Show of hands, and be honest: How many here scrawled meaningful song lyrics in notebooks and diaries as moody teenagers? How many powered through emotional times in their lives by listening to the same song on repeat for hours? Who has ever felt like a song written and recorded by a complete stranger was, somehow, really about you? Even more than watching a film or reading a book, listening to music is an intimate, personal act. We don’t just passively listen to tunes, we open up to them and invite them into ourselves to stay. Even the simplest three-minute ditty is able to support the weight of the history, emotion, and baggage we hang on the music that’s most important to us. Our favourite songs are a part of who we are.
Amplitude, by rhythm game pioneer Harmonix, is all about that personal connection we have with our music. A remake of the 2003 game of the same title, it’s a throwback to the plastic-instrument-free rhythm games that existed before Harmonix’s own Guitar Hero and Rock Band became the dominant juggernauts of the subgenre. Where those two series emphasize the all-eyes-on-you fantasy of being a crowd-pleasing rock star, though, Amplitude looks inward, exploring just how deeply we allow music to burrow into us and what effect it has on us once it’s there. It’s a music game more interested in getting you to scratch your head than shake your hips.
The original Amplitude and its immediate predecessor, Frequency, played essentially like Guitar Hero, just without the plastic instrument, and the new Amplitude plays more or less the same. You take control of a flying craft barreling along a psychedelic highway, with different lanes representing the tracks of a song: percussion, bass, synth, vocals, etc. Each track is dotted with glowing gems—notes to be played by firing at them with your ship’s lasers. Successfully hitting all the notes on a given track will “lock” it, allowing you to move to the next track and slowly add layers to the song until it’s complete. Fundamentally, it’s a game about hammering the correct buttons to the beat of the song, Rock Band pared down to just a few well-timed keystrokes.
The simple challenge of gradually building tunes to completion could have been enough to support the entire game, but Amplitude contextualizes its keep-the-beat action with just the slightest whisper of a story. Told in tiny snippets of text and a line or two of dialogue at a time, Amplitude’s plot, such as it is, concerns a highly experimental form of brain surgery being conducted on a comatose patient called Sarah. The 15-song campaign mode is presented as a journey to repair various regions of Sarah’s injured brain, complete with a CAT scan map helpfully pointing out exactly where you are within her noggin. Before each level begins in earnest, Sarah will catch an aural glimpse of what is happening around her—at first family and friends worrying by her bedside, and as you progress, eventually doctors responding in disbelief to her improving condition.
This is how Amplitude sneaks a thesis about the intimacy and importance of music into what could have been just a simple series of timing challenges. Sarah has incorporated music into herself so completely that even her neural pathways have a drum beat and a bass line. She doesn’t just think about music; she thinks in music, as if it were a language. Appropriately, the soundtrack consists mostly of thumping bass-heavy electronic that’s meant to be felt as much as heard, songs whose rhythms alone can compel people to dance like electric signals from a sonic brain. In Amplitude, restoring the beat to a song and restoring the spark of life to a human mind are the same act. It presents music not just as a reason to live but as life itself.
Amplitude may be explicitly about a medical procedure, but it also makes for an interesting depiction of the creative process. When a level begins, the game is quiet except for ambient noise. Breaking the silence by layering in the individual tracks, together with the recurring brain imagery and language, gives the whole enterprise the feeling of a musician sketching out a song in their head. Screwing up a track and having the beat cut out, in this context, is the artist changing their mind mid-composition and correcting themselves. Successfully crossing a level’s finish line corresponds to an idea becoming fully formed and ready to be put out into the world. Playing the game with this subtext in mind imbues each level with the thrill of witnessing the birth of an idea in an artist’s mind—an ultimate act of creative voyeurism.
It’s not surprising that so many music games have capitalized on the thrill and adrenaline rush of performance. Rhythm games as disparate as Guitar Hero, PaRappa The Rapper, and Dance Dance Revolution have built systems around communal expressions of love for music: playing air guitar with your buddies, singing along to your favorite songs, cutting up a dance floor, etc. What is surprising, though, is that so few games have explored the introspective side of music appreciation. A long night spent alone in the embrace of a pair of headphones may be harder to translate, but it’s a huge part of music appreciation that games have left largely unexplored. The original Amplitude broke this ground over 10 years ago, but the world just wasn’t ready. Maybe in 2016 people will be more open to the idea of finding the music inside themselves.