The 12 Games of Christmas: Audiosurf

Whatever could be beneath that tasteful festive wrapping paper? It might be a shiny red bicycle, or a Scaletrix set, or perhaps a partially asphyxiated puppy. It’s probably some sort of videogame, though. Be a bit silly if not, really.

So, for the fifth game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me…


Yep, it’s Audiosurf. Ho ho ho, etc. Let’s all celebrate by playing Basshunter’s horrific version of Jingle Bells in it. Also, by typing lots of words about it.


Three cups of coffee downed: I need to be as alert as I’ve ever been. Headphones donned: the neighbours cannot hear what I’m about to do, so very many times. Cat thrown out: there must be no risk of keyboard-pouncing or cursor-chasing. Knuckles cracked, jaw gritted, glasses polished, brow furrowed. This is it. I’m coming home, to Wuthering, Wuthering Heights.

Herein hangs a tale. February was defined by Audiosurf, the MP3 visualiser/match 3 curio that wormed into the minds of anyone with an ounce of genuine passion for music. My installation of it has sat dormant for months now, but February? February was The Bush Wars. A contest of wills and skills between myself, Kieron, and a handful of readers who got the game and got the joke. Nothing fancy – just Mono Pro, the simple hit-the-colours, dodge-the-greys reflex mode. An endless battle for the highest score.

The readers eventually beat us both, of course. The readers will always beat us. We put them out of our minds: this was about honour amongst hacks. I heard Mad Kate singing Wuthering Heights so, so many times – both in the game, and in my sleep. February was Audiosurf. That’s the only time this year that happened – November wasn’t really Left 4 Dead, September wasn’t really World of Goo. They happened in those months, but they didn’t define them. The Bush Wars consumed February.

Now I’m going back. Hanging over me are fears I’d exhausted Audiosurf’s single trick, and the stinging criticisms of those who don’t like it. Will I find a game I’m bored of, or worse, will I be too aware of what’s behind its curtain? In a brief to and fro about the merits of this years’ big games, I sneered “Audiosurf is better than Far Cry 2” at Jim. His response was a terse “No – music is better than Far Cry 2.” This was a variant of the main angle of attack most of Audiosurf’s detractors take – it’s a game that’s only as good as the MP3s you put into it, and not much of a game itself. I only like it, the argument goes, because I like listening to music.

Coffee downed, headphones donned, cat thrown out. Out on the winding, windy moors we’d roll and fall in green. Mad Kate’s shrill wail will forever be associated with Audiosurf for me now – whenever I hear it, I see coloured blocks and neon scenery, somehow the perfect video for this absurd, melodramatic Bronte musical. By the first chorus, I know Jim is wrong. Muted colours and a gentle stagger surge into vibrancy and speed as it hits, and I get that same rush of adrenaline I do when, say, my Heavy’s on a Team Fortress 2 rampage.

My mousehand twitches back and forth, the rest of me motionless bar an insistent nod to the beat of the song. I hit colours and I edge past greys, and honestly, I have no idea what relation this act, the core game at Audiosurf’s heart, has to the song. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Either way, it’s enough – my point of connection to Mad Kate’s escalatory yowl. By themselves, the spectacular colours and the giddying undulation of the track – that latter most definitely matched to the music – would be just a visualisation.

With me at the mouse, skating for points, associating particular snatches of the song with particularly tricky blocks, knowing exactly the point that the track switches from intense challenge into a euphoric victory run (it’s where Mad Kate finally lets the words go in favour of crazed howling: “it’s so co-oh-oh-ohlllyeaaaaaaaaah”), it’s definitely a game and not a gimmick. Wuthering Heights isn’t just a soundtrack – it’s a level, a map I recognise as wholly as I do 2 Forts or Q3DM17. I’m plugged in and at the wheel, with every block I miss a punch to the stomach, a mark of my own inadequacy.

Try as I might though, I just can’t beat quite my own high score from 10 months ago. I’ll be back, Bush.


Alec is completely right. And also best – much to my horror, after playing through Wuthering Heights for both the first time in months and the kerzillionith time, I find him a few hundred points ahead of me. And I’m already reaching for the replay button, before I realise a small pleasure – my first run was actually my best ever. Crikey. Quit when I’m ahead and go play another level.

Alec’s talked about the odd sense of topography a much-played song has. They’re levels in a literal sense – that curling rush of red sweeping up to the almost-too-much second chorus of Wuthering Heights. But it’s almost more than that – it turns something as prosaic as my hard-drive file layout into something as familiar and romantic in my imagination as the layout of Skara Brae in The Bard’s Tale, that initial rush in CS_Dust or the open hall of Thief: Deadly Shadow’s the Cradle. I find myself smiling in recognition when I see that Kait0’s Go! Is still the track above

And even after all the months, after a game we played to death, there’s still some fresh ground to be struck. I play The Young Marble Giants’ Final Day on a whim and find that I’m the only person in the entire world who’s ever play it. Which is understandable, as a post-rock fragile classic of nuclear-war alienation doesn’t exactly scream PLAY ME!!!!, but it’s still got that sense of discovery. As in, no-one in the world knew what this level would be like before I played it. This is a novelty. This was for me.

(Don’t try it, by the way. As anyone who may suspect from its organ drone, muted guitars and single frail voice, it’s not very good)

But while Final Day failed as a level, it worked in another way. Audiosurf excels, especially in its mono modes, as a music magnifier. Since you’re paying such close attention to the record, you’re actually listening in a pure and clear way which no-one does often enough in the everyday busy life. I get chills to Final Day for the first time ever. On some records, it works brilliantly – I drop Death To Los Campesinos and I feel giddy, confused and desperate. I play Kait0’s Go for old time’s sake, and it’s this shouty rollercoaster. And… I know I’ve said before that Wuthering Heights once brought tears to my eyes at one of that previously mentioned rush of red into the corner, yeah? What I haven’t said is that it happens about half the time. Frankly, if you have any kind of physical response to music, Audiosurf is the equivalent of the process that turns Cocaine into Crack.

In other words, people noting that it relies on music for its appeal as pointless a quibble as noting that a deathmatch arena is boring if you’re running around by yourself. Similarly “it’s not a brilliant game” falls on deaf ears – maybe it isn’t a brilliant game. But whatever Audiosurf is, it’s a brilliant example of. And it’s one of the sorts of experience that makes me suspect that whatever we describe as videogames is, in fact, a smaller subset of a much larger field of human experiences. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

I also love that it made Dylan Fitterer a whole bunch of money. Because happy endings are the best kind of endings.


  1. Smee says:

    Q3DM17. Great fucking level.

  2. Larington says:

    Coincidentally, I’ve been listening to Kate Bush today and not merely the ones everyone knows about, since theres actually quite a few not-so-well-known songs shes done which actually, I quite like.

    Balls, and now I’ve gone and started re-installing it, and its all your fault RPS…

  3. Ian says:

    I still haven’t played Audiosurf.

    Am I a bad person?

  4. Heliocentric says:

    I’ve just been listening to kate bush. Through the air vent. She’s showering now.

  5. Down Rodeo says:

    I played Audiosurf a fair bit recently. It’s very fun. The feeling when you play a song no-one else has is pretty awesome. And when you hit the number one in the world; that is quite awesome too. But then losing that top spot… I know it sounds like I am some kind of points whore but I see that as an added bonus. Playing the tracks themselves is nice.

    Also, very nice writeup Alec. Rather flowery prose but then it is that kind of song (shamefully that was the first time I had heard it; when you guys were all talking about this back in February I was very confused).

  6. Pags says:

    Kate Bush was one of the first artists linked to the Rock, Paper, Shotgun group because of this.

  7. mejobloggs says:

    I couldn’t get into this game. It never felt I was playing the music which I think is what it’s meant to be?

    It felt like I was listening to music while playing some random collect-the-blocks game

  8. manintheshack says:

    ‘It felt like I was listening to music while playing some random collect-the-blocks game’

    Yeah, that’s all I felt too. Even on beat heavy songs sometimes it didn’t seem to tie in. I’d rather play Guitar Hero to be honest. At least you get to pretend that you’re amazingly talented at the same time.

  9. Flint says:

    I love Audiosurf and I want to play it more but the computer crashes I’ve had while playing it have made me too scared to play it despite knowing how to avoid the crashing (turn off sound effects).

  10. Saflo says:

    I tried the demo twice and just can’t seem to “get” it. Also it makes me feel like I’m going to have a seizure.

  11. Smurfy says:

    Electronic Arts is coming to Steam. :O


    Audiosurf is always good.

  12. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    I’ve been playing this again recently too, after having decided to take the title of the One Life Left album literally. It’s still rather good stuff. It also struck me that in terms of bang per buck, it’s probably the game I’ve gotten most value out of over the past year.

  13. cyrenic says:

    All “high score” games should have the same amount of granularity that Audiosurf has. No matter how narrowed down the category is, seeing your name as #1 feels great.

  14. Goose says:

    I still play it to this day. In fact, Mono Pro is my favourite way to listen to a new album for the first time. Its not a difficult play mode, and it gives my eyes something to do while the rest of me just absorbs the music. Its a very zen thing. Except for last night…

    I got my hands on Sylvie’s new album, Trees And Shade Are Our Only Fences, and gave that a spin last night. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of them, they’re really only known in Canadian indie-rock circles, or amongst their home town of Regina. Either way, the album is great, but they managed to find just the right sound to send Audiosurf into non-stop redline mode for a good deal of their songs. No album I’ve ever played (and there’s been about 50 by now) has been that harsh. The blocks were the reddest shade of red possible, and the tracks were solid downward slopes with some incredibly fast and harsh turns. Its kinda odd actually, because the music itself isn’t especially harsh or fast in the least.

    What I’m saying is if you think you’re good at Audiosurf, get yourself Sylvie’s latest album and rethink that assumption. The fact that the album totally rocks socks is also a bonus.

  15. chesh says:

    Almost everything I play has no scores, because no one likes the music I listen to :(
    (I highly recommend Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, by the way. And dubstep can be good if you are looking to relax a bit before bed.)

  16. Xercies says:

    The greatest pleasure I got was finding out people were playing some of the J-Pop tunes(yeah I said it) i was, I didn’t manage to beat them though. But its a weird experience, also some J-pop tunes are really exciting in Audiosurf.

  17. luminosity says:

    The best thing about Audiosurf to me is that it elevates music very much to my attention. Normally, I’ll listen to music as a background to something else and it’ll slowly fade out of my notice. I just can’t listen to music and not find my mind wandering. But Audiosurf demands just enough attention to stop my mind from wandering, while still allowing me to pay attention to music the whole way through.

    It’s now my favourite way to decide whether or not an album is worth buying.

  18. Dave says:

    I totally didn’t get into Audiosurf and I am a huge music geek. I was hoping for something like Frequency or Amplitude or dare I say even Rez.

    It felt too much like what I did was irrelevant, and the score was just too abstract.

  19. AlexW says:

    The seizure-o-matic is great fun. I’m really glad I snagged it when it was on sale on Steam for under £2, because there are those times that you just want to sit back and have a little taste of an acid trip with great music to accompany it.

    I find that it usually does replicate the song being played well, as long as you pay attention to everything. The pulsing of the lines in the background, the blinking stars that appear over the track, the blocks themselves and occasionally the slope of the track itself, because if you just pay attention to the blocks you can pick up you’ll only be getting part of it.

    It’s nice to see just how many people like playing things like OCRemixes, too. I wonder if I should try plugging in that old Wil Wheaton PAX keynote speech to see whether anyone’s ever been crazy enough to play it…

    And best of all, it’s the only game released in recent memory that I can crank up to full settings and have a mostly smooth framerate on. Huzzah for small victories.

  20. Riotpoll says:

    @Goose; A lot of the tracks on Korpiklaani (Finnish folk-metal) albums are like that, it’s amazing what the accordion in the background does!

    Also I love Audiosurf.

  21. Mil says:

    Kate Bush scares me. A lot.

  22. Arathain says:

    I was very pleased to find a bunch of people playing the tracks from the Cave Story Remix Project, ’cause some of those work very well.

  23. Orin says:

    I’ve been playing Audiosurf at least one night a week since I bought it, right when it was released (usually more–though the “one night a week” is usually for several hours). It’s definitely my relaxation. And somehow serves as an excellent excuse to keep all of my music around.

  24. jonfitt says:

    Audiosurf is much more about the music than the Guitar Hero games. In a Guitar Hero game when the track peaks it can get difficult and frustrating, but when a track goes up to 11 in Audiosurf it like riding a crazy wave of Awesome.

    You also have the sense of exploration: Has anyone tried this track yet? Will it be great?

    Plus I could give two hoots about a lot of the Metal in the Guitar Hero games, I don’t recall seeing Kate Bush in there.

  25. Joe Bot says:

    I haven’t played this game in months. However, I remember the great thrill it gave me the first time I ran through a level with my friend. We got into doing the split personality, or mirror mode or whatever, because you can do it two players. Great times.

    Once we got over that initial awesomeness though, we discovered something Amazing: We started loading sound effects into the game.

    You ever surf the sound of a train rushing by, a printing press hard at work or the sound of a waterfall? And yes, the sound of a waterfall does feel just like falling off a waterfall.

    Machine gun fire, baby crying, tree falling over, the opening scene from the matrix, anything goes!

    I love audio surf.

  26. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:


    *whispers* I know, right? */whispers*

  27. Stromko says:

    Kate Bush scares and intrigues me. She’s like The Witch but hot.

  28. Alex says:

    I maintain that the two best tracks for Audiosurf are The Hives – Tick Tick Boom and Bloc Party – Flux. Anyone who can do the latter on Ninja Mono without hitting a single grey block is clearly some manner of deity, and I will start a cult worshipping them. It’s just one big, wonderful string of reds, and playing it is gloriously masochistic.

  29. Mickiscoole says:

    Katamari on the rock. You will play no other songs after playing this one.

  30. Pidesco says:

    You know, as big a fan as I am of Audiosurf, I still think Mr Rossignol is absolutely right. Disregarding the ability to play it with any song you want, it really isn’t a very good game. I say this mostly because, for the vast majority of songs, it creates racetracks that have bugger all to do with the source material, which takes away a whole lot from the “I’m riding my songs” sensation.

    Also, the interface and the feature set are complete crap, especially for a game that has been released a year ago and which is supposed to have constant support. It doesn’t support playlists, you can’t randomize songs, you can’t play a series of songs on the fly without stopping, the scores for the different game modes aren’t separated and the song picking interface is completely, utterly retarded, especially for someone like me who has all his songs on a single folder. Also, as far as I know, the community has been asking for most of these features since the game’s release release and they still have yet to do anything about it.

  31. malkav11 says:

    Honestly, I’m not into the high score grind. For things other people listen to, it’s mostly just a way to really tune into the music for me. But there’s a distinct joy in finding tracks to try that no one else has.

  32. drewski says:

    Such a shame it’s only available on Steam.

  33. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    I just realized that, theoretically, it’s possible to Audiosurf an RPS podcast.

  34. James T says:

    Kate Bush scares me. A lot.

    It’s the teleporting. She’s like Dhalsim.

  35. ascagnel says:

    I’m lilblackdemon in the game. Add me. I want to be your friend.

  36. Munken says:

    My friend had to stop playing this when any drug just made him hallucinate audiosurf

  37. Shakey Lo says:

    I pre-ordered Audiosurf, got it on release, and still play it almost daily. These days I play it more than TF2.

    For a bit of fun, put this file into your Steam/SteamApps/common/audiosurf/engine/render folder. Then pick a song and run it in Freeride mode!

  38. Iain says:

    Audiosurf is pretty darned close to the top of my favourite games of the year list, too. Iggy Pop + Ninja Mono = AWESOME.

  39. Brian says:

    Audiosurf is my game of the year. I could never have guessed $10 could be so valuable.

  40. Free Flash Games says:

    I’m tyushtye in the game. Add me.

  41. Jay says:

    “wormed into the minds of anyone with an ounce of genuine passion for music.”

    …And colour vision. Seriously, how hard is it to add an option to overlay bricks with shapes? Makes Peggle playable. This has got to be hands down the easiest way to increase your audience, and next to no one can be bothered to add the neccesary five lines of extra code.

    For shame, Audiosurf. For shame.

  42. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Did you try playing any of the mono modes? You only need to differentiate between greys and the coloured blocks, which also regularly pulsate, there.

  43. Kieron Gillen says:

    Stromko: RPS concurs.


  44. Jay says:

    Mono was a bit of an improvement, but there’s still a “Is that grey, or does it just look grey?” decision to be made before every move, which doesn’t work wonders for your scores.

  45. Krupo says:

    I was never much of a mono fan. Loading up now to play Death to Los Campesinos!, though :)

  46. Psychopomp says:

    I stand by my belief that Gone by The Tea Party is the best song to play on Audiosurf.

    Seriously, why is the folky/orchestral part at the end so damn HARD?

  47. Max says:

    I sort of enjoy audiosurf. I love Guitar Hero and the whole concept of music-based games but a lot of the time I definitely had the feeling that I was just listening to music while playing a not-particularly-interesting match 3 game.

    In fact, I was really excited about the game when I first heard about it but I didn’t actually discover that it was a match 3 game until I played it for the first time (I preordered). It was one of the biggest letdowns of the year for me. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t that.

    Still, I like audiosurf. Playing double vision with a friend is definitely one of the best gaming experiences of the year.