Common Time.

It’s been a little bit! I had been on kind of a tear with posting blog entries but this weekend took it out of me, apparently. Well here I am again and ready to talk about the design of Four//Four and why it necessitated the weird code that I wrote for it!

Thinking about the concept of time signatures is really interesting. The idea that we can structure music based on almost arbitrarily-measured units of time (I only say this because a time signature doesn’t actually dictate how long a beat is in explicit terms; it’s a combination of the time signature and the tempo of the song) and have it just make sense to us on a subconscious level is pretty fascinating to me, and it gets even more fascinating when the specific case of 4/4 time is considered. I’m putting myself out on a limb here, but I’m going to go ahead and say that 4/4 time is by far the most popular time signature to write music in — people have gone so far as to call it “common” time, which should tell you something about its frequent use.

Perhaps I haven’t done enough research into it, but I have no idea why 4/4 time seems to be the collective “favorite” time signature. Maybe it’s the idea of being able to split a measure up into two parts, but have them exist in a point/counterpoint relationship? Maybe it’s the symmetry that the time signature gives; the second half of the measure takes the same amount of time as the first half, just as the first fourth of the measure takes the same amount as the last fourth, etc? Maybe we just really like the number four in music? Other time signatures capture our mind in different ways, sure, but none have dominated the musical landscape like 4/4 has.

I wanted to pry into this almost subconscious relationship we have with 4/4 by making this game. Admittedly, I won’t have even cracked the surface of our obsession with common time (I need to switch professions if that was my true goal), but I like to think that I’ll have said something about it.

So: Four//Four. It’s a game about repetition and discovering embedded rhythms. A lot of my inspiration for this game came from my not-so-recent obsession with electronic dance music (EDM, an unfortunate term for a very broad genre).  Many like to deride it for its repetition, but that’s what I really like about dance music — it almost requires you to disengage from thought when listening. In fact, the trance sub-genre is DESIGNED for this disengagement. Coincidentally, almost all of this music is written in 4/4. As such, the music during my game takes the form of 16-bar loops, one of which will endlessly repeat until you have made enough cubes disappear to progress to the next part of the song — until you’ve been “rhythmic” enough.

I’m trying to design each song’s (or in this case, the one song I’ve been working on) cube launch patterns such that a player can progress simply by tapping a side to the beat for the entirety of the song. If you can tap out a 4/4 rhythm, you can progress to the end of the song, or at least that’s what I intend. However, the cubes will be launched in lots of different patterns, some requiring the player to hold their finger on the screen, and some requiring knowledge of the song previously. I don’t really want anyone to be able to get through the entire song perfectly on their first try; otherwise what’s the point of repetition? Ideally, the player will enter a section, spend some time figuring out how the patterns work simply by watching, and then attempt to match the rhythms they’ve seen.

This design may seem a little backwards to people — surely players will be bored by having to repeat the same section over and over again? Normally, I’d concede the point, but when listening to electronic dance music, we have to re-orient how we think about music. Repetition is the REWARD in dance music — the reason live DJing became popular was because audiences wanted the “good” parts of the song to go on forever and ever. The best dance music acknowledges this while trying to subvert it at the same time, gauging listener expectations and throwing them curveballs every once in a while. The best dance music doesn’t give listeners what they think they want — it gives them what they didn’t even know they wanted. I purposely set a higher-than-normal limit for making cubes disappear before progressing to the next part to reinforce this idea that repetition is not a punishment. The reason I wrote the code with all of these arrays is because I didn’t want to script every single instance of cubes launching. Rather, I’d set a rhythm at the beginning of a section or measure, and then the game would play the rhythm back to me repeatedly until I wanted it to change.

At the same time, the cube launch patterns are designed to be complicated when you look at them. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded yet, but ideally the player won’t be able to rely on pure visual feedback to play the game. More and more, music is turning into a multimedia experience, meaning visuals synchronized with audio; the other senses aren’t far off. I wanted my game to piggyback on that idea, mostly because my favorite games have always successfully made their sound design with regards to music an integral part of the experience (hint: SSX3 is one of my favorite games).

I think that’s it! Or at least all I have to say about it right now. Hopefully this gave you at least a little insight as to what Four//Four will be!

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