Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Thumper is a “rhythm violence” game where you are a space beetle and you are confronting a maniacal giant head from the future. It doesn’t make much sense from the description, and even though Thumper is best described as a rhythm game it’s a bit of a stretch. Most rhythm games don’t offer many opportunities for decision making, whereas Thumper is designed around giving the player a little bit of control over their fate, and then toying with that amount over the course of your wild ride.
Sid Meier, the designer behind the Civilization series, has said that a game is “a series of interesting decisions.” In order for a decision to be interesting, it must have tradeoffs. You have a decision between building a defensive wall, or building more fighting troops, or building more scouts and reconnaissance units, and they all have different benefits and weaknesses that the player must juggle.
But this definion doesn’t hold up for rhythm games, because there are no actual decisions. There is no reason why you would choose to not hit a note. You must always hit every note, and if you fail, that’s an execution error rather than a conscious decision. It’s not a tradeoff, it’s not balancing different needs, it’s just that your fingers didn’t move quickly enough.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is another debate. Even though rhythm games don’t have interesting decisions, they are still plenty of fun to play. But some recent games have tried subverting this barrier by making rhythm games with decisions, such as Crypt of the Necrodancer where keeping up with the beat is actually very easy to physically perform, but you must also decide what you are going to do on that beat.
Thumper is somewhere in between Crypt of the Necrodancer and the traditional Guitar Hero-style rhythm games in terms of decision making. The primary decision you will make is a basic choice between risk versus reward. Blue “thumps” on the ground can be hit for points, but ignoring them won’t do anything bad. However, everything colored red is a hazard and can kill you. The first hit will take off your shell, and the second hit will force you to restart the level.
If blue thumps were only there for points, it would still be a decision (aim for high score, or survive?), but it would be an external decision. It wouldn’t be a decision that’s made for the sake of the core gameplay loop, it would instead be part of the metagame. Blue thumps are indeed there for points and are necessary for a high score, which is a fair decision.
But they are also directly related to the core gameplay loop because if you do a good enough job hitting the blue thumps, you have an opportunity to get your shell back. Special blue thumps are marked as “bonus thumps” that restore the shell, and if you perform a unique action you can turn an upcoming normal thump into a bonus thump.
Now, when the player takes a hit, they’re able to make a decision: should they aim for blue thumps and try to get their shell back, or should they mentally hunker down and focus solely on surviving until the next checkpoint? This decision still hinges on their ability to physically execute, but the player is able to judge their own ability and decide whether or not it’s possible.
Once this core decision is set in place, the game throws in new mechanics to play around with your limited amount of agency. There are basically three ways that players can react to thumps. You can ignore them, hit them, or “pound” them, which is essentially the same thing as hitting them except that it’s more difficult and requires foresight.
A new enemy will shoot lasers at you if you ignore thumps, which forces you to bump up your minimum effort if you were planning to cruise through. Some bosses will have shields that can only be destroyed by pounding a thump: you can still decide when and where, but you know that sooner or later you’ll have to step up your game. All of these mechanics interact with your ability to make decisions.
One major problem I have with Thumper is that sometimes, the gratuitous visual design hinders your ability to look ahead and see incoming threats. Sometimes, you will be in a tunnel that makes multiple sharp turns in a row that you cannot see. In a standard rhythm game, this would be unforgivable, but in Thumper, this is alleviated slightly. If you take damage from a cheap turn, the damage is not permanent and you can still recover, much like how Dark Souls can have cheap damage because of its Estus system. From another perspective, these moments force players into the core decision loop if they were doing too well.
Existential Dread and the Out of Body Experience
In the Thumper trailer, they quote IGN as saying that the game “filled them with existential dread.” That’s a funny thing to say about a rhythm game, but it makes sense for Thumper. It’s one of those games that draws players into a sense of flow, like you’re maintaining perfect concentration through impossible scenarios. Like your sense of self slowly starts drifting away and you stop looking at the space track with your eyes, and everything turns into a blur and you’re not sure how you’re doing the things you’re doing, but you’re somehow doing them anyway.
Many games can do this, but few of them merge decision making with this sense of chaos. When you make decisions, you’re forced to step back away from your controller and your fingers and look at what’s happening from an outside perspective. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. Can I really continue to do this? Am I confident enough in my abilities?”
When you become too self-conscious about the game and you try to focus, you end up crashing, like losing track of the beat in a rhythm game. But when you aren’t self-conscious enough, you won’t have the presence of mind to make smart decisions. This makes Thumper‘s core decision loop fundamentally different from, say, deciding to hit a perfect note in Guitar Hero versus settling for an okay one.
If you took Guitar Hero and put it in space with an ambient industrial soundtrack, I still don’t think it would evoke a sense of “existential dread.” Yes, a lot of that feeling comes from Thumper‘s haunting visuals, but it also comes from the mechanical duality of decision making versus instinctual timing. It’s that sense of existing in a state of limbo, watching yourself do things you didn’t think possible but also consciously deciding to put yourself in those situations.
Thumper is a good example of how far a genre can be stretched with some fundamental tweaks to the mechanics. The traditional “health” system in rhythm games is functional, but it creates a different dynamic. Instead, Thumper toys with the concept of decision making to place players in the perfect mental state to experience the game the way the designers intend.