The Untouchables: Rez
This is the second article in our series looking for the flaws in some of the greatest and most discussed games of all time. You can read our previous dissections by following these links:
Why would we do it? Why choose to level even the tiniest amount of critical attention at a game whose creator, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, walks around industry events like some kind of shaman? This is the man who turns even the most aloof professional into a stalker armed with “this copy of your game I’d quite like signed, if it’s not too much trouble, sir”. Criticise Rez? You may as well push Space Channel 5’s Ulala into a pile of sick.
Nevertheless, two musical maestros are willing to accept our challenge. They are Kasson Crooker, a musician and producer at Harmonix, and Dylan Fitterer, creator of beat-matching synaesthesia game Audiosurf. Since we’ve effectively asked them to commit the sin of gaming iconoclasm, you should understand that both agree that Rez is so tight and deliberate as an experience that it’s hard to know where to begin, and that this retrospective ‘armchair QA’ offers no guarantee of any actual improvement.
“There’s no way I could say they [United Game Artists] made mistakes or missed opportunities,” Crooker begins. “Their whole intention of propping it up as this synaesthesia experience – where it’s a music game, but the level of music interaction is abstracted about a few degrees away from actually making music – I’m sure was intentional. For me, though, I wish they’d sort of injected a few more elements of direct music interaction to make it feel like I’m more in control of the musical experience, and that I’m enhancing or taking away from it based on my play style or how well I’m doing.
“The game mechanic is incredibly minimal: all you’re doing is targeting and then doing a lot of button mashing on the A button, and, every now and then, triggering the Overdrive. Even in Child Of Eden, [Mizuguchi] upgraded the game with a bunch of things I wish that Rez had, and again that’s about that direct music interaction.
“I’m also a huge fan of Patapon; the concept that you would memorise these short button patterns that would translate directly into musical patterns was something I really liked about that game. I started ruminating on the concept that you’d see a specific enemy show up onscreen and, rather than just targeting the enemy and holding down the A button or mashing it, you could actually be like, ‘Oh, this enemy requires this brief button thing.’ So you could tap out a brief little percussive combo, and as long as you tapped it out in time with the beat of the music, you’d beat that enemy more efficiently than if you just hoped you’d hit it enough times.”
Although it’s executed to within an inch of perfection, there is something about Rez that betrays the infancy of both synaesthesia-like gameplay and its creator’s experience with it. Moreover, Mizuguchi’s professional and cultural loyalty to Sega, Space Harrier and Panzer Dragoon are major factors in Rez’s shooting mechanics, camera control scheme as well as its enemy choreography. Yet neither of the two games we’ve just mentioned has a ‘rhythm’ component to it. Rez’s nod to Wassily Kandinsky (whose name appears in the credits) aside, you’d do better to trace its roots to one of Mizuguchi’s favourite games, Xenon 2: Megablast, and its use of instruments as battle effects. What Crooker’s picking up on is the disparity between the age of Rez’s design and the potential of its technology.
Rez's iconic running man boss.
“As a musician, I’m just all ready when I hear music to naturally start tapping along with it. My brain latches on to the rhythm, so that’s what I really crave in that game. But, you know, would it make it better? Who knows? There may be something about that abstraction that lets you focus more on the graphics and listen to the music, and maybe not get so bogged down in the minutiae of the music itself. It could take it somewhere completely different, make it a different game, but not necessarily a better one.”
For Fitterer, the Panzer Dragoon legacy has a more obvious side effect, which is that the controls themselves feel dated. “I just feel it’s very awkward with the joystick; the indirect control of the gamepad doesn’t translate well to the direct position I want from my crosshair. And I didn’t like when I got hit by missiles that were offscreen. Because of the way the controls are set up, it’s maybe not ‘tedious’ but at least awkward to look lower or to the side; the game perhaps assumes at points that you have better control of the camera than you really do. I’d get hit by a missile and blame the game instead of myself, and if that happens then there’s usually a problem somewhere.”
Again, both point out that the gestural controls of Child Of Eden alleviate the problem somewhat, inviting the question of whether Rez might also work better, albeit differently, on a touch platform such as iPad. “I bet that’d feel great,” Crooker observes, “because then, suddenly, instead of targeting you could just tap on enemies and channel the ability to tap on the beat. So if you just tapped on an enemy at any moment in time, maybe you’d do a little bit of damage, but then you’d have to tap on it again to defeat it. But if you were really in sync with the music, you could defeat enemies with one shot.”
The selection of music in Rez is another point of contention for our critics. Fitterer was simply frustrated that there wasn’t more choice, an issue he tackled head-on with his own MP3-sensing music game. He’s even considering ways to introduce elements of Rez – superficial ones, he admits – to Audiosurf, such as user-created ‘environments’ for tunes and crowd-sourced art materials. “But I haven’t pursued it very deeply yet,” he says.
Crooker wishes the choice had been “broadened a little bit to engage more artists in that genre: international artists. Being able to play a Polygon Window song, or an Orbital song, or all my favourites from the ’90s would be amazing. And I know a lot of that just comes down to budget and licensing problems, but it definitely would have extended the reach of that game. We saw that with Frequency: fans of Meat Beat Manifesto really wanted to play it, because they loved Jack Danger’s music, so I think that would have really helped. But it’s very tricky to do.”
And it does raise the question of authorship somewhat, and whether Rez is more a ‘Tetsuya Mizuguchi game’ than a ‘music game’. Would a song by Genki Rockets have the same appeal in a Harmonix title as it would in Lumines? Would Jumpin’ Jack Flash sound the same in a movie that wasn’t by Martin Scorsese? The answer is probably not. Mizuguchi’s fondness for Rez’s artists is as integral to enjoying the game as the tracks themselves. It’s a shared experience – his mixtape to the masses.
Look out for part three tomorrow, in which we'll discuss Grim Fandango with Telltale Games' Kevin Bruner and adventure game creator Dave Gilbert. You can read our original review of Rez here.