When you listen to music, what do you see? The music video? Yourself playing it on the stage? Your own private experience expressing the speed, joy, or sadness of each song? The artists themselves? Or just whatever is in front of your face? The idea of visualizing music, of giving an image to a separate sense of the body, is neither new nor implicitly necessary. Instead, it is something the listener does to take part in the song. Mosh pits, fan clubs, and all the other ways we participate with our favorite music are really just ways that we tailor and improve the experience to match our own feelings about it. What Independent Games Festival competition finalist Audiosurf adds to music is an entirely new way to experience it through video games.
The game scans music files on your computer and converts them into a roller coaster of obstacles that you ride on a spaceship. Each obstacle, each block on the track, syncs with the music. Each bump in the track matches the drum beat. If a song is slow, then the course goes uphill at a slow and synchronized pace. If it’s fast, then it’s all downhill as the course rushes by at pace with the song. The game provides two core game designs to go with this premise. There is the ninja mode, where you dodge grey blocks and accumulate colored ones. Then there is the colored Lumines-esque scenario of matching colored blocks on a grid as your ship collides with them. The designers go much more in depth with this style by allowing a variety of play styles like square shuffling, block shifting etc., and you’ll quickly pick out your favorite method. The ninja mode is good for fast, heavy beat songs that will make twitch-fest players happy while the color coordinating modes are suitable for slower, more complex songs.
Technically, these are really just loose designs to give the player something to do while he listens to the song on the visualized track. You can’t die in the game, nothing interrupts the song (unlike the squelches of Guitar Hero), and collecting high scores is almost always an afterthought. The real joy here is picking a song and seeing it literally appear before you as you travel and listen along.
What this will do to the way you experience a song is nothing short of amazing. I have literally blown all the digital dust off all my old music and started experimenting with it in the game. Don’t let the game’s techno appearance fool you, this program will work on every genre. Select Old Crow Medicine Show’s “That’ll Be a Better Day” and you’ll be dodging banjo chords in no time. My live recordings of Ween’s Bonnaroo 2004 version of “Voodoo Lady” worked perfectly. The game will put you through a triple loop while flying downhill to Dean Ween’s expert solo skills. And the slower stuff is just as fun. Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches” or The Chemical Brothers “Sleep On” make for excellent ways to unwind while slowly putting together color puzzles. Bob Dylan’s album Live at the Gaslight can be downright startling when you’re experiencing it on a roller coaster where every single plucked note is a block you’re dodging.
The best kinds of songs are ones with varied tempo and rhythm, ones that change up their experience as the song goes along. When I clicked on Wilco’s “Misunderstood”, a slow song with an epic last minute of fast pace, it was like hearing the song for the first time. For five or so minutes I slowly collected blocks, gained points, and in the back of my head I kept wondering about that finale, that incredible portion of the song where all that emotion comes bursting out. When you’re playing the game, you can see ahead to where the song is going and sure enough, like a rollercoaster coming up to the plunge I could see where the track crested before the plunge. For one thrilling second you look out at nothing, and then that guitar explodes and you’re on a vertical drop. Blocks fly at you, your eyes bulge, and you are truly hearing the song in a new way. Not many games can claim to do that.
I hate to stop my little gush-fest because I love this game. Unfortunately, it has one very, very serious problem that will affect some people. It does not play iTunes music files. If you’re the kind of person who buys all their CDs, pirates all their music, or refuses to use mp3s in favor of larger high quality music files, then stop reading this review and go try the game’s demo. Hell, as a slight caveat I’ll note that it can even play iTunes tracks that were converted from a CD originally. And it can do every other type of music file with perfect skill. But the reality is that the game is seriously shooting itself in the foot by not working out some kind of deal with Apple. Now I’m no Apple fan boy, I’m not proposing that the makers of this game should’ve sold out to the man for cash or anything. What I’m saying is that the number one source of legal music downloads in the world that must be used with the top selling mp3 player in the world is not compatible with this game. Your only option is to burn your music into a CD and either convert it back into iTunes or scan it off the CD. That said, I’m currently looking at a stack of CD’s that now serve exactly that purpose.
Although Audiosurf may have decided to forgo the vast music selection of iTunes compatibility, it opted to replace it with something entirely different: a user community. The game can only be accessed, downloaded, and paid for through Valve’s Steam service. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s basically an online service that lets you download mainstream games like Bioshock or Call of Duty 4 and play them online through their servers. It will also, if you’re online while playing Audiosurf, upload your scores to an enormous Global Top Ten Network.
At first I was a little bit annoyed at the prospect of having legions of teens kick the shit out of me like they do in every other online game, but because the user customization part of this game is so intrinsic, with each song having its own top ten board, you’ll often find yourself competing with only two or three people for a high score. Granted, this means if you’re playing using mainstream music, you’re shit outta luck—be prepared to lose. However, more obscure songs will only have a few loyal fans who like experiencing them through the game. It can be a little refreshing to see other people who love the same music as you and compete with them. Personally, I’d like to chat with the player who keeps beating my score for “You! Me! Dancing!” by Los Campesinos. Maybe I’d cuss them out, but yeah, I’m glad they dig the song too.
Every time I download a new song, I can’t wait to experience it as a crazed block-dodging rollercoaster when I get the time. When I hear songs on the radio now, the beats come alive, the vocals roar by, and my mind begins to see Audiosurf levels unfold. The fact that I get to pick each song is just icing on the cake; that it lets me experience songs in a new way is what makes Audiosurf so profound. It’s tough to think of a metaphor for this game, but oddly enough, the film Crocodile Dundee keeps coming to mind. The next time someone pulls out a copy of Bejeweled or Lumines and claims that it is a casual game that appeals to everyone, I’ll simply smile, nod, pull up Audiosurf, and say, “That’s not a casual game for everyone. This is.”