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Rhythm-action games should be more like musicals than fitness videos - working our emotions, not just our reflexes

As a recovering drama nerd, I'm a sucker for character arcs of self-actualisation book-ended by song. I had great fun taking centre stage in Metronomik's musically minded No Straight Roads. One impressive boss arena featured a piano prodigy’s overprotective mother represented as a raging, red phantom. I found myself surprisingly affected by her destruction of the stage punctuated by her contradictory cries of "YOU ARE RUINING HER CONCERT!"

No Straight Roads matches action to the beat, though this relationship is purposely pretty loose and, as affecting as this confrontation was, it remains to be seen just how intertwined its set list will be with the emotional arcs of its characters. 

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A lot of the best rhythm games on PS4 either sideline story or are solely mechanics-led and, while I enjoyed sweating to Beat Saber, I'm wondering why more don't tie the two together better. What I’m getting at is: why isn’t there a whole sub-genre of rhythm games that are fashioned like playable musicals? Devil May Cry 5's dynamic soundtrack adds another layer of hype to combat, and the way in which Sekiro incorporates rhythm mechanics is super-cool (Riot animator Adam Turnbull’s tweets on this are well worth the read), but these feel a little too La La Land and not enough Les Misérables to me. Why is this still an itch that can only be sort of scratched by returning to Space Channel 5? 

...Oh god, did I seriously just compare Space Channel 5 to Broadway smash Les Misérables?

A unique challenge

It's worth noting the unique challenge the medium itself presents composers as one cannot possibly predict when you’re going to hit the start button (give Sideways' primer on indeterminate music as it relates to video games a watch if you're looking for a qualified dose of theory). Adding lyrics and telling a story requires choreography – not to mention room enough in the budget to get comfy. The less said about Space Channel 5's cheesy lyrics... well, the poorer we'll be for entirely discounting its contribution.

Space Channel 5's Simon Says back-and-forth still feels (mostly) great to play all this time later. Besides having an endless loop of "Right – chu! Left – chu! HEY HEY HEY" stuck in my head for weeks now, the game stands out as a possible proto-playable-musical (we can workshop the name later) while also laying out the challenges a proper swing at the idea any future project would have to overcome.

In Ulala's Swinging Report Show all problems are overcome through song, dance, and even the odd guitar solo – your actions are tied into the music and your success (or failure) affects the direction of her story – but problems arise the moment more traditional lyrics enter the fray. You can sense the challenge these call-and-response lines presented to the localisation team, especially as the uneven meter of these verses in English can throw your timing off for the following barrage of inputs. While PaRappa The Rapper attempts a compromise for its use of lyrics, it's no wonder Gitaroo Man dispenses completely with giving words a mechanical gameplay space. Bound was pitched to me as a playable ballet... so I was frustrated when it wasn't quite that at all and even used dialogue instead of the player’s dance alone to tell its story. 

Maybe Sekiro is onto something in borrowing rhythm mechanics for what is decidedly not a rhythm game; maybe I shouldn’t be holding out hope of playing Ulala’s Land and should instead be looking out for a Dance Dance Shinobi Revolution.

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