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The 12 Games of Christmas: Audiosurf

Whatever could be beneath that tasteful festive wrapping paper? It might be a shiny red bicycle, or a Scaletrix set, or perhaps a partially asphyxiated puppy. It's probably some sort of videogame, though. Be a bit silly if not, really.

So, for the fifth game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me...


Yep, it's Audiosurf. Ho ho ho, etc. Let's all celebrate by playing Basshunter's horrific version of Jingle Bells in it. Also, by typing lots of words about it.


Three cups of coffee downed: I need to be as alert as I've ever been. Headphones donned: the neighbours cannot hear what I’m about to do, so very many times. Cat thrown out: there must be no risk of keyboard-pouncing or cursor-chasing. Knuckles cracked, jaw gritted, glasses polished, brow furrowed. This is it. I’m coming home, to Wuthering, Wuthering Heights.

Herein hangs a tale. February was defined by Audiosurf, the MP3 visualiser/match 3 curio that wormed into the minds of anyone with an ounce of genuine passion for music. My installation of it has sat dormant for months now, but February? February was The Bush Wars. A contest of wills and skills between myself, Kieron, and a handful of readers who got the game and got the joke. Nothing fancy – just Mono Pro, the simple hit-the-colours, dodge-the-greys reflex mode. An endless battle for the highest score.

The readers eventually beat us both, of course. The readers will always beat us. We put them out of our minds: this was about honour amongst hacks. I heard Mad Kate singing Wuthering Heights so, so many times – both in the game, and in my sleep. February was Audiosurf. That’s the only time this year that happened – November wasn’t really Left 4 Dead, September wasn’t really World of Goo. They happened in those months, but they didn’t define them. The Bush Wars consumed February.

Now I’m going back. Hanging over me are fears I’d exhausted Audiosurf’s single trick, and the stinging criticisms of those who don’t like it. Will I find a game I’m bored of, or worse, will I be too aware of what’s behind its curtain? In a brief to and fro about the merits of this years’ big games, I sneered “Audiosurf is better than Far Cry 2” at Jim. His response was a terse “No - music is better than Far Cry 2.” This was a variant of the main angle of attack most of Audiosurf’s detractors take – it’s a game that’s only as good as the MP3s you put into it, and not much of a game itself. I only like it, the argument goes, because I like listening to music.

Coffee downed, headphones donned, cat thrown out. Out on the winding, windy moors we'd roll and fall in green. Mad Kate’s shrill wail will forever be associated with Audiosurf for me now – whenever I hear it, I see coloured blocks and neon scenery, somehow the perfect video for this absurd, melodramatic Bronte musical. By the first chorus, I know Jim is wrong. Muted colours and a gentle stagger surge into vibrancy and speed as it hits, and I get that same rush of adrenaline I do when, say, my Heavy’s on a Team Fortress 2 rampage.

My mousehand twitches back and forth, the rest of me motionless bar an insistent nod to the beat of the song. I hit colours and I edge past greys, and honestly, I have no idea what relation this act, the core game at Audiosurf’s heart, has to the song. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Either way, it’s enough – my point of connection to Mad Kate’s escalatory yowl. By themselves, the spectacular colours and the giddying undulation of the track - that latter most definitely matched to the music – would be just a visualisation.

With me at the mouse, skating for points, associating particular snatches of the song with particularly tricky blocks, knowing exactly the point that the track switches from intense challenge into a euphoric victory run (it’s where Mad Kate finally lets the words go in favour of crazed howling: “it’s so co-oh-oh-ohlllyeaaaaaaaaah”), it’s definitely a game and not a gimmick. Wuthering Heights isn’t just a soundtrack – it’s a level, a map I recognise as wholly as I do 2 Forts or Q3DM17. I’m plugged in and at the wheel, with every block I miss a punch to the stomach, a mark of my own inadequacy.

Try as I might though, I just can’t beat quite my own high score from 10 months ago. I’ll be back, Bush.

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Alec is completely right. And also best – much to my horror, after playing through Wuthering Heights for both the first time in months and the kerzillionith time, I find him a few hundred points ahead of me. And I'm already reaching for the replay button, before I realise a small pleasure – my first run was actually my best ever. Crikey. Quit when I'm ahead and go play another level.

Alec's talked about the odd sense of topography a much-played song has. They're levels in a literal sense – that curling rush of red sweeping up to the almost-too-much second chorus of Wuthering Heights. But it's almost more than that – it turns something as prosaic as my hard-drive file layout into something as familiar and romantic in my imagination as the layout of Skara Brae in The Bard's Tale, that initial rush in CS_Dust or the open hall of Thief: Deadly Shadow's the Cradle. I find myself smiling in recognition when I see that Kait0's Go! Is still the track above

And even after all the months, after a game we played to death, there's still some fresh ground to be struck. I play The Young Marble Giants' Final Day on a whim and find that I'm the only person in the entire world who's ever play it. Which is understandable, as a post-rock fragile classic of nuclear-war alienation doesn't exactly scream PLAY ME!!!!, but it's still got that sense of discovery. As in, no-one in the world knew what this level would be like before I played it. This is a novelty. This was for me.

(Don't try it, by the way. As anyone who may suspect from its organ drone, muted guitars and single frail voice, it's not very good)

But while Final Day failed as a level, it worked in another way. Audiosurf excels, especially in its mono modes, as a music magnifier. Since you're paying such close attention to the record, you're actually listening in a pure and clear way which no-one does often enough in the everyday busy life. I get chills to Final Day for the first time ever. On some records, it works brilliantly – I drop Death To Los Campesinos and I feel giddy, confused and desperate. I play Kait0's Go for old time's sake, and it's this shouty rollercoaster. And... I know I've said before that Wuthering Heights once brought tears to my eyes at one of that previously mentioned rush of red into the corner, yeah? What I haven't said is that it happens about half the time. Frankly, if you have any kind of physical response to music, Audiosurf is the equivalent of the process that turns Cocaine into Crack.

In other words, people noting that it relies on music for its appeal as pointless a quibble as noting that a deathmatch arena is boring if you're running around by yourself. Similarly "it's not a brilliant game" falls on deaf ears – maybe it isn't a brilliant game. But whatever Audiosurf is, it's a brilliant example of. And it's one of the sorts of experience that makes me suspect that whatever we describe as videogames is, in fact, a smaller subset of a much larger field of human experiences. And we shouldn't be afraid of that.

I also love that it made Dylan Fitterer a whole bunch of money. Because happy endings are the best kind of endings.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.