Thumper is ever so slightly terrifying. Taking the striking visual palate and abstract stylings of Tron, and pushing them in a direction that is simultaneously digital and viral, Giger-esque in the way it renders its backgrounds and monsters. It's a rhythm game along the lines of Audiosurf, but without any of the pleasantries. It's brash and abrasive, in a good way.
Nominated for Excellence in Audio in this years IGF Main Competition, it's not difficult to see why; it's married a vivid and powerful score with frenetic and tense rhythm action elements, so that the two are inextricably linked. You're stuck to a track, hoovering up and dodging different elements as they come at you, but it's the interaction between what you're hearing and what you're seeing that pushes it beyond the simplicity of that description.
As part of our Road to IGF series of interviews, we talk to Marc Flury and Brian Gibson, who make up the development studio Drool, about the development of Thumper, and the process of developing an audio track that is so essential to how their game works.
What is your background making games?
We’ve both worked in games for over ten years. We've contributed to a long list of games while working at Harmonix.
What development tools did you use?
For almost everything, we use a custom engine and editor. We use FMOD for runtime audio.
How long have you been working on the game?
Since 2009! We spent a lot of time building our engine and working our day jobs.
How did you come up with the concept?
First, we thought about how music games can feel schizophrenic. Often the soundtrack exists in a different universe from the gameplay universe. We thought about a more unified experience. Also, music games typically have a weightless and spaceless feeling and we wanted to make one with an intense sensation of speed and physicality. So we built a tool for authoring gameplay and audio together in a simple and modular way. We experimented with our tool and let the game grow out of it.
Are there any particular difficulties when composing a soundtrack that directly corresponds to gameplay?
We try to limit the distinction between music and sound effects. That makes it easier. If you think of percussive instruments, they are just two solid objects hitting each other. In our gameplay, there are many collisions between objects and we use them as musical opportunities. In most games (and films), the soundtrack has two distinct layers. There are things that happen on screen within the “story space,” and things that happen off screen, outside the story space. We try to put as much of our audio inside the story space as possible.
A source of inspiration is David Lynch's '77 film Eraserhead. The soundtrack almost entirely emerges from ominous drones and rumbles from the film’s industrial setting. It's hard to distinguish between the soundtrack and the sound effects. It creates a mood that is unique and palpable.
Thumper's artistic design is incredibly vivid, with the audio sounding just as beautifully aggressive. Was it difficult to design them to match?
We always knew the creepy look we wanted, but the audio was less clear at first. Our visuals could be paired with sound in a million ways: distorted guitars, orchestral sounds, industrial noise, etc. After a lot of experimentation, we found that waves of dissonant drones complement our look particularly well. They wash over you and there’s an intense feeling of dread as the next challenge approaches. This bleakness lets us mix in some brief moments of beauty, relief, and optimism. We also use subtle rhythmic patterns to convey a sense of adventure, action, and speed.
With a rhythm action game, audio cues often struggle not to become dissonant from the soundtrack. How did you deal with this potential problem?
Because of the close relationship between our audio and gameplay, the audio cues don’t just punctuate or overlay the soundtrack, they are a fundamental part of it. So we try to embrace this kind of dissonance when it happens. It suits the physical and cacophonous gameplay.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you’ve particularly enjoyed?
FOTONICA (an honorable mention for the audio award) is a great game with a true sense of style. We haven’t played the rest yet, but we’re looking forward to checking them out at the IGF!