Screen peeping and button pushing

Video gaming is all about pressing the right button at the right time. That’s what an acquaintance once said to me after she’d spent a few tries playing Super Mario Land – her very first encounter with the medium. I’m not sure if that’s true in a nutshell, but it’s a phrase that comes to mind often, even years later.

Perhaps there is something to it, viewed in a completely non-judgmental way. Logically speaking, a gameplay loop consists of action and reaction over time. Quick-time events and reaction or rhythm games prove this thesis as if on cue. And aren’t these the games where we are most likely to talk about flow?

When I started playing the horror rhythm game Thumper, I thought I was well armed with my rather extensive musical training. A game that asks me to play to the beat of the music – what should surprise me here? Rhythm and music also follow rules, otherwise they would dissolve into their components. Moments of hubris just before the lesson.

Thumper consists of nine worlds of distilled gameplay moments. On a kind of rail, my avatar races as a beetle toward an abstract horizon. Along the way, I react to flashing sections and obstacles with an analog stick and a face button. I’m allowed to make a mistake one time, and if I make another, I start from the beginning. At first slowly, with increasing level of course faster and faster, but always to a drum-driven beat.

This beat alone is quite something. Designer and composer Brian Gibson, who not only plays bass for Lightning Bolt but also previously worked at Harmonix (developer of Guitar Hero and Rock Band), draws from the full range of brain-melting time signatures here. The madness even has system, as the Wikipedia entry for the game knows:

Each level in the game features rhythms corresponding to a time signature related to the level number, from 1/2 through to 9/8

Thumper on Wikipedia

And so I learn at the latest in world 5 to a five-eighths time: The intersection with contemporary music, as I know it from my musical socialization, is conceivably small.

What I also learn is how that no longer matters after a short time. In my best moments, it’s no longer what I know that counts, but what I feel. If everyone is musical, everyone has an intrinsic understanding of wacky time signatures. More and more sections succeed on the first try, some almost so somnambulistic that I don’t even notice what exactly I’m doing with my fingers.

Thumper punishes mistakes harshly, but not even in the fastest and most confusing moments could I safely say I didn’t see my failure coming. Very subtly, Thumper sprinkles in the first stages of a world the basic concept of the corner-obstacle-combinations that follow later. Learning the basics, internalize them, get better, faster, more fearless, more confident: Thumper is a strict, good teacher. Without that rigor, piloting the Beetle on the track would probably just be a very muddled, monotonous endeavor. But in this way, the game, which seems to consist of only one gameplay loop, unfolds a meta-game, and with it, so do I myself.

If gaming is just a matter of “pushing the right buttons,” then talking is just “saying the right sounds.” Painting would then only be applying colors and music would be an accumulation of frequencies and intervals, love would only be chemistry. The purist in me likes these simplifications, even if there is a lot of cynicism involved, which often only serves to feel superior to these powerful themes.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my acquaintance had a similar motive. Had she ever played Thumper. With only four directional inputs, an action button, and linear, automatic progression, it’s even less complicated than any Mario title. Of all things, this completely predictable and minimalist game proves: No, video gaming is no more just button-pushing and screen-gazing than life is just muscle twitching and synapse impulses.

The game Thumper was developed by a two-person team consisting of programmer Marc Flury and composer and designer Brian Gibson. Under the name Drool, the two released the game in 2016, which is now available for all major platforms. Sometimes referred to as a horror rhythm game, it is featured in numerous must-have lists and can even be played in VR.

This post is also available in: German