Rez And The Birth Of A Digital Form

Adam Freeland’s ‘Fear’ is an inspired anthem for the push into Rez’s fifth area. The true expression of its ideas, Rez uses its slow opening tempo to kick start a metaphor for the beats of early life, the sample ‘Fear is the mind killer’ scratched over the vacant landscape of a vast digital world as you blast a squadron of enemy planes out of the sky. The techno-trance composition builds as the environment does, the basic geometry evolving terrain and developing an ecosystem of flora and fauna. But it’s also a lyrical representation of its central theme. Rez is a sensory saga of sound and light, a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge and the quest for enlightenment.

Playing Rez creates the soundtrack to its adventure. It’s easy to think that because the player’s wire-frame avatar flies through its virtual world that it’s a straightforward on-rails shooter with a retrofuturist art style, but the truth is revealed after a few button presses. The first time the player aims at one of the enemy ships flying at them only to receive a digitized musical note as their weapon locks on to the target, they come to realize that they are constructing a melody with every shot. That’s because every act comes with a tone that builds out from the clockwork environments into a full musical composition. Sitting on the precipice of the past and future, Rez uses music and games to give a glimpse of what both could become if we perceived them in new ways.

Speaking to Eurogamer in 2008, Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi explained his vision for the fusion of music and videogames. “With sound, with music – there are so many worlds. In the process of making music, there’s a reason behind it… Some music you want to sing. Some music you want to dance. Some music helps your emotional involvement in movies. And now, some music exists for games, for the interactive process, and this is totally different. When I meet artists for the first time, I try to explain about that – saying, “you’ve made many types of music, for many different reasons, but interactive game music is another different type of world.”

Eden was born in the net, a consciousness created to control the influx of information from across the globe. But with self-awareness came existential angst, causing her to initiate a shutdown. The player hacks into her system to protect its data, causing every security measure to come after them like an anti-virus attacking a malicious file until every bit’s been deleted from the server. Unlocking the central pillar that houses Eden requires destruction of the four support structures and their guardians.

As a music game, it’s imperative to look at Rez’s structure and analyze its many rhythms large and small. The virtue of its on-rails premise is that it guarantees that the player is moving forward at a pre-determined speed with the enemies expertly directed into the scene on cue. Every level starts with a small sequence that introduces the musical elements that will follow, with each period being separated in-game by the small disco ball-shaped firewall that needs to be destroyed to get access to the next, layering and building onto the arrangement the deeper into the system you infiltrate. This is all impacted by the game regulating its own internal beat for consistency, a point we see as early as the opening ten seconds of Area 1, where targeting a row of four ships results in three notes, a rest, and the final note. This happens on increasingly larger scales, spawning enemies at regular intervals and changing the firewall placement by seconds to be mathematically appropriate. It’s a complex design elegantly formed.

Recognizing that music in a videogame is at the mercy of the computer it’s programmed on is the first step in understanding its unique history and the culture that would crystallize around it. Before musicians could experiment with the opportunities of the medium, the musical forms of the world, already developed over millennia, had to be reinterpreted for processors that weren’t nearly powerful enough to accurately simulate the physical properties of even a single instrument.

It’s hard to separate the early days of videogame music from the rise of electronic synthesizers that had so heavily impacted the disco scene. By then, notes had been turned into digital information that could be modulated by sound chips into a suite of beeps and boops. In this way, the composer’s code is read and performed by the games programming. The term ‘chiptune’ is an apt name for this style of music with the hardware pulling double duty as conductor and orchestra. Because games had little memory free to devote to the music in addition to all the other elements, melodies had to be relatively short and constructed so they could be looped forever to accommodate unpredictable player behavior, especially the act of NOT acting. Music was used to frame the unfolding action on screen.

The march of technological progress resulted in a host of inventions that allowed higher musical fidelity and better integration into games. While consoles like the Super Nintendo and its dedicated S-SMP sound processor improved the music production and led to beloved chiptune soundtracks in games like Chrono Trigger and created the haunting ambiance of Super Metroid’s alien world Zebes, the wide-spread adoption of the compact disc format meant that games could have clearly recorded instruments and multi-voice compositions, letting Final Fantasy 7 have an eclectic mix of fast rock and epic symphonies.

There’s no doubt that Rez’s music-producing gameplay could have been applied to any number of genres or artistic movements, but by incorporating it with an electronic soundtrack and a polygonal, vector-inspired graphical style, it naturally ties itself to the very technology that allows it to exist. To log into Rez is to travel its circuits. Though the mechanics contribute directly to the music, the truth is that the majority of the composition is independent of the gameplay, playing whether or not you even pick up a controller. And yet, this caveat is justified by the cyberspace aesthetic, the digital arrangement seemingly the byproduct of the computer world crunching its own code. This wouldn’t be as thematically consistent in the fantasy setting of a game like Panzer Dragoon, despite their similar core concepts.

REZ EARTHStop here a moment and consider what Rez is presenting you in any one moment – strobing lights, pulsating rhythm and stereo compositions, a sense of weightless motion, and, if you have the Trance Vibrator attachment, force feedback and rumble. Rez is rarely mentioned without the accompanying discussion of synesthesia, the movement based on uniting the senses into a single perception, but its implementation has a functional use. Since you’re always holding down the fire button to gain lock, the gameplay leads you to making fluid motions about the screen with the thumbstick, like holding your hand out of the car window and letting it fly in the wind. Since Rez is designed to be perceived by all your senses simultaneously, its’ gameplay can appeal to intuitive feeling rather than cognition.

The core concepts on which rail shooters are constructed are descended from the lineage of side-scrolling shmups, a twitch-based genre that would develop titles that required the player to adopt a zen-like state of mind, to expand perception to see everything on the screen at once, in order to reach the end. That Rez decided to create this trance state with aesthetics rather than require it for survival shows that it’s for the benefit of the mind and not the body. Rez’s design opens your mind to its message by inducing a light meditation.

You’ll see that your flight down the information superhighway is filled with the presence of culture and the hint of a history. Not only is every level populated with unique enemies and architecture and the promise of acquiring its collected knowledge, every one ends at a building of spiritual significance- from the interior of an Egyptian pyramid to an Asian temple, the magnificent, multi-part boss fight set pieces pit you against celestial beings named after our neighboring planets.

The search for wisdom is Rez’s main narrative thread. Eden’s existential crisis initiated the adventure, but it’s the struggle for knowledge that will determine whether or not you reach her. Destroying some enemies will reward you with bits of their data and assimilating it will evolve your avatar, going from the primitive wire shape into a more complicated model that resembles a human and beyond. In this way, the gameplay is the quest for enlightenment and the danger of a system bent on eradicating information for self-preservation.

The second part of Area 5 has you rising from the Earth to meet Eden and her plea, written in the very environment: “Don’t come any closer!” Fearing your power, the net throws variations on every boss you’d fought to get there. But by its end Eden has witnessed your efforts, questioned herself, and made a new decision: she begs, the music simulating her ethereal voice, “Save me…” You breach the inner chamber, recast a hero.

Your musical journey has provided ample time to develop at least a basic rhythmic ability, and so the final battle has a challenge that brilliantly tests what you’ve learned, what knowledge you’ve uncovered. As the system throws everything it’s got at you, destroying the central mechanism causes the vulnerable cores imprisoning Eden to lower. If you don’t focus your attention and take it out quickly, the core sends a barrage of missiles your way. Here’s the math: each core takes about nine seconds to charge up and eighty eight hits to destroy. That’s where the eight-lock targeting system comes in. It takes roughly eight-tenths of a second for you to reach max lock, and starts counting up again as soon as you fire. Since every second is valuable, you need to take the most efficient route possible- if by then you have some rhythmic sense, eleven equal beats later and the core will detonate, breaking one more lock on the digital prison without inflicting any damage. Since the system’s been largely crippled, the music it produces has receded into the background until it’s a hollow din, giving your solo performance center stage.

Meaning pulses between every line of Rez’s code. With every firewall the player breaks through in Area 5, they are given a story beat for the history of life on the planet. But it’s a narrative whose every element is tied to technology. Rez’s techno vibe and cyber utopian aesthetic help convey the act of transcendence, the final trek to Eden so illuminating that it’s the only area in Rez where your avatar can level to its final form, the first infant reborn into the world under her care. It’s the logical conclusion to a prediction Rez’s narration had earlier made: “Someday the next great emigration will occur.”


DEVELOPER: United Game Artists
PLATFORMS: Playstation 2

Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.

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