Music month: Audiosurf

When reading music and video game criticism, you’ll often come across the word “space.” For music, space is what exudes from the new Bats for Lashes album; it is the standard operating procedure of artists like Pantha du Prince. Space in video games is more ambiguous, though it can be used to denote the textual and mechanical repercussions of objects in a three-dimensional world. Audiosurf‘s greatest strength is its fusion of these forms–it is the only rhythm game that accurately places the player in a visual simulation of a song’s aural space.

The game consists of literal tracks, quickly constructed representatives of the player’s music library. Spatially, everything around the track is white noise: while colors explode according to the blocks you gather, the emphasis is on the song’s digital makeup. Far from static, the tracks rise, bob, and contort according to the pace and beat of the song–hence the waves implied by the title. Games like Beat Hazard attempt to introduce rising action to crescendos in order to provide a sense of progression, but the impact of such moments is drastically limited to specific genres and beats per minute. So far, only Audiosurf has been able to intuit the undulating rhythms of rap, the sporadic reaching-out of jazz, or even the careful, unwavering 4/4 of the best pop songs. Like the music you play, it has soul.

While similar games tend to focus on whatever instrument is higher in the mix, Audiosurf seems to take into account the many timbres that make up a song. The result can be overwhelming in faster, busier songs, as blocks of every color attack you en masse. Admittedly, close attention to these instances can diminish the thoroughness of the game’s puzzle element, and players can lose sight of the song’s relationship to the track they are playing. But more often than not, the blocks arrive in perfect timing with the accents of the pieces at play. Even more exciting is when the game introduces you to a small corner of a song you’ve never noticed before, no matter how many times you’ve listened to it. I’ve a pet theory when it comes to music appreciation, and it is devilishly simple: you can’t know a song until you’ve played it on Audiosurf.

Of course, words only go so far in explaining the benefits of a system that are best experienced personally. Rhythm games seem to lack dedicated criticism for this very reason, as the best arguments are internalized, however minutely, the moment the player begins in earnest. So I’ve decided to compile a short list of songs that, in my experience, best typify the various strengths traced above. Brendan Keogh and Mattie Brice have made similar lists–entire mixtapes, in fact!–so check those out before reading mine.

Robyn – “Dancing On My Own”

“Dancing On My Own” might as well be Audiosurf 101. In-game, the track is just as wobbly as the bass, and the blast of that inescapable snare inundates the player with the feeling of riding waves into oblivion. Few songs allow for such transparency in the game’s mechanics, and I would suggest naysayers to play “Dancing On My Own” before discounting Audiosurf‘s capabilities.

The song also makes a strong case for gaming as performance art: like the transcendental dancing of the lyrics, playing Audiosurf by your lonesome can distract from the pains of heartbreak. If you’re open to it, gliding into and around colored blocks can be a healing experience. The track builds upon the mounting energy of the song, sending the player down a steep cliff just as the song reaches its inimitable climax. There might be better Robyn songs, but “Dancing On My Own” is the perfect litmus test for the game’s ability to reinforce a song’s message and widen the emotional impact of pop.

The Joy Formidable – “Cradle”

Last month, Critical Distance asked bloggers if games were uniquely suited to instill fear in the player. I couldn’t think of a satisfactory answer, and I still waver from time to time in my judgment. I do, however, believe that beyond all else, video games are uniquely suited to promote and permeate unabashed joy. To discover this, look no further than the Joy Formidable.

Playing “Cradle” on Audiosurf is much like partaking in the song’s video: it’s quick, nauseating, and there is endless smiling. Exhilarating experiences abound in Audiosurf, causing many to compare the tracks to that of a rollercoaster, but this one in particular hits like a truck. Don’t worry, though–the song’s length makes sure you’ll be off the ride before you sick up.

65daysofstatic – “Crash Tactics”

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Kendrick Lamar – “Fuck Your Ethnicity”

Two things stand out about this song: 1) the way the game picks up the spoken intro, even the crackling fire in the background and 2) the piano hook that anchors the song in place. Rap is one of my favorite genres to play in Audiosurf, largely because repeated samples make for an interesting motif in-game, and also because of the way the game creates variety through syncopation. There are plenty of Kendrick Lamar songs that are challenging for the player both mechanically and mentally, and these can be contrasted with the laid back styles of play which the game enables through rappers such as, say, Curren$y. Plus, the lyrics are interesting and Kendrick’s constantly changing voice is hypnotizing, so you won’t get bored as you try over and over again to get the top score.

It was worth it.

Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down”

Like “Dancing On My Own,” Audiosurf treats the Dum Dum Girls’ “Coming Down” literally–for most of the song, the player will be spiraling downhill. What makes the experience memorable is the surprising tempo: rather than following the intentionally delayed beat set by the drums, the game’s speeding hurdles create an increasingly stressful atmosphere that mirrors the song’s refrain. The brief respites and valleys emphasize the weight of Dee Dee’s lyrics, always signalling a challenge ahead. For players and for the band, there is no peace until it’s over, leaving us to question whether we’ve performed admirably on our descent.

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