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RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 22nd: Thumper



Behind door 22 of our Advent Calendar, which celebrates the year's best games, you'll find the best music game of 2016. It's Thumper [official site].

Pip: My Thumper story is that I thought I was bad at it so I set it aside for a while, then I came back and it seemed to have clicked into place and I became an AMAZING THUMPER PLAYER. By which I mean I became a mediocre Thumper player but good enough to feel the brilliant synergy of its audio, its level design and its aesthetic. I've also noticed that on every strong beat where I need to make my scarab beetle jump that I tense my stomach muscles in a kind of miniature version of a crunch. I am now wondering whether I can pass Thumper sessions off as minor exercise.

Anyway. Rhythm action games only really sing when they have that beautiful synergy that I mentioned before. I find that I need to be aiming at perfection. Maybe not obsessively and maybe not immediately – sometimes it's enough to just know that a perfect playthrough could exist, where you hit every beat and prompt and sail through the whole thing like some kind of chrome beetle GODDESS.

Thumper has that. I can imagine how it feels to get through a stage untainted by error. That's what I'll probably chase. One single, flawless run of a level. I did it with Earth, Wind and Fire's September in Donkey Konga and DAMNIT I will be a perfect beetle for one level of Thumper.

Graham: I've played rhythm games on winding tracks before - AudioSurf, of course - but Thumper is put together in such a way that I can't tell how it's been put together. How does it do those backgrounds? How have they built these geometric shapes? What are shaders and camera effects and what are constructed from polygons?

And why do I feel like I'm itchy on the inside? If American Truck Simulator is uniformly the most relaxing time I have doing anything, then Thumper feels like being trapped inside a David Fincher opening credits sequence. Grinding metal and pounding rhythm and disturbing imagery and the gnawing sense that something bad is about to happen.

I like that feeling. It is the feeling of something good happening.

Alec: Dang, Graham beat me to the observation that Thumper is the anti-American Truck Simulator. Both are about roads, but where one is about drifting away, the other is about being there in the moment, hyper-aware, acutely present in every micro-second. Thumper takes me over completely, the nightmare psychedelia of its art and the disturbingly living-feeling music breaking down the barriers between me and the game.

Back when VR was new, we talked often about the moments of disassociation when the headset was removed and reality returned. I don’t have that with VR anymore - the awe has faded, the consciousness that I’m playing videogames with something on my face is always there. Thumper, though? When I exit it, the world always feels wrong for a while.

I think differently, I respond differently while playing Thumper - it rewires my brain for a short while. It’s necessary, to play the thing well. At first, it seems impossible, even in the initial, slower, easier tracks. Not much later, that state of mind is absolute and I’m coping with I would never have believed I could. What an expert creation Thumper is, in every way.

Alice: I don't know how I got here. Something went wrong. I'm supposed to be in the universe where we live underwater and video games look and sound like Thumper and Devil Daggers. I'm here. And I don't know if I'll ever find my way home. I am so grateful to Thumper for giving my guts a brief experience of the roiling turmoil they should be in all the time. It feels right.

Adam: When I get into the zone on Thumper, I'm invincible. A perfect beetle. The only time I’ve ever had that feeling in a competitive environment outside a computer game was playing tennis as a teenager. I wasn’t very good but every now and then I’d transcend my own crappiness and just lock into the court, reading the trajectory of the ball and moving my body and racquet into position without thinking.

I can’t pretend to understand how Thumper creates a headspace that I can fully occupy - it’s a combination of music, rhythmic connections between track design and sound, and the pulsating graphics - but it’s astonishing.

What’s most remarkable is that it still unnerves me. I can be one with the music and the track, doing just fine, but suddenly I feel an itching in the back of my skull and want to look over my shoulder to make sure the walls haven’t closed in on me. Reading back just now, I notice that Graham mentioned 'itching on the inside' as well. That both of us had that feeling convinces me that Thumper really does get under the skin.

Horrifyingly good.

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