How Klang shows another way to do music-inspired game design

Think music-based design just has to be about guitar heroes and dancing revolutions? Indie platformer Klang has a few tricks to show how music can influence your game.

When most game developers think of music-inspired games, their minds no doubt drift to the work of Harmonix, whose works from Amplitude to Rock Band have showed time and time again smart ways to invest players in musical language while drawing on design. 

But when we caught up with Klang, Tom-Ivar Arntzen musical platformer that borrows as much from Metroid as it does from electronic music, we were surprised to see a whole new way of interpreting musical game design.

Klang is a platformer, but its controls differ from the typical run/jump/shoot mechanics. You use the triggers to jump, and the face buttons and right stick play into a rhythm-based combat system. And enemies don’t attack you freely in the environment, you battle them by squaring off in stylized arenas where their attacks approach to the beat of the music, and you have to counter the attacks by pushing the corresponding button or stick direction in order to win. 

We dove in with Arntzen to discuss the foundations of Klang, and how music inspired him to for a new kind of platformer.


Beat-Based Platforming

Arntzen’s first gameplay inspiration for Klang was oddly enough, the open source game Stepmania. It’s sort of a version of Dance Dance Revolution that doesn’t necessarily require a dance pad, and it made headlines during the last Amazing Games Done Quick as the game’s speedrunners showed off insane reaction times to the fast-paced arrows that had the crowd and audiences on Twitch cheering. 

For Arntzen, he liked how that game made players feel at one with the music, but there were other gameplay elements he was interested in too. “There was no world-building, no immersion, no portraying yourself onto an avatar," he says. "Then I found this love for action games like God of War and Devil May Cry where they provided that, but the soundtracks were just playing in the background. I saw the potential to create a best of both worlds concept.”

To literally sync the character avatar—a headphones-sporting kid with a pair of weaponized tuning forks—up with the music, Arntzen honed in on the beats, and had to figure out how to teach players what it meant to hit on the beat. “One thing you’ll learn is a lot of people interpret rhythm very differently. Some people are like ‘okay I need to hit it slightly before the beat.’ Some are right on the beat. 

“So I added a clang sound specifically so they learn ‘when the cone is exactly on this range, and when I press it, that’s when I hear the extra juicy sound.”

Arntzen also says this style of sound-driven gameplay is friendly for players who don’t necesarily get music theory. “I think that EDM beat, that boom-tsh-tsh, is the most recognizable part of music for them. That’s what I wanted to focus on, and mostly everything is based around that.”

Music driving gameplay, not the reverse 

Arntzen’s beat-based gameplay bleeds into the level design too. He describes the game’s stealth sections as places where turrets change their directions based on the beat of a more mellow track, one he hopes players will get a sense of timing for thanks to the rhythm. In fact, says Arntzen, a lot of the levels are built after he gets tunes back from his composer.

“Usually what I tell the composer—I’ll send them a certain mood I want them to nail. Then he sends me back the track shortly after and ideas start flowing. The only reason the game has a stealth section is because he made this one test that sounded super sneaky.”

Going hands-on with Klang, Arntzen’s musical design also seemed to show how audio could be the baseline for the game’s unconventional control scheme.

Since none of the game’s controls line up with traditional platformers, changing music cues and some brief UI direction help players nonverbally pick up the new controls bit by bit.

In one unconventional twist, Klang’s entire control scheme changes, as it teaches you to abandon the face buttons in favor of swinging the right stick in the direction of oncoming fire.

This is where Arntzen says the real challenge set in, to try to figure how to keep 'difficulty' up while grappling with this new control scheme. Music again proved to be the solution, as new layers to the track could help signal when the player had to mix things up. "I usually start with a vague idea," Arntzen says. "There are two beats I want them to multitask at once. For instance one section of the game is you do parrying which then create platforms out from, then you have to jump to those platforms while avoiding hazards."

"Then one layer deeper into the song are the more nuanced aspects of the song. That might be the environmental hazards. You might hear the song where it goes 'bwaw-bwaw' for instance. That's when lasers come from the ground which you just have to move away from," explaints Arntzen.

It’s kind of like learning music, actually. Your teacher introduces you to a few simple notes, then speeds things up and asks you to string together sounds you never knew were possible.

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