Sounding off on Sound Shapes

Do you ever have that one moment in a video game where you realize you are playing something special? That one moment that makes you understand that what you’re playing actually transcends being just a video game, and becomes an experience? I find these experiences to be rare and hard to come by, but when they happen, they hit like a ton of bricks.

Sound Shapes is a musical platformer designed for the Playstation Vita, but was also released on the Playstation 3. It was developed as a Vita launch title, but countless delays led to its release a little over a week ago. The basic idea is that you are a nameless, sticky blob traversing through platforming stages, collecting discs that add notes and noises to the soundtrack while you play. Since everything makes a sound, you are essentially remixing the music as you go, and no playthrough will be quite the same as the previous. Along with music made by the developers, the game features sets of stages and music designed by Deadmau5, Beck, and Jim Guthrie. I say “designed”, because the way this game works, it really feels like the the music was developed. This isn’t to say that the music feels phoned in or added as some sort of afterthought, because that isn’t the case at all. This is music designed in a similar way to the Super Mario Bros theme, built from the ground up to mesh with the in-game world.

In the world of Sound Shapes, there is no story to be had. There’s no princess needing to be saved, nor is there some evil creature hell bent on destroying the universe. It’s just you, the music, and a myriad of little platforming challenges between you and the sound discs. Basically, there’s no filler. This is a pure, unfiltered experience.

While I enjoyed the time I was spending with it, it wasn’t until I reached the Beck designed levels where I realized what was going on. I was existing in this bizarre little world where vocal harmonies existed as platforms for traversing dangerous terrain. I was running through a bombed out city, avoiding missiles and explosions, all for the sake of collecting these discs to help flesh out the music. Every little disc, every nuance added something. Even where I thought my actions would sound out of place, they didn’t. Everything had fallen into place in a way I didn’t yet understand.

After finishing these levels, I went back to earlier “albums”, and I got the same experience. I was no longer meandering through a regular platformer. I felt like I was giving shape and substance to a world that needed my help to find its voice. This is exactly what I was doing, and when I took to that mentality, it became something magical to both my eyes and my ears.

My imagination went wild with the visuals and sounds as I was creating this world in my brain. Nothing was explained or elaborated upon. I just existed, and it was my task to create some sort of tangible narrative between these sets of wildly different stages. How in the hell does this little blob end up in these situations? Why do these little red creatures want me dead? What real purpose did the discs serve other than the build the soundtrack? None of it really mattered, but I didn’t care. No one else playing the game would have the exact same experience. It was mine and mine alone. No one could take that feeling from me. I was living in this world, and I was doing all I could to give it life.

As a gamer I treasure both the tried and true methods of video game logic, along with the experimental approach that usually comes with offering something different. I feel like this game really nails both sides of this equation, doing a more than adequate job of catering to both the typical gamer and the gamer that gets really into “pretentious, art house platformers.” The primary campaign can be completed in a couple hours or so, but upon completing it, a wholly different beast is unlocked. Enter Death Mode, the setting designed for the platforming masochists who love games like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be the Guy.

Unlike the regular campaign, Death Mode is built around single screen challenges to collect discs in a short period of time. The location of the discs is randomized, making some runs absolutely impossible. While most would find this frustrating, I actually found it kind of endearing. Forcing me to take on the stages using my gut instincts made the victories that much sweeter, and each one yielded satisfaction along with a sigh of relief. By the time I reached the Deadmau5 stages, I had to quit for a little while to calm down. I was getting intensely frustrated at the difficulty, something I hadn’t really experienced since playing Super Meat Boy. Of course, this was optional content, but by the time I got to Death Mode I was committed to completing every little ounce of this game. I wanted to conquer it, and I did.

I finally managed to complete Death Mode after a couple days of trudging through it. I got the platinum trophy for the game, something I never set out to do. I’m not a huge fan of achievements of trophies or any sort of Skinner box reward system, but I wanted to wear that platinum trophy as a badge of honor, so that’s exactly what I did.

Sound Shapes is a truly unique experience, and with the inclusion of a level editor, users are building their own worlds using the in-game assets, so it can continue indefinitely. This is a game designed for a community to run wild with it, forging out their own path to share with the world. I’ve only started to tinker with this a little bit, but I’m really excited to see what I come up with. Some of the levels I’ve seen the fans make are astounding, and incredibly well thought out, something that doesn’t always happen with in-game level creation. I feel like this community really has the potential to grow and develop some truly excellent content for an already great game.

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