I vividly remember my first time playing Vib Ribbon. Even before trying to familiarize myself with the mechanics of the game or how it was played, I immediately searched for the wackiest CD I owned to see what would happen. At this moment in time, Mr. Bungle’s self-titled debut seemed the most appropriate. It was just the sort of sonic chaos that would be suitable for testing the boundaries of the game, while also giving in to my occasional masochistic tendencies.
As you’d expect, it didn’t go well for me.
Years later, we now see games like Audiosurf and Beat Hazard working off of that same concept of procedurally generating levels based off of your music collection. Symphony follows the lead of the latter, but feels like a much more focused experience. While fun in its own right, Beat Hazard feels like an epileptic game of Asteroids that just happens to be taking place in front of a visualizer. Meanwhile, Symphony tries to make the experience a bit more personal, introducing a demon that has corrupted your music as a framing device. It serves a purpose of not only motivating you to continue playing, but to explore as much of your collection as possible, not knowing when and where the next attack will happen. In my case, the demon really liked Korean pop music, post-hardcore metal and several singles off of Phil Collins “No Jacket Required”. Even he knew not to mess with Mr. Bungle.
Where games like this tend to fall apart is in the over-reliance on electronic dance music and bass-heavy tracks that are easier for algorithms to recognize. Less intense songs turn into snooze-fests more often than not, showing the cracks in the foundation, the patterns behind that algorithm, ruining some of the magic. Symphony has less of that problem than most, allowing you to remain engaged without forcing you to sort through your music library by BPM counts. The game is damn challenging, often even at what it considers “soft” difficulty. You may think that Taylor Dayne’s “Tell it to My Heart” is a fun romp, but having enemies romp on your face in time can do things to your perspective.
Though no one has perhaps even reached 50% of the potential of what this technology can do, I’m excited to see where it goes from here. Maybe the promise of completely unique levels with a style and feel all of their own generated in this same way isn’t an impossible dream. Either way, Symphony is a step in the right direction.