Since I turned 30 it’s like a switch has been flipped or something: I had the typical 20s night owl schedule, preferring to go to bed around dawn and waking up around noon, but for whatever reason, every day I wake up around 6-630. It’s extending to days off and weekends now.
But I’ve made the best of it, and it’s actually becoming a very valued part of my morning routine to wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and play a videogame for a while. Yes, yes, Dusty, a little lovin’ does definitely beat that, but we do what we can with what we have, and what we have are videogames.
I got Bit Trip Runner in one of the Humble Bundles, I believe–I’d played and mildly enjoyed Bit Trip Beat and played but did not enjoy Bit Trip Core, so I’d been familiar with the series, but only gave Runner about 10-15 minutes of playtime when I got it. About three weeks ago I picked up the game again, for some reason, and have been mainlining it pretty much every morning. While it’s not my favorite game I’ve played this year, it’s the one I’ve given the most time and attention to. I’ve certainly given it the most care: It’s the kind of game where there were multiple levels that I was stuck on for three, four days, stubbornly playing certain stages dozens of times until I finished them. I finally managed to beat the game yesterday.
At its heart, Bit Trip Runner is Canabalt attached to a rhythm game. It’s nothing particularly special–the music isn’t my style and isn’t that distinctive; the graphics are Bit Trip’s usual garish pixel art, fine to look at but, you know, whatever. It’s an entry in a series I more appreciate than like in a genre that’s all but dead.
I am curious about why I stuck with the game when games like this usually leave me cold very quickly.
As far as most people are concerned–sites like Hardcore Gaming 101 go into exhaustive histories of things like Bemani, but we’re gonna limit our discussion to the fads I’ve noticed–rhythm games are either Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. They’re less games and more somewhere in between performance and activity: During the peak of both, I could find a TV with at least one set up at every party I went to.
Guitar Hero ramped up towards its apex–I’d say the exact moment it died was when Seth Scheisel histrionically called Beatles Rock Band the “most important game of all time” ($7.99 on Amazon)–during the same period of time I was active in the band King Chef. The very first time I played the game was on one of our usual trips to Best Buy–what can I say? It was Jersey. You go and figure out something to do there.
There was a demo kiosk, and the three of us were looking at it, and since I was the guitarist I went first, and I loaded Heart Shaped Box, which is a song I’ve known how to play since I was 15, and I squeaked out a barely-passing version of it. Perhaps, we decided, because I played guitar, there was some kind of uncanny valley thing going on: The muscle memory I had for the song was contrary to what was going on in the game. But then my drummer tried and failed out, and my bassist did only slightly better. Perhaps, we decided, because I played guitar, I’d developed the necessary dexterity a little better. Certainly–I would find this out after I eventually bought the game and practiced some–there were some skills I’d developed from playing guitar which helped me. I attempted, time and time again, to explain hammerons to my non-musician friends, who would nod blankly and still spastically twiddle the strum switch during bits I played in a more flowing manner.
A thing I began to notice: I eventually got good enough at Guitar Hero to surpass my actual guitar skills. Where I was still a clunky pop punk guitarist, I was learning to shred at Guitar Hero.
Guitar Hero is an asymmetrical experience in the context of a party, and in that context it’s not completely dissimilar to what it feels like to be on stage, when you’re only sort of aware of what’s going on and you’re focusing more on what your fingers are doing. Even beyond hamming it up and dancing around while you play, everything but the notes in the game–your avatar choice, the club you’re playing in, the cuts and camera angles–is for the spectator’s benefit. Paying attention to what’s going on in the club is the easiest way to get distracted, and so the vast, vast majority of what’s on the screen gets ignored in favor of focusing on the portion of the screen where the notes are listed.
Something like Bit Trip Runner isn’t performance-focused: I played it on my laptop in my bedroom, which is barely larger than my bed–this wasn’t one which made it to my living room TV, wasn’t one I expected anyone to be interested in watching. I find it a more absorbing game; you are directly controlling the action rather than the action happening parallel to the game.
This is hard to explain: Moreso than Guitar Hero, Bit Trip Runner feels a lot like playing music.
I guess it’s like this: Music is a very physical thing to perform; when you’re with your band and you are locked into a groove, the music isn’t forming the soundtrack to the world as it does in Guitar Hero–the music is the world. That everything in Bit Trip is timed to the beats help this; camera angles and such in Guitar Hero just kind of happens.
But here’s a thought, and perhaps the entire point of this exercise: Playing Bit Trip runner is so much like playing music–not, you know, playing your own song, but somewhere in between drilling scales and playing along to an album.
My question to myself is: Can you imagine if you’d woken up and drilled scales for an hour every morning? Or hell, practiced singing, or worked out your core, or even just cleaned or something?
Lesson unlearned, though: The final game in the Bit Trip series, Void, was on sale for $2.50 on Steam, and I bought it. I played it for fifteen minutes and loaded up Runner again.
Seriously, dude, you could even just fucking sleep for another hour, you know?