Have you ever run into an incredibly attractive person, and immediately imagined what it would be like to get intimate with them?
Of course you have, unless you play Dungeons and Dragons (after all, this exercise requires leaving the house). Imagine then, if you will, you vie for their attention, you keep lobbying for a date, and the anticipation grows. Finally, after asking multiple times, you get surprised with a ‘yes’ and you start to get some extra blood flow south of the equator.
Finally, wide-eyed and full of stomach butterflies, you go out on that date. For the first few moments, you’re in the honeymoon period, and everything is so amazing, because how could it not be? They were exquisite to look at from afar, and now you have them all to yourself. Slowly, though, after spending a little time with them, you realize there’s really no substance to the person. Super hot, but they seem aloof, lost, and perhaps itching for another bump of coke. You find out they’re a hard drug addict, but since you’ve glorified them for so long, you decide to keep the night going. You take them to some crappy nightclub with too many glow sticks and a few people stuck in K-holes, and end up screwing your date in the back of your dad’s hand-me-down Buick Park Avenue afterward. You’ve waited this long, so you might as well, right? Well, 48 seconds later you finish, and now it burns when you pee.
Sadly, this type of cliché evening with someone who’s just pretty on the outside applies not only to people - it also happens to some game releases. Now, I have been known to lambast publishers for producing stunning cinematic trailers that don’t at all reflect gameplay in the past, but to be frank some of those games do often end up having well thought-out mechanics and immersive player experiences. They simply don’t look at all like the trailer. When it comes to Beat the Game (BtG), however, the trailer is nothing more than a splice of the in-game cinematics (which are 85% of the game) that will leave your balls of a color intermediate between green and violet once you start playing.
Getting one’s spheres to a proper #0000FF takes quite some build-up. For me, it was two months of waiting after being initially offered a key for review. Don’t get me wrong; I took care of other business while waiting, but still… the pain was noticeable. Typically, a studio may want to provide early access so they can build up what the cool kids call ‘hype.’ Plus I’m used to things coming early anyway. But, I was finally granted reviewer access on the day the game released to the public. I am part of the public though, but there’s no Venn diagram to explain how….
Overall, the feel of being inside the game is surreal and whimsical, and it certainly took a creative mind to come up with some of the art, props, and characters in the game. Or, it was drugs.
I was initially a bit alarmed by the tiny download in Steam. Most releases lately have put sizeable dents in my storage, yet this seemingly cinematic, immersive experience was smaller than some of the apps on my iPhone. The geek in me wondered what this could mean, and also hoped that they simply used the middle-out compression model pioneered by Pied Piper, an outstanding Silicon Valley startup.
Visually, BtG is stunning. The vivid use of color and texture is pleasant and refreshing, and the animation and camera positioning is spot on, apart from one moment where, for some reason, it forces you to walk across the screen in a 2D-platformer style to switch between locations. The cinematic cutscenes are extremely well produced. Overall, the feel of being inside the game is surreal and whimsical, and it certainly took a creative mind to come up with some of the art, props, and characters in the game. Or, it was drugs. Oddly enough, magical gummy bears that thrust you into a haze and change the world are just laying on the ground, as well as multiple other drug use references. Thankfully, someone finally chose to embrace and foster the symbiotic relationship between hallucinogens and music. I was afraid pop culture and music festivals were doing a poor job (Ketamine – it’s not just for horses!).
The actual gameplay itself turned out to be quite simple. You walk around a desert area scattered with debris and collect sounds by pointing a circle at various surrealist objects floating around in the sky, or by combining objects you find to make noise. You wear a cool step sequencer with bulky analog knobs as a necklace and can use it to produce the soundtrack you’re listening to while you walk around. Anytime you make it to a cinematic portion, prepare for a healthy dose of pegged high-pass filter to guide you in. Hey, at least it’s not flanger!
Whilst exploring this weird space searching for sounds, I came across the holy grail of any DJ/producer/audio nerd… a huge pile of analog gear, turntables and, frankly, the best DJ mixer around (when it comes to audio quality): the Allen & Heath Xone:92. There’s a reason it has a prominent place in my studio, next to it’s digital cousin the DB2. In a massive moment of disappointment, I realized that none of this stuff works. Someone went through the trouble of rendering it all in 3D, but it’s just eye candy, in a game about putting on a live set. As an owner and lover of analog gear way before it was cool (sips PBR) I was a sad panda.
Interestingly enough, I surmise this product placement isn’t licensed, because on the front of the mixer some of the letters were removed, so it spells Len & Heat. All the Roland gear has the R and D removed, as well as some of the letters in the model numbers. Cheeky, and yet when the camera circles around the back of the mixer during yet another cinematic, you can clearly see that it still has the full name, as does the unmistakable red Nord keyboard off to the right side. Jerks like me pay attention to details. Maybe not everyone is a jerk like me, but these types of small mistakes make me question if instead of coming up with playable game content, more time was spent coming off a high and trying to sneak in another substance abuse reference (like a flyer found on the ground offering whippits), or adding easter eggs like scattered stone letters that spell Kamil. Would Kamil be happy with oversights like this? Meh, he/she probably wouldn’t care. I’m the jerk, not Kamil.
I did, in fact “Beat the Game,” and yet the title itself made me question just what it was that I had experienced.
That whole ‘burns when you pee’ reference earlier brings me to every dev’s Achilles heel – bugs. In some releases, bugs are hilarious, like basically anything wrong with PUBG (but: it’s in Early Access). In BtG, they’re less funny, like when inventory menus and the default (when you press escape) menu overlap or won’t get off the screen. Though annoying, after switching to the view where I look at my DP-808 step sequencer and back, I was able to get everything in order (my guess is it functioned like a /reloadui command would). Where I draw the line, though, are bugs that directly impact a player’s ability to do core tasks (in this case: win) and even more infuriatingly, force them to Ctrl+Alt+Del to cut the cord in Task Manager.
As you wander around the single space searching for sounds, they begin to appear in your step sequencer. The blank spots let you know how many sounds you still have left to find of the total 24. Once full, you head to the non-functional DJ booth to play the equivalent of whack-a-mole on your sequencer in order to win the game. Purple lights flash around the boxes, and you simply press them. The accuracy with which you complete this determines if you win the game. Well, after being notified that I had collected all the sounds, and I should head to the Sound Studio to perform, I walked over and it started the performance. Well, one of my boxes was empty, meaning a sound was missing. I was unable to click that box, and therefore, I failed the ‘boss’ of this game. There is no ability to press Esc to exit; you can only press retry after failing. I tried again, wondering if perhaps it chooses the boxes at random each time, but it does not. I had to Ctrl-Alt-Del to exit out of the game. There is no save mechanic, so I had to start back at square one. I was able to duplicate this twice, but each time there was a different sound missing that I was unable to use.
After running through the game to the Sound Studio a third time (a full thirty minutes), I won. Interestingly enough, there’s a progress bar at the top of the screen that indicates how well you’re doing -- your “Success level.” However, I had apparently won the game after only getting about 70% across the bar. Details, Kamil… details! After being told how great I was by a voiceover that seemed pulled from a coin-op Golden Tee game, a super-cool all-terrain vehicle with a huge face rolls up and parks next to the sound studio. Curious, as there were no prompts as to what to do or why it was there, I walked over to look at it. As I got close, another fantastically rendered cinematic started.
My protagonist got in the vehicle, and it started to drive away. My inner monologue proceeded like so: “Sweet! I beat the level! Wait… why is the screen going dark…. WHY ARE THERE CREDITS?” Thirty-two minutes later, I had beaten the game in its entirety. I relaunched it, and there is no sandbox, no replayable content, nada. I did, in fact “Beat the Game,” and yet the title itself made me question just what it was that I had experienced.
Was it a game? I mean, sure you had to find some sounds and then play an 8-channel version of Simon Says. But, it seems to me that most of the talent in this release went towards cinematography of cut scenes, the animation, and the visuals. This would make a fantastic portfolio piece for someone looking into the design and animation side of gaming. Even the sound, which I assume was a huge selling point, left me wondering a bit at the end. The music composed for the cutscenes was indeed quite good. The style reminded me a lot of Amon Tobin’s work (someone I idolize #fanboy). But, the limited number of sounds that you collect in-game really don’t form a cohesive group, and the ending sequence is nothing close to what a real “live set” would be like (realism in video games, am I right?!).
Because I’m said jerk mentioned above, I decided to challenge myself to see if I can do better. I sat down at my studio computer with a bottle of Courvoisier XO, and launched Ableton Live, my DAW (digital audio workstation) of choice. Armed with hundreds of thousands of samples, I, at random (well, I did choose the folder labeled ‘minimal techno’) threw 16 samples into 8 separate channels (BtG gives you 24 samples across 8 channels) to see what I could come up with in less than 30 minutes. Below are the results on the right. On the left, a recording of my final live set (as per the light-up instructions) vs. what I came up with. I am, by far, no Antonín Dvořák of electronica, but thirty minutes vs “3 Years of hard work” and I think I did OK. Note: Mentioned in said claim on a Steam update were two busted video cards and two worn out Wacom tablet tips, BOTH tools for video… #justsayin).
So am I being too critical, too bitter, or nit-picky? No. In fact, I feel like the victim of false advertising. Why are there so many perfectly rendered pieces of analog gear if the character stands in the middle of it all and still continues to turn the knobs on his necklace? Whyis BtG is a gorgeous visual orgy for the senses that far exceeded my expectations, but when it comes to the “Beat” and the “Game” (both in the title, right?) I found them to be substantially lacking. I believe whoever put this together has a fantastic future ahead of them, but this is not the blockbuster release that will have social media and the masses flocking to see what projects are in the pipeline. Add to that bugs that prevent you from doing the only thing in the game that matters (winning the untz untz whack-a-mole), and sorry sweetheart, it’s a deal breaker.
The silver lining: After this deep dive into audio, I decided to take a stab at producing something cinematic because I think scoring a title might be fun. Here’s what I came up with in just over an hour. #hollaatmedevs
If you picked this title up, or are reading this review because you like audio and music production, here are a few recommendations to get you going.
1. Ableton Live is the best DAW on the market. Try it free here: https://www.ableton.com/ Please spend some solid time on YouTube watching tutorials, or you will rage-quit. It can be a bit intimidating.
2. You can find plentiful sample packs for free by searching online. However, Ableton’s site has a bunch of great sound packs too. https://www.ableton.com/en/packs/#?item_type=free
3. There is a fantastic iOS app called Auxy Studio that will give you solid exposure and a learning experience for a step sequencer.
4. And this:
With deadly bugs that prevent key gameplay mechanics, zero replayability, and an astonishingly small amount of content (<30 minutes to complete), Beat the Game is a visual masterpiece more akin to a brief bad trip at a Tomorrowland than an actual game. If you’re into audio or music production and are looking for something that will let you develop and explore it in a different light, you will be disappointed. However, when it comes to cinematography, BtG is a high nine. With a bit more care and effort from solid game and sound designers, this novelty release could have been great. And if you need drugs to enjoy music, you’re doing it wrong.