Digital Fitness, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, Rhythm Games, Sony PSP

The 10th Annual Independent Games Festival has been a treasure trove of rhythm games and examples of how games could be included in education.

One of the award winning games is Audiosurf. Its not strictly a rhythm game but it music is an integral part of the game play. Its a simple premise, steer a spacecraft down a twisting, turning track collecting some coloured blocks whilst avoiding others. The twist is that the race track is generated from the music you choose to play from your MP3 collection. So you can have a fast and furious race course by selecting some thumping guitar or a slow, easy route if you choose a crooner like Frank Sinatra. What’s more, every time you race, the track and your score is uploaded to a server on the net and you can compare your music and your scores with others around the world.

Audiosurf introduces a couple of interesting concepts. It allows the user to completely control the level of difficulty through their song selection. A recording of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star will be vastly easier than anything by Motorhead. To see an example of this, watch this video of Audiosurf for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. The beginning is slow and mellow but later on (about 4:15 mins Wayne’s World fans) it kicks into serious headbanging guitar and everything gets much harder.

The other interesting aspect of selecting your own music is the possibility of Mozart Effect. I don’t refer to the much hyped and oversold Mozart Effect range of products but the more general principal than music, particularly complex classical music, has in the neurological development of children. There is good, but not overwhelming evidence, that music can help calm and mentally stimulate children. I’m willing to be that if the Mozart Effect is real, it will be enhanced if the children are exposed to it as part of an interactive game.

Winner of the Best Student Game at the Independent Games Festival was Synaesthete. In this free-to-download PC game, the player explores an abstract landscape populated by monsters and other dangers. To destroy the creatures you can fire a variety of attacks at them. The twist being that to attack them, you need to press keys in time with the backing music. What sets this game apart from rhythm games like Guitar Hero, is the level of choice the player has. With Guitar Hero, to score point you must play all the notes in time with the music. In Synaesthete, you can choose which notes to play, e.g. just the back beat, and your choice will effect which attacks you make. You can also simply explore the enviroment, avoiding the monsters.

What sets Synaesthete and Patapon (which we covered a couple of weeks ago), apart is that the rhythmic aspect of the game have been shifted from being the aim of the game to a simple game mechanic. The difference between these two points is subtle but important. In a traditional rhythm game, you score points by playing in time with the music so getting good at the rhythm is everything. When rhythm is reduced to a mechanic, the aim of the game is to explore the level, defeat the enemy tribe or rescue the princess. To do this the player has to learn rhythmic skills but these are combined with other skills and tactics in order to achieve the game’s objective.

Reducing the rhythmic element to the game to a mechanic makes the game more appealing to those with poor rhythmic skills. To use an analogy, if you asked people to learn to climb a cliff for the sake of climbing a cliff, some people would set out and learn how to climb because it looks fun. However, most will simply walk away because the reward for all that effort of learning to climb is not worth it. But, if you told people that hidden on the cliff face were a variety of prizes: money, computer games, cars etc, then far more people will learn to climb because of the rewards are worthwhile. Even people with a fear of heights would learn to climb if the prizes are ones that appeal to them. Climbing has now become a way of achieving a goal rather than the goal itself.

This distinction is lost on many educational game makers. Take for for example the traditional game of Hangman. In this the objective is to spell / guess a word and it certainly helps develop language skills. But those with weak language skills, who would most benefit from it, will be put off. They are being asked to learn to climb, simply for the sake of climbing a cliff. To reach those who most need this help, the spelling aspect must be something they learn on the way to a goal that interests the child. For more why and how games attract and keep players, see Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. For an strange looking word game (its not clear exactly how it works) from the IGF have a look at Poesysteme.

The next rhythm game from the IGF is Cinnamon Beats. Its a puzzle game more than a rhythm game but rhythm is a key ingredient. It is not available yet and hard to describe as I’ve not played it but it involves bouncing balls off musical instruments and other objects so that they make the right noise at the right time.

One last rhythm game is Fretnice. I cannot find much about it other than the game is controlled using the guitar’s from Guitar Hero. The limited blurb suggests its a rhythm game where you are “playing the game as if it was a rock song”. Watch this trailer:

Finally, there is Crayon Physics Deluxe. Its a puzzle game using 2d physics similar to Phun except whereas Phun is just a sandbox for experimentation, Crayon Physics is a game with an objective. It looks a great way to teach problem solving skills to young children.

All these games show the possibility of teaching skills through inventive game play. The holy grail is to develop a game that teaches something obviously useful (e.g. spelling) in such a way that even those with poor language skills will want to keep playing it long after the lesson has finished.

Digital Fitness, Rhythm Games, Sony PSP

Rhythm Games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero have been around for a while now and they offer a fun way to work on your rhythmic skills. However the game play has always been focused on the rhythm. So in Dance Dance Revolution you dance in time with the music to score points; in Guitar Hero, to strum the guitar in time with the music to score points. If dancing or playing an instrument doesn’t appeal to you then the whole genre of rhythm games will have passed you by. But rhythm games enter a whole new arena with the release of Patapon.

Taking rhythm back to the songs of the chain gang or the marching songs of the marines, Patapon takes rhythm to war. Unlike other rhythm games where each level or song is a complex new sequence to learn, in this game there are only three sequences to learn. The first is “Pata Pata Pata Pon!” from which the game gets its name. By tapping this rhythm out on the controls, your little on-screen army will attack their evil invaders. The longer you can keep the rhythm going, the more successful your army will fight. During the game you learn two other rhythms that allow for different tactics on the battlefield.

With lots of different levels, boss monsters and a variety of weapon upgrades, Patapon offers far more variation than other rhythm games. This keeps players interested and shifts the focus of the game away from the mindless pressing of button. The graphics are simple but impressive. Both the graphics, and the game’s story-lines are reminiscent of the ground-breakingBeanWorld comics.

Patapon Trailer

Patapon represents an important shift in rhythmic game play and one developers of education games should take note. In too many education games the ‘lesson’, e.g. spelling, is the point of the game. Get the lesson right and you earn points. Unfortunately this makes for a very boring game as players realise that once you master the lesson, the game has nothing more to offer. If someone can’t master it or the lesson simply doesn’t appeal to them, then they will give up on the game. What Patapon does is to make the lesson, the mastery of rhythm, a mechanic of the game that is just one part of the game’s challenge. The players still have to master the lesson but that mastery enables them to explore other challengers. If you are interested in the this subject, have a look at The Theory of Fun.

Patapon is available for the Sony PSP in the USA and UK Preorder.