How Thumper Made A Lot Of People Very Uncomfortable

A few games stood out at this year’s GDC Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and I’ll be highlighting them in some individual posts. First dibs must go to the opening game, one of the most peculiar experiences I can remember, Thumper [official site].

Despite appearing like a thinned down Audiosurf, Thumper… well, it was something else.

Thumper triggered my anxiety. The fluttering discomfort in my chest, the sense that something unplaceable is wrong, unease with the world. And I wasn’t alone. I looked at a developer sat next to me and said, “This isn’t okay, is it?” He shook his head. Afterward another person reported to me they’d watched someone unconsciously, slowly, raising their fingers to their ears. The atmosphere of turbulent disquiet in the room was palpable. And it was just a guy flying a beetle down a colourful track, to music.

Importantly, it was extremely well made. The game is about anticipating the beats, with extremely clever audio cues playing in, letting it be possible even at the ludicrous speeds your space beetle reaches. Obstacles also visibly arrive on your track in the far distance, rushing in from the sides, scraping and thumping their way onto the track.

Developer Marc Flury introduced Thumper as a “Rhythm violence game”, which I assumed to mean it was some sort of action or fighting game, using rhythm inputs. No no, no such thing. The violence – and blimey it did feel violent – was conveyed in the tone. Well, let’s see if the trailer can convey any of this:

It gets some of the way there. But only some.

As Flury showed sections of the game, he introduced how buttons had to be pressed as you passed over those white squares, hit others when whipping around those bends, and so on. All very ordinary, all very familiar. But already, things felt uncomfortable. That ultra-low bass, those brooding colours, the screams of electronica.

He continued, the game speeding up, the obstacles more challenging. And then, for a final display, with the sound cranked as high as they’d let it go, he played the game at full pelt for a good few minutes. And everything went weird.

It’s tough to justify. Brooding, growling bass sounds are a short-cut to getting a tummy-troubling reaction out of humans, for sure, and disappearing into tunnels of twisting colours has a hypnotic, quease-inducing effect, but it still doesn’t capture why Thumper was quite so affecting. And it wasn’t the horrific evil face that appeared at the end of the demonstration (you can catch a brief glimpse of it at the end of the trailer above), as the mood was set long before he loomed over us.

Flury managed to get a room of a thousand people to feel really damned weird. The morbid, twisting patterns, ominous thumping darkness, and furious punishing beats, all made things quite the time. People turned to look at each other, to assure themselves they weren’t the only ones feeling quite so uncomfortable. By the time it was over, the mood in the room exploded into enormous, perhaps slightly relieved, applause.

From this site

82 Comments

  1. EhexT says:

    Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re using those specific infra-sound frequencies that induce anxiety, fear and awe, intentionally or unintentionally.

    • padger says:

      Yep, that’s pretty common now, as per things like link to en.wikipedia.org performances.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        If so, will it actually work with average home speakers, or would it only have that effect in a big room with a meaty PA system as in the article?

        • Heliocentric says:

          It’s not about volume, it’s about frequency response, most mid-high performance headphones will be fine (anything wider than 20-20k).

          • airmikee says:

            No, it requires specialized equipment to reproduce those sounds like transmission line loudspeakers or a large pipe organ. Infrasounds are located in the 20 Hz down to 0.001 Hz, a range that most headphones and speakers are not capable or producing. And even at 96 decibels only 1 in 5 people will actually “hear” those sounds, Mythbusters covered the ‘brown note’ back in 2005 and failed to produce any significant results. Some people just won’t be affected by infrasound, even if they have the proper equipment to “hear” the noises.
            \

          • Heliocentric says:

            You just kinda double speaked yourself. Some domestic headphones can get down to 12hz which is a frequently accepted human minimum.

          • airmikee says:

            No, there was no doublespeak, though I’m sure your biases lead you to believe so because you’re convinced that people will be affected by infrasound through their home computer speakers. Go ahead and keep thinking that, I’ll just keep laughing. :)

          • Baines says:

            I didn’t watch that episode of Mythbusters, but if it was to their normal quality, there is a good chance that they didn’t actually prove anything. (Mythbusters is more focused on casual entertainment than any form of accurate testing. They take too many shortcuts, and end up with faulty tests and meaningless results.)

          • airmikee says:

            RE: Baines

            They’ve done that so many times you couldn’t list one example?

          • Phasma Felis says:

            I’d like to know what the frequency range they were actually producing was. Airmikee said that infrasound is defined down to 0.001 Hz, but that’s a pressure wave that cycles once every 17 minutes or so, and you’d need a sealed chamber and an air pump to produce that in atmosphere, not any kind of speaker no matter how large. So the question isn’t “can home speakers reproduce 0.001 Hz,” it’s “can home speakers reproduce whatever much higher frequency Thumper uses.”

          • airmikee says:

            RE: Baines

            Even if you so casually dismiss Mythbusters (check out the website to see the tons of footage and experiments that didn’t make it onto TV, then check out the forums where every little detail is hashed and rehashed until dead horses appreciate the break) here’s an article about a real study done in 2003 by the National Physical Laboratory in England and the University of Hetfordshire.

            link to nbcnews.com
            A 23 foot pipe used to create a 17hz sound in a concert hall for 750 people, and only 22% reported feeling uneasy when the sound was being produced behind the concert music.

            So again, I’ll say it most certainly does take specialized equipment in order to accurately produce synthetic infrasounds, and it has a minimal impact on a minority of the population.

          • airmikee says:

            And here’s another researcher dismissing the myths about infrasound.

            link to newscientist.com
            “Non-lethal acoustic weapons have yet to prove themselves in the field, though. “A lot has been written about their effects from tests in the 60s and 70s, and a lot of that is flatly wrong,” says Jürgen Altmann, an expert in these weapons at the University of Dortmund. Inaudible, low-frequency sound waves – infrasound – were claimed to induce nausea and even vomiting. But Altmann says there’s no reliable evidence for this.

            Using audible frequencies makes more sense, says the QinetiQ specialist. “Infrasound takes too much energy to propagate and you can’t steer it, while ultrasound is too easily absorbed and doesn’t do much anyway,” he says. “The [American Technologies] system would be extremely painful, and you’ve got a definite risk of causing permanent hearing loss.”

            In case you missed it, there’s no reliable evidence.

    • Donjo says:

      Sub bass frequencies are really interesting but speakers need to be fairly decent to accurately reproduce them. It’s possible that high end subwoofers were used for the demo, which would likely explain some of the weird feelings of unease described here, but most people won’t have access to that kind of tech.

  2. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    Hotline Miami the music game

    • jeeger says:

      Or maybe Aphex Twin – The Game? It does sound a lot like EDM, although with a bit of doom thrown in.

  3. AbsoluteShower says:

    Strange metal insects, hellish noises, assaulting visuals.

    Yeah, I can’t see myself playing this one.

    • Cinek says:

      I think this game would be a nightmare for epileptics. All these flashes, high speed and seizures-inducing sounds… this game and all it’s trailers should begin with a clear epilepsy warning.

    • rabitjunk says:

      Mmmm, you described the music I generally listen to. Definitely into this.

      • Groove says:

        It’s really exciting, electronica via death metal.

        If music lacks the capacity to make you feel upset then maybe it’s boring?

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    That is a touch disquieting as a trailer. I wonder how much of it is because it incorporates common musical cues for horror and violence from films?

    • All is Well says:

      But those cues are chosen for horror films because they’re disquieting, no?

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        I would expect it to be a self-reinforcing thing. A disquieting sound eventually becoming associated with a disquieting situation by repeated exposure and gaining strength that way.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        Look up stories about the first performances of “The Rite of Spring”.

  5. Kempston Wiggler says:

    WOOORM SIIIIGN!!!!

  6. gorgonaut says:

    I’m a very mellow person, but I really enjoy this sort of stimuli, combining dread and sudden, repeating sounds. The bits between the levels were the best part of the trailer for me.

    Kind of reminds me of the Superstimulus Chair I designed over course of a couple of years. It’s designed to stimulate all but the olfactory sense, flood the mind with endless, interconnected impulses. This game might just prove to be a great controlling element.

    It’s weird, I don’t particularly enjoy seizure-inducing anime, nor anime in general. I just like the feeling of being lost, hopeless, in a sea of experience. If that makes any sense?

    • SigmaCAT says:

      I’m not sure this can be linked to anime… But this sense of drowning vertigo, hopelessness is usually refered to as ilinx by game specialists, and I admit this vertigo is one of the main reasons I play videogames too.

      On a totally unrelated note, can I come visit and try the Chair?

      • gorgonaut says:

        Oh, I’m merely referring to the oft-flashing nature of certain anime stereotypes. I’ve yet to build the Chair, as I lack the necessary computer and electronic skills at this time. However, once this is corrected, you’re more than welcome to use the Chair! It’s like the Satan of sensory deprivation tanks.

      • gorgonaut says:

        Possibly!

        The missus describes the Chair as torture, but I believe it might serve to “detach” the mind from the body- at least for a little while. In today’s world, a good strong shock is a rare event.

    • stillwater says:

      Why not the olfactory sense? Seems like that would be easy to implement. I could come over and take care of that for you if you want.

      • gorgonaut says:

        I don’t think my budget would allow that large amounts of beans. Besides, the olfactory sense simply doesn’t react quickly enough to change. Smells tend to sort of sneak up on you, and that’s a whole other Chair.

  7. Matt_Ceb says:

    I think it kinds of gets down to musical preference. I tend to listen to dark ambient and dark IDM to bring myself down, and the trailer induced nothing but… Well… Positive anticipation in me. But it’s kind of something of an acquired taste, to be sure.

    for me, acts like Arbeit, Raison d’être, Lustmord, Gridlock, Bohren & der Club of Gore, Deutsch Nepal are… Well… “Music to relax to”. (Well, part of it. Prog-Rock and the whole Heavenly Voices/Ethereal as well as the “normal”/”light” Brian Edo kind of Ambient, too. Depends on the mood I want to chill to. ;) )

    • Ostymandias says:

      It is interesting you say that because for me, who enjoys a lot of what I would like to call “abstract music”, the trailer did next to nothing.

      Then again, my preferences are maybe more slanted towards the compact art drones of someone like Phill Niblock rather than the over-dramatic whirrs and bangs of the trailer. Visuals are all over the place… it completely lacks the elegance that makes dark ambient interesting.
      Its more like they made a game out of the trailer music for Battlefield 3 than out of a Lustmord album.

      (On this note I would really see someone make a game that takes cues from someone like Chris Watson or Jacob Kirkegaard. Field Recording Simulator 2016?)

      • qdot says:

        Having seeing Kirkegaard do Labrynthitis live in what was basically a large concrete structure, I’m not sure if the idea of that as game makes me excited or nauseated. That was a /rough/ show.

        • Ostymandias says:

          Where was this?
          I “saw” Thomas Köner at Norberg – a festival where the main stage is the huge concrete headframe of an old mine – in Sweden a couple of years ago. I was in this feverish half-asleep state for the entire duration of the concert. All the factors came together in a really good and bad way at the same time; lack of sleep the previous night, the late hour (two in the night or so), acoustics of the space being enormous and all concrete and metal.
          Can’t remember anything apart from the fact that I was there and it was very, very, very strange.

          Also it might not even have been Köner playing; could also have been Swedish dark ambient act Trepaneringsritualen.
          Yes, one of the best concerts I have been to.

      • Emeraude says:

        I’d kill for an exploration game focusing on sound on the the level of Chris Watson’s field recordings.

        There’s something there, yeah.

    • John Walker says:

      As I say, the trailer doesn’t capture it.

      • Xzi says:

        Hold up a sec. Ya’ll basically got a dubstep concert with awesome visuals for free? And you didn’t like it?

        Can I get hired on as RPS’ “Liason to Awesome Parties with Loud Music?” You know, the LtAPwLM? That position exists, right?

        • Xzi says:

          BTW, for a good time, match Tool to that last track pictured.

          xD

          • Nafu says:

            Constant over stimulation numbs me, but I would not want it any other way.

        • hamilcarp says:

          Not everyone appreciates dubsteps, you know. In fact, I have on good authority that some folks find it to be utter garbage and completely unlistenable.

          • Phasma Felis says:

            And boy howdy do they ever love to tell us all about it.

          • Jackablade says:

            The music in the clip is a far cry from anything that I’d call dubstep.

          • Xzi says:

            Yeah, they’re called old people.

            Said the 28-year-old.

            Seriously, though, dubstep and most forms of electronica are awesome. It’s all likely to get ruined in the future when pop artists infect it like they have with other genres, so now’s the best time to get into it, while it’s niche.

    • rabitjunk says:

      Of course you’re German :) You guys and the nordic countries make the best music. Haus Arafna, Theologian, Desiderii Marginis, Beyond Sensory Experience, Nordvargr are all very nice as well

    • airmikee says:

      Yeah, the trailer had an early years ‘VNV Nation’ sound to it, which I absolutely adore. It reminds me of the days when I’d blast ‘Skinny Puppy’ while playing ‘Wipeout’ on the PS1.

  8. faelnor says:

    The game looks and sounds tailor-made for me. Excited.

    • faelnor says:

      Or at least it would without the drug references that inevitably come with that kind of thing.

  9. Shazbut says:

    Couldn’t ask for better publicity than this. Sounds interesting

  10. wileman says:

    Gasper Noe’s Audiosurf.

  11. alexheretic says:

    …and then he showed us the brown note level

  12. peterako1989 says:

    I ah, I didn’t feel anything o.O

  13. ArtyFishal says:

    Sounds awesome! Finally, my kind of rhythm game!

  14. FireStorm1010 says:

    Veery psychodelic :). Interesting

  15. RaoulDuke says:

    Looks fantastic, Child of Eden wasn’t a very good successor to Rez for me because I hated the rhythm aspect of it so here’s hoping this will scratch a similar itch.

    On the topic of Anxiety – Have you tried Kratom, John? Great for anxiety, I was in a real state last year, but Kratom really helped at night, it even improved my IBS tons, I’m hardly ever sick in the mornings anymore, most likely due to Kratom’s behaviour as a “mu-opioid receptor agonist”, like morphine, which slows your guts down. Withdrawl from it is the same as from coffee.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    • RaoulDuke says:

      Bums, sorry I didn’t want to embed that YT video, feel free to break the link [if a mod reads this], I can’t edit the post to do it myself.

      p.s – What a violent-looking haircut…

  16. Joshua Northey says:

    What is disquieting about this other than the disharmony? I mean that isn’t exactly a new technique, see “The Rite of Spring” from the turn of the last century, or “Jaws” from almost 50 years ago.

    It is audiosurf with scary music and less pleasant visuals?

  17. Coldyham says:

    What horrific evil face? I only see a black screen. It’s.. it’s reflecting my face isn’t it.

  18. DXN says:

    Hell yes.

  19. loquee says:

    So Christopher Nolan and Vincenzo Natali made the first game for the Disney Healthy Living Digital Project with a Tron game about the dangers of VRexia and Audio Highs?

  20. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    There is absolutely nothing I like about this other than the inarguably pretty screenshots. The motion is jerky (albeit smoothily so), the music is of a sort I barely consider music, whatever themes are there are not my thing, I don’t particularly like rhythm/music games anymore (but I occasionally try them with hope), and I have an especially low opinion of Audio Surf and others like it. Also, I’d have walked out of that GDC room not fearful or anxious, but royally pissed off well before it was over due to being a Ferengi.

    After watching that trailer, though, I am massively looking forward to playing it. Goosebumps, huge smile, wide eyes, and an honest “woah” from me. There’s the prettiness, and then there’s its…being inarticulably different or something. And, for me, there’s that banana split effect where you combine delicious things to get something undelicious — but the complete opposite.

    Very glad it got such applause at the end of the exhibition!

    • Likethiss says:

      You watched the trailer and disliked everything, but still are massively looking forward to playing it? I dont quite understand.

      • Premium User Badge

        particlese says:

        Neither do I, honestly. I generally don’t like the individual components of it, but they all come together into something that excites me in a good way, and then I get a kick out of that non sequitur. *shrugs*

        Watching the trailer again still brings a smile and some chills, but I forgot to pick on those epileptic spirograph thingies before: They were mostly annoying and still are. Mostly.

  21. RPSGuest says:

    I thought that seemed familiar:

    Thumper strobing mandalas:
    link to youtube.com

    Enter the Void strobing opening credits:

  22. GallonOfAlan says:

    It’s sort of like a Jeff Minter game co-designed by Chris Cunningham, Aphex Twin and David Lynch.

  23. RagingLion says:

    Mellow things like The Album Leaf, Sigur Ros, GoGo Penguin are my musical mainstays but occassionally I need a hard steel edge to be forced onto my nerves with something like Prodigy’s Breathe or Firestarter. I think this could be my gaming Prodigy. I’m really loving the feel of it a wouldn’t enveloping myself in that for a while.

  24. Doganpc says:

    Someone finally made a dark rhythm game… Interesting. So far I like the concept it’s different and looks like it captures a different feel of game to Audiosurf, Symphony and Beat Hazard games I’ve played but ultimately dropped.

    My first thoughts actually were, “They finally made Gabber, a game.”

  25. Emeraude says:

    This one leaves me with my head scratching. I guess it’s one of those you *have* to play before you can judge.

    The way they link the gameplay with the actual sensory overload aesthetic is probably going what makes or breaks this for me. Eagerly waiting. Hopefully it’ll be available. So far it has potential, but I fear like the gameplay is going to be somewhat stale.

  26. Josh W says:

    I’m sure there must be a word for those words at the start of headlines that don’t need to be there, like “How” or “Why”, the articles that follow them generally don’t tell you how or why something happened, just that it did, and adding them tends to turn headlines into weird passive voice fragments, when they could just be punchy and more conventional english statements:

    “Thumper Made A Lot Of People Very Uncomfortable”

    I feel the same way about them as I do about adding “just got” randomly into titles.

    About the game, it looks quite cool, I heard from somewhere else that the game has a call and response structure, which sounds brilliant; the better rhythm games allow you to predict ahead based on the way they are transcribing the song into blips, and use your ears, rather than just having to look ahead, and remember what you did wrong.

    If they abandon familiar tunes for this game, and focus on making it possible to play perfectly with a tune you’ve never heard before, by actually responding to rhythm, then this could be pretty fun, closer to the kind of prediction loops of target leading in a shooter or enemy reading in a platformer.

  27. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    Coincidence, I have just been rewatching the trailer for David Fincher’s version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Film was a bit of a letdown, but damn, that trailer!

    link to youtube.com

    If the clip doesn’t appear above – how do you embed YT clips in comment posts? Just “a href”?

  28. boorch says:

    i visited drool’s website and found out it’s a 2 person team and one of them is the bass player of Lightning Bolt!

  29. airmikee says:

    link to youtu.be

    There’s another video of the gameplay without being focused on the music, and I’ll admit to being excited for the game. It really does have that F-Zero/Wipeout feel, but it looks absolutely gorgeous.

  30. Herabek says:

    I wasn’t particularly interested in this game before, but now I have to get it. Fascinating effect.