By Neil Merrett
Tetris Effect, released on Nintendo Switch in 2021, developed by Resonair, Monstars and Stage Games & Songs for a Hero, released on Nintendo Switch in 2021, published by Dumativa Game Studio
Just about every videogame released over the last few decades has used music in some form or other – but how exactly can you make a videogame into a musical in a way that effectively combines sound, actions and emotion? The game Songs for a Hero playfully looks to combine gameplay with a limited form of interactive song and lyrics, whereas Tetris Effect looks to use sound as part of an immersive experience married to visuals, gameplay and banging dance tracks.
When it comes to theatre or the movies – the musical is one of the longest running and most defined genres of entertainment.
At their most effective, musicals mash music and acting together to create a performance capable of unlocking poetry that would otherwise allude either form.
Suddenly a lyric or rhyme, alongside an actor’s performance, can hit at something deep in us that we may never otherwise be able to convey or feel. Something deeply heart-breaking or perhaps heart lifting – some intangible thought realised perfectly in a moment of humour, pathos or dance.
A script and actor might be able to tell us that they’re happy, lonely, triumphant or broken, but what does that really mean? A great musical can often let us find out.
A song and dance in musical form
But what exactly does a musical videogame look and sound like?
Songs for a Hero is a fantasy-themed comedy adventure platform game based around unlocking new combat moves to help explore and potentially reexplore enemy-filled levels such as wind-ravaged mountains, enchanted forests and booby-trapped castles.
In the classic approach of adventure platforming games such as Metroid or Silk Knight, the player is able to come back to conquered levels or areas and use their new abilities and weapons to unlock and reach previously unavailable spaces. They also have new ways of kicking the ass of troublesome bad guys or hidden bosses.
As well as being something of a stock knight character, the game’s main character, who can be customised in terms of their appearance, is also something of a balladeer that sings about their exploits as they battle, leap and grapple across the game’s dozen of levels.
Humour is largely based on the nature of the main character’s lyrics that are triggered upon unlocking secrets, or coming across new enemies, bosses or traps. These lyrics usually satirise some of the well-worn tropes of platform game design and fantasy storytelling.
The slightly nasally quality of the character’s voice adds to the somewhat ramshackle and gentle spoofing of adventure games. If nothing else, it provides a fairly unique trailer to determine if it’s a game you might want to play through.
An “interactive musical”
It is a charming game with a decent level of challenge and the option to return to levels to see how you can smash apart previously difficult enemies with much more powerful weapons to get new bonuses and powers.
New abilities, such as a double jump or a boomerang launcher help create a satisfying sense of progression in the game, and DLC provided as part of the ‘definitive’ Nintendo Switch version includes a Metal-themed version that takes a different singer and musical style to a sort of zombie-mode adventure.
Songs for a Hero’s developers describe the title as an ‘interactive musical’ and it’s a relatively fair description of what is happening as you play.
Certainly, like musical theatre and movies, there is a clearly defined script and lyrics intended to be sang as very specific points of the story. As a game, these words will therefore suddenly be suddenly added to the game’s background music as certain parts of a level or specific tasks are performed.
It is certainly a charming way to highlight many of the more conventional aspects of the game.
Yet in terms of interacting and impacting on the music itself, Songs for a Hero is somewhat limited in how the player is influenced by and can in turn influence the game’s sound.
A new Tetris
As another take on the concept of a musical game, Tetris Effect takes the simplicity of the classic puzzle game series and tries to build a kind of sonic and visual experience that evokes the bombast of a fireworks display with the thoughtfulness of meditation.
This is done by creating a soundtrack that mixes modern dance and trance music, with ambient sounds drawn from the natural world around us.
In the single player ‘Journey’ mode, the player plays Tetris through a series of themed levels that range from minimalist pulsing grid to a serene and increasingly challenging ocean environment. The player is rewarded for uniformly stacking blocks with the visual spectacle of lines being cleared in an explosive light. This effect is built not only through visuals but by the game use of sound and the rumble of controllers to create a game that a player is able to feel on an almost sensory level.
The game’s electric soundtrack does include both lyrical and more atmospheric music that can evoke lesser-known instruments and musical styles from around the world. As a musical experience, the game uses sound in a truly interactive manner in the sense that every reaction made by the player, whether flipping their four block geometric shapes – known as tetrominos – or moves them left or right across their grid has their own unique sounds that can complement or react against the Tetris Effect soundtrack.
In some of the game’s more engrossing moments, those sounds and music almost create a harmony that matches the overall aim to bring order to the jutting and unwieldly tetrominos.
Tetris’ challenge has always been based around reordering these randomly falling shapes to create complete horizontal lines of blocks. Creating a single or multiple full lines can remove these blocks before they can form an impossible to break stack that fills the screen and ends the game.
The experience is based on the sensation of not only fitting these incongruous shapes in to orderly lines, but also reaching a kind of zen-lie state as music, visuals and the player’s actions combine together to ideally create a sense of being in control or at one with the environment around them.
Available on a range of different platforms ranging from hybrid handheld consoles such as the Switch to powerful VR gaming rigs, it is perhaps fair to call Tetris Effect a transcendental experience that closely ties the player’s actions to all aspects of how they experience the game.
The music is the basis on which the game’s wider approach to experimentation is built – both in terms of being a sensory experience, but also in terms of gameplay.
With the classic Tetris formula having been evolved in recent years into a range of forms, such as a 99-player online battle royale experience, there are an number of playful and creative gaming modes in Tetris Effect. These include a cooperative three player mode where human players take on increasingly difficult AI opponents.
These opponents have a range of special abilities such as the ability to invert or mess up the player’s carefully or not so carefully constructed bricks. Even more fiendish can be the ability to hide the screen to require players to remember the exact layouts of their grids when placing a new tetromino.
To combat this, when a certain number of lines are jointly cleared by the three players, their respective screens merge into one allowing them to pool together their resources to try and clear their grids on a mass scale and flood the AI’s screen with unclearable blocks.
It is fitting that this collaborative mode retains the same approach to interactive sound of the single player game.
This cacophony of noises from each player can add to the escalating sense of challenge and chaos. Yet When all three screens are merged together and the players can take turns to clear a backlog of bricks, sound can suddenly become calming and focused.
It is sound and gameplay as if at some incedible club night and can affect a player at an almost emotional level.
It is perhaps telling that one of the game’s unlockable features amidst its numerous single and multiplayer challenges is a ‘theatre mode’. This serves to exist as a kind of ASMR experience for players to relax and unwind without having to move a single tetromino.
In effect, it’s the game’s sound and visuals as a form of therapy – the digital equivalent of a lava lamp and grear chill out album.
Tetris Effect is not likely to win a Tony Award as a game, yet as a musical experience, it is almost an unparalleled game in terms of engaging a player on the level of their current or preferred state of mind.
It is a game ultimately about feeling something on an almost unspoken level that uses visuals, sound and their own in-game actions at varying levels of challenge.
That sounds of feeling felling something in a way that actions, the spoken word or an instrument alone never can, surely that counts as a musical?