Tokyo Game Show is a big event. Like, big. Nearly 200,000 attendees on it’s final day alone big and even in this increasingly digital age, that much foot traffic is nothing to be sniffed at. The big names aren’t the only companies displaying their wares, however, and a quick stroll over to the second hall (TGS is spread out across two venues), will bring you to the Indie Pavillion where indie designers and start-up teams are eager to show off their own creations. This year I got to speak to a few of these artists, and the second one we’ll look at happens to be the first one I played. An intense, imposing rhythmic roller-coaster that grabbed the attention of just about everyone who walked by it; Thumper is something that should definitely be on your radar and we caught up with Marc Flury, designer and programmer at DROOL, to find out why.
“Brian and I met at Harmonix in Boston. Back in 2009, we started working on a simple prototype together and it became Thumper. Six years later, it’s still just the two of us and we’re finally close to finishing the game”. Harmonix, you might be aware, are the team that brought us Amplitude and Rock Band, two of the most influential music games ever committed to code and although both Marc and his colleague Brian Gibson were part of those projects, Thumper is something markedly different from what you might be expecting.
“Thumper was always a rhythm game, so yes, it always had a musical element but we never thought of it as a music game. [It’s] an action game where the audio, visuals, and game play are designed to be a singular experience. ‘Rhythm violence’ is a term we use to describe our design goals; a rhythm game with simple controls and stripped down, primitive, intense gameplay”.
He’s not kidding about the stripped down controls. Although Thumper may share an immediate visual similarity to Steam darling Audiosurf, it’s not nearly as tough on your reflexes. At least not at first. Rather than pushing your adrenaline to its limits with complex twitch-strokes, Thumper slowly and seductively lures you into following its every command by making those commands almost mindless. Without having to worry about controls, your mind is freed up to focus on everything else and that’s where Thumper really sets itself apart.
Everything about Thumper‘s presentation is apparently designed to mess with your head. The music is simultaneously tribal and industrial, its rhythms are oppressive and imposing like the percussive work of Edgar Varese, and made all the more unsettling for how sparse the soundscapes are without them. Visually, Thumper is a living optical illusion; twisting and bending and seamlessly looping. It’s hypnotic and, despite the occasional bursts of cacophonous drum noise, it can even be tranquil. As Marc points out, creating something as unique as Thumper, was not easy.
“We built our own engine and authoring tools from scratch. Because our early tech was so primitive, the game wasn’t as beautiful or immersive as it is now. Most people who played our early prototypes didn’t really get it. When you’ve worked on a game for a long time and it’s not fun or interesting yet, it’s hard to find the confidence to keep pushing ahead”.
That said, Marc is optimistic for the future of indie development in Asia. “I’ve lived in Seoul, Korea for four years and during this short time the scene has grown a lot. There are lots of games I’m psyched about. Communities, meetups, and indie-focussed festivals are springing up in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, and throughout Asia. We face big challenges, but it’s a great time to be an indie in Asia. It’s exciting”.