Thumper, Language, and One Hell of a VR Trip

I’ve actually written a weird amount about rhythm games this year, considering I’ve played like three of them in my entire life.  I talked about how Guitar Hero’s incredibly simple mechanics let the player fantasize about being a rock star, and how Runner2 used multiple, reactive audio tracks to create a sense of flow in gameplay.  But recently, I picked up a virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive, and among a litany of legitimately innovating experiments and half-assed Steam games, I found Thumper, a rhythm game that’s mechanically traditional, but incredibly unique in exactly how it executes on those simpler ideas.  Those details and simple aesthetic choices make an enormous difference in the player’s experience, despite, on a superficial level, resembling Runner2 or Guitar Hero, but when I tried to put those differences into words, I found myself struggling to do so.  Runner2 and Guitar Hero can be wickedly difficult on higher settings, but the average player experience is much more relaxed.  Those games are less about pixel-perfect technical execution and more about creating a musical experience.  Thumper, by contrast, requires hyperawareness…pretty much constantly.  In Guitar Hero, you can make a lot of mistakes and still finish the song with a respectable score.  In fact, hitting every note in a song is a fairly impressive achievement if the player is on an appropriate difficulty level.  In Thumper, if you make two mistakes, it’s game over.  That rule alone is responsible for perhaps the majority of the game’s tension, since the player always feels like they are a split-second away from crashing in an explosive display of lights and distorted audio tracks.  This feeling is further intensified after the player has made their first mistake, but the game does give the player a chance to recover their armor (that absorbs the first hit) if they correctly execute a sequence of obstacles.  Thus, the player doesn’t feel like they’re irreparably damaged an individual run if they just mess up once.  Other attributes of the game contribute to this hostile tone, from the sinister feel of the music to the cosmic horror of the unexplained creatures, shapes, and environments the player faces.  The world of Thumper feels like a perilous journey into a twisted, Lovecraftian hell, and the player is shown that from the game’s highest level to its lowest.

This brings me to what I’ve found the most interesting about Thumper: it’s complete separation from language.  The game has little in the way of on-screen tutorial prompts, so the player develops their own internal lexicon for the game’s features.  This dovetails nicely with the game’s complete focus on the improvise stage of what Extra Credits calls the “plan, practice improvise” types of play.  The game doesn’t ask you to build any high-level strategies at all, in fact, each moment is almost entirely disconnected from the previous one.  All that matters is if you have missed a note.  The game has combo meters and score counters, but the player isn’t forming high-level strategies about how to engage with the scoring system, as the correct response to any given situation is always obvious.  Each obstacle in the game world has exactly one correct response, and the player is given points based on if they perform that correctly or not.  Every one of these moments is almost entirely self-contained, and demands a level of quick reaction that prevents much in the way of planning.  This creates an experience where the player’s focus is entirely on the immediate present; they aren’t even expected to look at the obstacles ahead of them.  Any form of hesitation, of removal of thought from the present, can lead to instant death, training the player quickly to reach a state of laser-focus.  This prevents the player from reaching any sort of linguistic grounding.  Other games might give the player time to plan a strategy cognitively, for example, a player of Rainbow Six Siege might think, “Okay, I’m going to beach this wall, then run around to the other side and shoot the enemies while they are focused on the wall I just breached.”  This extra time for planning gives the player a space to repeatedly think about the game abstractly, coming up with words for specific game pieces or inventing them on their own.  Thumper, by contrast, prevents the player from planning or thinking about the game abstractly and thus prevents them from having the time to develop terms or concepts independent of each individual moment of play.  If you want to think about Thumper at a high level, you need to do it when you’re not playing the game, which makes it very difficult to talk about, because so much of it happens at the lowest possible level.  There are times where I execute moves in the game and do not have any conscious memory of doing so; it’s pure, muscular reaction.  Games rarely get me to think about my physical actions at such a low level, and Thumper does this by asking me to barely think at all.  This is enhanced by the game’s virtual reality support, which removes the player’s peripheral vision and any other stimuli except the game in front of them.  Despite being such a physiological experience, this makes Thumper a strangely immerse one, leading to the player feeling like they are this strange beetle ship, flying down a twisted path at a million miles an hour.  A decent amount has been written about zen in games, most prominently by designer Ian Bogost, and Thumper does approach this, but it feels more similar to the sense of “oneness with the game” that high level players describe when talking about more physiological arcade titles.  Jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow perhaps described this best when explaining why he found the early Atari title, Breakout, so addicting: “Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.”  If Thumper could be reduced to a single sentence, this would be it, and while I’ve struggled with reaching this state with other games, I achieve it effortlessly within seconds of firing up Thumper.  The player isn’t asked to understand the game in any way but the physiological, leaving language behind with the rest of their conscious thoughts.  The final result is the player becoming consciously aware of their sense of self slipping away, replaced by a sensory deprivation VR trip that messily projects them onto an abstract game world.  I am nowhere near good enough to complete Thumper’s final levels, but I can fire up the game, put on my headset, and, within seconds, feel that “whole new plane of being”.  As a designer, that is incredibly difficult to pull off.

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