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IT & Systems Management

Soundodger+: A much different--much better--way to play your music

I've never understood dance. I don't just mean I'm bad at dancing--though that is also true. I mean I don't get it. Where other people see expression, grace, artistry, I see arms, legs, people jumping into the air and kicking. I see the various parts that make up "dance," I just fail to grasp the larger intent.

Occasionally I can snag some small piece of understanding. I have been known, in the wee hours of the night when Bob Seger's Night Moves comes on the bar jukebox, to sway back and forth in some ritualized, primitive motion. I'm also no stranger to mosh pits, having grown up in New Jersey during its fertile pop-punk and hardcore years.

But on the whole, dance is lost on me. Or was. Until I played Soundodger+.

What's the frequency, Kenneth?

Soundodger+ is built on a simple premise: you play as a circle, trapped inside an arena. Other objects shoot from the arena's walls--triangles, cubes, larger circles. Colliding with these objects is bad.

This is essentially an easier version of what Atari gave us 35 years ago in Asteroids. You don't even have to shoot anything--just survive. Comparing Asteroids to Soundodger+, however, is like comparing Jesus burned into a piece of toast to The Last Supper.

Also, just like Asteroids, that Jesus toaster seems totally rad.

Soundodger+ is less a game and more an entirely different way to experience music. Each level in the game is a different musical track, spanning artists like Disasterpeace (the composer for Fez, among other things) and Austin Wintory (composer for Journey [the game, not the '80s band]).

Every "enemy" in Soundodger+ is tied to the music. The plink of a synthesizer might spawn a single triangle for you to dodge. A quick smattering of notes sends triangles flying at you from all sides. A violin's glissando (a smooth glide between two pitches) results in a long, arcing series of triangles.

To an extent, I feel like playing Soundodger+ must be somewhat comparable to listening to music with synesthesia. It's all about patterns. Precision. Color.

The result forces you to listen to music on a much deeper level than you might be accustomed to. For a minute or three minutes or five minutes you feel the music. You anticipate where the melody is going, when the drop is coming, when the music will reel in and give you a quick rest.

If one of Soundodger's tracks came on under normal circumstances you might allow that sweet drum fill or synth pad to get swallowed into the background noise. Here, every instrument matters. You hear everything. Your life depends on it.

It's a weird feeling. Soundodger+ isn't very relaxing, especially once you've gotten through the first few levels. Instead, you reach a Zen-like state of sustained focus. You're hardwired right into the game, electrified, focused on each moment. It's addictive.

You'll be playing through a track, desperately flitting back and forth through dozens of random bullets until for one single moment it all resolves into something beautiful.

Then it's gone. All the pieces move away again, crashing into the walls and disappearing. You're left with a brief afterimage--one that fades quickly, with the music sending ever more obstacles at you.

The patterns, though--the way it all comes together in an instant--I understand now what people see in dance.

"Playing" Soundodger+ is great. It's a solid, though relatively simple, game. But it's the music that elevates Soundodger+. The game reveals the grace of each track.

First breath after coma

Soundodger was originally a free web game (you can still play it here).  The paid version, which costs $8 on Steam, comes with eleven new levels/tracks and some handy custom-level features.

Due to popular request, the developer included an auto-gen feature: plug in any of your own music and the game will calculate out a level to go with it. Unfortunately, this feature removes much of the magic of Soundodger+. The levels it creates are often artless, failing to spawn enemies on the most obvious beats and instead vomiting them out almost at random.

However, there is an incredibly extensive editor where you can build new levels from scratch. You can define enemy colors, placements, patterns--basically any behavior the game is capable of.

As you might expect, this whole process is rather time-consuming; I spent about half an hour trying to build a level for First Breath After Coma by Explosions in the Sky. After those thirty minutes I'd managed to finish the first twenty seconds...of a nine minute song. And hey, those first twenty seconds were gorgeous! I just don't know how likely I am to finish the job.

Right now there's no way to easily share the levels you've made with others; hopefully people will figure out a way to share custom levels and tracks down the line. Unfortunately, the legality of that process is questionable because the game needs both the audio file and the level data (an XML file). You'd need to make sure your copy of the song was exactly the same as someone else's, down to the second, or else the level wouldn't line up.

Regardless, I can't wait to see what people build. If anyone is willing to tackle Explosions in the Sky, you know where to find me.

Bottom line

I can't stop playing Soundodger+; I'm playing it in my sleep at this point. Every time I think I'm done, I end up coming back a few hours later and playing it again.

I've run through every track, many of them multiple times, and I'm still enthralled. The opening Disasterpeace track feels like it's burned into my brain. Right now I'm sitting in this office, writing this review, and all I really want to do is load up Soundodger+ .

What I'm saying is, this game is pretty good.

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