Call, Response, Repeat: Rhythm Games As Short Form Fiction

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Call, Response, Repeat: Rhythm Games As Short Form Fiction

Flash fiction and rhythm games are both beholden to brevity. In the former’s case, complicated ideas are cut down to be conveyed with only the most necessary word economy. In the latter’s, music is often composed (or edited) to score a two minute burst of mechanical showmanship and flashy short films.

In both rhythm games and flash fiction, the emphasis in each piece is on impact—not volume.

To read flash is to take out your fine tooth comb, willfully, and pick something apart. In a good work of flash, each word has meaning and every syllable has a place. It teaches you to read with a more stringent eye, and forces speedreaders to slow down for once. Likewise, each button press in a rhythm game matters. A dropped or delayed input can spell the difference between a high score and your worst run. It can’t be mashed around—you need to be able to sound each input out on your controller, in time, in sequence.

Parappa The Rapper can be considered the first rhythm game in proper, and in its presentation lies the ludonarrative heart of the genre. Parappa’s comical rise to rap glory is a cohesive long-form narrative, broken apart into separate vignettes to highlight different soundtrack cuts. It can only be played in time to the score, which forces players to get the rhythm down for each track if they want to finish the game. The game’s hyper-colorful cartoon aesthetic compliments each track, motivating players to try harder just to see more of it.

Konami released the first installment of Beatmania one year post-Parappa, in 1997. The persistent, personal musical experience of Parappa was broken apart, commodified, and doled out piecemeal in a colorful cabinet—three songs for one credit. Rhythm games, as we know them, wouldn’t exist without this crucial capitalist choice. Three-song sets are the lay of the land for the genre to this day, even in home releases with no need for credits.

Beatmania was a runaway success in Japanese arcades, and as the inaugural game under Konami’s still-active Bemani label, gave future developers a roadmap to build off of. Pop N’ Music, Dance Dance Revolution, and Guitar Freaks owe their existence to this initial success. Each of those series—particularly the first two—would pioneer short form storytelling in rhythm games. Early games included simple representations of DJs, dancers, and mascots, but would eventually expand to include flashy and compelling short videos with very little narrative substance. By the mid-aughts, however, Bemani songs like “Xepher” and “DoLL” housed limited mini-stories centered around popular otaku fare like big robots and cutesy anime girls.

2004 was the watershed year for short form ludo-narrative resonance in rhythm gaming, however. The DJMax series, originally introduced as an online-only PC game in South Korea, took the basic gameplay of Beatmania—right down to the note highway—and geared it around a home play audience. This meant making a more cinematic, less skill-dependent title that could have broad appeal and be enjoyed solo.

Aside from mechanical flourishes, like gummier notes and more forgiving accuracy that gives it a higher-than-average skill ceiling for the genre, DJMax puts a square focus on the visuals behind the note highway. Each song comes paired with a unique video, most of which house compelling micro-narratives. Songs like “Oblivion,” “Mess It Up,” and “Fallen Angel” introduce entire worlds and casts of characters, while cuts such as “Miles,” “So Much In Luv,” and “Let’s Go, Baby” offer smaller slices of life with self-contained stories of love, heartbreak, and everything in between.

Being invested in these stories is, arguably, the most important part of DJMax. The developers expect a baseline level of interest from the player, enough to motivate them into playing each song correctly. You’re not just trying to beat a song—you’re scoring a cutscene that you (ostensibly) care enough about to pay attention to. Later entries of the series see returns of and references to characters introduced over 15 years prior, often in entirely different narrative contexts than we first saw them. It’s a level of care rarely put into a genre that is, at its core, Simon set to music.

This care is at the heart of why I play rhythm games. My early days with the genre were defined by being laughed off a Dance Dance Revolution Extreme cabinet by teenagers and refusing to care about most of the Guitar Hero tracklists. Rhythm games were a skill to compete at, not a genre to fall in love with. But in my sophomore year of high school, DJMax Fever changed that. The unsung PSP game caught my eye with a club-going anime girl on the cover, but it was that attention to visuals that kept me hooked. Each song was chocked full with sad robots, lovelorn lesbians, Gothic vampires, and about a dozen other things I loved in high school.

In a phase of my life where I was touch-starved and mostly friendless, DJMax gave me narratives to soothe, heal, and hope with. Each replay was a new chance to catch more details I could latch onto and relate to. Along the way, I fell in love with a few dozen types of music I didn’t usually listen to. I also got better at rhythm games-way better. I don’t respond well to aggressive challenge. Something needs to catch my interest, or I refuse to learn it. It’s why I still can’t do a lot of basic math—I just don’t fucking care.

But it was college, actually, that helped me even look at DJMax—or any rhythm game—this way. By 18, I’d written a 50,000+ word novel and self-published it. It was terrible—self-indulgent and steeped in 4Chan mental backwash. I knew it, too. So I was actually relieved when, in my first semester at Guilfordian, I flubbed my first writing assignments. My teacher and dear friend, the late Jeff Jeske, was my harshest critic. He tore apart—lovingly—my flowery prose and unwieldy paragraphs. Taught me that the worst crime a writer could commit is wasting a word. A few months into school and my writing had been torn apart, melted to pulp, and pressed into clean paper—ready to etch on.

That October, I entered a flash fiction contest and took a Sports assignment to prove to myself—to Jeff, really—that I’d learned from my mistakes. That I could do concise horror and write for a section I didn’t fucking care about. My short story, Red Satin (originally published as the unwieldy Bereaved Boy’s Manipulation) took first prize. That Sports piece-a profile of aging athletes throwing in the towel—was Jeff’s second favorite thing that I ever wrote (the first being, ironically, another Sports piece.) Through flash and journalism, I learned the art of taking things apart word by word, piece by piece, beat by beat.

In the years since, that same process has helped me through more Perfect Clears, S+’s, and Five Star ranks in more rhythm games than I can count. That laser-focused approach of taking something small and hammering it out—over and over ‘til it hurts—until I’m damn sure I can do it. To do that, I give myself to the music, the visuals, the note away, the mechanical clack of keys, buttons, or arrows. Each song is an experience—a game to win, a story to analyze, a pattern to memorize.

It’s why I commit dozens of hours to these bite-sized experiences and fall off most multi-dozen-hour open worlds in under 10. Because flash fiction and rhythm games are both beholden to brevity. Complicated ideas, conveyed only with what’s necessary. Another green-and-god-ray pasture to colonize doesn’t appeal to me. A game needs to hook me song by song, beat by beat, note by note to keep my interest.

Most other things feel like wasted words.


Madeline Blondeau (formerly known as Bella) is a Georgia-born, PNW-based editor, writer & podcaster. Her words can be found on Anime Feminist, Anime News Network, Screen Queens, and Lost In Cult. She’s also the creator of Cinema Cauldron—a long-form audio essay series on film. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @VHSVVitch.