soundshapes_478.jpgShaw-Han Liem, Jonathan Mak and Jason Degroot "6955" at the E3 Expo

Queasy Games' Sound Shapes for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita is a sidescrolling platformer, where level design generates sound design. The game allows you to customize your own stages in its level editor, incorporating building blocks designed by guest artists like Beck and deadmau5, and share those results over the PlayStation Network.

Queasy's Jonthan Mak won three Independent Games Festival awards for his solo effort Everyday Shooter, a marker of its inventive unity of gameplay, graphics and sound. This time around, audio has been overseen by Shaw-Han Liem, the composer of the I Am Robot and Proud series of electronic music albums.

In reaching out to visual artists like indie dev team Pixeljam to craft sprites for the game, Toronto chip musician Jason DeGroot, aka "6955," has been tasked with coordinating creative collaborations over the course of development. In this interview we hear about the prototyping process that preceded the recent launch of Sound Shapes.

In interviews you have said that Everyday Shooter got its start after you decided to turn your attention away from a more elaborate project to try out something simpler in design. Sound Shapes, it's been mentioned, got its start five years ago in a basement. What objectives were guiding you at the beginning?

Jonathan Mak: This is kind of the exact opposite. It started off with Shaw-Han and I creating visualizers for live music shows. We started talking about doing a game, but the problem was that at that point I still had Everyday Shooter stuck in my head.

Shaw-Han Liem: We grew up like a block away from each other but never met until around six years ago. I had been getting into projections and processing, and since he has so much experience doing coded visuals, it made sense to talk.

SHL: Jon came to a show I was playing, brought his laptop and showed me Everyday Shooter in an alleyway. I didn't know that much about games, but the idea of technology giving you a new way to compose music interested me. Instruments like the tenori-on and games like Electroplankton seemed like places where you could explore that concept.

Working together, there was some friction between the desire to introduce a strictly functional musical tool and the freedom of expression of a game like Everyday Shooter. A big part of the first two years was prototyping stuff and finding a cool place of overlap between our interests.

Everyday Shooter emphasized minimalism in the look of your ship and the ease of controls. With Sound Shapes there again is a simplicity to the graphics, and I'm wondering whether this is an indication of an overarching design philosophy.

JM: Graphically this game is a lot more understated than Everyday Shooter. A large part of what makes it feel good is seeing the connection between the graphical presentation and the patterns you are creating musically.

There can be an insecurity that minimalism doesn't look good, and it leads to this trend among videogames where it slowly turns into an assault on your eyes. Something as simple as a square on a blank canvas is a graphical approach that I really like.

Everyday Shooter actually is not that minimal at all, but much of it began from the place of a very minimal aesthetic. With Sound Shapes, through Shaw-Han's influence, the design approach became about simplicity. It's good to now be showing the game to people and hearing that they enjoy it.

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Rather than there being a music score for Sound Shapes, the background music emerges adaptively out of the elements of the level design. What kinds of challenges did you encounter in getting this synchronicity to work the way you wanted it to?

SHL: From a technical point-of-view, there is a certain logic being exercised behind the scenes that's ensuring the music sounds a certain way. The entire game runs on a sequencer that is quantized to various degrees of accuracy. Any action performed by the player in the game we can understand in musical terms. That information can then be nudged one way or the other so that it can always be in rhythm.

We do a lot of things like removing combinations of notes that would sound crummy. These are decisions that a musician might make on an unconscious level while improvising in order to keep the performance sounding good. A lot of those "rules" that I've internalized, we've taken and translated into programming language for the game.

It looks like the stripped down style of the art design is meant to ensure that the sounds you hear while playing are represented by what you're seeing on the screen.

SHL: While you're creating, and to some extent while you're playing a level, it looks like a blueprint. Conceptually, each level is like "a platforming game as a musical score." It's a one-to-one visualization of a music composition. Something along the lines of looking at sheet music becomes the look of the level.

It's the simplicity of the graphics in the player mode and editor mode that allows you to see that structure. I'm not sure if we were smart enough to think of that originally, but being able to view the entire level as a musical diagram is what has emerged as the style of the game.

JM: I think it's cool that such a simple aesthetic is coming out on brand new, next-gen [Vita] hardware. New players can look at a level and say, "I can make that." You can drop in some musical elements and some terrain and it totally becomes playable. Everything in the game is scripted, which means that the game runs ten times slower than usual. This is also why the design has remained simple, for technical reasons. This I see as a good thing because it has forced us to be creative.

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For over a year you were prototyping on the project that eventually became Sound Shapes. It was not initially conceived of as a portable title. What changed once you started working with the PS Vita DevKit to design the mobile release of the game?

SHL: Fundamentally, the core gameplay has remained the same. Developing for front and back touchscreens has allowed the level creation portion of the game to be a lot more tactile. When we began working with the hardware, it resulted in the integration of multitap, as well as gestures for resizing and rotating objects. All of that was added only after we decided to develop for a touch device.

In Sound Shapes you play as a ball that can stick to the underside of ledges and crawl upside down across these surfaces. What was the reasoning behind affording the player these abilities?

JM: Music notes were going to be dispersed all over the place, and you needed a way for the player to traverse that environment to collect all of them. Otherwise, it would be way too hard to make a functional level.

It used to be that you had to hold a button to be sticky, or toggle between that and ball mode. Finally it made sense to do what was easiest for the player, to make that the default action. What's nice about it is that it makes speedrunning the levels super fun, because you're disengaging this safety mechanism to move faster. You can find different ways to traverse the level in different ways, depending on whether you choose to use suction or run.

Queasy is working with 6955 in producing partnerships with guest artists. How were you interested in seeing these collaborations broaden your vision of the game?

SHL: Jason we asked to participate because he knows what's cool and knows a lot of cool people. In terms of working with musicians, ideally they would not be composing music in the usual sense, but using Sound Shapes in place of Abelton. These would be artists who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone to compose specifically with the game's editor. We've reached out to the Toronto indie community to design a lot of the levels. There's a few by Metanet, the makers of N+. Others are by Dan Vader from Capybara Games.

JM: The way the cells and tiles that I designed can be built up to create a level comes out of what Metanet was doing with N+. It was really good to have those guys around because I had just come off of making a shooter and had never programmed a platformer before. It was kind of a shock how hard it is.

Were you at any point discouraged by the idea of not composing a formal music score for the game?

SHL: I composed so much music for the other prototypes, but if I wanted to just write music then I should be making a record. That's not what interests me about making a game.

JM: This way there's more potential. This kind of game, where everything you see is a song, doesn't really exist out there. And I guess I see why it doesn't exist... because it's f-ing hard to design. People have made all sorts of suggestions for level designs, but the thing was that they didn't work as songs. Combining those two things together makes it more challenging and more rewarding.

I'm a game designer that loves music and he's a musician that's super interested in games. For both of us, forcing ourselves to overcome creative conflicts and find a balance between our interests has led to this current design for the game. Every prior prototype has had something cool about it, but this was the first one that really let us do what we wanted to do.

Images courtesy of Queasy Games. See also our interview with Shaw-Han Liem of Sound Shapes and Baiyon of PixelJunk 4am on their Tohoku earthquake charity album. Photo by Jeriaska.