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Wot I Think: THUMPER

Antisurf

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THUMPER is knives in my skull.
THUMPER is fire in my veins.
THUMPER is the driving beat that has no beat, inhuman rhythm, a bug-eyed dance that starts in the shoulders, moves to the jaw, ends in a chin thrust mechanically forward with murderous intent.
THUMPER is a descent into Hell that transforms into liberation.
THUMPER is/is not a music game.
THUMPER is the videogame you should play today.

Fractal shapes, metallic hues, undulating road to nowhere, a midnight Beyond forever surrounding it: the hallmarks of the rhythmic racer, from Wipeout to Rez to Audiosurf, that ongoing attempt to interpret the auditory as something visual. But where those games chase euphoria, THUMPER is interested in the sickly place between anxiety and drive. Its abstract tracks and surrealistic landscapes are not looping celebrations of synaesthetic psychedelia but instead some industrial vision of hell, Daft Punk parsed through a Sisters of Mercy filter.

THUMPER is evil.

THUMPER is a triumph because it is evil.

Its sounds grind and boom and quake, do something to the belly, tweak nerves along the spinal cord, create an overwhelming sensation that I am about to be murdered. Or perhaps that I am about to commit a murder.

Yet there is no murder. All I do is watch myself – transformed on my screen into a giant insect – be carried at speed along a hovering path through scenes of a Winamp visualiser sent from a hell dimension. When there is an obstacle, I slam a button to turn to one armoured side, or another button to woodlouse-roll against it, or another to hover briefly above it, or increasingly all of these things in heartbeat-quick procession, constantly. Like all the best rythmic racers, success – or rather survival – comes from that formless mid-point between reflex and prediction. My mind is trained as I play, from the anxiety and the fumbled keypresses of the earliest, quietest stages into a near-psychic flow of dodging sustained danger. I began THUMPER terrified of my presumed inability to cope with what it was bound to ask of me before too long, but such is THUMPER’s insistence, so effective its arrhythmic rhythm that I became capable of great things. Fast, furious, forever.

The scoreboards will say otherwise, of course. My hodge-podge of C, B and A-ratings will be dust on the heels of those legions scoring perfect Ss – never colliding, never missing the optional pick-ups placed in the pico-seconds between obstacles, taking down the bosses of whom I shall talk of shortly without suffering any damage. I leave those scoreboards to the olypmians of videogames, to those who take heart from besting others. I don’t need that, and THUMPER does not demand that I need it. My journey in THUMPER is my journey.

Hell, my early anxiety transforming from queasy fear into sure conviction that I can do this. Do I mean to escape Hell? I don’t know anymore. I think maybe I like it too much here. I prefer to remain some spirit of steel-shelled vengeance racing through its veins, fuelled by brimstone. Fuelled by that music, that music.

Is it always the same music? If it’s not, it’s always a variant upon the same industrial opus, some sprawling, shifting epic bastard child of Nine Inch Nails and Vangelis and Future Sound Of London. I cannot find the beat if I stop and listen for it, because the beat only comes if I hit the right buttons, therefore the beat only exists inside me and as such I do not know if it really exists at all. There’s a grind, there’s, yes, a thump, when I slam here or scour there, but it only happens because I will to it happen. I construct this music, this soundtrack from my own actions, and it is always the same and yet it never repeats. It is always my soundtrack.

Without my action it is deeply unsettling, the almost sub-audible boom of some unseen reality collapsing. In my first hour I felt paranoid, alone and scared. To watch and hear another play Thumper is to feel fear itself. To play it is to feel the determination of a sledgehammer hitting granite again and again. In my second hour and onwards I felt like a vengeful god. And once in a while, there was a lull. Beauty. Synths and calm, a burst of sunlight through the tar-black clouds, a chance to admire how perfectly beautiful THUMPER is, before the storm begins in earnest.

The storm. The boss. It does not – cannot – attack directly, though surely at least some of those obstacles, those steel walls, those spiked barriers, those icy hoops, are its doing. I must defeat it to continue onwards. I must concentrate my reaction/anticipation into concentrated patterns of behaviour, sliding then, slamming now, flying then. Specific combinations that, if done without error, ultimately lead to one particular slam on a green highlight that fires, does damage to that oncoming storm. Debris fills my world, briefly. But the thing’s still there. Do it again. Four times, usually. When I do: it is dead and I am not, and I am proud.

THUMPER is magnificent, and THUMPER is evil. It is a snarling inversion of the dancing-around-the-candles, toe-tapping euphoria that is the lifeblood of those music racing games it seems to ape. Make no mistake, it becomes euphoria, but that euphoria is earned, not given. It is the euphoria of survival and of dancing in solitary anger, not happy fellowship.

THUMPER, with its minimum of menus and explanation and guidance is absolutely pure, to the point that those who do not enjoy its light-from-darkness aesthetic will think it too small, to samey, too one-note, too much about the same sound playing forever. Perhaps it really can offer nothing to those people, or perhaps accepting that is it very fucking sincerely intended to be the same state of mind held for an eternity will let it seep into their veins after all. For the rest of us, let it take its place alongside Devil Daggers, reigning in hell.

THUMPER is the videogame you should play today.

Thumper is out now for Windows via Steam.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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