The Unsung Secret of Great Games—and How Some Games Get It So Wrong

Any great video game has a groove to it, a kinesthetic dance of feedback and response that can easily be thought of as a kind of music.

Call it "The Rhythm of Play." Our fingers push and pull with the beats and pulses of the game, using the controller to develop a cadence as surely as a drummer does when slicing his sticks around a drum kit or when a pianist bangs out chords with both hands.

Other people think about games in terms of their graphics, others concern themselves with their stories; still others focus on game mechanics and design. But when I close my eyes and think back to my favorite games of the past few years, I remember the way they feel: the heavy-metal crunch of God of War II, the gliding flow of Flower; the irrepressible bounce of New Super Mario Bros. DS and the impeccably timed slip and slide of Super Meat Boy. Each of those games had its own unique rhythm, an irresistible tempo that hooked me and kept me coming back.

And where those games succeeded, many others fail—hot messes like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and 2008's Alone in the Dark felt like playing a drum solo with a handful of wet napkins. Rhythm isn't something that can easily be put into words, but it is often the thing that makes a good game truly wonderful-and a mediocre game unplayable.

"Music is the universal language of mankind." Attributed to the 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (no seriously, the dude's name was "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow"), that quote has always struck me as true yet incomplete.

I can't deny that music is a form of primal communication that transcends language. But despite some interesting studies showing similarities in how different cultures react to melodies and harmonies, I think that rhythm is the thing that's most truly universal. I'm not sure why that is-perhaps it's something to do with our beating hearts-but human beings are rhythmic creatures. When the lights go down and the beat drops, it's the pulse of the music, not the notes, that unites us on the dance floor. At their core, many video games do the same thing.

Think about shooting a rifle from horseback in Red Dead Redemption. Is there any more beautifully rhythmic act in gaming? First, you're riding your horse, gently nudging the left thumbstick while tapping the A button in time, faster, then slower, then faster, keeping your mount from overdoing it and bucking you off. A group of bandits rides up on your right, and the pulse of your button-presses quickens as you pull up alongside them. Quickly, you release! Your right thumb flies away from the A button as your left index finger presses the left trigger.

You have a moment to aim, before a click of the right thumbstick sends you into Dead-Eye slow-motion. Sound fades away and the screen goes sepia as your right index finger flips up to the right shoulder button; you press it one, two, three times, marking your enemies with red X's. A sound like a rush of air grows louder and louder and you press the right trigger, time crashing back to full-speed as John Marston unleashes a deadly fusillade of lead.

I don't know about you, but imagining that gives me a physical sense of Red Dead Redemption that all the screenshots and story synopses in the world can't touch. The game had its rhythmic failings—most notably the dueling system—but even a year later its horseback gunplay stands apart as an example of uniquely satisfying rhythmic design.

I feel similarly about Gears of War, which I count as one of the more rhythmically engaging non-music titles I've ever played. The Gears universe has so much punchy gravity, from the buck of a lancer on screen to the weighty slam as Marcus and Dom take cover. And of course, there's the utter brilliance of designer Cliff Bleszinski's active reload system.

During a recent Gears 2 horde match, some friends were ragging on the sniper rifle and I felt the need to explain why I love it as much as I do. It's not the range or the power; I love the Gears sniper rifle because it offers the most undiluted way to regularly experience the awesomeness of reloading. The rip and spray of a Gears weapon is like a snare-drum roll, and the active reload is the cymbal crash at the end. Waiting the perfect amount of time before jamming the right shoulder button to slam in a super-charged round is so viscerally, rhythmically satisfying that I don't know why the mechanic hasn't been copied by every game since.

Of course, not all rhythms are quick, punchy, or violent. As anyone who's learned music notation can tell you, rhythm is, in essence, a way to divide up the passage of time. A whole note contains four quarter notes, each of which contains two eighth notes, and each of those contains two sixteenth notes. The rate at which each of those notes occurs is dictated by a song's tempo. In much the same way, some games create a dense, fast rhythm while others create a long, slow rhythm that takes time to understand. And some games do both.

The Unsung Secret of Great Games—and How Some Games Get It So WrongS
(Note Hierarchy | epianostudio.com)

One of the most compelling (and some would say diabolical) aspects of Zynga games like FarmVille and CityVille is their long, soothing tempo, the way in which they force players to subdivide time while playing. FarmVille's plant-wait-harvest-sell-repeat cycle creates a long-form rhythm that can feel phenomenally compulsive.

Similarly, a game like Demon's Souls layers its rhythms and reveals them over time. Its basic combat is loose and harrowing, but nothing at all like the graceful drum-rolls of Bayonetta or God of War. But the longer rhythm of Demon's Souls revolves around the cycle of trial and error, death and resurrection. It plays out over a matter of hours, and it is by far the most engaging rhythmic aspect of the game.
Then there are the games that master both short and long rhythms. For an example of one of those, you really only need to listen to this audio clip:

Minecraft is a game of such relaxed rhythmic magnificence that the mere sound of it puts me under a spell. The dig-dig-dig-dicrunch! dig-dig-dig-dicrunch! of mining piled on top of the longer rhythm of planning and construction makes Minecraft the "Oh look, it's four in the morning!" experience that it is.

Musicians posses the terminology required to describe a beat that isn't quite working-"The Drums are laying back too far," or, "The bass is on top of the beat." But if you've ever been at a show where the band isn't rhythmically locked, there's no need for complicated language. You can tell by looking at the audience. People are either dancing and moving around, or they're not.

The same thing is true of games. It doesn't take much to identify a game that has rhythmic problems; it's often something that can be determined instinctually in a matter of minutes. I loved The Witcher 2, but that game's combat is tuned all wrong; the animations play out in conflict with my button inputs, and the whole thing winds up feeling like playing a guitar duet over Skype. (Look 42 seconds into that clip for proof).

Playing SOCOM 4 with the PlayStation Move and a Sharpshooter peripheral was also a uniquely unsatisfying experience. Cover felt floaty and weird, and moving the camera with a large plastic weapon felt about as connected to the action as playing drums with a pair of ten-foot foam sticks. As Dance Central has so ably demonstrated, motion control doesn't have to be rhythmic anathema, but as far as implementation in shooters goes, the PS Move has so far left a lot to be desired.

For all its daring narrative twists and turns, Heavy Rain was one of the most rhythmically whacked-out games I've ever had the displeasure of playing. In fact, rhythmic disjointedness is the primary reason that I generally find quicktime events like the ones in Heavy Rain to be so unsatisfying. More often than not, quicktime events pull back from a game's core mechanical groove and force me to rely entirely on visual cues. The tempo abruptly skips or stops altogether, and suddenly I'm looking up at the conductor, watching his baton as he waves it arbitrarily about. Hey man, get out of the way! We had a good thing going for a minute there!

Throughout our years of banging, squeezing, cajoling, and abusing our game controllers, we have been mastering a musical instrument at least as complicated as a modern drum set.

I got the first Rock Band shortly after it came out, and while I'd had a good enough time playing Guitar Hero games in the past, I became obsessed with Rock Band drums. The sheer joy of slamming the sticks around, kicking the pedal and clacking the plastic in time with my friends; it was intoxicating. I've spent my life playing music and working with drummers, but Rock Band was my first real chance to feel the rush of drumming firsthand. I began to practice away from my game console, and soon afterward began to learn real-life drums.

Think about how we interact with the Rock Band drums-is it really any different than a game controller? Sure, the drum set's buttons are fewer and farther between, and we use a pair of sticks to press them. But past that, what's the difference? The truth of the matter is that throughout our years of banging, squeezing, cajoling, and abusing our game controllers, we have been mastering a musical instrument at least as complicated as a modern drum set.

Ask any gamer to recite The Konami Code and he or she will tell it to you note-for-note: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, B, A, Start. But the order of the buttons is almost less iconic than the way we recite the code, that rhythmic chant, almost a mantra. It's the video-game equivalent of the introduction to "Hooked on a Feeling" - Up! Up! Down! Down! Ooga-Chaka, Hooga, Hooga, Ooka-Chaka!

It's no accident that gaming's most famous button-combination is so totally groovy. Game developers would be wise to keep that in mind-rhythm is an ephemeral yet vital quality in a game, and without it, even the most ambitious and beautifully drawn ideas fall flat. We're all drummers, we're all dancers, bopping our thumbs to the beats and breaks of a new type of electronic song. And for those gamers who are about to rock, I salute you.

Kirk Hamilton is a writer and musician in San Francisco. He is the games editor at Paste Magazine and writes about music, games and culture for a variety of publications. His monthly column at Kotaku focuses on the many ways that music and video games intersect. He can be found at kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at] KirkHamilton [dot] com.