Hell’s Highway

Are You Ready For Thumper?

ometimes, all that matters is that someone’s on that road. What the game is and when it’s on your hard drive are just words and numbers; right now you’re just thankful for the vision. So it goes for DROOL’s Thumper, the teaser for which still fries just as many neurons as it did almost a year ago to this day. The work of musicians and Harmonix veterans Marc Flury (programmer) and Brian Gibson (artist), Thumper is the antidote – or maybe the poison – for the expected euphoria of rhythm-action games. Find a safe environment and a friend you can trust, because this is one bad trip. Perhaps I’m unduly moved by it because throughout my early teens I suffered a condition known as night terrors. If there is a mild version of it, this wasn’t that. Watching the walls of your room shrink away behind flawless edifices of fear; having a sense as benign as your fingertips touching rerouted to the dread of being swallowed whole… It leaves a taste that never quite goes away, even after decades of boring old dreams and nightmares. Perversely, maybe it leaves you with an appetite as well. Thumper is a beetle, by the way. A metal one. He crashes and clanks his way at some unknown speed through a universe that defies any sense of scale. It does have physics, however, and a sense of everything being connected, and that’s what makes it scary. It also has a villain, Crakhed, who leers out like a face in a broken mirror, seemingly at one with the horizon. That’s the trailer, anyway, and it’s great just wondering what the blazes any of it means. Flury and Gibson happily admit that the savage cuts of the trailer will not translate literally to the game you’ll eventually play, while an all-new original soundtrack replaces the surging tune by Rich Porter. But after something of a technical refresh and months of radio silence, Thumper now returns looking worlds away from the sparse grid-based prototype shared earlier this year.

Screenshots simply can’t communicate how it’ll feel to travel this entire length of track in little over a couple of seconds, through one roiling vortex into the next.

You’ve gone to great pains to avoid Thumper being pigeonholed. So what is it? Marc Flury: From a marketing perspective – it’s not our primary goal to make money with this or anything – we do have to think about how we effectively communicate what the game is like, and you’re expected to have this one sentence tagline. We’ve tried a bunch of different things. Is it a rhythm racing game? I’m not sure it’s either of those things. Most of the gameplay is about rhythmic button presses and doing stuff based on cues coming at you, but the raw feeling should be more physical and impactful. We’ve started using this term ‘rhythmic violence’, and that’s a satisfying interaction, the feeling you get from games that have a simulated sense of space, that continuous feedback. That was maybe something we felt was lacking in a lot of music games. They tend to be kind of abstract and have a UI that works with any type of music. A lot of the eyecandy is not in the immediate space the player’s interacting with, it’s in the background. I don’t think the game will ultimately be that hard for people to describe, not once they play it. But because there’s not an obvious game we can compare it to, that does make it a bit harder. Brian Gibson: In terms of the bad trip feel, I’ve never been super into the euphoric games that try to make you feel good while you’re playing them. Growing up, my experience of games was that they’ve naturally given me feelings of stress, and brought out some darker aspects of my nature. I like games that resonate with that a little bit. You’re sort of empathising in a lot of games with a character who’s dying over and over again, confronting enemies and obstacles, and just generally going through a stressful experience. I dunno, I find that enjoyable, I don’t think it’s a negative. You’re playing with dark emotions but people love that, it’s a stimulant. For me, I want to make this quintessential game experience that really aligns with that mood. DET: One of the most striking things in the trailer is how it evokes trippy old-school effects like the Scanimate sequences in Logan’s Run. Gibson: I don’t like to directly reference things or have the game feel like it’s retro; the most important thing is that this is a completely new experience. But I actually do find that a lot of older visual effects feel more powerful just because of the tools they were using. They were more limited and so created more unique feelings. Flury: It’s so easy to make psychedelic references when we’re talking about the game, or references to drug use and stuff. And we play that up a little, too, with characters like Crakhed. It’s funny to us. In the movie 2001 there’s the trip sequence everyone talks about, but some of the more powerful moments in that movie might be the very simple shot of the Monolith with that creepy music. It’s not about assaulting the senses so much as a singular mood and experience. We want to have more moments like that, potentially. When you have a trailer that’s a minute long, its job is to get you psyched. You can’t really build moments like that into a game, but it’s cool to surprise people with those intense types of experience. It’s not everything dialed up to ten. Gibson Have you ever listened to the band Boredoms? They’re a Japanese noise band that have this one pretty abstract video that, for some reason, had a big impact on me. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. When we first started working on this game, I was consulting a lot with a friend of mine I went to school with, Mat Brinkman. I kinda knew the mechanic and the vibe, but he makes these great drawings that are this combination of iconic and fever dream psychedelia, which is a rare combination. You don’t usually see people do that well. People assume that if you make something more realistic, it’s scarier; but Mat will make something that’s geometric and simple, really pure forms, that’s just frightening. He’s getting at the essence of your nightmares. Just talking to him and getting sketches from him really helped me understand how to make this universe and give it the feel that we want.

It’s important to note that Mat Brinkman’s early concepts for Thumper anticipated a grid-based experience still to evolve into today’s linear rollercoaster.

The game seems to use a conflicting sense of speed to overwhelm, much as you’d encounter in a dream. Some things fly by while others are more confrontational, or so vast as to never seem any closer. Gibson: Things don’t always have to be moving towards you at the same speed. We want you to move really fast but at the same time have things that are passable, that you can take in. That does create this weird disorientation that I haven’t quite come to terms with yet. The speed at which they’re coming at you is disconnected from anything in reality. DET: You don’t get that in Wipeout, for instance, where even the abstract levels are grounded by the racing model. Conversely, Frequency and Amplitude are almost entirely disembodied, to the point where it’s like floating in space. But there’s an organic and sentient feel to the Thumper trailer which is instantly threatening. Flury: We want this feeling that there’s an insane logic to the world. What does it mean when a game is out to get you? It’s this strange interaction between you, this addictive relationship. We’ve been working on this game a really long time, and the history of how we got to this point has almost been forgotten to some extent. Almost to a fault we’ve been very organic, haven’t held ourselves to any firm deadlines. We built all our own technology and so it’s taken a really long time. The original prototype video, where there was a fixed grid and musical cues placed on that grid, was where we started. We were already authoring the audio in a step sequencer in a linear, one-dimensional way, so then we figured that the path you could be following could also be a one-dimensional tool. Rather than saying where the next note is, though, you’re saying where the path turns or goes up or down. And because it was this really simple tool, we could start changing the values that create the path procedurally, and that’s how the technology evolved. We can have the track be dynamic or have things emerge from it, and we don’t have any real animation system beyond putting data into this tool and manipulating. both in code and through other animations. How far could we push this idea of a step sequencer doing everything? Gibson: In art in general it’s really powerful when you make a decision about what elements you’re working with, and you explore a simple vocabulary fully. When you make a game like this, the first thing you think is, ‘Oh, I gotta make a bunch of props and things that are floating by you, so you think you’re in this universe full of variety.’ But, as we’ve worked on this, I’ve got interested in this idea that everything you encounter in the world is made of the same stuff conceptually. All these tentacles and tendrils and creatures you see in the world are made of the same stuff the path is made out of, and on a very deep level.

Ever since Space Harrier, there’s always been something intimidating about an enemy that defies the headlong rush to the horizon. Crakhed takes it further by perhaps even being the horizon, hewn from the same material as the track and thus an omniscient threat.

Jeff Minter would probably approve of that idea of the whole game world emerging from a kind of technological soup. Gibson: There was a point when I was thinking that everything in this game should be made out of sequences – everything, including you. Maybe we could make the beetle into a sequence, like a centipede or something. I actually made that creature. You can take those kinds of ideas to an extreme, but there’s a point where they become less accessible. So, we have made certain decisions like the main enemy being this giant head. There’s enough in the world that’s a sequence for it to conceptually tie things together. You have to decide: do we want this to be an artistic statement about a concept or a tool we’ve made, or is the most important thing for the game to convey a feeling and be fun to play? There’s an interesting line there. DET: How should the player feel at the beginning of Thumper, and how should they feel at the end? Flury: We do want the game to say something, and you should feel like it’s changed you in some way if you play the whole thing. We’ve had thoughts on backstory and whether we’d have an explicit narrative, or whether it would more about mood and the way stuff changes, from that initial intense disorientation and excitement – that old-school idea that you’re playing five seconds after you’ve booted the game up – to the end where we do want to say stuff about what Crakhed and the player represent. DET: How do you modulate such an experience to avoid numbing the player? Gibson: We’re slaves to the gameplay when it comes to how it progresses. At the beginning it’s very accessible, just fun. The mood is there but we don’t want to throw all the intensity at people right off the bat. I like the idea that it builds to a crescendo, and gets darker as the challenge gets harder. Crakhed isn’t a static enemy: you encounter him throughout the game and he changes. Your understanding of what he is changes, and that to me is really interesting. After people are hooked we start challenging them and taking more liberties, making it more extreme. Flury: Most rhythm games are level-based: the content changes and the experience resets. One of the opportunities we have, because we’re not using existing music, and because the gameplay and music are being made together, is progression. That’s nothing new in games. Our design goal is like Mario’s, I suppose, where the mechanics aren’t stressed until later in the game. DET: Is the motivator for carrying on in the game to see what’s coming next? Intrigue? Gibson: On some level, but we’re a two-person team [Gibson is based in Providence, Rhode Island; Flury in Seoul, South Korea] and I have to make all the art. There’s ways you can approach it, and one of the ways you see in games is that around every corner is some new art – you want to get past the next thing to see the next enemy, prop or background. Our resources are so limited that there can only be some of that. We need a little bit of both. The game is something you can really zone out to, where you can go into deep repetition and a mood. But there should be these key moments, these revelations, that you’re striving to get eventually, just not around every corner. If there’s a sense that you never know which corner that something will be around, that keeps you engaged.
You seem to have an ethos of locking down certain imagery and iconography sooner than a lot of indie projects, some of which almost pride themselves on being WIP. It’s hard to anticipate things when you don’t know what to expect. The DROOL logo, though, and the trailer suggest you’re not the types to embrace that. Do you owe much of that to your Harmonix and music industry experience, the idea of a strong visual identity? Gibson: I was really nervous about making a logo for DROOL and for Thumper. It’s not something I ever considered myself strong at. I’m not really a graphic designer. It’s hard to talk about the relationship with Harmonix, but I know I have this feeling that I want to make a game that feels classic, like the ones I remember from growing up. I think that does inform a lot of the decisions about the branding. For the DROOL logo I was trying to come up with something that looks like it’s been around since videogames have. DET: How do you design a camera for a game like this? Obviously angle is an important thing when your focus is moving between track and the horizon, but what can you do with it aesthetically? Gibson: It’s a challenge because of everything you describe, especially when so much of the game is about precision timing and movement relative to your character in screen space. If you’re moving screen space, or where things exist in it, it could make for an ‘unclean’ experience. But having a dynamic camera ties in with so much of what we want: more physicality, more like it’s a real thing that’s happening. When the character moves, you should be the one experiencing those moves and impacts. Flury: We are still figuring out how the camera changes and when, but in the trailer, when Thumper flies, the camera is wider there. That’s really effective and it doesn’t actually make the game harder to play. So much of rhythm games is about parsing visual information, but our gameplay is simple enough that it’s not a negative in that case. DET: Does having a musical background, especially towards the rock end of the spectrum, inspire some of the more theatrical elements in Thumper? Is there, for example, a comparison to be made between gatefold or silkscreen artwork and the landscape of this game? Gibson: Marc and I have very weird music tastes, and we both play music, too. Have you heard Suicide? That’s an electronic band – a singer and a keyboard player – but it’s about as stripped-down as you can get. It’s almost a metronome kickdrum and a couple of notes being played over and over again, then the vocalist is singing these minimal, creepy lyrics over it. I think a lot about reducing things down to the simplest elements. A lot of music games you see don’t really explore those fringe types of music where things are more experimental, playing with ideas like simplicity and the idea that music doesn’t have to have a ton of different instruments or layers. It can be a drone and pulse, and that could be the basis for really strong gameplay. That’s one angle on it, but I like to hold up simple and iconic things as models generally. It keeps me grounded a little bit. Things can quickly explode in complexity when you’re making games. DET: Any obvious things you want to comment on? Duration, longevity..? Flury: A lot of the gameplay’s locked down and it’s now about deciding how everything fits together. The goal is that there’ll be enough content for the arc to be satisfying, and for what you might call the ‘content tourist’ who doesn’t care so much about challenge and skill. But we also want to support score and the satisfaction of doing something perfectly. Thumper has no release date but DROOL hopes to complete it around the end of 2014. The DROOL YouTube channel, featuring prototype footage and animation tests, can be found here. [ssba]
Dead End Thrills features are produced in partnership with international art dealership Cook & Becker.