Wot I Think: Symphony

Empty Clip’s musical shooter, Symphony, is now out on Desura and the Steam game distribution service. It’s one of those clever inventions which allows you to use your own music collection to furnish its levels. So I peered into my whirry old hard-drives, picked out Bach and the Beastie Boys, and set to work telling you wot I think.

Symphony takes music files and processes them as a shoot ’em up. That’s the basic trick here. As the beats and melodies play, so waves of enemies arrive to be blasted to pieces by your neon wing-ship. This works particularly well as a manner of enjoying the kinds of electronic music that I favour, and I have to admit that I didn’t spend too long listening to the music that comes with Symphony – accomplished though it is – before I began to raid my own catalogue for satisfying tunes. Dayvan Cowboy was a particularly stirring theme for the exploding monorail I found myself on.

As a shooter it’s fast and largely satisfying – although I began to feel it needed a little more variety, particularly in the early stages. Although the background scrolls, it’s actually more of an arena in which enemies come in from the top and sides. Playing with a mouse makes it an incredibly twitchy experience, and you dart in and out of the chains of enemies to pick up the musical notes that they drop. These notes are your score, but also repair your ship if it gets damaged. The higher the score at the end of the track, the more you have to spend at the game’s shop.

Customising your ride takes the form of unlocking new weapons and abilities, and then tinkering with the ship itself. The unlocks give you new methods of exploding your enemies, and you can choose the angle that guns point out, meaning that you can work out the perfect fan of lasers and photon-rockets to spray the waves of baddies that you face. It’s sort of incidental to the experience, and I would have been fine with a traditional set of static unlocks as a I played, but I suppose it’s pleasing that the devs took the time to allow us to tweak and tune, so to speak.

Difficulty is spread across six levels, and you have to unlock these as you play. This generally increases the pace at which enemies are pumped into the level, and it rapidly becomes a fierce and sometimes frustrating challenge. As with all such games which rely on spectacularly visual noise to satisfy you sensually, one of the main issues is watching for things that might collide with and potentially destroy your craft. Cursing because you didn’t see that torpedo in the clouds of burning pixels is basically an inevitability. (A depressing inevitability.) Your craft can take a few hits, and be restored as you gather drops, but it’s still incredibly fragile versus the torrent and damage that comes your way.

There is, naturally, a parallel to be drawn with with the enormously popular Audiosurf, which turned your music into a sort of puzzle racing game hybrid thing. Symphony is, I would argue, far less interesting as a concept – and ultimately as an experience – than Audiosurf, and consequently I don’t imagine it will end up being anything like as popular. On a personal basis, though, I just find blowing things up, and the resulting scintillations of glitter-death, to be more satisfying as a game. Yeah, that’s probably somewhat contradictory, but interesting things can be less satisfying than simple, straightforward things. It’s all in the audio-visual feedback, I tell you.

Perhaps I am just wired too much in the direction of destruction and easy stimulation, but Symphony’s twitchy explosions, across anything from Beethoven to Boards Of Canada, left me mildly entranced. It’s the pace of the thing, and the responsiveness of it, that can satisfy. Even for novelty value, this is probably worth the few dollars you will pay. When it hits a sale, I expect your finger will be inexorably drawn to click that purchasing tractor beam.

Here’s a trailer of the game doing its thing:

One final thought: the “processing-music as game” notion is a brilliant one. Audio often entirely sells a game experience, and for it to work in this way seems magical. Sadly, what Symphony generates from its music – a predictable, if well-engineered shooter – isn’t actually inventive in itself. I would love to see this idea of music-as-level-seed furnish something a little more ambitious, or abstract, or something that didn’t follow the well-trodden neon-visual express. It’s this need for novelty and peculiarity which means that Audiosurf will likely be remembered for its take on this idea, while Symphony, I suspect, will not.

Symphony is out now.


  1. Narbotic says:

    Sadly, it appears I was born unable to enjoy music-generated games.
    Tho if you ask me what would be awesome, I might still say – “Music generated games!”

    • Askeladd says:

      The trick is to first have a unhealthy love for your music library, secondly be a gamer.
      A good algorithm transforms your beloved music into something that can be seen and experienced in a totally new way.

      If you still can’t comprehend try LSD.

      • Narbotic says:

        duly noted! Suppose I’ve yet to enjoy a good interpretation of Aphex Twin’s “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball”. Though Audiosurf did a pretty good job with Battles’ “Mirrored” album.

        Overall, the lack of predetermined structure & preset challenge leaves me unsatisfied with this genre. Would be nice to get over that hangup and just enjoy the fruits of said algorithmic craftsmanship.

        … have to look into that LCD stuff you mention.

      • wodin says:

        As a man who has taken many (maybe too many, lots of ohm, loved ohm I did) blotters with little pictures on in his youth I understand where your coming from, also an unhealthy love of your music collection and goes hand in hand with previous lsd use.

  2. aliksy says:

    How does it compare to Beat Hazard? I thought Beat Hazard was an interesting idea, but ended up being entirely too flashy, and it never really synchronized well with the music.

    Audiosurf remains in my ‘Favorites’ category on Steam, and probably always will.

    • medwards says:

      Agreed, I read

      There is, naturally, a parallel to be drawn with with the enormously popular Audiosurf,

      And thought “What about Beat Hazard?!”
      The gameplay is much more similar, but the link to the music was weak in that one. The gameplay in Audiosurf didn’t grab me, but at least it seems people are satisfied with how the music related to it. Thats what I’m missing in Beat Hazard and wouldn’t mind in this title.

      (but honestly, there isn’t anything here that a couple of Masters theses’ on algorithmic music analysis and BulletML couldn’t solve)

      • KDR_11k says:

        Beat Hazard was still moderately linked, of course with that gameplay style there’s only so much that can be done since the player actions aren’t timed to the music. I liked the handling of boss spawns, they always seemed to show up when the music hit an appropriate point.

      • tomnullpointer says:

        Oooh BulletML, Ooh algorithmic music analysis.. That sound like a challenge!
        Now, if i wasnt working on some other game atm……..

    • trjp says:

      It’s nowhere near the intensity and polish of Beat Hazard – but it’s still pretty decent/fun to play and a lot of what Beat Hazard is now, came from the feedback process Starg went through with Steam/other players – so who knows.

      Whether any true high-score competition will emerge remains to be seen – I’ve played about 30 tracks, all of which have active boards on AudioSurf and Beat Hazard, and I’m the only person listed for any of em Whether this is because it’s not good at matching similar tracks or whether it’s early days I’ve no idea – I need competition tho dammit – play Mastodon – NOW!

      • malkav11 says:

        Unless you’re playing super obscure music, I suspect the issue is actually that Audiosurf defaults to showing you how you compare to your friends unless you’re placing very high locally or globally.

    • povu says:

      Beat Hazard has improved with patches though. Early on the movement speed of enemy ships and asteroids were not affected by music, so you got completely screwed if there was a quiet bit in the middle of the song.

      That’s not the case anymore, and I think it matches the music quite well usually.

    • ZyloMarkIII says:

      I prefer Beat Hazard (Especially the Ultra Edition) over Audiosurf. To me, Audiosurf did not have enough game to keep me playing where as Beat Hazard did. Honestly, the Ultra Edition helped Beat Hazard immensely (the core game is nothing compared to Ultra).

  3. Assaf says:

    ooh, can’t wait to see how it handles skrillex or hardcore dubstep.

  4. Kaira- says:

    Also available on GOG for those interested.

    I have to say that I have a certain thing for these “turn music into game”-games, I loved Audiosurf immensely and this looks pretty damn nice too. I’m just afraid what kind of seizure-inducing things happen if I play this with my normal blastbeat-filled music… :D

    • RedViv says:

      It surely can’t be worse than Beat Hazard. I had to tone that one down to ~80% intensity. I’m really not made for club lighting.

      I also share that strange attraction towards this kind of gameplay generation. If someone were to combine tower defence, or even an action RPG, with this… Well, I’d throw money at the screen, as usual. But more of it.

      • trjp says:

        I consider BH a masterpiece – for me you can’t turn those effects up enough :)

        After an intense session I usually need to lie down for a while (some days)…

  5. Faldrath says:

    It’s funny, but Audiosurf for me only works in mono (one color) mode. I found it much more satisfying to just react to the music, which for some reason seemed to make me more focused on the music itself, than to be bothered to think about which colors to get, or what combos to make, in the actual “puzzle” modes.

    As for Symphony, a demo would be really nice. I tried Beat Hazard but it just didn’t feel right, somehow.

    • LXM says:

      Completely agree, I’ve put hours and hours into Audiosurf and, apart from a cursory glance at other modes, stick entirely to mono.

      None of these other ‘play your music’ style games have come close to actually making you feel like you’re a playing you’re music, it just ends up as typical background music with minimal effect on any gameplay.

      • Zeewolf says:

        Absolutely. Usually when someone complains about Audiosurf, I tell them to try Mono mode. It’s where the game really “clicks”, I feel.

      • KDR_11k says:

        The puzzle game is just too hard for me to handle, the game’s too fast for puzzle gameplay and all I can do is move randomly and hope I get lucky. Mono is the only one I can handle but it feels kinda uninteresting.

    • The First Door says:

      I couldn’t agree more. When I first started playing Audiosurf I thought it played like a slightly rubbish version of Klax and really couldn’t get into it. Mono mode clicks much better for me, but I still can’t get past thinking that if Audiosurf was an F-Zero style racer I would love it so much more.

    • wavedash says:

      I almost exclusively play mono Audiosurf. Except I use custom game modes to get Double Vision Pro with only one color and no greys.

  6. RobF says:

    I found it to be a very, very pretty visualiser with an entirely shit game there. Strip it of the pretties and you’re left with a terribly, terribly basic game where everything is too big, there’s no room to move around and nothing it does ever scrapes above elementary.

    No interesting patterns, it’s rare that you can draw a 1:1 with the music and the onscreen antics (at least Beat Hazard *tries* to get this right) so you just end up with a game where an oversized spaceship shoots some things that go left and right, sometimes down and sometimes go round in a circle but mainly just left and right and sometimes you’ll get hit by things you couldn’t avoid and sometimes it’ll drop frames like a shitter and you’ll get hit and lose points and then the round will end and the fireworks were ok I suppose.

    It is pretty. Very pretty. But god, I felt bored by my own music with it. The complete opposite of the “ooh, I wonder what this does!” of Audiosurf.

    Then there’s the severe case of promptitis. 25 screens to click through before you even get to start the game. Someone needs fucking shooting for that.

    • trjp says:

      I see where you’re coming from but I think you’re being a bit unfair.

      The ‘game’ is in unlocking weapons, customising your ship and opening-up the higher difficulty levels – as well as competing for highscores.

      It’s early days – not too many scores to compete again atm – we’ll have to see how that part of it goes I guess.

      • RobF says:

        …but I don’t really want to compete for high scores because the game doesn’t really give me an incentive to do so. I don’t really care for loot drops in games or just numbers going up, I want something (heck, not even -that- much) to cling onto that makes it worth playing.

        I’m not finding that here at all. If I wanted a metagame, I’d just play Progress Quest.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Heh. For someone to care about that, wouldn’t first have to find the basic gameplay to be sufficient?

        To me, all that is not why I play a game. If I do like a game it can help, though.

  7. eraserhead says:

    I’m disappointed. Somehow I was led to believe by the game’s tag line, that the attackers actually destroy the music you’ve selected: like add distortion or filter out frequencies and you have to “liberate” it. Meaning to keep the song complete and in high fidelity you have to shoot quickly. But if it’s just another shooter where enemy movement is somewhat synchronized to the music I’m not interested.

    • trjp says:

      There is some sort of music ‘corruption’ – I only know this because everyone was asking how to turn it off, I’d not actually noticed it :)

  8. bamboo_7 says:

    Just when I thought I couldn’t love this site anymore, he throws in a BOC reference.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      I read your comment and the one below. I was surprised I didn’t see it. So I scrolled up looking for it. Soon realising that you didn’t mean Blue Oyster Cult.

  9. Jackablade says:

    There are few gaming experiences anywhere as satisfying as loading up 65DaysOfStatic’s “I Swallowed Hard Like I Understood” in Audiosurf. It has the perfect balance of post-rock slow builds to massive crescendos generates to generate a brilliant rollercoaster.

    I’d love to see more games driven by the intensity of a piece of music.

  10. Kaishu says:

    Thumbs up for BOC

  11. trjp says:

    Picked-this-up on a whim and I’m enjoying it but it’s worth mentioning there are some problems right now.

    It has a serious addiction to CPU usage – it uses 100% of both cores of my CPU in the menus and 100% of 1 core when it’s alt-tabbed into the background – during the game I think it’s importing processing-power from Deep Blue or somewhere!? :)

    It also has some mouse lag/sync issues which I seem to have solved by choosing ‘VSYNC’ (off by default) – I’m guessing it might be because even on my lowly rig the game was playing at 200fps but other people have issues which VSYNC isn’t solving – including low fps, stuttering and CTDs (or even in some cases – not even running-itis).

    Issues with tag reading, non-European fonts and some other stuff top-that-off – all are being worked on – says the developer – so here’s hoping!

  12. magnus says:

    I like it , I thinks it deserves more attention,. I’ve been playing on and of for 4 hours and I’m not bored by it.

  13. dysphemism says:

    While we’re on the subject of music-generated games, and just in case anyone from Dejobaan is reading: I know you guys switched over to Unity mid-stream and all but… come on!

  14. jonfitt says:

    Is there a way to turn off those notes that fly out of your ship that seem to be purely visual? They looked really annoying in the trailer.

    • volcano_fl says:

      What you’re seeing there is the Subwoofer weapon you can unlock. Don’t like it, don’t use it!