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.