Sensing the Sublime in Lumines

Destroying the very sensation that seems to be appealing about these games is an intrinsic part of the experience.

The notion of coordinating music in block games has been around since the NES version of Tetris. Multiple tracks could be selected from the start, and the beat would speed up as you progressed in the game. Even the original Dr. Mario still has one of the catchiest 8-bit tunes ever produced. Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Lumines changes these features into a core element of the game design by having multiple tracks commissioned from various artists that are coordinated with the visuals. Like his work in Rez HD, each level produces unique sounds for block formation, which coordinates with the background music. What’s impressive about the game is the way that its shifting visuals and music become a part of the complexity in a game that on the surface seems like just another block matching game.

There’s a great article by Ian Bogost over at Gamasutra that illustrates the difficulty in explaining why one block matching game is superior to another, “The truth is, it's hard to perform thoughtful criticism on puzzles, because they don't carry meaning in the way novels or films or oil paintings do” ("Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime", Gamasutra, 23 December 2009). The post contrasts Janet Murray’s interpretation of Tetris as analogous to overworked office culture to Markku Eskelinen’s analysis of the game as a formal system of rules and abstractions. What is the middle ground between the abstract and the formal when analyzing a game with no plot? Bogost contends, “The problem with the Murray/Eskelinen approach to abstract puzzle games is that one wants the game to function only narratively, the other wants it to function only formally. Neither is exactly right without the other. The problem seems to be this: the 'meaning' of an abstract puzzle game lies in a gap between its mechanics and its dynamics, rather than in one or the other.” Using Immanuel Kant’s two types of sublimity, the mathematical (sense of vastness) and the dynamic (sense of being overwhelmed), he argues that a puzzle game’s ability to induce these sensations in us is a far better gauge of their quality than something like ‘addiction’ or ‘pretty content’.

Lumines is more complex than the average block puzzle game because it uses a wider variety of techniques to induce both sublime sensations. The constantly changing music gives us a unique sense of vastness because there is always something to explore: the soundscape. Every level features new ways to create sound and music, which is complimented by the fact that you can only hear these tunes once you unlock them. It takes an otherwise normal game design and gives it a new layer of meaning because the content is opened with the player’s progression. By contrast, most puzzle games only offer increased difficulty the farther you progress or even add a story in the case of a hybrid like Puzzle Quest.

In terms of vastness, Lumines can be difficult in the usual way that Tetris is difficult as you frantically search for ways to complete a block and free up space. The game’s shifting visuals create difficulty because between the music becoming increasingly more chaotic, the shifting wallpapers, and the colors of the blocks becoming difficult to distinguish the game’s content adds another layer of challenge. Unlike Tetris or Dr. Mario, which just increases the speed or number of viruses to kill, Lumines uses its content to create difficulty in the design by subverting the way that the player engages with it.

To be specific, there are only two colored blocks on any level. This is a great feature for color blind players but is important designwise because once the screen becomes crowded you start to only register visual contrasts. The content will make this difficult because you’re eventually going to hit the levels where the visual spectrum is difficult to register when your eyes are racing across the screen. One of the hardest levels for me personally is a green/brown combination. Green squares have brown circles in them and vice-versa, which is really hard for me to manage because the colors don’t jump out like in other levels. Another is a crimson blue/silver combination. When you have to scan a huge, chaotic mass of blocks that aren’t registering, it is easy for the game to make you feel overwhelmed.

The interesting question that comes up when you apply an “overwhelming” analysis to a block puzzle game is how one is to account for mastering the system. Destroying the very sensation that seems to be appealing about these games is an intrinsic part of the experience. The thing about any block game, particularly line or shape ones, is that you learn to look for very specific patterns and how to plan for them. Every game is unique in this regard because of the shapes that you are looking for. In Art Style: Rotohex you look along a pie-shaped grid made of triangles to spot broken pizza shapes, Tetris gets you to see things in 4 block clusters, and Dr. Mario makes you focus on sequences of threes and twos. Lumines works the same way, and you’ll spend your first couple of play sessions fumbling around until you understand what patterns to look for. Having these different patterns is important because they suggest that each game requires the same amount of practice to master, meaning that preserving the overwhelming sensation from game to game is still essential.

Another great post, this time by 8-Bit Hacks breaks down a series of experiments to see how much skill transfer occurs from game to game. For example, can a person who is a master at Tetris use their spatial organization skills for something unrelated to the game? 8-Bit Hack, citing a study on this question, writes, “I've had to develop mastery of every spinoff falling block game on its own, from Puzzle Fighter to Puyo Puyo to Lumines, with very little carryover of skill. To this day, despite any skill I have in Tetris, some of my best friends can simply wipe the floor with me in Puzzle Fighter. The conclusion of the study is that the skills developed in mastery of Tetris result in an extremely specific form of expertise, but expertise nonetheless” ("The Tetris Trance", 8-bit hacks, 10 October 2008). Put another way, just because you’re good at one matching game does not mean that you’ll be good at another.

The post continues by citing several brain activity studies of people playing these games. Generally speaking, the more that you play and learn to recognize the shapes, the less brain activity that is going on. Everything has become subconscious; you no longer have to think but instead just act. The term the study uses for this is "automatic processing" or when your brain can reduce a task to lower brain functions, but the act of creating that little chunk of nerves and automatic reflexes is called neural plasticity. That’s when your brain hardens the newly created nerves and make the new skills automatic instead of requiring active concentration.

Which is all just a biological explanation for how a game like Lumines creates both a Kantian sense of sublimity and then engages us with overcoming it. The music, colors, and shapes all contribute to the overwhelming sense of vastness and danger as you lose each level from block overflow. Then, bit by bit, you learn to see the system and spot the patterns. Your brain begins to automatically register the nuances of the system, and you can move more quickly. Eventually, you’ll be able to keep up with the game at even the fastest speeds. The exploration of the soundscape helps to initially drive and motivate this learning process as you unlock music. Then you start challenging yourself to score higher or maybe try out the puzzle sections. Eventually, the game will no longer be able to offer an tangible sense of being overwhelmed. It will have all become automatic processing and your brain is no longer engaged in critical thought. Once that sense of the sublime, of being overwhelmed, goes away then it’s time to find a new game.

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