Electron Dance
7Nov/168

Thumper Ain’t No Flow Game

I recently admitted I didn't think I was going to play this one and I've not gone back on that. That's why Shaun Green, who has done work for RPS and ran Arcadian Rhythms for five years, has stepped in to write about that noisy new kid on the rhythm game block: Thumper. At least I think he has, because the opening line of his essay is---

thumper_flying1

How do we write about Thumper (Drool, 2016)?

Many writers have opted for hyperbole and impressionistic description, deploying jagged sentences like brush strokes and needle jabs as they attempt to portray their experience: velocity, violence, vigour. This does convey something of how the game feels, but it's not what I want to write.

Yet despite my many and various opinions about Thumper I couldn't decide what they should cohere around. The writhing, chrome-plated visuals? Its deliciously understated industrial soundtrack? What it makes of its relatively low-key gameplay verbs?

I didn't have a satisfying answer until I looked at my Twitter timeline and saw a discussion about death, about failure. The elephantine space-beetle in the room when it comes to Thumper is how hard it is. So yes, we need to talk about difficulty.

Thumper can feel outright savage. In my time with the game it's made me curse, regularly and often. For fleeting heartbeats I've harangued it for its unfairness. I made that turn. I pressed that button. My rhythm is right - what's up with yours, Thumper? But these moments were fleeting, and where other games have driven me away Thumper drew me right back in.

There's a fascinating discussion to be had about difficulty, about where lines should be drawn and how reasonable it is to prevent players from accessing all of the product they have purchased. We know it is a fascinating discussion because we have been having it for some years, whether espoused by cuddly funnyman Dara Ó Briain or unwilling human sacrifice Jennifer Hepler.

If a game can flexibly support disparate play styles and demand only time in exchange for access to content, it should go for it. However, if it cannot do this without compromising its core design tenets*, designers should stick to their guns: they have a vision and should see it executed.

thumper_demo_tentacles

But wait? What's that? Why, it's famous video game designer Jonathan Blow! Yes, it was he who popped up in my timeline!

Man, Thumper is a really cool game in principle, but if you want to really create a mood and get the player deeply into it the absolute worst thing to do is kill them and make them restart the damn level all the time. It instantly breaks flow and mood. (The Guitar Hero / Rock Band games had this problem too, so I am not picking on one game, it's just, this is the newest example, and its tuned way more harshly than any rhythm game in recent memory).

Blow isn't talking about difficulty: he's talking about the outcome of failing difficult challenges. Specifically he's concerned with this because of the impact on flow and mood. These more nebulous concepts are things I argue Thumper handles well.

Both concepts are concerned with the player's experience of the game, and are difficult to quantify. But it would be fair to say that flow is concerned with the player's state of mind while they play, and it's a common piece of wisdom that games should flow between states smoothly, that players should not confronted with anything jarring or disruptive.

You may take issue with this wisdom. A recent piece from gaming contrarian Ed Smith takes such a position, positing that flow is “a watery word, describing a minor sense of ease and relaxation that is intended to befall players as they interact with complementary game systems, more than anything tangible or worthwhile, it encapsulates the limpness and inanity of a game like Journey (thatgamecompany, 2012), which wins awards because it looks pretty.”

I’d not take quite that line** but I do agree in that while this conception of flow is integral to some games it is wholly irrelevant to other approaches to game design. Another conception of flow is that disruption is a non-issue, even a net positive, if players are able to get instantly back into the action and return to the challenge which bested them. Thumper takes a page from Super Meat Boy’s book in that levels instantly reload. Such is Thumper’s velocity that barely a 4/4 intro bar will have passed before you’re back in the zone.

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Every element of a game combines to forge mood, though some carry more weight than others. Thumper, like most rhythm games, largely achieves its mood with synaesthetic audio and visuals. The player contributes too, of course, in the form of high-end percussive stabs over a throbbing, growling bass presence. This is a clever solution to the age-old music rhythm game challenge of not making the music sound bloody dreadful when players aren’t doing very well.

In his criticisms of Thumper’s design Blow is arguing that its fail states disrupt the game’s flow and negatively impact on its mood. This is an interesting argument and it’s one that I’d happily put forward myself in a different context. With Thumper, though, it doesn’t hold up.

First let’s run through what Thumper does. Players will regularly die so the game tries to take as much of the pain out of the experience as possible. In its own way it's even accessible. The control scheme is undeniably minimalist, and you'll be tackling less than half a dozen different interactions in your first hour or two with the game. These are introduced to you in gentle tutorial stages. Subsequent stages are short and reinforce any new lessons alongside those you have already internalised.

These lessons are put to the test by a mid-level sub-boss stage which demands near-perfect execution of the new mechanic to proceed. Then we have another set of short stages followed by a lengthier stage, all of which is capped off by the level boss. All stages leverage the new mechanic; design reinforces lesson.

This is a game that is about repetition and learning, but offers thoughtful concessions to how this is approached. We will come back to this as it is important, but first we need to talk music and mood.

Thumper’s soundtrack surprised me when I first began playing. The involvement of world-class noise rock act Lightning Bolt led me to believe the game’s music would be a frenetic, orgiastic beast, but what I’ve heard thus far I’d describe more as industrial ambience. It is great audio and the underpinning theme it promulgates is tension. That is the mood of Thumper: tension. It is for this reason that I argue knife-edge fail states are essential; their absence would undermine this design conceit.

Blow’s suggested solution to the problem he’s identified is to unlock levels only when a high enough score is attained. This misunderstands the mood of the game, reducing it from a tense experience to one that is played over and over - grinding, if you will - until it is perfected. Each stage of each level is thus compartmentalised, a challenge to be learned and mastered once and then discarded.

thumper_screenshot_7

Such a solution not only misunderstands what produces Thumper’s mood, it clashes with another integral element of Thumper’s design: how it approaches scoring, replayability and the subdivision of levels into stages. Once you have begun playing a level, you cannot revisit any of its stages without revisiting all of them. Thumper actively resists player compartmentalisation of its challenges. It does not allow its students to master an assignment and then forget it entirely. If you want better scores, it insists, you must master the syllabus.

Credit where it is due: in analysing just why I disagreed with Blow's critique, I came to a deeper understanding of what makes Thumper such a fine game. And I can’t deny that at points, as I smash my face into my keyboard after the Nth failed attempt to beat a stage, I’ll probably look back on those Tweets and quietly whisper to myself “Blow was right!”***

You can follow Shaun on Twitter.

Footnotes

* I hope it should go without saying that if a game's core design tenets are popularly considered to be shit, it's not unreasonable to suggest that if they are revisited, other considerations could also be made.

** Although I did find Journey dull and inane.

*** There is one way in which I already agree with Blow’s criticism. Thumper particularly shines in its boss stages. Here a short sequence must be cleared near-perfectly, following which an attack can be executed. Attack the boss four times and you’re clear. Fail a sequence or miss an attack and you loop back around to repeat it again; you’ll only have to restart the entire stage on death. This sub-stage compartmentalisation makes boss stages deliciously learnable. Other stages are rarely as memorable, but then they’re not intended to stand alone - they’re a part of the larger texture of a composite level, that abrasive yet compelling experience of tension and velocity.

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thanks Shaun! Having not played and still having no intention or desire to, it does sound like Thumper resists flow and embraces what it is. It’s meant to powerful and scary. I’m reminded of – gasp – Dark Souls, a game that is riddled with fail states but playing can sometimes feel so zen when you’re repeating the same sections again and again, tuning your performance into something that hums.

  2. The design here sounds very Bit.Trip Runner–does that seem right? Interestingly Bit.Trip Beat is very much one where you can fail a lot (and recover) before losing, but it’ll cost you in your score–and if you do lose it kicks you out to the main screen rather than smoothly restarting. (In fact when you’re in the about-to-lose stage the graphics and music disappear, so it really is deliberately disrupting the flow state at that point.)

  3. @Joel – I absolutely agree. When I first began playing Dark Souls I bemoaned the run from Firelink to the Capra Demon boss fight as being “too long” and containing a lot of risk of death. Frustrating when you just want to have another crack at a boss who keeps killing you in seconds! But there’s an important lesson in there. It’s probably one of the most inelegant and alienating bits of DS1, but the lesson is there nonetheless.

    @Matt – Sorry to say my time spent with Bit.Trip Runner can be measured in minutes. I don’t think I got on with it, although I don’t think I gave it much of a chance.

    From what you’re describing its approach to failure (or clawing your way back from the brink) sounds very much like Quadrant, an excellent and underappreciated synaesthetic rhythm action game, which washes out the visuals and muffles the audio an increasing amount for each error made, meaning more than a few mistakes push you toward a failure cascade. It’s possible to recover but it requires a greater level of game knowledge than just following the onscreen prompts. In that game I like that approach because (1) the game is about settling entirely into this experience and mistakes are disruptive to that affect, and (2) because it makes recovery a real achievement, producing more exciting play than a ‘perfect’ run could. I’m not sure whether this was an intentional aspect of Quadrant’s design; I suspect it’s an accident that happens to mesh well with what I think admirable and fun about it!

  4. Shaun–I think I misdescribed things. (I shouldn’t assume people are familiar with what I’m talking about, and also having watched a Thumper video and reread your post more closely I think I was confused about how the leveling works in Thumper.) I’ve played two different Bit.Trip games. Bit.Trip Beat is a Pong-like and as the game with the Quadrant-like system as you describe it; when you make a certain number of mistakes everything (abruptly) goes black and white and the soundtrack turns to a metronomic tick IIRC. It does disrupt the affect but I find it usually also leads to failure real soon unless I’m at one of the points where I”m about to get something where it’s easy to get a lot of hits right away.

    Bit.Trip Runner is a 2D forced-running platformer with rhythmically spaced obstacles–in this way the genre seems closer to Thumper. It’s divided into short levels, a minute or two each, and one hit sends you to the beginning of the level; as you described for Thumper, you get one 4/4 intro bar to sync you back up with the music before it starts again. But it seems as though for Thumper failure sends you back to the start of the stage rather than all the way to the start of the level?

    But what it sounds like Runner and Thumper have in common is that both force you to master an entire sequence at once. By the time you finish a level of Bit.Trip Runner you’ll have internalized the exact sequence of moves; there might be one part you luck through, but if there are two parts you need to luck through you won’t get them both. So if one level starts off with a murderously difficult sequence that you will be playing a lot in a very short order, because each failure sends you directly to try the same thing again; the next might put the same thing it in the middle of the level (see 0:30) because by then you’ve mastered it. (In theory. That level was where I crapped out back when I was playing it.)

    And the sum effect is that though you’re not in a flow state most of the time you’re playing the game, by the time you can beat the level you are. It’s like a music teacher who makes you start over whenever you miss a note; you’ll spend most of your time frustrated and false starting, but when you learn the piece it’ll flow through you. Whereas in Bit.Trip Beat I spend most of my time sliding in and out of the flow and never really perfectly master it.

  5. Matt – I don’t think I read your comment properly as I didn’t distinguish between Beat and Runner! It’s been a long week.

    Bit.Trip Runner does sound quite close to Thumper’s philosophy from what you describe. However it’s definitely worth me unpacking what is meant by “stage” and “level” as it’s not going to be clear from the article for anyone who’s not played the game.

    When you begin playing a level and pass the first stage, you head smoothly into the next stage with text popping up to remind you of where you are/have reached. Between these stage transitions Thumper actually gives you quite a lengthy bit of downtime – sticking with bars as a rough indicator, maybe 4-8 bars. It probably feels longer than it is due to the intensity of the gameplay!

    Failure will reset you to the beginning of that stage, skipping the lengthier inter-stage downtime. You can’t repeat a stage once it is passed without revisiting the entire level (hence the bit in the article about Thumper resisting completion-compartmentalisation).

    So level in Thumper could theoretically be completed in, say, 20 minutes. More likely you’ll find yourself snarled up on the longer stages for a time and will spend 1-2 hours on each level (this will vary wildly from player to player ofc).

    So yes, it sounds like BTR and Thumper share a lot! And I like your music teacher metaphor. That’s a music teacher who helps you learn good technique, too, unlike my appallingly shitty and lazy self-taught guitar technique. ;)

  6. I want to say that I didn’t respond for a long time because I went to check how Bit.Trip Runner transitions between levels and it’s taken me that long to get to the end of one. But that’s not true. (I did get sucked into playing a lot of the first world with my daughter watching–she like that Commander Video looks like a ninja and leaves a rainbow trail if you get all the plus signs.)

    So, as far as scale goes, it seems like one level of Thumper is basically the same scale as one world of BTR, and one level of BTR is basically the same scale as one stage in a Thumper level. The BTR levels are about thirty seconds to two minutes long, and there are twelve to a world (three worlds), with the last one being a boss that works like the Thumper bosses–avoid all the obstacles it drops and you can hit it. (Note: I think the level 3 boss is different, but I’ve never seen it.) So the total time is about the same except that there are many fewer worlds and at least for me it takes me a lot longer to beat each world.

    The transition is very different, though–there’s a huge break in between the levels in BTR. Your character does a full stop, you get an out-of-engine screen where it runs up your score and you can enter initials if you beat your high score, and if you collected every gold bar in the level you can even do a bonus stage before the next level starts up.

    Also, you can start any level you’ve unlocked at any time from the bonus screen, whereas it sounds like in Thumper you maintain your progress through stages as long as you keep playing but if you stop playing you have to start the level from the beginning? Or is it that it saves your place in the level unless you reset it? I somewhat hope it’s the latter because the former system seems pretty abusive to the player to me, in that the game punishes you if you have to do something else. To be clear, I’m not objecting to chewing up a bunch of “progress” for a failure, because in a game that does that you haven’t really earned the progress until you hit a checkpoint; more to a case where you get to keep the progress no matter how many times you fail if you stay glued to the game, but if you get up to make dinner you lose it.

    Anyway! I don’t even know that that’s how Thumper works. One difference with a music teacher is that music teachers do let you concentrate on a bit in the middle if that’s where you’re having trouble, even if the ultimate goal is to be able to do it all at once, but in Bit.Trip you don’t get to try the middle of a level until you’ve done everything before it. Which would be pretty frustrating if you were trying to learn a piece of music! (In fact I used to make myself do that when I was practicing piano, starting the whole piece over as soon as I made a mistake, and that was not at all a good way for me to learn.) Part of the way BTR tries to alleviate that is in the videos I linked before, where one level might teach you a pattern at the beginning where you’ll be repeating it a lot, and then after that that pattern can show up anywhere. Gregory Avery-Weir had an excellent analysis of this (that post is a big part of the reason I picked the game up).

    So, the flow! All of this in BTR is setting you up for the kind of run that you can only accomplish by internalizing the flow–getting in the groove. It might be instructive, in light of Blow’s criticism, to contrast the level of Braid with extremely difficult timing–that was all about assembling a perfect run out of little bits without ever personally getting an overall rhythm. Like editing music together rather than playing it live (and you get to play it back at the end). I do think there’s a lot of value in getting the player to execute a long sequence smoothly, and that requires some punishment, so that the player gets their repetitions in even when they can succeed most of the time. I’ve been trying the Hidden Final Cave in Cave Story and, though I’m improving, I know what’s eventually going to happen is that I’m going to stumble my way through one time, hit a checkpoint, and never look back. Which will be an accomplishment but I won’t have the kind of kinaesthetic experience that you get from a great rhythm game.

    …seriously, I think for many kinds of game the kind of rhythmic-physical experience you get from it is more like dance than all the cinematic metaphors people are constantly looking for. Maybe what games need isn’t a Citizen Kane but a Lamentations by Martha Graham. Admittedly, just about everything I know about Martha Graham (and dance in general) I learned from Olivia and the Fairy Princesses.

    I also had the experience of bouncing off BTR at first but after pushing through for a while there was a moment where I was hopping on a series of platforms on a steady beat and it clicked for me. One problem I had at the beginning is that I tried to start on Easy mode and the only difference between Easy and Normal is that Easy mode removes all the collectible gold pieces. Which I am perfectly capable of ignoring anyway. Really I only put this in because my beef about the level select on Closure is also fundamentally about collectibles, and I need some kind of pretext to promise to start talking about the level select screen in Closure on this thread.

  7. “I’ve been trying the Hidden Final Cave in Cave Story and, though I’m improving, I know what’s eventually going to happen is that I’m going to stumble my way through one time, hit a checkpoint, and never look back.”

    In retrospect, this turned out to be false. What happened was that I got pretty decent at the first parts (assuming that “decent” means “every so often I camp out shooting bats from a safe spot in the hope they’ll drop health refills”) and then turned the keyboard over to my son so he could boost me across the last section of lava. And it does turn out that I’m not going to be able to make it past one bit of the Sacred Grounds/Blood-Soaked Sanctuary without some serious improvement in my boosting technique.

  8. @mattw – slow response, apologies. Long comments get put back when I’m busy, sadly. But you did ask a question of me, so I thought I’d answer that and comment on one other thing…

    “Or is it that it saves your place in the level unless you reset it?”

    Yep, it works like this.

    “Maybe what games need isn’t a Citizen Kane but a Lamentations by Martha Graham.”

    Or, you know, the confidence to talk about our medium without recourse to the heights of other mediums. :)


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