For the uninitiated, Rez is a difficult game concept. Developed by Sega's United Game Artists under the codename 'Project K', outwardly it offers a seemingly simplistic game, with little more to do than point and shoot and very little in the way of story. However, peel away the layers and you'll find one of the most innovative, immersive, and involving gameplay experiences to have been released in not only the last ten years, but in the entire history of gaming itself.
United Games Artists were a team of developers containing several former members of the disbanded Team Andromeda (the Sega development team behind the Panzer Dragoon series). Working among them was Tetsuya Mizuguchi, a subdued yet inspired designer and producer with an eclectic catalogue of games including such titles as Sega Rally Championship and Space Channel 5. It was Mizuguchi that conceptualised and produced Rez, and his vision and creativity that brought the game to fruition.
Released by Sega in Japan in 2001 for Dreamcast and PS2, then released in greater numbers in the US and Europe the following year, this amazingly beautiful, striking, and unique game received the critical acclaim it so rightly deserved, but as is the case with most titles that take the chance to be different it received little commercial attention. Maybe this was because it's so difficult to classify, and therefore difficult to market. Rez moves beyond the boundaries set by other games with which it shares similarities (the Panzer Dragoon series for example) and has become a genre unto its own. One thing's for certain, it's become a cult classic amongst gamers, defying categorization and representing the feats games can achieve with just a little creativity and a lot of imagination.
The plot is almost nonexistent in Rez - most of the back-story being reserved for the game's manual - and as a rhythm action title at its heart it cannot really be appreciated in terms of narrative. Still, the story is worth telling, as it infuses your in-game actions with motivation, and also reveals some of Rez's inspirations. The game is set in a vast computer network in which the AI program 'Eden' has become all too aware of the paradoxes inherent in the human world, and thus has begun to doubt in her own existence. She has begun to shut herself down as a suicide, flooding this universal network with problems as she does so. The player enters this network as a hacker, logging into the system with one mission, to find and reboot Eden while destroying any viruses or firewalls that happen to inhibit progress. You will traverse five different areas in all, the fifth being the core where Eden resides. Basically the plot is kind of like Tron on ecstasy. And acid. And probably stoned off its noggin too.
As well as film, Rez takes many of its cues from the myriad of ideas found in music and art. The name Rez comes from the Underworld track of the same name - an energetic, uplifting and face-paced song, three attributes that are also pervasive throughout the game. The visuals have their routes in the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky (hence the name 'Project K'), a man considered by many as one of the founders of abstract art. Kandinsky's works are evident as you play the game, his vibrant use of colour and swirling, hallucinogenic landscapes spreading before you as you soar above them. It's hopeless to try and play Rez without taking note of the surrealist and abstract influences.
Playing the Game
On the surface, Rez is as simple as it gets. You play as a floating avatar, controlling only the on-screen targeting reticule using the left analogue stick. You can either tap the shoot button to fire, or hold down to lock on up to eight enemies at the same time. As many take multiple hits to destroy you can also lock eight shots to a single enemy. The player can also collect 'overdrives', items which, when used, destroy all enemies on-screen at that time.
The game is split into five different areas, each with a distinct musical track and visual style. The areas share a similar structure, each being split into 10 subsections and ending with a boss (or as it's known in-game, a firewall). The player's lives are expressed through the presentation of their avatar. Gaining power-up increments to their evolution bar results in an evolution to a higher form, whilst getting hit by an enemy downgrades the player to a lower form. Getting hit at the lowest form will end the game. The various forms taken by the player's avatar each have different graphical and audio effects.
And that's all there is to it. Reading in the above puts Rez across simply as another on-rails shooter: similar to Panzer Dragoon, the player merely travels along a predetermined path through the level, unable to affect their movement at all. This is the inherent problem - and also the brilliance - with Rez, and that is that it's difficult to accurately describe Rez using just words or screenshots. The more one writes about Rez, the more one realises how hard it is to describe it using just words. The backbone of the game lies in the actual experience of playing it, of watching the relationship between sound, visuals and control. The game goes far beyond a basic on-rails shooter with music game elements. Rez goes beyond, becomes something more, transcending what a video game can be. To be truly understood it must be seen and heard.
This indescribable something, the core of the Rez experience that has to be felt to be truly appreciated, comes from the game's genuine innovation - its application and conveyance of synesthesia. Synesthesia is defined as a union of the senses, the association of different senses and stimuli with each other - something reported commonly by users of LSD. Whilst you soar over the various psychedelic, abstract and futuristic vistas presented in Rez, slowly but surely you feel the integration of sight and sound. As your surroundings pulse to the rhythm of the music, so does your floating avatar, the controller vibrating to not only every beat, but to every on-screen action occurring in the vividly coloured landscape. From locking on with your weapon to firing and destroying the enemies, everything is in sync with the music.
Each area begins barren and quiet, nothing to see but the gentle pulse of your avatar moving in time to the subtle music. As you shoot enemies and objects simple noises are formed, and as you pass checkpoints into the next level of each area the sounds become more complex, the backgrounds begin to form. The areas literally build from the ground up as you progress, the music and visuals becoming gradually more layered and intense, building up into something truly wonderful. This journey from nothing - the evolution of the level as you play - slowly brings everything together. Without even knowing it the different aspects of each level (the sound, visuals, vibration and control) come together, combining to form a truly unique, singular experience. Subconsciously you become riveted to the game, yet at ease all at once. No other game has come this close to drawing you in so deeply. Floating forwards, feeling the intensity rise with each level, you truly become one with Rez; you feel almost a part of it yourself.
It is truly impossible to talk about Rez without doting on the graphics. Tetsuya Mizuguchi once said, "Old games, like maybe 20 years ago, were like this - vector scan and wireframes. But Rez isn't being nostalgic. The look is conscious choice. Current games are a little too real now - there's no room for interpretation. But I think Rez is an experience, so I don't want to put lifelike graphics in it". Rez's backbone is its presentation. It looks like so many things you've seen in the past, yet it looks like nothing you've seen before. Everything has been made up of simple line and shapes that pulsate and pound in time with the music. As the game runs at its smooth pace, steadily escalating in intensity, you view some truly amazing landscapes filled with an eclectic assortment of enemies. The cell-shaded look to the boss battles is truthfully as breath-taking as it is imaginative. It's a tremendous sight to behold, an assault on the senses. This is something that no gamer should miss.
Each area is inspired by a different ancient culture, a design choice that is apparent as wireframe Sphinxes or ancient hieroglyphs will slowly appear as a particular level forms itself. The different areas also exhibit their own music track and visual style, and culminate in a boss-battle. The final area differs slightly, offering a narrative to the player as they progress - one which deals with the Earth and the creation of life itself. This section of Rez is nothing short of spectacular, and I won't ruin it for you here if you haven't already played it.
The different forms the player's avatar takes as you level up, or as the case may be, level down, are also very telling of the game's visual inspirations. Each has its own distinctive characteristic, coupled with a slightly different weapon which will interact with the environment in a somewhat altered way. The final level to which you can evolve is strongly reminiscent of the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and your lowest level is a clear nod to Bit from Tron.
It's best to use a quote from Tetsuya Mizuguchi himself to help demonstrate how integral sound is to the design of Rez. "The first thing we did was decide on the musicians. They had to understand what we were doing with the game - not only the music, but the visual design as well. That was important". The sound design in Rez - from the effects to the soundtrack - is auditory ecstasy. The soundtrack features songs by such artists as Adam Freeland, Joujouka and Ken Ishii. They are electronic experiments, starting slow and minimal and building up into a harmonic synchronisation of beats and pulses. They are phenomenal pieces of work, and blend flawlessly with the game and its aesthetic. The sound effects caused by shooting become part of the music, each shot's associated sound effect seamlessly blending into the rhythm of the track, becoming part of the track itself. The sounds again become one with what you see, melding perfectly with their visual accompaniments to form an auditory encounter you're unlikely to come across in any other game.
Once you've completed the game there are plenty of extra features, and if you feel compelled to play through again (which I'm certain you would be) there are tonnes of unlockables including additional game graphics. The player can also unlock Beyond mode, score-attack and free play modes, the Lost Area and Trance Mission, giving the game plenty of sustainability. Even with these extra modes, simply playing through the main section of the game never loses its appeal - in fact, familiarity with the game serves only to add to its allure. Simply playing to relax and enjoy the visuals is as enjoyable an experience as attempting to gain high scores.
So, a game that on its surface looks something simple and non-provocative - something you'd maybe dismiss due to its lack of freedom and engaging story - is truly a compelling, absorbing and unique experiment that pushes the boundaries of what a game can be. It is very unfair to label Rez as a 'stoner game', and people who say it is too short have missed the point. Rez isn't a game that's going to take you on a roller-coaster ride of excitement, shocks and emotions, but it is a game that will change the way you view how games can be made. The marriage of sound and graphics has never before been used in games to the same extent it is in Rez, and it has set a precedent in sound design yet to be matched by any other game.
Rez is, quite simply, one of the most unique and bizarre products ever released. By the time you have finished with the game the feeling is akin to having just heard a symphony, or gazed upon a work of art. Rez takes daring concepts, astonishing artwork and a powerful soundtrack, combining them to create one singular, exceptional gameplay experience. Rez is about evolution. The evolution of sound, of graphics, and of games themselves. Rez takes the simple concept of a game and transforms it into something beautiful yet fun. Rez is art, a serious yet dazzling adventure that will amaze as much as it entertains. If you have not yet played this game, now is the time to do so...
A special mention must go to the Trance Vibrator, a small vibrating device sold only in Japan designed to be placed in the user's breast pocket to better feel the vibration emanating from the game. The Trance Vibrator was not explicitly marketed as a sex toy, but it has reportedly been used as such, making Rez a game also used for sexual gratification. That's how good it is ;-)