Virtual reality and electronic music might just be the new peanut butter and jelly of gaming. Both are “immersive” formats, surrounding and enveloping the user—less windows to other worlds, and more cocoons of physical, sensory experience. That combo is increasingly on the menu, with VR stations already making their way into music festivals, and artists ranging from Radiohead to Björk are already working on VR projects of their own. Next month’s launch of PlayStation VR marks the debut of the two most impressive products of this synergy to date: Enhance Games’ blissed-out Rez Infinite, and Drool’s gnarled, menacing Thumper.
For the uninitiated: Rez began its life in 2001 on the Sega Dreamcast console, and has since become a seminal title in the history of modern audiovisual experience. Essentially a shooter set inside a futuristic computer simulation, the player’s avatar is propelled through a neon metaverse in an attempt to destroy and outmaneuver a stream of AI data clusters. Among other things, the game was remarkable for its blending of music and visual elements to create a psychedelic symphony of interactive sound and imagery, all in creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s relentless pursuit of synesthesia – the phenomenon where the stimulation of one sense triggers a response from another (some people, who experience it involuntarily in daily life, describe ‘seeing’ sounds).
Rez included a “Traveling” mode for those uninterested in such standard game conceits as “points” and “levels,” where you could simply fly through the environments and take in the sights and sounds without dying. Mizuguchi also included the sex toy-like peripheral – the Trance Vibrator – in the original retail version that would pulsate to the game’s propulsive techno soundtrack (provided by the likes of electronic musicians Ken Ishii, Coldcut and Oval). In its new VR-compatible Rez Infinite incarnation (which the creators have demoed using a custom-built haptic suit that extends the Trance Vibrator concept to the entire body), the game now immerses players in its audiovisual womb as never before. Enhance Games’ Mark MacDonald says the nature of playing Rez in VR benefits from the sensory deprivation. “Putting on the VR headset, closing off all of your peripheral vision, and wearing headphones – not to mention the fact that it’s all in 3D – this is the best way to experience Rez.”
The game is joined in PSVR’s launch lineup by Thumper, a collaboration between Marc Flury, the former lead programmer on The Beatles: Rock Band and Dance Central at Harmonix, and Brian Gibson, a musician and artist best known as the bassist for the insano noise rock band Lightning Bolt (the two met at Harmonix, where Gibson worked as an artist). The game has been in development for over six years – and would probably have continued for even longer had the looming retail release date for Sony’s headset not focused the project.
Though it certainly has its darker stretches, Rez is a generally optimistic exploration of digital splendor – its clean, vivid vector graphics like something out of a Daft Punk live show. Thumper, on the other hand, delights in the grotesque, squeezing you into the sharp, metallic exoskeleton of a space beetle, rushing through a relentless, hellish void and confronting a stream of monstrous beasts. Its creators have dubbed it a “rhythm violence” game, testing players both physically and mentally to keep up with its blistering speed and brutal physicality.
It’s pure sensory overload, a cortisol cocktail served neat with stress and trauma chasers.
Where many report having shed tears at the sheer wonder they’ve felt playing Rez Infinite – mostly during the expansive made-for-VR “Area X” level – Thumper in VR may well make you cry for other reasons entirely. The words used by those who have played various in-development versions of the game to describe their experiences read like the back of a modern pharmaceutical bottle: anxiety, discomfort in the chest, general unease. It’s pure sensory overload, a cortisol cocktail served neat with stress and trauma chasers. And yet it is at the same time thrilling, brilliant, rewarding, and one of the few truly unmissable VR games to date. Like physical therapy, ayahuasca tea, or spending a week with your extended family, it’s not always a pleasurable experience, but generally gives back much more than it takes away.
“Rez was one of a few classic rhythm games that inspired me a long ago as a young gamer,” Drool’s Flury says. “It helped me see what games could do as an expressive medium, and got me excited to make games myself.” While he acknowledges that Thumper and Rez might both be described as “psychedelic music games,” he believes that the differences between them are significant. “Part of the inspiration for Thumper was that there were very few games trying to create a ‘hard psych’ experience. Most psychedelic games are going for a floaty, spacey, trippy feeling. We wanted to create a more violent, intense, ‘bad trip’ vibe.” Indeed, if Rez is pure MDMA, Thumper is a heavy, possibly stepped-on dose of LSD.
Where thus far many VR developers have been trying to use the medium as a means to let players explore realistic virtual spaces, neither Rez nor Thumper were specifically designed for VR. Both titles are effectively ports, releasing day-and-date with conventional non-VR versions of themselves. There is no one-to-one connection to the real world: you’re not moving around a virtualized physical space, nor are you interacting with objects using special motion controllers in a way that mimics reality. As such, these are games that go against the supposed “best practices” of early days VR development.
And yet in their relative simplicity, both deliver on an idealized notion of sci-fi futurism. If films like Logan’s Run and Blade Runner had featured VR, it would likely have looked like these games. And as mostly “on rails” experiences, both conveniently sidestep the issue of character movement in VR, and the nausea that often comes along with this disassociation between a character’s in-game movement and the human player’s. MacDonald says that despite having to retrofit Rez for VR, it was clear from the very first working PSVR prototype that it was going to be something special. “We’re on the first generation of VR and we’re all still figuring out how this stuff works,” he says. “I believe that those advanced, more ‘realistic’ VR games will be great and super popular. But ironically enough, Rez works really well with the limitations we’re all working with right now.”
Both of these cutting-edge VR titles will ship alongside vinyl LP soundtrack releases. The cover art for Thumper’s LP was designed by Robert Beatty, who has previously created artwork for the likes of Tame Impala, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Neon Indian. The origin story of this collaboration is significant: Gibson met Beatty at a Lightning Bolt show in Kentucky, when work on Thumper had just gotten underway. “He handed us a tape called Sick Hour,” Gibson recalls. “It was a tape of nonstop nauseating, echoing dissonance—maybe some of the scariest music I’ve heard. We played that tape in the van for the rest of the tour whenever we drove through a dystopian landscape, like Gary, Indiana, or parts of Detroit.”
When he got home, Gibson tried putting Sick Hour into some of the early Thumper prototypes he and Flury had been working it. “It was a revelation about how the sound design in Thumper could work,” he says. “I knew I wanted the visual style of the game to be dark, but hadn’t considered taking the audio side all the way with dissonant soundscapes like that. Having him do the album art makes perfect sense. His dark visual and sonic psychedelia have been a big influence from the beginning.”
While Thumper explores darker themes through abstraction (its creators point to the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a primary influence), with Rez, Mizuguchi and his team are aiming for something a bit more traditionally uplifting. “Mizuguchi-san is someone who is [full of] positive energy—it’s just who he is,” MacDonald says, noting that he’s never seen his colleague angry. “Especially with smaller teams, the games that you make end up being a reflection of your personality. We talk a lot about [Rez Infinite] as something that, after a long day at the office or school, people can use to totally relax and escape into this other world. A positive, fun, mind-expanding experience.”