The Neon Maypole: Sentris and Making Music With Games

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The big gaming conferences tend to leave a wake of cynical exhaustion in the metaphorical hangover that follows them. They have a way of using you up, turning your passion for gaming, however qualified it may be, into a Roman candle’s fuel; when all is said and done you feel a certain longing—for the friends you won’t see for months, the community that you must leave (or the one you never found at the conference to begin with)—and lament for missed connections, panels, or opportunities. Sometimes you’re left with a sense of hollowness, as I was after last month’s PAX East, your sense of wonderment and fun giving way to a recognition of how your love was turned into kindling for the corporate bonfire pavilions that dominated the expo floor.

But the easiest way to dispel the melancholy is to reflect on what you loved and make the experience your own. And in booth after booth there were bonfires of a different, more pagan sort, heathen flames in the long shadows of Alienware, Blizzard and Xbox. One in particular housed a game that enticed you into a circular, Maypole dance: Samantha Kalman’s Sentris. Put most simply, Sentris is a music-puzzle game where you apply specific beats to points along a series of concentric circles. In the process, rather than completing the notes of an existing composition, you end up synthesizing your own music.

This is very much by design.

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The most enchanting moment I had with this game wasn’t even when I was playing it. While hanging around the Sentris booth after my play session I watched Kalman politely ask someone who’d just finished playing the demo if she could listen to their headphones before they reset the game.

She wanted to hear the unique music they had just made in her wheel-based musical puzzle game. As she smiled and bobbed her head to the beat, it clicked for me just what Sentris was about.

When I played, I found myself puzzled at the unique control structure of the game, perceiving a gap between the instructions and what I was confronted with during play. But the enchanting thing was that this felt purposeful: I learned to walk again in a way that made the music-making feel fluid rather than over-planned. Before long I forgot where my fingers were and moved on instinct. Sentris is based entirely on its elegantly designed, slowly spinning musical wheel. You have to place blocks of music at certain points within the concentric circles of the wheel in order to complete the puzzles.

But unlike much more famous music games which have a “correct” solution (press the buttons at the right time in the right order to get as close to “perfect” as possible), Sentris encourages creativity. There are multiple ways to complete the puzzle, different combinations of notes and instruments as you slowly make your way to victory by coloring in the wheel as you see fit.

Lights, lights, lights on your own winding path to win, to the point where you forget you’re even trying to, your composition spinning out in front of you as you go.

Kalman wanted to hear the unique bit of music created by that PAX conference goer at her demo booth, to sample that bit of magic no one else but him could’ve created. The puzzles are one of Sentris’ main selling points, but if you just want to use the wheel to make your own music without end there’s a freeform function too. “I want everyone to make music,” Kalman often says when describing her game and what it’s about.

When I interviewed her she spoke movingly about the various economic and structural obstacles that attended the craft of music-making. “It’s become a monolithic / enigmatic / elite activity,” she says, “hidden behind a barrier that only those with the privileges of time and access can pursue in a significant way.”

Kalman regards herself as lucky since she was able to take classes and own an expensive instrument (in her case, a keyboard), and yet still felt riven by what she called “a sensation of self-perceived incompetence growing in myself” as she measured herself against what she heard on the radio. Then, she said, “I was graciously invited to play music with some friends. Over time and with a lot of their help, I was able to experience the joy of musical creation. It’s a really special feeling —an emotion that I’m not sure has a well-defined word to describe it in our language. The first time I felt it I knew that everyone needed to experience it.” Thus Sentris was born.

This also gives some shape and definition to Kalman’s philosophy behind the game’s design: a game that encourages a certain amount of independent-mindedness above and beyond the quick-time events that encourage the repetition of existing music. When I played the game I could feel it expressing that enthusiasm for music-making, that it should be easy and yet distinctive, allowing you to compose from the very start. Sentris, Kalman says, “is trying to flatten that very steep curve so that from the very first puzzle everyone is creating a song that’s at least a little bit distinctive to them.”

And it was that unique song that Kalman wanted to hear when that young man finished his demo; a sincere joy lit up her face at that moment. A passerby from PAX had just sat down and created something rather akin to an auditory fingerprint. The game excels at this. “Every player who is willing enough to press that button is actively engaging in an authentic creative process (whether they realize it or not),” she said.

The recent Honeycomb update has enhanced Sentris’ fluidity, with Kalman saying that it “addresses a couple of things about Sentris that just weren’t working.” The eponymous honeycombs serve to illustrate tonal relationships, taking the place of ROYGBIV color in previous versions. Colors now instead connote different instruments and can better complement the array of backgrounds available in the game. It’s a simple change, but one with profound implications for how smoothly the game plays. For me, the honeycombs melted into my twitchy composition, while the color scheme made it very easy for me to sense which instruments I needed to complete each puzzle; by greasing the skids, the Honeycomb update enhances the intuitive nature of the game’s composition system, allowing you to, quite frankly, play by ear.

“It works a lot better,” Kalman said simply, and I couldn’t disagree. My composition changed in subtle ways as I strove to complete the puzzle presented by the eternally spinning wheel, and not always in ways I intended or could control. Sometimes pure composition was subordinate to making all the blocks of sound fit, but conversely as one sound layered on another, music emerged in magically unintended ways.

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The game itself is a testament to a passion that bridges several different worlds, making a ludic experience of music—a rather natural marriage, if you think about it. It expresses the hope that I and others have of a videogame world that is not self-contained but fully continuous with the galaxies of art that preceded it. Kalman’s democratic dream takes flight with Sentris. Everyone can make music. Everyone can game.

I dare to hope because games like this exist. Neon glowing in the dark, flying, spinning, head bobbing, always in motion to the beat no tintinnabulating, trollish clamor can silence. Exhausted and drained as I was by PAX, I found myself smiling slightly through my fatigue while laying on an nonrecuperative hotel bed: we’re still moving, always.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the City University of New York and a gaming scholar/critic who focuses on gender and culture in games. You can read her work at quinnae.com, at Feministing and on Twitter.

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