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I took the best music of 2018 and played it all in 2008’s best rhythm game, Audiosurf

A party for every one

Featured post A small futureship drives over some musical notes because it feels good.

As we rapidly approach the end of the year, it’s time for everyone to look back over the past twelve months of stuff and turn it into neat little lists of what was best. Like games, yes, but also telly and photos and, as we shall see, music. After all, is there a better way of celebrating the end of the year than to take 10 of the finest tunes of 2018 and run them through the finest rhythm game of 2008? I certainly can’t think of anything. Let’s Audiosurf.

“I Like It” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin

My journey begins with a verified banger. Audiosurf reinterprets music as neon-lit rollercoaster tracks that you ride along in a little hover car. The beats are transformed into blocks for you to scoop up or dodge. It takes that drop most dancefloor-ready songs are built around, and makes it literal.

The thing I’d never realised about “I Like It”, though, is that there is no real drop to speak of. It’s an intoxicating cocktail of trap and salsa, ideas and genres layered one on top of another. But with the exception of the choruses, which get pleasingly frantic with the sheer number of beats on screen, that doesn’t really translate through Audiosurf’s decade-old algorithms. The result is not, to borrow a phrase from Cardi, the hot tamale I had expected.

“Out of My Head” by Chvrches and Wednesday Campanella

Meanwhile, this has no such problem. Audiosurf’s most basic trick is breaking tracks into build-up – indicated by a gradual upward climb of cooler colours, and a racing release with swooping descents and hot reds.

“Out of My Head” is all release. A relentless downhill slalom throughout, it’s probably the fastest track I’ve ever seen this rhythm ‘em up generate. It perfectly sums up how I feel about the song – the pairing of J-Pop and S-Lec trios (that’s Scottish Electro, a genre I just made up) is a great big nitro injection to the usual Chvrches sound.

“Between the Breaths” by Mitski and Xiu Xiu

Other times, the game’s interpretation of a song comes as a complete surprise. Between the woozy synths and Mitski’s airy delivery, I’ve spent the year thinking of “Between the Breaths” as something ethereal, perhaps even floaty.

Audiosurf reveals it as an irresistible headrush, a single oasis of calm in the entire six-minute track. And the thing is: the game is right and I was wrong. It even pinpoints my favourite moment of the song (Mitski somehow yelling in a whisper, “scream in my mouth, I’ll barely hear you”) as the bit where the whole thing accelerates into hyperspace.

“Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monae

It pulls a similar trick with this one. The whole song is a tribute to Prince (possibly because the Purple One himself worked on it before he passed) but the single best moment is when it goes full “Kiss”, and the beat concertinas into a quickfire stutter. Here, it’s like driving over the speed-boost arrows on a Mario Kart track.

“Suspirium” by Thom Yorke

The game’s interpretation of tracks isn’t always so spot-on. This track is a stark piano-driven lament that, for personal reasons, makes me think about bereavement and grieving.

Except in Audiosurf, where it’s a nippy little number, your ship skimming happily across the surface of Yorke’s brittle voice. I’m sure this is faithful to the BPM and such, but it just doesn’t feel right. I do get a pretty good score on it, though, so at least there’s that.

“Hands on You” by Ashley Monroe

Next up, the single horniest country song I have ever heard. Acoustic guitar and “mm-hmm”s might not sound like the most obvious fit for the game’s slightly Tron-ish aesthetic, but apparently sexiness is a detectable parameter, and the generated track retains that telltale swing in its hips.

One of the great things about Audiosurf is the way it forces you to be alone with a song, something that’s even more valuable today than it was a decade ago, with a hundred things constantly vying for our attention. I prefer to play on Mono, the game’s most basic mode, because it commands my fingers and parts of my brain but leaves just enough space that I can appreciate the details of songs I’ve never noticed before (unless I’m being catapulted down the sheer face of a Chvrches track). For example, the reverb at the beginning of “Hands on Me”. A trace of the room where it was recorded, I suppose, but in the white vacuum of an Audiosurf level, it’s like the song is resonating out into infinity.

“Pat Earrings” by CASISDEAD

Some tracks feel purpose-built for this game. “Pat Earrings” sounds like it’s from the soundtrack to a version of Drive where Ryan Gosling is burning round the estate in a beat-up Citroën and every song is being blasted out of the tape deck.

It begins, as the track creaks into existence, with a nice slow ramp-up of the kind you get before a big dip on a rollercoaster. And then I crest the hill, and just ride the wave for three-and-a-half minutes, until it reaches its destination – the song ebbing away in a section that feels like overtaking on the M40, except the motorway is strangely undulating and I’m driving a little anti-gravity ship parping out blasts of colour. A voice, low in the mix, echoes out a final “trafficking freight”. It’s perfect.

“In My View” by Young Fathers

Meanwhile, this deploys the secret weapon of any Audiosurf track: drums. Pushed to the front of the mix, it creates a more obvious correlation between what you’re doing and the playing of the music. The Guitar Hero method, basically. What I like about this game is that, most of the time, it’s not about playing air guitar as much as exploring the synaesthetic space of a song.

But, hey, when it works, it undeniably works. Every block I hit feels like it’s contributing to the music, putting stick to taut drum. I don’t drive any more, but Audiosurf confirms a suspicion that “In My View” would be great foot-down-on-the-accelerator music.

“Wu Tang Forever” by Logic

The flip side of generating tracks out of instrumentation is that the game can struggle with hip-hop, where the beat tends to loop so that MCs have a fixed tempo to rap over. That’s true of “Wu Tang Forever”, an eight-minute epic reuniting all the surviving members of the Clan. Whoever’s currently got the mic, weaving their unique lyrical stylings over the top, the underlying beat remains pretty much consistent throughout.

Luckily, that beat kicks hard. Each note is placed on the crest of a little wave, which falls on the ‘Tang’ of a “Wu-TANG! Wu-TANG!” chant. Before long, I’m playing one-handed, my other arm in the air as I act as my own private hype man. Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!

For all its limitations, Audiosurf is a game that has stuck with me – even when I go years between playing – because at its best it can do the same thing good music writing does. It opens up a song and shows you the structure, the details, everything that makes it good but may not be immediately accessible.

“Party for One” by Carly Rae Jepsen

Like, I know instinctively that this is a perfectly-crafted piece of pop music. But the game makes it tangible. Before you play each track, it shows you a preview map of the highs, the lows, the creamy middles. In the case of “Party for One”, this map is almost everything I need to know. There’s a gradual build, a small release, a huge peak in the middle, a valley, a final climb – and then a dizzying rush downward for the big finale. It’s the anatomy of the perfect three-minute pop song, laid out in graph form.

And then I play it, and it’s perfect. It shows off everything Audiosurf does well: the rhythmic towel-flick waves connecting each beat, a smooth banking turn that brings a neat line of coloured blocks suddenly into sight, the climb to an inevitable drop, tunnels of rings each syncing up perfectly with a ‘woo-woo’ or ‘ahh-ahh-ahh’.

There are sections where the track moves too fast for conscious thought. I’m zooming ahead like Luke down the Death Star trench, and have to switch off my mental targeting computer and operate on pure instinct. And moments of relief, the bits where, on a dancefloor, you’d take a pull from the drink you’ve been waving around at head height for the past couple of minutes.

It actually makes me a little sad to think no one’s here to share in it. Audiosurf’s high-score boards, once the game’s beating heart, are now empty – a monument to a genre that never really was, the bring-your-own-tunes music game. What remains of the community, if there is any, seems to have clustered around the last embers of warmth, on tracks that came packaged with the game (and of course, that old standard of rhythm games, “Through the Fire and Flames”) rather than anything released in the past twelve months. All of these tracks have been parties for one.

But wait… There’s another name on the score board. LollyHolly999, you beauty. This is my own personal version of the moment everyone talks about in Journey, where you encounter the one other human player on those lone and level sands. LollyHolly’s score is far beyond the reach of my clumsy fingers, but it doesn’t matter – it’s a sign I’m not alone in the world.

This settles it. I’m not sure if it’s my song of the year, necessarily, but Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party for One” is the undisputed Best Audiosurf Track of 2018. Just the kind of accolade CRJ was hoping for when she wrote it, I’m sure.

Alex made a Spotify playlist of all these songs, and it would be stupid not to offer you that handy link.

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