Personal blog of Rutger Harder

Thoughts on A Sense Of Music

So, earlier this week my fellow student Marries van de Hoef finally released his experimental music game A Sense Of Music. Marries goes out of his way to point out that it is a very experimental game, without any goals or challenges. The point of the game is just to enjoy yourself and get lost in the experience of the visuals and the music. Going in with basically no idea what to expect, here are my thoughts on this weird experience.

When you start, the game lets you pick any music track from your computer. It will then start a visualization of that music that is somewhat reminiscent of the music visualizations we know from various media players. The interaction comes in the form of button mashing, and you are basically free to do this in any way you want. The exact implications of your interactions and what exactly is visualized can be a bit mysterious: every time you mash any key on your keyboard, the visualizatioin will activate and show the visualization of the track currently playing. If you hold a key, it will keep showing the frequencies (?) currently playing until they stop.

This may sound vague and confusing, and maybe even like nonsense, but it makes a lot of sense once you start playing. I have had a few amazing experiences with a few of my favourite songs that I normally already jam along with. A high point was the way the visualization vibrated along with the cracking of the voice of my favourite singer-songwriter.

Your milage may vary though, as not every genre of music seems to work very well, and even then the results aren’t always very consistent. Metal songs often do not work very well, as they simply result in a garbled mess in the visualization. Beat-based music such as hip-hop and small acoustic songs by singer-songwriters seem to work very well. Generally, it seems that if the music has a lot of ‘noise’, the visualization will just go nuts, and you will not really be able to see anything amazing. It also sometimes feels as though the explosion of sound I experience from the music isn’t translated very well into the visualization.

A major pro is the accessibility of all this. Because there is only key mashing, and you are never punished for the way you mash your keys, the entrance barrier is extremely low; even your dog can play it. The only thing that might scare some less techy folk away is the ‘digital’ look of the game: the menu has pixelated menu items and the visualization is distinctly digital-looking. Maybe a more organic look (or the option to choose so) would be more suitable to the feel and accessibility of the game itself.

One thing I missed at times was a way to give analogue input. Keyboard keys are of course quite binary in their state, and this doesn’t always go well with the feeling of a melodious singing voice or more flowy string instruments. Gamepad support (analogue sticks? triggers?) would have been great I think. This could, maybe, also be a way of measuring the strength and intensity of the player, to which the visualizer could respond (this might solve the problem of not seeing the explosion of sound in the visualization I mentioned before). Of course, this would be a perfect game for more alternative input methods.

There are of course some small technical details. Currently, ASOM only supports MP3 files, which can be a bit annoying if your music collection mainly consists of some old MP3’s, OGG’s, Flac’s and Spotify. It also fails to launch without any warnings or error messages when you do not have Microsoft’s XNA framework installed, which probably the case for most users. This dependence on XNA also means that it is currently Windows-only, which is a shame. Supposedly, it also requires a graphics card with a DirectX 10-like feature level, which might exclude some older computers from playing this.

Overall though, A Sense Of Music is a very interesting experience. I love how it challenges the often-assumed fact that games should be about overcoming obstacles and getting rewarded for this. This game strengthens my view that games should be about play, and that emotional reflection and responses can be a reward in and of itself.

A Sense Of Music can be downloaded here:

A Sense Of Music screenshotA Sense Of Music screenshot aligncenterA Sense Of Music screenshot