Synesthetic Games: Press Start to Hear Turquoise

March 17, 2010 at 5:04 pm 2 comments

When reading reviews of games such as Rez or Everyday Shooter, a common descriptive word keeps popping up: “synesthetic.”  Upon first seeing this I was both confused and intrigued – how exactly does a game skew my perspective enough that my senses blend together, or at least blur at the edges, without the use of hallucinogenic drugs?  The answer, in short, is that they don’t.  Why then do game reviewers continue using the term?  Is this a simple case of misuse or am I simply taking the expression too literally?  Well, don’t call up the Vocab Division of the Grammar Police just yet.  Though it may be a misnomer, the term “synesthetic game” effectively captures the spirit of what the games strive to do: that is, encourage the player to experience music in a different way.

This goal manifests itself in a number of different ways and across a variety of genres.  Whether you are playing a shoot-em-up where every sound is created with a guitar, or a racing / rhythm hybrid choreographed to the songs from your own music library, you get a sense of immersion unique to the synesthetic experiment.  Play Bit.Trip Core enough and you even start to see the game screen in a different way (not to mention develop a nasty case of the Tetris effect – damn those infectious beeps).  This immersion in turn lends itself to relaxing games such as Flower and Music Catch, where lazy sweeps of the mouse (or controller) reward you with pleasant soundscapes.  (These games, coincidently, contain only the slightest vestiges of scoring and player goals – presenting an immersive experience is the whole point.)  On the other end of the spectrum, the Bit.Trip games and Everyday Shooter can be brutally difficult, but the music serves as an invaluable tool to clue you in on things happening in game.  The difficulty serves as a cattle prod to get you to pay attention to the songs in a context that isn’t simply background music.  In many cases, this becomes instinctual, and having your subconscious take over serves to draw you in even further.  (Returning to Bit.Trip Core, there were times that I was unable to visually decipher the stream of pixels approaching me, and frantically pressed a series of directions without consciously knowing why – success in this regard is a strange and unique feeling of accomplishment.)

These qualities alone make the games worthwhile experiences, but more interesting, I think, is the view ahead.  As music-related technology improves and developers’ experimentation continues, what will the synesthetic game of 2015 look like?  How about 2020?  While Audiosurf was a great game in its own right, it still relied on a set of simple rules to generate content from any given song – how awesome would it be with better procedurally-generated algorithms?  The Bit.Trip series was a great bare-bones collection of musical interactivity, but what if you joined that with equally trippy and atmospheric graphics?  Games may be a long way from getting us to taste the screen sideways, but the ride sure looks fun.

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