For Our Consideration

Sound Shapes

Turn Me Right Round

How Sound Shapes’ virtual turntable bridges the gap between pop music new and old

By Anthony John Agnello • July 22, 2013

Pop is a loop. Our favorite music may not always be world-changing stuff, but it is all revolutionary, a series of circles and cycles that go round our heads. The boogie-woogie baseline of 12-bar blues climbs a scale before coming back down. The Beatles cemented pop in the verse-chorus-verse structure that persists today, a halo nestled atop everything from Kanye West to Katy Perry. It’s perfect that we’ve always consumed pop in physical circles as well: LPs, CDs, the looped tape of cassettes and reel-to-reel. Even the iPod, with its classic click wheel and the modern home button, connects us to our music with a ring.

This is why people have been drawn back to their old turntables in the unexpected vinyl boom of the past five years: We delight in the physical experience of art. It grounds us. That’s also why the turntable in Sound Shapes, the 2012 musical platformer by Queasy Games, is such a primal force. In such an abstract game, with its constantly shifting art and noise, it would be easy to lose your bearings without an anchor to keep you stable. So it goes back to the old hi-fi to keep all of its experimental eccentricities from floating away.

Abstract might be putting it lightly; Sound Shapes is super weird. Queasy Games’ little music box is full of circles. Shapes puts you in control of a shining, sticky ball, like the Fleischer Studios bouncing ball come to life. You jump your way over obstacles and collect shiny coins hanging in mid-air, and gathering all those little coins slowly reveals a melody over a stage’s base beat. All of the stages are abstract and modern, in an I Am 8-Bit meets Josef Albers kind of way. But Shapes uses the imagery of turntables and records, distinctly un-modern technology, as an anchor. The archaic gear physically grounds you in the ephemeral world of the game, much like an actual record physically connects you to a song. The phonograph ties together all of Shapes’ disparate elements.

You run into the wheel of steel before you start a level, though, since these different albums are actually shaped like LPs. There’s a cardboard sleeve for the level select screen, with a tone arm that stretches out over the spinning records, letting you pick where you want to go next. The selection is eclectic. In the office purgatory Corporeal, whose music is a pleasant and vaguely sinister prog rock mix, there’s a satyr waiting at the top of your bouncing ball’s ascent. The old-school pixel-art-and-dubstep nightmare D-Cade is full of hellish Space Invaders to go with all its noisy wub wubs. But it’s the tonal opposite of the fluffy pastel abstraction in Hello, World.

Sound Shapes’ levels rarely feel of a piece with one another since the jumping and rolling around is as different as the music and art in each. Hello, World is more about path finding as opposed to D-Cade’s gauntlet of precision leaps through lasers. The turntable is the only consistent element across all these different albums, so it is the force that maintains a sense of a cohesive whole in the game feeling, just as it would for a killer record collection.

In the levels themselves, there’s always a turntable waiting at the beginning and at the end. Your bouncing ball emerges from a record player seen in profile at the start, a subtle act of contextualization. At the end of each stage, the record player is waiting for you again, but this time, it’s seen from above. It’s the next logical step of the listening process: Time to flip the record. Sound Shapes feels physical and real with the turntable in place, just as it feels flighty and untouchable without it.

Keeping the game grounded is especially tricky when you build your own levels and music using the Sound Shapes creation tools. When Jonathan Mak and Shaw Han Liem first started designing the game, they built on the skeleton of a Mario-style run-and-jump platformer because of its similarity to written music. “Traditional platformers, the most basic ones, move from left to right introducing new game elements as you go,” Liem told me once, “If you look at sheet music, it’s laid out the same way. We’re borrowing a lot of ways to visualize music in our game and overlapping them with things from other platformers.”

Video games borrow from pop more often than they create it. Fifteen years ago, designers wanted music video games to be about making music. Tetsuya Miziguchi’s Rez made songs evolve through action, and Masaya Matsuura’s Vib-Ribbon was about remixing and bending music into new shapes by pressing buttons on a controller. The past decade, though, has seen video game pop metastasize. SingStar and Rock Band are fine games, but they’re evolutionary dead ends. Guitar Hero was exciting when it was new, but it was always a closed circuit. Sound Shapes takes a different approach in making a game about music. It takes some of the oldest video game language there is, moving from left to right and jumping, and uses that as a conduit for experiencing songs. Even with the sticky fun of jumping around as a little ball, it needs something to bring the whole game together, to unify the experience. Guitar Hero had its controller, Rez had its force-feedback rumbling in the controller, and Vib-Ribbon had its google-eyed protagonist as focal points. Sound Shapes’ totem is its turntable sitting in every level, keeping pop’s shape in your head as you play the game.

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  • PaganPoet

    So, those videos just made me squeee from the adorableness and the music. I admittedly ignored this game, in spite of having a Vita and needing more games for it, but after watching those videos, I need it.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    The last paragraph of this piece is right on the money. Once you’ve made Rock Band, where do you go from there? Keep licensing more songs? Come up with even more ridiculous peripherals?

    On the other hand, using music to explore space is something sadly uncommon in video games. That’s why I’m excited about the upcoming FRACT. As much as I love how background music can set the mood in a game, I love it even more when music reflects the actual act of moving through a space.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      The obvious solution to “Rock Band is a dead end” is to use the (really fun to use) controllers to play other types of games. Take Donkey Konga, for example. The game was alright, but the best use of those bongo controllers was Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, which was a sidescroller played with them. It was really fun to get into a rhythm running and bouncing through the levels, and the controller and gameplay really worked well together.

      Also, each Rock Band game considerably improved upon the one before and I sort of wish they were still making them. Obviously the market for them got flooded and that’s what killed that genre, but they were some of my favorite games from this generation.

  • Zach_Annon

    Damn, this game has some beautiful music.  Makes me wish I had a Playstation (or whatever I need to play this game)

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    As a DJ, this makes me want to get this game more and more.

    Speaking of DJ games, here’s a Japan-only game for the PS2 that never made it to the States for some reason:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPjtAaioKyI

    • duwease

      I thought for sure this would be a link to Beatmania, with the little turntable on the controller that was really just used to make the ‘scratch’ sound.  I had a girlfriend once that had that for PS1.

      • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

        Yeah that too.

        They stopped making Beatmania games, sadly.

  • ProfFarnsworth

    Incidentally, in physics one of the best first approximations for almost any problem is called a spherical cow approach.  Many of the most renowned and intelligent scientists would use this approach to get an initial idea of how much or what kind of forces were involved in any particular scenario.  This game reminds me of this method.  It seems to do really well at showing people a great ‘first approximation’ of the music it shows.  Of course, such mediums as music has more depth than just one; so more study (i.e. playthroughs/games) are required.   

  • The_Helmaroc_King

    “This is why people have been drawn back to their old turntables in the unexpected vinyl boom of the past five years: We delight in the physical experience of art.”

    I can see where you’re coming from with this. I’m not a fan of the whole vinyl craze, partly because its heyday was well before my time, but I’ve been known to seek out physical copies of an album on CD when it would have been much easier (and cheaper) to find a download for the same. In a way, albums feel more real when they’re something I can hold and turn over, even if all I’ll do is rip the songs to my MP3 player of choice.

    On the other hand, it feels like you’re off the mark because there is a much more physical experience to music: dance. I am, admittedly, no good at dancing, but in the privacy of my own home sometimes a song will just make me want to move. I’ll restrain myself in public, but I’ll still tap to the beat when the mood takes me. Music has a way of inspiring movement, and when a game’s music clicks, it’s like punctuation: it defines the pace of the game.

    • SamPlays

      Well, the ONLY experience that is more physical than dance is actually playing a musical instrument. I’m on the fence if video games like this are musical instruments. Maybe in some rudimentary fashion but they always seem more like toys. Even things like the Korg DS-10, which do a good job of emulating a very basic synthesizer, come across as a lesser version of the real thing – dragging a stylus on a touch-screen and flipping between screens is not the same as using two hands to manipulate dials, switches and (if you’re into the whole retro thing) patch cables. I’m full of biases on this topic but my ability to play a guitar in real life, in my own distinct style is far more satisfying than trying to press buttons in a pre-determined fashion a la Guitar Hero’s paint-by-number mechanic. That said, the freestyle component of Frequency was the most fun part of that game – it was very simplistic but it enabled a true expression of how you wanted to interact with the music being played.

      • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

        Korg DS-10 is that rare beautiful “crossover” musical toy, though, in that it is such a faithful recreation of the Korg hardware and includes so little instruction into what patching means or dials do that it encourages newbies to learn and want to then play with real analog synths and is still comfortable and familiar for professional musicians to hop in and sketch out compositions on the go. This is a big part of why I prefer it to the more technically impressive Korg M01 DS software.

        • SamPlays

          I recall the DS booklet being about as vague and generally non-descriptive as the real-life manuals for synthesizers. I agree that the DS-10 is a rarity in the marketplace though its true practicality is limited by the touch-screen confines of the DS. But it’s a great place to learn about the basics of sound synthesis. (And be completely mind-boggled by the array of plugs dials and circuitry in the envelope generator.) For $30, it was the perfect gateway to explore my interest in synthesizers.

    • PaganPoet

      What bothers me is that mp3s sold on iTunes or Amazon or whatever are of noticeably lower quality than tracks found on most CDs. I find this especially annoying when there are iTunes and Amazon exclusive bonus tracks.

      I wish more digital services offered wav files. Kylie Minogue (shameless plug) just released a buzz single on beatport called “Skirt” and it was in glorious wav form. I can understand converting to mp3 or whatever lower-quality form for the sake of storage space or use on your mp3 player, but I would much rather use wavs to burn to CD or to listen to on good speakers.

      • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

        This is why I love buying directly from artists/smaller labels on Bandcamp. They upload the file in lossless (I believe aiff) format and customers can choose whatever format/bitrate they want when they purchase. Plus, you know, more money goes right to the artist. I do way more impulse buying on Bandcamp than I do on iTunes these days.

      • SamPlays

        In addition to storage space issues, a lot of people still deal with data limits from their ISP. Last year, I changed to a new ISP with “unlimited” data usage (there’s a criteria at around 250GB/month if you read the policy closely, which would likely lead to a review of your usage) but my former provider had 50GB, after which you start paying additional charges. I only realized this once I started downloading game demos from the Playstation Store. 

        Personally, I’m not overly fussy about sound quality, the same way I’m not overly fussy about watching DVDs on an HD screen. That said, I’m not sure I’d be able to stand VHS-quality programming unless it’s by design (cough *Tim and Eric* cough).

        • PaganPoet

          I’ll admit, on tiny earbuds on the bus or light rail train, the difference in quality is not really noticeable. On a pair of quality speakers, though, there’s a mile of difference. I live in the heart of the city, in a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not that often I get to turn up the volume on my music (for fear of noise complaints), but when I do, I’d like to have the option of really being able to swim in the sound.

        • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

          @PaganPoet:disqus Agreed, though I haven’t used a pair of earbuds since college. My senior year I bought a pair of Koss PortaPros and it changed my life. It’s been nothing by Sennheiser, Bose and (currently) Harmon Kardon since then, though I still get misty-eyed when I see a pair of PortaPros in the wild.

          Coming full circle on the topic, there were a number of “beat school” stages in Sound Shapes that I absolutely could not get through the Vita’s speakers, as I was always missing one sound but couldn’t hear the difference. Once I plugged my Harmon Kardon CLs in, though, it was incredibly obvious where the absent ride cymbal was hiding. Proper headphones make this game come to a whole new dimension, honestly.

        • SamPlays

          @PaganPoet:disqus Admittedly, I recently invested in a quality pair of headphones to replace the crappy iPod standard set and the difference was quite noticeable, particularly with lower and higher frequencies. IMO, though, nothing beats the sound of a CD in a car. For various unknown reasons, I’ve never been able to sit in my house and listen to an album. The car is my go to place for hearing new things. And, yes, I still occasionally buy CDs though I’ve been buying digitally more than ever before over the last couple of years. 

        • George_Liquor

          I live in a shitty little two-bedroom bungalow in the ‘burbs, but one thing this place has going for it is amazing acoustics. The living room has plaster walls, a cove ceiling and a hardwood floor that sits over a crawlspace, making what I can only guess is some sort of sound box effect. Music in the living room is bright and ever-so-slightly echoey, whereas music in my den, a carpeted room sitting on a concrete slab, sounds muffled & dead.

          I once got to experience what really good, reference-quality audio gear sounds like in a home environment. My friend, who at the time, worked at a high-end audio boutique, stored a bunch of his demo speakers & amps in his house. We once spent an entire evening listening to studio albums and live recordings through several different manufacturers’ speakers. I’d never fully realized just how much most speakers ‘color’ a recording until we got to these monstrously huge & insanely expensive floor-standing models. For the first time, a live album coming out of a set of speakers actually sounded ‘live’; had I been blindfolded & led into the room, I don’t think I would’ve been able to tell the difference. 

      • Jackbert

        I completely agree. I converted the entire Hotline Miami soundtrack to wav form and put it on my iPod about a week ago. It takes up a couple gigabytes, but it sounds filthy good. Give us the ability to pick which format we want.

    • Dave Dalrymple

      Dancing is not just about experiencing the music; it’s about expressing the way that music makes you feel. That’s why dancing video games feel so hollow sometimes. They provide the experience, but not the expression.

  • Dave Dalrymple

    Games can do a great job of enhancing the way you experience a piece of music, whether literally (i.e. a rhythm game) or abstractly (e.g. via a platform game). The only problem, though, is that they often force the player to experience the music in a particular way. To use the platformer example, you have to jump when the game wants you to jump as opposed to when the music makes you want to jump.

    This is not much of a problem yet. Most of these abstract music games use original music, and the music alters to suit the game more often than the game changes to suit the music. But imagine an auto-scrolling platform game (like the airships in Mario 3) where the level was designed as a physical representation of the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” We’re not really playing the song; we’re playing one person’s interpretation of the song. The experience isn’t about the song; it’s about the game.

    • SamPlays

      The next GTA game should have a mission where you’re dining at a French ass restaurant telling the waiter to hurry up with your damn croissants. There’s really no other way to interpret this song in game form.

  • TheMostPopularCommenter

    Touch The People was the best single level of last year.

  • Chris Hansen

    Sound Shapes, even the demo (which is all I could afford to play. Damn you, PSN account with 14 dollars and some change in it!), was a really pretty game. I like the music in it, even the Beck levels. I’ve never been a huge Beck fan but the levels did his music justice (I think he wrote the music specifically for the levels?). The closest I’ve been able to come to experiencing the actual game is is Youtube videos of people doing runthroughs of the levels for the music only.