Looking at the small span of time between now and then, 2007 doesn’t seem like very long ago. But at that time independent games were very much on their own vanguard. Jon Mak caught Sony’s attention with an odd, procedurally generated, musical game called Everyday Shooter, which made its way onto a young PlayStation Network. Since then, its creator, Jonathan Mak, has been one of Toronto’s indie-game originals, not to mention a charming, shy and eccentric character. It took years to even get much of a grasp on what Mak was tinkering away on, sans a tantalizing evening at the Unit Bar, when he showed off a series of impressive prototypes for games that, largely, resembled Everyday Shooter, only to shrug each off and announce they were probably more clutter for the waste bin.
It wasn’t until 2011 when Mak’s new title finally emerged at, of all places, E3. Sound Shapes, something that looked completely unlike his last game, and even his one-night-only prototypes, but all the while uncanny. A rhythmically-based platformer, using the flow of Knytt and the ferocity of Super Meat Boy, but glazing the whole thing in an attention to the music. Keeping the beat will ultimately decide the player’s success. Shaw-Han Liem, musician I Am Robot and Proud, co-designed the game with Mak, and while the game did draw the efforts of other gaming familiars, Craig “superbrothers” Adams, Jim Guthrie, Mathew Kumar and Cory Schmitz, it would even get some new tracks from huge musicians like Deadmau5 and Beck.
I had the chance to speak with Mak and Liem earlier this summer, to discuss the game, the process and the music. Assuming we could hear each other over the very loud Dyad demo behind us.
Dork Shelf: How did Sound Shapes finally come about?
Jonathan Mak: Sound Shapes started as a collaboration between myself and Shaw-Han. I’m a big fan of his music and I met him at a show. I showed him Everyday Shooter. We decided to start collaborating on different music visualizers, and that turned into making different type of musical games. We basically made eight or nine different games, left in the prototype-ish stage, but the last one we did was what would become Sound Shapes.
DS: Given the interconnectedness of it in Sound Shapes, and even Everyday Shooter, what kind of role do you think sound and music should play within video games?
JM: The weird thing with music is that I find playing a musical instrument has a lot of similarities with playing a game like Street Fighter. You learn it. You learn how to express yourself in the game. Street Fighter, your expression is, like, “well how badly can I punch your face in?” How you do that is still a personal action. It’s still based on you. From a really general point of view, they’re similar. You jam in Street Fighter, you jam on a guitar. You can learn riffs just like you can learn your combos. You can also get good enough that you can kind of synthesize that on the fly. Like when you play Marvel vs Capcom, it’s all about that.
DS: So it’s a creative gesture.
JM: When you play a game, compared to like watching a movie, you have to play it. You have to participate for something to output. Same thing with a musical instrument. Someone has to be playing the music.
SHL: I don’t think we have an agenda that says games “should” work this way, but it’s definitely an area we’re both interested in. A “what if?” What if we combined these two things, what if we created these connections between the game side and the music, so that people could actually see how the music is working through the game? And vice-versa.
DS: Have there been any games in the past you feel have achieved that relationship?
JM: I think it would be a shame not to mention the obvious stuff like Rez, Lumines, and Nintendo’s Electroplankton which had a game-y feel to it. Electroplankton showed how much fun a simple, musical toy can be. Just being interactive itself makes it fun, you didn’t even need the challenge or whatever. I think Guitar Hero is a very interesting foot note. No, not foot note, definitely not a foot note. A data point in the history of music games. It takes something so simple and it does it, and your gut reaction screams, “well that’s stupid,” but then you actually play it and you feel like you are playing a musical instrument. It’s like, in a game you program all these rules and stuff but instead they programmed enough rules that they can just use reality, and no longer having to program reality, just playing off the player’s desire to be a rock star. It’s programmed enough. I think I lost my train of thought there (looking behind him at the very, very loud DYAD demo).
DS: About those prototypes you showed at Unit Bar a few years ago. They seemed to look really good with a lot of potential, but you didn’t proceed with them. How you know when you’re working on a game is worth fleshing out?
JM: Some of those were cool, but, well when Shaw-Han and I were working on those prototypes, we were always trying to one up the last one. We thought, “Well this is good, but the player doesn’t have as much expression as they could, but what if they did this they could feel like a DJ and blah blah blah.” It wasn’t until we hit on Sound Shapes that we found a platform that works. And even then, we still weren’t sure, even after we signed on for the long haul, that this was going to be it. There was still a lot of problems. Like what we’re looking at now, that idea of a musical platformer? What the hell does that mean? What the hell is a musical platformer? There’s a scroll? What can the player do in it? How does the music happen?
DS: Was there a point when you remembered feeling confident in this game concept?
JM: I don’t even remember. I think because it’s such a new thing, I can’t really say that there was any moment when we knew this was it. We always knew it was really cool, what it is, and we have thought of and have implemented so much other stuff that didn’t make it into the game. There’s definitely a lot more to explore. I don’t know, if people are interested I feel like this could be a springboard for all sorts of game design.
DS: What was it like to work on a platformer for the first time?
JM: So, I guess you know that I don’t really like platformers.
JM: SO I GUESS YOU KNOW THAT I DON’T LIKE PLATFORMERS (thinking that I couldn’t hear him over Dyad’s shimmering tunes).
DS: No, actually I didn’t know that you didn’t like platformers.
JM: Well, there ya go. That’s one of the reasons we’ve resisted this kind of concept for so long. Or why I did. Uhm, dude that’s really loud (turns head back towards Dyad demo). Hey Shawn, can you turn that thing down a little bit ya motherfucker? (Shaw-Han and myself are giggling). Sorry. It was just a genre I never got into. Doing this was really interesting. I sort of learned to appreciate it. In Everyday Shooter, there was a music aspect to it but I was more into procedural generation, which is the opposite of what Sound Shapes is. I’ve sort of come to appreciate level design, the way it traditionally is, and this genre, the way that is. I’m definitely learning a lot from Regan and Mare off N+ and Knytt Stories and Mario are basically my biggest muses.
DS: Actually it’s funny you bring up Knytt, that was one of the first games that came to mind when I saw Sound Shapes.
JM: There’s definitely a Knytt vibe there. It used to be more Knytt-like. We simplified it a bit just because we wanted to make it easier for people who wanted to use Sound Shapes to make music.
DS: What lessons did you learn from making a platformer? Was there something you were surprised to encounter?
JM: How do I put this? So, the reason I don’t like traditional platformers, and even traditional games, is because it’s all memorization. Working on this, and even seeing Eric Chahi’s Another World, made me realize that even if you are memorizing, even though you’re just going through the motions, there’s still something there that makes you want to play that again. It’s like watching the same movie again. You’ve seen it already, but now you’re thinking of other things. There’s that experience of looking at a photograph. Something you want to return to. That’s something I didn’t expect to find. Still trying to figure out how I feel about that. I still think that the thrust of my work in the future will again be about procedural generation, and designing games procedurally-minded. But there’s something here.
DS: How did you feel about the strong reception from E3 last year?
JM: I remember being really surprised. We didn’t think anyone would like it at all. I didn’t think anyone would like it, or get it. But the game that we showed at E3, that was bare bones. It was almost a prototype. It’s been a real blessing though.
DS: Why do you think it stuck though?
JM: I think it’s because we’re working on a concept that’s so new. It’s taking concepts that are already on everybody’s mind and then even if you’re saying what everyone is thinking, it still takes one group to come forward and do that. You play a music game hoping it’s more game-y, or a game-y game and wish you could make your own songs in it. This game promises that, even if it’s a platformer first. There’s so many different ways to explore this route. It’s only the first of its kind.
DS: Was assigning popular musicians, Beck, Deadmau5, a result of that hype?
JM: There was always talk of that. We didn’t know if that was going to be possible or not. It doesn’t take a fuckin’ brain surgeon to say, “hey, you know what would be a good idea? Let’s get Deadmau5 to write music for this thing.” That wasn’t something that came out of nowhere.
DS: What was it like to work with the musicians on this project?
SHL: Well, when it comes to Deadmau5, I think he is a gamer and a game fan. We sort of needed to work with people who were interested in being involved, more than just handing us an album track. The game doesn’t really work like that. Doesn’t hurt that Deadmau5 was in Toronto, that those things combined to create the situation where it all ultimately made sense. You’ll see the levels that are based around the specific artists, and then get to use their sounds in the creation mode. It really adds a new element, and better yet it adds styles of music that the game didn’t have yet. Sound Shapes, it’s a game but it’s also a structure. It’s an ecosystem, and to introduce these elements into that ecosystem and see how they interact with everything else is pretty cool.
DS: The game felt like an organic experience, the further I went the more there was, to recognize, patterns, and the more it made sense to me. Was that something you were hoping for?
JM: I think the main thing was to make sure players can see where the music was coming from on the screen. That’s such a hard thing to do. We have had varying degrees of success in the game of achieveing that goal. But that’s important. You’re looking at sheet music, that’s the way Shaw-Han puts it. You’re looking at sheet music for the modern age. The nice thing is you can look at it, you’re looking at the music and if you want your level to sound like that, you just make it. You just make what you see. That’s the coolest thing. You can go into the community, see something that wows you and even see how they did it.
DS: Is there anything you’d hope to see from the community?
JM: I think what would make my day is anyone who thinks they can’t write music, but then some mythical thing happens and they come out and make something that really impresses them. Something really awesome. And if that person shows their friends, maybe their friends get into it. That person who gets that sense of creation. I’d love for them to have that.
Sound Shapes is now available for the PS3 and PSVita. Full review coming soon.