Thumper feels like the game equiv­a­lent of a prac­tice space jam. That’s not to say it lacks fo­cus, but rid­ing its wind­ing, neon-drenched tracks re­flects the me­an­der­ing process that led to its cur­rent state.

“We knew the mood we wanted early on,” says Brian Gibson, one half of de­vel­oper Drool and for­merly an artist on Am­pli­tude, Gui­tar Hero and Rock Band. “We’ve gone through a lot of it­er­a­tions with dif­fer­ent styles of mu­sic and vi­su­als. It’s slowly just evolved to fit the mood we were try­ing to go for from the be­gin­ning. I wish I could say we knew what it was go­ing to be right off the bat, but I love where it’s gone. We prob­a­bly could have shipped some­thing four years ago, but it’s amaz­ing if you give a game the time to re­ally find for it­self what it is.”

What Thumper has be­come is a pul­veris­ing ex­er­cise in “rhythm vi­o­lence”, as­sault­ing you with un­com­pro­mis­ing vi­su­als and industrial beats as you pi­lot a space bee­tle through ab­stract light shows and at­tempt to find and kill a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure known as Crakhed. There are familiar rhythm-ac­tion el­e­ments here, such as tap­ping a but­ton in time with white marks on the track as you pass them, but there are also cor­ners to ne­go­ti­ate and bar­ri­ers to smash through. You blast down the track at jowl-quiv­er­ing speed and there’s a bru­tal phys­i­cal­ity to ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion, your bee­tle thud­ding into cor­ners and puls­ing over beat-matched glow­ing spots. Where does this un­der­cur­rent of vi­o­lence come from? “Our child­hoods,” Gibson laughs. “I think it was partly that it fit­ted the mood of the type of game we wanted to make,” says Marc Flury, who was lead pro­gram­mer on The Bea­tles: Rock Band and Dance Cen­tral. “It’s some­thing a bit un­ex­plored by a lot of mu­sic games, where the main feed­back you’re get­ting is a pretty ab­stract 2D HUD. So we wanted to bring this sense of phys­i­cal­ity into the genre.”

An­other as­pect that’s out of keep­ing with the rhythm-ac­tion genre is the mu­sic it­self. In­stead of the stan­dard rock and metal, here drawl­ing industrial sounds mix with sparse beats and crack­ling noise to cre­ate a re­mark­ably threat­en­ing sound­track. “The at­mos­phere and the mood is way more im­por­tant than mu­si­cal va­ri­ety,” Gibson tells us. “At some point, I’m just go­ing to spend a lot of time mak­ing mu­sic, but it’s re­ally hard to say what it will be­come. I want to cre­ate enough va­ri­ety so that it feels like you’re pro­gress­ing on some kind of jour­ney, but at the same time I think too much va­ri­ety could kill the sin­gu­lar at­mos­phere that we’re cre­at­ing. So I’m think­ing a lot about those two bound­aries.” There’s still a lot of work to be done, but Flury and Gibson are con­fi­dent that the hard­est chal­lenges are be­hind them. The look and feel of the game, along with most of the core me­chan­ics, are locked down, and the pair can now fo­cus on sec­ondary sys­tems and scor­ing. “Right now, a few things hap­pen – if you com­plete full phrases, you ab­sorb this cloud of stuff,” Flury ex­plains. “It’s re­ally sub­tle right now, and not em­pha­sised, be­cause we’re still fig­ur­ing it out. We to­tally want the core of the ex­pe­ri­ence to be re­ally sim­ple and pure – we’re try­ing to avoid any kind of HUD or vis­i­ble score dur­ing the game – but we want to have an ex­pert-level depth to it, where there’s a per­fect way to do things, and some kind of risk-re­ward that helps you get more points. That’s the last ten per cent of the core de­sign we’re fig­ur­ing out right now.”

It says much for Thumper’s power to mes­merise that de­spite try­ing the game on a lap­top in a crowded, well-lit con­ven­tion hall, we still walk away feel­ing like our sys­tem has been flooded with dan­ger­ously high lev­els of adren­a­line. When the game re­ally gets bru­tal, string­ing its var­i­ous cues to­gether into fright­en­ingly quick seg­ments, it hints at push­ing into the same rar­i­fied space as Terry Ca­vanagh’s Su­per Hexagon, which is as ap­peal­ing as it is ter­ri­fy­ing.

As well as cre­at­ing games, Brian Gibson (top) also plays bass in Light­ning Bolt. Marc Flury lives in Seoul and re­ports as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for Chicago’s This Is Hell!

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