As the genre of music games continues to grow and direct video game trends, there are a lot of interesting ideas on how to approach the synesthesia of mixing player input with the feedback of having it produce music. The most obvious current example would be the sensation of pressing buttons in sync on Guitar Hero mixing with the sensation of hearing a guitar play. Alternately, there’s the combining of intense visuals with music, such as in Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez, which applied this combination to a rail shooter. The latest gem from the indie scene that pushes the combination of gameplay and music is Johnathon Mak’s Everyday Shooter. It creates a unique soundscape that blends with the mechanics of an arena shooting game that pushes the genre of synesthesia one step farther.
The basic premise is that rather than to have every explosion or hit create the same generic ‘thud’ or ‘beep’, Everyday Shooter coordinates those sounds with its background music. The player has complete control over what he shoots and kills, but the sounds manage to combine in such a way that you feel like you’re contributing to a collective whole. Mak explains in an interview with Gamasutra, “I like the idea of chance in music and everyday soundscapes. I mean things like listening to children playing in the school yard (chatter and giggles punctuated by shrieks and exclamations), the left and right window wipers on buses that weave in and out of phase, and the old style Chinese dim sum restaurants where they still push the cart (general chatter punctuated by announcements of which items are in the cart). You’d think that these soundscapes are entirely random but they’re not.” It’s an interesting concept and it works very well for a music enthusiast who enjoys video games as well. The music is inspired by Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, a minimalist electric guitar album that synchronizes loop after loop.
The levels in which this design takes place are also fairly distinct. Rather than having the mindless repetition of simply shooting enemies, each level is its own unique puzzle. In order to collect points and survive the waves of objects, you have to experiment and try new approaches. No two levels share the same obstacles nor do they use the same sounds, each one is a unique song and design. In the first level you push and shove an enemy next to a turret-like block, so that it will set off a combo and win you more points. In another you have to wait until one of the units grows into a larger size, then shoot it to set off a different combo. It even challenges the conventions of simply blasting your way through a level. On some levels it is even better to wait and let the level develop before you start firing. This contributes to the synesthesia because the player input changes in conjunction with the music. One level is very tense and requires fast thinking as you shoot through streaming hordes, while the music matches this by being loud and aggressive. Other levels are calmer, require more strategy, less shooting, and are often easier to manage. The music reflects this as well.
The aesthetic direction Mak opted for is also unique and was inspired by Kenta Cho’s PARSEC 47. Both games utilize geometric shapes to create ambiguous enemies. The effect in Everyday Shooter is that although the objects will resemble a blocky person walking or a tank, because they’re never named or have any identity, they instead become the sounds they generate. The spinning turret blocks of the first level may not have a name, but my mind still recognizes them by the sound one makes every time it blows up. Mak explains in the interview cited above, “It’s about the dynamics of the shapes, modulating the vertices, and gently morphing them into non-shapes. The idea is sort of like how a sound synthesizer breathes life and warmth into simple, mathematical waveforms to create wonderful sounds.” The end product is a game that identifies each object, player input, and level by the music while still keeping the game elements intact.
For the most part, Everyday Shooter succeeds at Mak’s vision and creates a wonderful musical gaming experience. It does, however, seem to lean more towards the hardcore idea of games being about challenge than is appropriate for a synesthesia game. For someone who pays the bargain price of $9.99 for it because they like the music, they’re going to be a bit surprised to discover that it is a fairly tough game. You really can’t relax and enjoy the music when you’re dodging so many enemies, a trait that shortchanges the musical aspect of the game. Rez, by comparison, was fairly easy to get through, to make sure players could still have an audio-visual experience without requiring much skill. Most of the difficulty came from shooting down enemies to unlock extras, not from actually surviving to the end of the song. With so much sound and art focused on creating a soundscape within the game, one wonders why Everyday Shooter would inhibit a player’s ability to enjoy it by being so difficult. The difficulty ratchets up from the very first level and keeps the player on his toes throughout (particularly on the one with the giant eyeball thing). It’s certainly admirable to do this when facilitating a hardcore experience for people who like a good challenge, but when so much of the game is about the music, one wonders why an easier setting wasn’t included.
That shouldn’t scare away potential buyers though, because the game does make concessions to those who simply like Mak’s music. Each point you collect is saved and can be used to unlock more content from the game. You can unlock each level and play them individually, so that casual play becomes possible by simply picking which song is your favorite. You can even get a pure music experience by unlocking ‘Travel mode’, which lets you play the game without fear of dying. Unfortunately, you also have to beat the game before you can use this, so I wouldn’t call that an option for those not inclined to challenge. Finally, you can purchase extra lives that are with you at every start-up, which you win by scoring more points during gameplay.
That said, a portion of the other unlockables do seem misplaced. Most only allow you to change the colors and palettes of the game. Although very useful for the High-Def PS3 crowd that the game originally came out for, they can have mixed value when played on a PC. The color changes are interesting for anyone enjoying a large screen experience, but those who play this game on their laptop as a quick break may be left scratching their heads. The effects are gorgeous, but it would have been nice if the game had included more substantial unlockables such as new sounds for a level.
There will always be tugging values going on with a video game that utilizes synesthesia. On the one hand, I just want to hear the damn song. On the other, I want to be engaged and playing a fun game. That’s what makes it a combination of sensations. I honestly don’t really play for the challenge, and the game doesn’t expect me to either. I just pick out one of my favorite levels/songs, and enjoy it for a few minutes. I’ll even die intentionally a few times, just because I enjoy the sound it makes and adds to the music. The excellent music and creative level design make this game an excellent step forward for the synesthesia genre. The fact that it has a few shortcomings isn’t really a major deterrent when you consider the low price. What Everyday Shooter really boils down to is a sign of the good things that are to come.