didn't, trying to master them. I don't believe I've ever felt so engaged and fulfilled whilst playing a rhythm game. Through out this 2 part series we're going to compare and contrast some musically based games and investigate why some of them are fun forever, while others tend to become stale pretty quickly.
So let's start with Rhythm Heaven. The games are comprised of several challenges which are focussed on a single set rhythmic of ideas. The DS edition has you tapping and flicking the stylus to perform certain actions and the Wii version does the same with presses of the A & B buttons. Each challenge is themed both visually and sonically and they only ever use 2 or 3 different cues for each challenge. This encourages the player to react to what is happening on screen and in the music to perform the actions with the correct timing. It's focus on accuracy of timing and low number of input types means that the player is forced into an int he moment, reactionary based environment. The challenges might give the player a rhythm to copy back, or give small cues to tell the player which type of action to perform next. This all leads up to the remix challenges which mix and match the elements form previous challenges into a larger, more varied experience. All in all it means the player is constantly reacting to information being given to them shortly before they have to perform their inputs. Of course, this is the basis of all rhythm games, but it's starting to sound like something else...
It's like a timed action, and you have to perform it quickly. Except sometimes the actions make something happen on screen...an event of some sort. So i guess you could call these types of interactions...quick...time...eve-OH MY GOOOOOSH!!!!
Quick time events have been in games for a very long time. In most games they are utilised to make the character perform context sensitive actions by displaying particular button prompts on screen. If the player manages to press the required button in time the character on screen will perform the desired action, and if the player fails, the sequence will usually end and give the player a penalty for not completing the event. There are many action games which have capitalised on how cinematic and versatile QTEs can be. These titles include the God of War franchise, The Resident Evil series, Heavy Rain and the recently released Ryse: Son of Rome pictured above. These are generally considered to be quite lame in terms of player experience. The player presses a single or combination of buttons and watches as the frantic action plays out in front of them. The disconnect between the player and the game is pretty severe during these moments, and they can certainly destroy what immersion the game might have.
Now obviously there is a distinct difference between a rhythm game and quicktime events, but I think the comparison is justified. There are only three major differences between the two are how they tell the player which button to press, consistency, and timing. In most action games, quicktime events are used so that the character can perform actions which are too contextual or complex to perform in a regular combat situation, so the consistency is pretty weak here. Depending on the situation a single button could make any number of actions occur and this means that the button press reveals what the action is as a reward for succeeding at the QTE. Some games do this better than others, where the button presses match actual combat mechanics in some way, but generally it's a pretty loose correlation. The timing aspect is pretty obvious. Rhythm games rely on the music of the game to determine the timing of the button presses, whereas QTEs generally just use short countdowns per button to determine timing. The third aspect is probably the most interesting, because this is where the obviousness of a QTE can really break down. So let's look at two rhythm games which really straddle the line between QTE and rhythm game.
First, it's the big daddy of all rhythm games. Popularised by it's controller that was shaped like a real life thing, Guitar Hero! (or Rock Band whatever it honestly makes no difference). In this game, button prompts fly down the page and the player must press the corresponding buttons in time to raise their score and pass the level. The prompts are coloured to match the buttons on the uniquely shaped controller and are meant to simulate the motions of playing a guitar, creating the ultimate immersion experience (but not really). Now, it might be clear by this point that I don't really see Guitar Hero games as much more than glorified QTE games. Sure there's music in the background and you press buttons in time with it, but in all honesty it's just an illusion. There's no real correlation between how the game progresses and how you press the buttons. Sure the guitar pat might cut out for a second or two if you miss a note, but really it's all about getting to the end and not having to start the sequence over again. These games are fun, I'm certainly not denying that, but form a design standpoint there's not interaction between the music and the player, and at some points it can just seem like the music is just meant to play in the background as you learn this overly extravagant street fighter combo.
The second game shares some similarities with Guitar Hero, but I feel it does a better job at moving away from QTEs.
The Bit.Trip series of games have done interesting things with rhythm and gameplay for a while and this all culminated in the most recent Bit.Trip release, Runner 2. In this game the player controls a character which is constantly running through a stage. The various obstacles in their way can be overcome by performing various actions such as jumping, ducking, blocking, kicking and more which are all assigned to buttons on the controller. The comparison between this and Guitar Hero is a bit odd, but in essence they have the same core concept, get to the end of the level by inputting the correct buttons at he correct time. But Runner 2 hides this behind a veil of platforming. No longer are the instructions just coloured dots on screen, but they are actual obstacles in a world the character is traversing through. The obstacles and enemies are laid out through the stage in conjunction with the music, as the actions the player takes to pass them are timed with the music and generate a light melody which plays along with the music. Where GH and Runner part ways, however is that Runner 2 stages have multiple pathways, and if you hit a single obstacle you instantly fly all the way back to the beginning of the stage (of checkpoint). Runner 2 isn't pressing buttons to a song, but pressing buttons with a song and this is a very important distinction. In Runner 2, the player can gather items which change the way the music sounds and completion isn't avoiding every obstacle, but collecting all gold pieces along the way. These subtle changes take the game from being extremely similar to Guitar Hero, to being it's own unique gameplay experience.
Rhythm games rely heavily on input cues and musical sensibilities to enable the player to feel as if they are engaging with the music. Some do this well, and some don't, but it's important to find out what makes a good rhythm game, because the principles can apply to any type of game, from fighting game, to RTS.
What are your thoughts? Is there a game which truly emulates the experience of actually playing music? What kind of games and aspects should we investigate in part 2? Which genres should integrate gameplay elements found in rhythm games? I'd love to hear your feedback.
Part 2 is still a while away, but be sure to look out for it!
About Oscarno One of us since 5:23 AM on 02.25.2014
Hello I am Oscarno and welcome to a rad Video Game Music blog on Destructoid!
I'm way into Video Game Music, and with these blog posts, I hope to provide an investigation into and discussion about Video Game Music and how music affects video games as a creative medium.
I write weekly, usually posting on Thursdays. Most weeks will be OST Case Studies, looking a the music of a particular game and pulling it apart to find why it works so well. Sometimes, however, I'll just post a shorter opinion post or perhaps an article looking into other areas of Video Game Music.
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Also you can check out some of the music I make on my Soundcloud!