After a thousand blog rants, Twitter posts, and angry webcomics, the best way to campaign for video games as an art form remains making games that are works of art. And Bit.Trip Flux is a truly joyous demonstration of the artistic potential of the form. Like Dziga Vertov’s films, Mondrian’s paintings, or Balanchine’s choreography, Bit.Trip Flux presents the spectacle of a medium reveling in its essential properties, offering an aesthetic experience that wasn’t possible until the form was created to engender it.
Like many of the great modernist innovators, the Gaijin Games crew finds the future via primitivism, with a game that looks all the way back to the first popular video game: venerable and perfect old Pong. Yes, yes, Spacewar comes first, I know, but Spacewar was a lab project known only to a few grad students; Pong was the first time the greater mass of people got acquainted with the idea that electronic calculators could turn their knack for running a whole bunch of formulas really quickly into a form of interactive entertainment.
Drill down far enough and your bloodiest open world and your most adorable platformer are the same thing: vast amounts of math, interlocking formulas running through an operating system to simulate action. It’s a little depressing to contemplate, for the more squishy-humanist among us, just how ably all those equations can pass for life, and how invested the player can get in the fate of a bunch of grouped mathematical systems.
But then, us squishy humanists have had a lot of blows from computers in the last few years. Maybe the harshest was “band-in-a-box” software, where you tell the computer the mood and time signature you want, and it cranks out perfectly serviceable music, reasonably sad, soaring, or cheerful as you request. It’s terrifying to see a computer coldly rolling out facsimiles of what was thought to be the product of a composer’s passion, especially given the unique cultural weight accorded to the emotional turmoil of a Beethoven or a Robert Johnson.
But then, as some very clever Greeks figured out long ago, music itself is built on a solid foundation of predictable math. Long before Charles Babbage built his first adding machine, composers like Bach were toying with demonstrations of how melodies that seem to spring from the heart can be generated by an abstract algorithm.
Gaijin Games, the Talking Heads of game development, resolve the geek’s tension between science and (he)art with gloriously syncopated rhythm. The simplest description of Bit.Trip Flux would be that it’s a game of Pong where the balls hit your paddle in time with the music. But that’s like describing a symphony as “a bunch of pitched sounds made in sequence.” The experience of Bit.Trip Flux is a psychedelic synaesthesia, in which the visual representation of music projects the player deep into the structure of the piece. Music games like Rock Band have previously demonstrated how immensely immersive it is to feel like you’re collaborating in playing a tune, and the extra layer of gameplay abstraction that Bit.Trip Flux adds, not to mention the Atari-2600-meets-2001 visuals, make this BIT.TRIP spectacularly trippy.
It helps that the game is built around Gaijin’s best music yet. All their titles have featured fun chiptunes sounds, but the music in Bit.Trip Flux has a warmth that’s new for them. It’s as driving as any previous title, but there’s more organic percussion being sampled, and warmer chords and colors (in both the timbre and the RGB sense), making the experience less like being a hard-rockin’ robot and more like dancing with the white-dwarf stars.
In this kinder, gentler BIT.TRIP experience, even Gaijin’s notorious difficulty gets a little toned down. There’s still no shortage of brutal challenges and sadistic rule changes (Gaijin is one of the few contemporary developers to take such delight in constantly wrong-footing the player), but the addition of unlimited continues means you actually have a chance to hear the whole piece if you’re sufficiently determined. Even more delightfully, they’ve added a “Multiply” power-up, which expands your paddle to the entire size of the playing field and seems to serve no gameplay purpose other than to give the player 60 seconds of pure bliss. It’s still not a game to try on your non-gamer friends, who are likely to be alienated by its psychopathic eagerness to screw with you, but an evening of co-op with a determined fellow gamer, good speakers, and perhaps some controlled substances can provide one of the most compelling nights you’re likely to have with your Wii.
Bit.Trip Flux is Gaijin’s first real sequel, building directly on the mechanics of their previous Pong-meets-Rez title, BIT.TRIP BEAT. And like the best sequels, it lets the designers return to familiar mechnics with new sophistication. Bit.Trip Flux produces a sublime aesthetic experience in a way that’s impossible to do in any medium other than video games, and is likely to inspire a new generation of programmers and composers to expand the definition of music gaming, especially valuable now that the Rock Band model seems to be losing steam. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, and way more worthwhile than just about anything else you can get for $8. If you have a Wii and like music and/or video games and/or masterpieces, buy it.