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.