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!