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Sunday
Feb082009

Variation, Rhythm, and Music

The music-rhythm genre is one of the best video game genres in terms of tending to produce well designed games. From traditional buttons, plastic instruments, motion sensing controllers, to touch screen controls music-rhythm games run the gamut of control types. From classical music, modern pop songs, video game music, to modern art musical experiences music-rhythm games encompass a wide range of musical genres. Understanding what makes such games so popular isn't the same as understanding how the design of music-rhythm games are inherently shaped by music. To unravel the mystery, we have to take a closer look at three concepts and how they relate to core of game design; variation, rhythm, and music.

 Let's start with...

Variation

  1. the act, process, or accident of varying in condition, character, or degree:
  2. a different form of something; variant
  3. (Music) the transformation of a melody or theme with changes or elaborations in harmony, rhythm, and melody. (dictionary.com)

Variation is very important to video games. Super Mario Brothers wouldn't be such a classic and beloved video game is every level was composed of jumping over the same lone Goomba like at the beginning of World 1-1. In order to keep things interesting for the player, the developers of Super Mario Brothers included different types of levels (standard, water, castle), powerups (Mushroom, Fire Flower, Star Man), enemies (Goomba, Koopa, Pirahna Flower, Bowser etc.) and different kind of level elements mixing all of these elements up across 32 levels. If a game doesn't using variation to create more difficult challenges, then the only other currently successful option is to create more interesting encounters, scenes, or moments. In music-rhythm games, musical changes whether they make a section more or less difficult are always more interesting in context of the whole song (assuming the music is of at least a decent quality).

For a music-rhythm game, rhythm is the only means through which players interact with the game. By keeping along with the note/beat track in the game, players contribute/power/support the music. Looking at the 3rd definition above, music variation consists of "changes or elaborations in harmony, rhythm, and melody." According to this definition, changes in rhythm are only 1 out of the 3 options for creating musical variation. Therefore, if a song in a music-rhythm game changes its harmony/melody and keeps the rhythm the same the game will achieve a sense of change and variation even if the inputs remain the same. In this way, changing the music "around the player" is an effective style of variation.

This is not significant variation for Super Mario Bros.

In a more traditional video game, changing the conditions around the player by keeping the gameplay/actual interaction the same is widely consider to be a trick or a failing substitute for actual variation. To make an analogy, simply changing harmonies/melodies in the music of a music-rhythm is equivalent to repeating the same level over and over in Super Mario Brothers except each level has a different background color.

Some RPGs have gotten away with recycling their enemy models/art. Each time the enemy assets are reused, the "new" enemies show up as a different tint or color to communicate to the player that it's different from the other enemies that look nearly identical to it. In the worst cases, these redesigned enemies do nothing to break up the all powerful, optimization RPG strategy of attack-attack-heal.

When a music-rhythm game varies its rhythm, the core interactive element of the genre, the core design gets another inherent boost when designing variation because of the nature of rhythm. To understand how this works, let's go to the definition.

Rhythm

  1. movement or procedure with uniform or patterned recurrence of a beat, accent, or the like.
  2. (Music) the pattern of regular or irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats. (dictionary.com)

Rhythms are identified by the patterns they create through time. This is inherently very different from the variation of a level in Super Mario Brothers. In SMB, variation is measured by comparing the differnet gameplay ideas. For example, World 1-1 has a some Goomba and a few Koopa placed throughout. The arrangement of enemies are nothing too dangerous because the player can only encounter so many of them at a time. Once players scroll away from an enemy, they are gone forever. There's no going back.

But with music, players perceive, organize, and therefore understand the rhythms not by "encounter to encounter" (beat to beat). Instead players listen for patterns that are created from one beat to the beat, then measure, music phrase, and even across the entire song. This high level of engagement with a song/game creates a natural design cushion for the game designers. Because even the smallest "changes or elaborations" on the most basic rhythms can have a profound effect on the player, the developers don't have to worry so much about how to keep things interesting for the player. Sticking to incorporating good music usually translates into a good rhythmically interactive experience.

Because rhythms are pattern based, as time progresses we tend to search out larger and larger patterns in a song or rhythmic progression. As we try to bring some kind of order to the abstract world of sound and music, we sort of lock ourselves into a mesmerized state. Some call it going into the zone or tuning into the music. Whatever you call it, all rhythms can have this effect. If you don't believe me, try watching only half of the video below. Chances are, before you realize it the video will be over.

Rhythms are also completely dependant on time and have little to nothing to do with space. The time between notes/beats or the duration of a note is the only thing that determines a rhythmic pattern. Because of this inherent quality, music-rhythm games tend to have little to no player expression. Players must play to the beat exactly as it is presented.

With music-rhythm games, players internalize less about the intricacies of the rules of a game world/mechanics and more about the expression and emotions of the music. Let's look at the definition of music...

Music

  1. an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color. (dictionary.com)

In a way, music rhythm games create a profound experience through repetition and simplicity of rhythm by tapping into well the established medium of music. Music-rhythm games allow the player to engage with the music, which is something people enjoy listening to by itself. In a way, music-rhythm games are some of the simplest and least "game-like" games. By tapping into the forms/patterns of music, players test their ability to follow along much in the same way that a musician follows a printed piece of music. Understanding the music-rhythm genre gives a new perspective to the tenet "form fits function."

Music is such a powerful tool for communicating and moving people whether in movies, video games, or elsewhere. When mixed with game design, using music almost feels like cheating. There just so much music already in the world to choose from of various styles. And even with such a basic interaction system like hitting a single button, a music-rhythm game can be engaging, successful, and fun. It's not wonder the music-rhythm genre is one of the best around.

As a side and closing note, I wanted to point out that the DS has the most varied music-rhythm games and non-games across any next-gen platform. In no particular order....

  1. Diagasso! Band Brothers 1 & 2
  2. Jam Sessions
  3. Osu Tatakae Ouendan 1 & 2
  4. Elite Beat Agents
  5. Guitar Hero: On Tour 1 & 2
  6. Taiko Drum Master 1 & 2
  7. Korg DS-10 Synthesizer
  8. Electroplankton
  9. Rhythm Tengoku Gold
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