Review

Sound Shapes

Let The Music Play

Sound Shapes is the music game for a post-LP world.

By Derrick Sanskrit • August 15, 2012

The age of the Long Play record has passed. Our attention spans are shorter, multi-tasking is prerequisite to modern life, and there are so few ideas worthy of more than a few minutes of our time. Pixar’s shorts tell better stories than their last few feature films, and Les Savy Fav’s Rome Written Upside Down EP is a better listening experience than any one of their albums. (So are TV On The Radio’s Young Liars EP, Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies EP, The Beta Band’s Champion Versions EP, The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks EP, and Fugazi’s self-titled EP. Let’s not forget that pretty much every song you’d ever recognize by Aphex Twin is also from an Extended Play single.)

With that in mind, Sound Shapes is not an LP in the same vein as Queasy Games’ previous work, EveryDay Shooter—a game designed as an album where each stage acted as an interactive song. Sound Shapes is more of a boutique record label housing a selection of short-form work by musicians and graphic artists. Think of Queasy Games as Jack White and Sound Shapes as Third Man Records, turning out a steady stream of DIY singles by a bunch of talented unknowns, with the occasional eyebrow-raising release from deadmau5 and Beck.

Sound Shapes

In Sound Shapes, every beat, chord, loop, and swell is represented on-screen by some sort of flower, lantern, asteroid, or filing cabinet, providing a tangible understanding for the arrangement of both music and game. While Sound Shapes has no pretensions about teaching music theory, it does diagram song structure in the same way an Ikea manual diagrams a queen-size bed frame. You may not be able to take raw lumber and build a better bed, but at least you’ll have some idea of how the whole thing stays together.

Though “Play, Create, Share” seems to have been dropped as Sony’s rallying cry, Sound Shapes does the philosophy better than inFamous, ModNation Racers, or even LittleBigPlanet before it. Those games touted user-created content as revolutionary newness but suffered from complicated and clunky interfaces—an unwelcome reminder to the kids at home that design is hard work. From the get-go, Sound Shapes insists that crafting songs/stages is just as easy and fun as playing them. A simple 16-step grid allows beat-making to be somewhat foolproof, and behind the scenes, the game performs musical wizardry like automatically transposing samples into the correct key for your mix. Even the most casual players could lose themselves for hours just tapping out beats. It’s possible to forget that the fruits of your goofing off will eventually be a playable game.

Sound Shapes

This brings me to the level editor, which musicians might recognize as eerily similar to the Tenori-On—a grid-based sequencer popularly used by Björk and Little Boots, among others. It’s no coincidence that Shaw-Han Liem—the lead designer of Sound Shapes—was one of the featured musicians on the Tenori-On promotional tour. And the video game connections go back further: The designer of the Tenori-On, Toshio Iwai, based the device on research from his own Nintendo DS title, Electroplankton. Iwai had been struggling for years to combine the casual fun of video games with intuitive music production. With Sound Shapes, one of his disciples has finally made good.

The pre-made levels of the game clock in at about two hours, so Sound Shapes will live or die by the enthusiasm of its community and the new works they create. As any kid who’s ever played with a drum machine can tell you, though, half the fun of making music is losing yourself in the simple act of play. What Queasy has created here is a remarkably accessible set of tools doled out in snack-sized portions, just enough to pique curiosity while never satiating the audience’s appetite. It keeps the kids wanting more, like any good EP would do.

Sound Shapes
Developer: Queasy Games
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3
Price: $15
Rating: E

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431 Responses to “Let The Music Play”

  1. caspiancomic says:

    I worry about games like this. Games that depend a great deal (borderline exclusively) on user generated content, I mean. In most competitive games, the servers dry up and people emigrate to new games as they come out, so I don’t see why the same shouldn’t be true for more creative endeavours. Even if it explodes out of the gate, how long does the enthusiasm tend to last? Especially when a decision as bone-headed as releasing a direct sequel materializes. Does anyone still make LittleBigPlanet maps now that LittleBigPlanet 2 is out? I’m actually genuinely wondering.

    (Note: the above is pure hand-wringing conjecture, and if the communities surrounding these sorts of user generated creativity style games are in fact vibrant and lively, I’d love to be corrected.)

    (Oh, one last thing: I think a lot of the goodwill I retain for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP comes from the fact that it’s an EP. If it had run even another hour, it would have started to feel draggy. Given the game’s perfect length, I can even forgive its clunking barely-typable name)

    • blue vodka lemonade says:

       I think that so long as enough content is generated overall, it’s okay if that content stops being generated down the line. There are tons of LittleBigPlanet levels out there to discover; it’s not like a lack of new levels makes the backlog somehow go away.

      It is an issue if the game itself isn’t compelling enough to support the cost (here, $15 for a couple good hours and an intuitive editor sounds right) or if not enough people play to make the pool of user-generated content substantial.

    • Raging Bear says:

      The quantity of content isn’t the problem, at least as far as my experience with LBP2, but quality most definitely is. There are millions of levels, but I spend as much time trying to find ones that are playable as I do playing them, with only ratings, tags, a screenshot or two, and some kind of mysterious “MM recommends” designation to go on. More often than not, when I finally manage to choose and play a level, it turns out to be basically fine, but not great, and not anything you would mistake for professionally designed.

      I’m sure there are truly excellent levels out there, but what a pain to find the occasional bit of wheat among chaff that numbers in the millions. I really, really would rather have more levels designed by the team that made the game.

      I haven’t played enough UGC Sound Shapes levels to say, but I suspect that a number of people will get the music, and a number of people will get the platforming, but I bet it turns out to be a hell of a chore to find any that nail both.

      Basically what I’m saying is I’m not on board with this whole trend of crowdsourcing level design. It’s a bit like the news being choked with “tweet us your thoughts on this issue!” in lieu of proper journalism. Give us the real thing, and stop making it our job to sift it out of a million tons of shit.

    • Girard says:

       I always feel like the only truly great content that would be made in such tools typically doesn’t get made as the people who would make it typically just go on and make their own original stuff.

  2. The_Misanthrope says:

    I take some slight issue with that first statement.  Yeah, I suppose the digital age of music has made such notions as proscribed length somewhat antiquated (although it was probably on its way out with CDs anyway), but I still find the notion of the LP as a concept appealing.  I like when artists are able to really commit to a creative endeavor in a meaningful way, to make a real statement.  Still, a band shouldn’t feel pressured to fill out an LP’s worth of material if they are inclined to go with a shorter time.  That is the greatest virtue of being unbound from physical media:  the runtime can be whatever the band needs it to be, label constraints excepted.

  3. Raging Bear says:

    Leaving aside the whole level-editing business, I didn’t think songs built very nicely throughout levels. The pitch is “every coin adds a note to the song!”, and that kind of holds true, but the active tracks/beat/whatever often changes so much from screen to screen that the development aspect is lost a bit. Plus, the musical style throughout is overwhelmingly of the, to my ear at least, really interchangeable ambient techno that does very little for me.

    The occasional level with discernible melody is glorious, however. I’m not really a Beck fan, but I enjoyed the Beck levels the most by far.

  4. Staggering Stew Bum says:

    Come on, Derrick. Dirt is much much better than Jar Of Flies. Also, Hot Shots II and Heroes To Zeroes both smash Champion Versions. Give me an LP over an EP any day.

  5. lanqiu886 says:

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  6. I’m really enjoying the game for what it is. Some cool deadmau5  and the first Beck track is great. As far as EPs over LPs, I think Les Savy Fav’s Let’s Stay Friends album was amazingly fun to listen to.