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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
*** 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.