Ynglet nails an aspect of the music game genre I first felt in Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s 2001 classic Rez. I’m talking about the way it makes space for player input within its generative soundtrack; specifically, how the music only truly pops when I start twirling my analogue stick and pressing buttons. In Rez, I do this to obliterate geometric enemies; in Ynglet, all I have to do is move. Because my own input doesn’t ever land perfectly on the beat, these interactions—whose effects are visual and aural—spray and scatter beautifully across the snap-lock grid of its electronic music score. For a wonderful few minutes, the game makes me feel like a jazz drummer, even if I’m only jamming with the computer.
In the same way that I’d consider Rez to be a music game dressed up as a shooter, Ynglet, released last week for PC, is a music game that resembles a platformer. Its maker, Nicklas Nygren, developer of cult favorite Knytt, says it doesn’t have any platforms, but this isn’t quite true. In Ynglet, platforms are bubbles, and if you fail to reach the safety of one, your avatar, a small, tadpole-looking creature, falls out of the screen into a vast empty abyss. Like any classic 2D platformer, you must make it through a series of obstacles in order to complete the level. It’s ostensibly simple, but the secret sauce lies in how its music, visuals, and interactivity talk to one another. The result? My eyes, ears, thumbs, and brain tingle when I play Ynglet.
Visually, there’s a chunky marker pen look to artist Sara Sandberg’s brightly colored shapes and squiggles; psychedelic but crystal clear, generously accommodating of the precise movements the game’s platforming demands. Still, there’s room for ambiguity: I can never quite decide what the geometric shapes actually represent. I'm pretty sure I’m looking at a bird’s eye view of a city, albeit rendered as a twinkling cellular micro-world. It could just as easily be an ocean environment, or maybe even a dawning cosmos. This never feels confusing; rather gently playful. It reminds me of 1983’s Moondust, Jarod Lanier’s pioneering generative musical game for the Commodore 64 (you can read a great piece about it here). Ynglet shares that game’s vibrant lines set against a simple canvas-like backdrop, and the way the screen quickly becomes an audio-visual cacophony thanks to the player’s own impulsive motion.
You can arguably sketch a history from Lanier’s Moon Dust all the way through to Mizuguchi’s synaesthetic work (including the wonderful Tetris Effect), also incorporating other music games such as aural walking sim Proteus and the recently released Genesis Noir. These games resonate with a point Lanier made in an interview with The Guardian, namely that the closest relative of the computer is actually the musical instrument. He describes the computer as “a device where you can explore a range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.” This is what Ynglet feels like: sometimes I find myself ignoring level progression to simply bounce between bubbles, seeing what gorgeous permutation of sound I can summon.
What of the actual platforming? Well, there’s a kind of watery quality to the game’s physics which means movement feels a touch slower than others in the genre—but this also allows for more wiggle-room landing jumps. This jump, or dash mechanic is arguably the game’s secret weapon; you don’t press a button to trigger the movement; rather you hold and then release when you want to be catapulted through space. As you’re pressing on the button, time actually slows, giving Ynglet a great, nearly bullet time sense of style. It allows more control over both the platforming and the musical dimension of the game (a little like Rez’s own hold-release shooting mechanic): I often found myself trying to time dashes with the beat.
I love the dynamic, fluid quality of Ynglet, the confetti-like explosions of color, and the character animations that swirl organically, their movement akin to insects on a pond. While there are definitive routes through its levels, the game feels less prescriptive than other 2D platformers; it’s easy to go wrong on the platforms that bob and sway but so too can situations be salvaged with a well-timed dash, and a generous helping of luck. All in, these elements make me think of Ynglet in terms of improvisation; it manages to feel like playing an instrument and a video game at precisely the same time.