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Finding the beat through environmental cues in the rhythm game Melatonin

"I wanted to make a game where you have to focus on the music itself instead of simply relying on visuals."

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 1, 2023

8 Min Read

Melatonin is a rhythm game that takes players to a charming, dreamy world filled with music where their actions are informed by the beat of the song, but without an accompanying interface telling them when to press the buttons. Instead, the game leads them through the beats by using the visuals and events happening around them, drawing a rhythm out of the player in this soothing, surreal land.

Game Developer spoke with David Huynh, director of Melatonin, to talk about how to teach the player to feel a beat by looking at the world around them, how he worked to weave the beat through everything the player sees, and how to create harder rhythm challenges for skilled players when the music is already tied to the levels and their animations.

Melatonin explores a charming world where dreams and reality come together with rhythm-based play. What inspired its creation?

I wanted to make a game with a minigame-based structure, but I needed a way to tie all of the individual minigames together. Dreams felt like a fun way to do just that. I also wanted to tell a story that didn’t take place in any fantasy world or sci-fi setting because I don’t have any experience telling those types of stories. Instead, the themes in the game are based on personal experiences that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to.

If the themes in the game are based on personal experiences that players likely relate to, can you share some of those with us, and how you shaped them into gameplay moments or stages of the game?

The chapters in the game are all centered around the challenges we go through as we try to “grow up” in today’s world. For example, Chapter 1 is about indulgence, and it includes themes like food, shopping, and social media. The themes are good design constraints, too, and helped me narrow down what type of actions the player would be performing.

What do you feel this kind of personal, relatable connection to the themes adds to the player's experience of Melatonin?

You can totally have a worthwhile experience playing the game without caring or thinking about the themes being explored. However, if you can relate to the subtle story then you’ll obviously have more of a desire to see what happens and hopefully, you start rooting for the character. I think that adds another dimension to the game that a lot of players care about.

What thoughts went into creating this dream-like mood using visuals and color choice? What drew you to this look and the color tones you use?

The art direction came together pretty naturally from just experimenting with “dreamy” palettes and visual styles. Also, the decision to do hand-drawn animation is what led to the simple drawing style seen in the game. I’m a big fan of animated shows and anime, which is what inspired that particular decision.

What thoughts went into designing some of these dreamy stages and the events that occur? How did you go about exploring relatable moments with surreal visuals and actions?

There wasn’t any formula that went into deciding what happens in each level. Whenever I had a fun idea that popped into my head, I would just prototype it and test it to see if I liked it or not. It was tough and involved a ton of trial and error.

Melatonin is a rhythm game, but it doesn't have an interface or overlays; it's just you in the world following the beat. What thoughts go into incorporating rhythm into a place and everything the player does and sees?

It’s important that each level has a lot of motion, and that this motion needs to be timed with the beat because it helps the player feel the rhythm in a more immersive way. The main character usually has an idling animation that matches the beat, too, which makes it easier for the player to time their own actions to the beat.

What interested you about exploring rhythm without tying it to some sort of interface or overlay? Why did you want to strip those away?

I don’t try to hide the fact that the game is inspired by the Rhythm Heaven series. I wanted to make a similar style of game where you actually have to focus on the music itself instead of simply relying on visuals like other games. It keeps you in a flow state that feels quite unique. It also gives you a better understanding and appreciation of the music behind the gameplay.

Can you walk us through the design of one of the levels and how you shaped the possible interactions within that specific world around the music?

The first level in the game is the one where you dream about food. There are characters like the pizza box that are throwing food at you. You must chomp the food at the right time based on the sequence of cues you’re given. Since it’s the first level you play, the mission was to teach the player how to count beats so they know when to time their actions. For example, the first sequence is trying to get you to count three beats. The pizza box gives a hint on the first beat, throws the food on the second beat, and expects you to chomp the food on the third beat.

What kind of music felt right for a place where dreams and reality are blending? How did you choose the music for this game to suit its themes?

Every level in the game has a unique theme, so the goal for each song was to communicate that theme to the player. The music in the game is often described as lo-fi but I believe it is way more varied than that. There are a lot of genres represented including keygen, future bass, and synthwave.

Did you have a general or specific idea of what events you wanted to happen in each stage in advance, or did the music coax ideas out of you that would shape the stages?

Most chapters have a set of five playable levels, so I try to make sure each of those levels feels different from one another. They need to have a unique theme, tempo, and sense of rhythm to make sure the game has variety.

The sense of rhythm is the most important part as it determines how the gameplay feels. Some levels have you performing actions on almost every beat whereas other levels have you waiting a long time for your turn to react. You can see this clearly in the first chapter of the game. The food level has you reacting once to a set of cues, the shopping level has you mimicking a set of cues, the tech level has you reacting to a single cue, and the followers level has you reacting on almost every beat. Each sense of rhythm is quite different and I try to keep this up for each chapter. The music is determined afterward to make sure that sense of rhythm is emphasized and to create the right mood for the theme.

As someone with no sense of rhythm, I'm curious about the practice options and assist tools. Can you tell me a bit about the ideas that went into those and how they are used to help someone struggling to get on-beat?

If you have a hard time keeping track of the rhythm, there is a visual assist that counts the beat visually and even shows you incoming “hit windows”. This is normally only shown in the practice mode, but you can choose to always display it. You can also make the game more forgiving by making the hit windows bigger or by disabling harsh penalties for being early or late to the beat.

Also, if you have created stages around following beats that stem from the world, how do you create a Hard mode? How did the Hard Mode reshape the game? How do you take a song and place and make it more difficult?

There are plenty of ways to make a level harder. The obvious methods are to change the tempo or simply add more notes to hit, but there are more creative ways, too. For example, I frequently add sequences where the player can no longer rely on visuals and they have to rely solely on listening. It’s also fun to stretch and shrink sequences so you sometimes count at half-time or double-time.

What drew you to add a level editor in Melatonin? When music and worlds are tied together, how do you open that up for players to get creative with?

Custom “charting” in rhythm games is quite common, so I wanted Melatonin to have that feature as well. Players can decide when hit windows are triggered, which can lead to some creative ideas. The level editor is fairly basic at the moment, but I do have plans to enhance it with a few patches down the road.

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