“It’s gotta be sweaty in there,” I think to myself as I come up to the Reverb Publishing booth. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it is large, blue, and containing a very unlucky marketing fellow. But then I see another man, his neck overflowing with little miniature versions of this turquoise machination. This guy, as it turns out, is one of the three CEOs of Threaks, developers of BeatBuddy.
Wolf Lang—one of the coolest names I’ve ever heard, by the way—walks me through the basics of BeatBuddy: it’s an action adventure game based in a world of music. You play as BeatBuddy, a beryl, mouthless mass with headphones and a love of music, who inexplicably is woken up and set upon an adventure. A bit cagey, Lang will only go so far into the plot details, but our little rhythm-lover eventually meets the Prince of Music, an ostentatious dude who loves putting on concerts and, well, himself. He is abusing the music, and over the course the game’s six levels, we’ll discover why, how BeatBuddy is connected, and what their roles are in this world.
The gameplay itself is a 2D action game where BeatBuddy kind of, um, floats around in what feels like an aquatic world (Lang tells me people often ask, “Is he underwater? Is he a penguin?”). You have a dash move that can thrust you through certain constructs of the world and you can pick up other things, but most of the time you’ll just be coming up against maneuvering through beats and having the music literally move you through the game.
You see, each level of BeatBuddy is actually more of a track. As each one starts, a little text blurb comes up and credits the artist that wrote the song you’ll be playing, such as “Love Swing” by Sabrepulse. Each track of the song will get broken out into things like bass drum, hi-hat, and vocals and each one manifests itself differently within the game. Bass hits in this demo, for instance, are throbbing flower-like things that shoot you across the screen when you touch it. Diddles on the hi-hat are represented by a combination of a hermit crab-ish thing that controls several connected spiky creatures and the only way to get by without taking damage is to hit the crab, forcing it, the spikes, and the tnktnktnk of the music track to retract.
There’s also a thing called a BeatMobile that bumps up and down and can only move to the beat of the track. While other parts of the game has you tinkering around with the beat (and occasionally brute-forcing your way through some obstacles), the BeatMobile locks you down and quantizes your movement so you are inextricably tied to the rhythm. If you can’t keep up, you’re in a lot of trouble.
BeatBuddy, however, is not a music game. What started out three years ago as a game about a music virus, BeatBuddy was crafted out of what eventually became the BeatMobile section of the game. “Somewhere along the way,” says Lang, “[art director Denis Rogic] came up with this whole world around BeatBuddy. We said, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t be so abstract with the design. We’ve gotta come up with a believable world where we can also put a story in it and make people understand how the music is working.'”
Their goal, in the end, was “to not scare off anyone who didn’t like music games,” says Lang. It’s a niche genre within a relatively niche industry (in regards to exposure compared to movies, television, and music, anyways), so accessibility and reputability are both important. And what better way to do that than work with the man who got a Grammy nomination for it: Austin Wintory.
Wintory, if you’re not aware, is a composer, and a fairly prolific one at that with 300 scores under his belt since 2003. While some may know him for his work on 2009 Sundance hit Grace, most of the gaming world knows him as the guy who broke the mold by having his score for Journey be nominated for the 2013 Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media Grammy, the first video game to do so (Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” for Civilization IV was for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)). What Wintory did for BeatBuddy, though, was lend an air of legitimacy.
“A lot of musicians from the music scene weren’t sure what would happen because they’re not familiar with video games,” says Lang. “It doesn’t harm their music; it just gives another layer of experience,” something that Wintory helps prove. Approaching him with the simple query of “hey, want to write us a four-minute single for our game concept?”, a vindicated composer like Wintory helped give BeatBuddy and the team some clout.
It wasn’t just that, though, as Wintory also managed to give some back and forth during the process. Whereas most other games first have the design and development done first and then the music is put on top, BeatBuddy went the other direction. “Our idea was to go the opposite way,” says Lang. “We didn’t want to tell the composer, ‘Hey, now make music that fits my game.’ We want to take their structure and design the level around that.” And Wintory, fresh off (and perhaps during) the development of Journey, had some ideas.
“He already worked with Thatgamecompany, so he pitched some ideas and we pitched game ideas,” says Lang. “He already understood how the process works. He was telling us how music fit in with the development of Journey and he was giving us so many tips. He was telling us how things feel harmonic going from one area to another.”
From the bit that I played, it all seems to be working out. There’s something insanely hypnotic about moving through a world where all the auditory elements are totally discrete whereas they are usually muddled and ambient in the real world. Visuals are intrinsic to the medium, but having music—real music—as a diegetic part of the game world really gets it stuck deep into your head. I found it hard even when I wasn’t navigating deadly corridors or solving rhythmic puzzles to not move the stick and push buttons in time with the track.
The puzzles themselves are also fairly interesting. I was just getting started so some of them were barely even puzzles, but you had to pay attention to not only what things were doing visually but also how they interested musically. Moving this spire around would lead these blue bubbles around as well, all of which emanate from a single source. Depending on where you put the spire, different doors would open up, but as with everything in BeatBuddy, these bubbles also control a specific track of the song. So you could hear when the beat was right that you were opening up a progressive path in the level.
Those are interesting ideas, but three and a half years of thinking will often get you that. BeatBuddy seems to so far be on track of properly executing those ideas, too. I can’t be sure, but my time with it definitely tapped into my deeply rooted need to feel some dance-inducing beats. It’s often you get games that have great sound design, parts of which inform you of its visual counterpart, but BeatBuddy seems poised to have to go the other way around, and that sounds like a tune you can really tap your toe to.
Look for BeatBuddy on Steam sometime soon (“but definitely after E3,” says Lang).