US: 10 Oct 2016
“Brutal”. That’s the one word I found myself intoning to myself over and over again as I played through Thumper. I didn’t say it in anger. I didn’t feel the need to throw my controller across the room. It was a simple observation. I remained untroubled by a game that is simply brutal. What was I going to do? It just is.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Jorge Albor said of Thumper: “This is going to sound trite, I know, but Thumper really is the Dark Souls of rhythm games” (“The Anti-Zen of Thumper, PopMatters, 20 October 2016). It was that phrase that made me think, “Okay, I’ll bite”. I had to try that game.
And initially, on playing the game myself, I thought that, perhaps, Albor’s comment was a little hyperbolic.
Thumper, the self-described “rhythm violence” game, is a game in which you play some kind of silvery metal-coated space beetle that looks like something from a Journey album cover as it speeds down a track to a minimalist percussion heavy soundtrack. Like a rhythm game, Thumper provides visual cues synced to its audio track that the player has to respond to, punching down on glowing nodes that are reminiscent of the similar nodes of a Guitar Hero or Rock Band or even Amplitude note track, sliding around walls, leaping over obstacles, etc.
There is a familiarity to all of this if you have played any number of rhythm games before. And, at first, while Thumper felt brutal, it didn’t feel entirely punishing. The first dozen tracks or so get you warmed up and eased in, introducing new ways to interact with the track on a steady but slow basis, acclimatizing you to some simple reaction-based concepts. It is fast and certain areas are clearly tricky to deal with, but the game is not initially unmanageable. But, then it ramped up the difficulty on me, and, well, Albor’s comparison to the tone and attitude of Dark Souls seemed much less hyperbolic.
I actually found myself kind of playing Thumper like a roguelike. With every new session of the game, I never started exactly where I had left off the last time. Instead, I would drop back by at least one level and early on simply start from the very beginning of the game itself in order to retrain my body to respond to the game’s input cues. I felt I needed to start again to provide an even better basic foundation for what I knew would be coming later, learning though failure, as many roguelikes emphasize.
As Albor notes, “Unlike other rhythm games, the music isn’t really your friend” because “[y]our actions don’t always align with the music”. In some sense, Thumper is a game of pattern recognition, training your muscles to respond to visual cues and repetitions of visual patterns, more than it makes you acclimate to obvious audio cues. The game also messes with one’s tendency to easily fall into the groove familiar to players of such games, as patterns repeat themselves for a time, before subtly throwing in small shifts to that pattern, initially never allowing you to feel fully comfortable following a pattern.
However, as I said, I never threw my controller against a wall. My most common response to death was with a simple, observational exhalation of “brutal”. In other words, while the game messes with you, it never really feels unfair. You can not so much see, but feel clearly your own bad response time as you watch your bug shatter across the track. Brutal, but inevitable, though ultimately a moment to learn from in order to move on inevitably yourself.
The one area that I find myself disagreeing with Albor about is actually related directly to the title of his own essay about the game, “The Anti-Zen of Thumper”. There is something different about Thumper than other rhythm games, something to do with that “rhythm violence” phrase that the developers seem to have aptly tagged their game with.
Thumper has a darkly foreboding feel, brought on by its grim musical tones and sharp and sudden beats and it does lean heavily on its visuals as a means of conveying information to the player, all differences with the flow and fun of many other rhythm game. However, I don’t think that it is really ultimately “anti-zen”.
Within Thumper is an irresistible flow that is part of the visceral quality of this genre. When you get in a groove, even though the game challenges that groove by seeming to break the flow with an unexpected visual cue, you can remain in that groove. The groove becomes an expectation of your own expectations being screwed with and challenged suddenly, ponderously, and without warning, but then you begin foreseeing even that. A stoic kind of calm descends at these moments that does feel like zen and you follow an unfamiliar pattern despite yourself.
Like I said, I never feel like throwing my controller at the wall while playing the game. Untroubled by its efforts at violence, live or die, I just return to Thumper‘s flow to re-embrace that potential violence and finally inevitably master it. Brutal.