ZA Critique: Rez HD

A break down of the pioneering and still unsurpassed emergent music game Rez.

From Rez, SEGA

Last year’s release ofRez HD on the Xbox Live marked a return for what was one of the best cult classics for Dreamcast and PS2. Inspired by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthesia style, it attempts to make literal Kandinsky’s declaration that “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” This statement refers to his belief that when he observed colors he could hear literal sounds in his mind, that a painting could produce music the same way an instrument can. The game is an exercise in abstractions contrasted with technology, a mixture of ambiguous art and an electronic style of music that creates the experience of playing a musical instrument as a game. It is just as much ahead of its time today as it was in 2001 when it was first released.

From Rez, SEGA

Lead designer Tetsuya Miziguchi explains on the game's website, “The look is a conscious choice. Current games are a little too real now - there's no room for interpretation. But I think Rez is an experience, so I didn't want to put lifelike graphics in it.” This aesthetic makes the decision to place the game inside a virtual, Tron-like environment all the more interesting: it is a world that is recognizable yet abstract. It’s a world where anything can happen without breaking the suspension of disbelief. The terminology of the game fleshes this out in tiny details. You “log-in” to areas and analyze your opponents to deconstruct them. In the upper left corner, a constant stream of numbers and data reminds you that your conduct is only one layer of representation for your actions. There is a numerical equivalent of programming language as well. The final bosses at the end of each level are “firewalls” and the white spheres that unlock new music are “password protectors." The player’s own avatar in this game is also one of the game’s masterstrokes. Starting off as a blocky human figure, gaining health will allow your form to develop into a more defined human shape that constantly pulses with the rhythm. Ascend to the next level and your avatar assumes the lotus position, continuing to hack in perfect meditative concentration. Rise another level and you become a glowing sphere, much like when you’re at the lowest health level, showing that the player has come full circle and returned to their primal form within the network.

From Rez, SEGA

The game is designed as a simplified rail shooter like Panzer Dragoon. The difference is that you no longer need to worry about moving yourself around to dodge attacks or buildings. All of your attention can be focused on what’s going on around your avatar. The emphasis is on shooting down enemy fire, collecting health bonuses, and trying to delete all the programs around you. Each level is a forward moving experience that fleshes out the music in a variety of ways. The white blocks or “password protectors” can be shot down to add another layer of music to the background. This will also brighten the visuals and add more color to everything around you. The player can potentially beat a level without upgrading music or color, making these details emergent rather than linear. To fire, you hold down the A button and lock on to enemies, up to 8 at a time, and release A to fire. Locking on creates the sound of a cymbal tap while impact creates an electronic sound combined with each individual enemy producing their own unique sound when destroyed. Many of the final bosses are coordinated to produce a specific series of sounds to make them unique musical experiences. These sounds grow in pitch or vary in other ways depending on your health level. This is how the game creates an emergent music system: create a background track that is progressing based on player input combined with smaller, scattered musical moments that complement the track.

From Rez, SEGA

As many YouTube commenters have pointed out when watching the videos, the music itself is interesting because it isn’t necessarily good by itself. The beats and soundscape do not make for traditional house or techno music. This is because the musicians who were selected specialize in live performances. Groups such as Coldcut, JouJouka, and Adam Freeland became popular by putting on spectacular light and video shows to accompany their music. In many ways not enjoying the music while just listening to it is more a compliment than an insult. As a superb write-up on the game at Go Violet explains, “Though the player’s attention weaves around the soundscape, rarely is the music created consciously and directly. Rez is a shooter, but this is as much for emotional reasons - few genres are more visceral or appeal more directly to the emotions - as for gameplay ones.”

The first four levels have architecture inspired by four different cultures: Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India. For the most part, these cultures act as backgrounds or loose visual references, but it is in the final level that the game is at its best when it creates its own version of a Biblical Genesis. Having arguably the best music in the entire game, the last level is a reimagining of the entire creation myth. As you increase each level, small blurbs of text will appear starting with, “Ages ago, life was born in the primitive seas.” As you advance through the level, small bits of life appear in the background and come onto land. Continuing to evolve in reflection to the myth, the music becomes louder and more complex. When struck enemies will Intermittently chant the Frank Herbert quote, “Fear is the mind killer.” The purpose of the final battle is to rescue a sentient A.I., Eden, that has become self-aware and yet cannot see the purpose of existence.

From Q3, Q Entertainment

Since the game’s release there have been several new emergent music games that work in a similar manner and yet none of them strike quite the right balance between difficulty and generating music. By keeping everything focused purely on your surroundings instead of your location, the game generates its challenge by being entirely optional. Beating the first four levels is a manageable affair, but the final epic level can only be unlocked if the player scores 100% on each level. This scoring system is based in part on a multiplier system so that when the player locks on to 5 units the score from each defeated enemy is multiplied by 5. In order to get a high score, players will memorize the location of enemies and figure out ways to coordinate the best combos to get the highest scores. This combines with the different ways that you can play the game: direct assault has you playing every level in a row, individual play has you play for just one level, or travel mode, which makes you invulnerable. The consequence of this system is that enjoying the music and beating the levels without any concern for your score is a perfectly valid way to play the game. The game design presents options for a player looking for a challenge and unlocking the fifth level is quite difficult, but it doesn’t hold it against the lazy player either. Rez is a game where the music comes first, the challenge second.

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