On Tarsier Studios' website you'll find a game, The City of Metronome, presented among its existing projects. It's there, not far below a banner for the forthcoming Little Big Planet Vita (the Swedish developer's current project).
Only, this inclusion is not a celebration of past achievement or of a concrete undertaking. Without a release date, a platform, or even a finalized identity, it's more akin to the vacant picture frame a hopeful parent might keep for a child-to-be.
You do remember Metronome, don't you? Way back at E3 2005, the founding members of Tarsier (which wasn't even in existence yet) showed off 11 minutes of charming gameplay. In it a young boy navigated a Tim Burtonesque city-scape, solving puzzles and subduing soulless automatons (metrognomes) through the manipulation of in-game sounds—whether destructive, melodious, or spoken.
I recently spoke with Tarsier studio director Peter Lübeck, who said that Metronome is "the reason why this company exists, to start with. This company was founded based on the game, and not the other way around."
Lübeck said that famed Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli had a definite influence on the game, which shows in the footage; notice the characteristically unquestioned absurdity of the xylophone-playing imp, or the silent smoker behind the curtain in the hall). The architecture of Stockholm, and Jeunet and Caro's surreal film, The City of Lost Children (1995), are other sources of inspiration.
All of which makes it more painful, for both creators and fans, to see Metronome ticking down the path of vaporware.
But Metronome (which was, to be more accurate, redubbed The City of Metronome) is not dead. Yet it isn't exactly in motion, either. Let's start with how it all began.
In 2004, Tarsier Studios was not yet a legal entity. It was a group of students, and Metronome the sweat of its brow. Tarsier Studios would be named for the strong connection they felt with the eponymous animal's nature—as co-founder Andreas Johnsson succinctly points out—as a nocturnal primate.
That year they were throwing ideas for a game around, in December started work as a team, and in January 2005 decided to target E3 with something playable. And surely that's what stoked a fire in the fans of all things steampunk.
The studio had no proven track record, so that combined with the niche appeal of the project left The City of Metronome without a willing publisher.
"I think it was never a case of the actual theme of the game but rather that it was a high risk project. It was an artistic project, something that hadn't been done. It was very mature, but the team wasn't. It was a team with no track record."
Lübeck pointed to Beyond Good & Evil as a cautionary tale, "a game that was very much loved and well received but didn't sell very well. And I think that's something publishers tended to see when they looked at Metronome. It's a game that's cool, interesting and unique. It has a lot of soul and charm, but is it a game that could be turned into a commercial product?"
Metronome seemed like a winning formula. A game that didn't rely on enchanting aesthetics alone, but cast the manipulation of sound as the sole means of progress. The E3 footage shared a handful of obstacles, each as endearing as their solutions: the camera scout broken down by the captured noise of biker Mike's furious pedaling, the toll gate guard made to indulge his drowsiness by the notes of a redistributed lullaby, the metrognome mesmerized into thralldom by a jazz melody.
Lübeck and Johnsson also shared some sound-mechanics not seen in the footage: The yapping of a lapdog could be tweaked to a lower register, making for an empty but fearsome threat. And in a clever instance of effect doubling back on cause, the sound of an opening door could be projected to unlock others. Are these not things that smack of a gaming experience standing in a genre of one?
It was, however, only an attractive misconception that real-world sound could be recorded for use by the protagonist. "I know there were discussions from journalists and forums where people thought it was actually real sound that you could record in the real world," said Lübeck, "but that was never our intention in the game." We'll take that as a case of excitement running a little ahead of the facts.
And Tarsier as a studio is nothing if not weary of runaway excitement. Within the studio are perceptive misgivings on the original concept for the game. Some of its founders doubt the viability of the sound-centric gameplay presented in E3 2005-era footage. Others want to believe.
"When you find one of [the above] examples, yeah it's an interesting concept, but to realize it in gameplay is very difficult... that's one of the things we've revisited since then. It was very difficult to find a good solid core gameplay based on using audio as the only means of interacting with the gameworld. I think it was one of the weakest elements in the E3 demo, was the interaction with enemies. No one questioned the quality or atmosphere of the world, but the actual combat and puzzle mechanics didn't carry in the long run. If the character is doing the same thing as characters in other games with sound forced as some kind of 'wrapping' on it, that doesn't really make the game better. Quite the opposite."
Johnsson discredits the "door opened by sound" mechanic as such repackaging: "In the end, what that is is a key function. It's the blue key you picked up in the other room... it's very difficult to design an open design that allows people to experiment… Can you record any kind of sound? Or just magical sounds? Key sounds? Out in the world there's a bunch of sound everywhere. Can I record this waterfall? What would happen? Would you have to highlight visually every sound that you can interact with, and in that case wouldn't it just become an inventory of keys that you would figure out by trial and error?"
All the members of the studio agree that the city comes first. "The world itself, the actual city, the mood, atmosphere and art style, that's very much a constant in everything. But what we decide to do in terms of gameplay is something that we've been talking about a lot." City first, undoubtedly. But perhaps sound wouldn't even come second.
What might The City of Metronome become? Tarsier Studios is now very much on the map. Just over a month ago they were named Studio of the Year by the Swedish Games Industry, and also won the Dagens Industri's Gazelle award (mainly for having increased revenue by 476% in three years). The original team of seven now numbers over 40.
As for track record, they're working on Little Big Planet Vita—and have a history with the franchise, having designed upwards of 300 DLC costumes for both Little Big Planet games. Media Molecule has since granted Tarsier full creative control on LBP Vita, slated for release this June.
All of which makes a Sony-exclusive Metronome a definite possibility: "If we were to do Metronome as that big triple-A adventure," said Lübeck, "I see no better publisher to do that than Sony. It's very good that we have that relationship with them, and going forwards that's the best partner from a publisher's perspective on that kind of ambitious, quirky, unique game. They have an open mind when it comes to investing and betting on something that sticks out, that's special."
Tarsier is leaving every possible platform on the table. "Of course we are looking at all these different new approaches like Steam, that has grown enormously on PC, XBLA and PSN, which have really shown the power of small games," said Lübeck. "And with funding options like Kickstarter and Double Fine's success… that's also something that we're looking into." Unfortunately Kickstarter is, for the moment, unavailable outside of the United States.
No one really knows what's going to end up in Metronome's vacant picture frame. The team is now tinkering with an emphasis on horizontal and vertical exploration. Non-violent game mechanics are another idea, as is episodic content with alternating protagonists—a child explorer in one, a noir detective in another.
Even this many years later, publishers are still interested in the game. Tarsier was once casually approached by Microsoft for a Kinect-related use of Metronome, and by a French publisher with the vision of a point-and-click adventure game. Those options, some more than others, seem a decided step away from the triple-A, 2005-era dream.
I can't help but hope for it to pull through. Given the strength of the game footage alone, it doesn't take a blind leap to believe that Tarsier could put sound in the center of things, and as a fresh mechanic rather than a reskinned one.
Despite these uncertainties the men and women at Tarsier hold out hope that the project will one day see light. "It's still very much a part of our soul and identity as a company," Lübeck said. "Metronome was supposed to be a game, but it became a company. That's how we see it by now. We are the city of Metronome."