There are thousands of apps for making music on an iPad, and most of them are actually pretty dull. Touchscreen devices, possessing all the tactile finesse of a featureless slate of rock, just aren't great physical synthesizers. But as it turns out, they're fairly useful as game interfaces. UK studio Lucky Frame has found a comfortable middle ground, building an interesting kind of 'game instrument' that rides the line between music tool and entertainment software. And features a race of space-faring pugs.
Pugs Luv Beats isn't just another charming time-waster — it's an intriguing look at the idea of gameplay as a mode of musical composition. Aside from a few progressive titles like Fract, videogames still very rarely have anything resembling a generative soundtrack. Pugs may be light-hearted and simple, but it is steeped heavily in this desire to explore synths and electronic composition through videogame aesthetics, rather than samples, knobs and sliders.
The game interface takes a lot of cues from the look and feel of modern MIDI sequencers, particularly the Monome. From a top-down, grid-based map, players set paths for their pugs to traverse to collect beets (beats). The pugs travel to other planets (songs) each with varying terrain types that produce different sounds and affect the speed of the pattern. Collect enough beats and costume "upgrades" for your pugs allow some more difficult terrain to be crossed faster. At the top of each map, two X/Y touch inputs allow pugs to "sing" along to the beats you've created in the world below.
Despite how frequently the two are separated into discrete categories, gameplay and composition aren't too far removed from one another. "[W]e wanted to start exploring how those two approaches feed off of each other," says Yann Seznec, one of the team's three members. "One particularly good example is the techniques used in the writing of a fugue, which essentially involves taking one melody and spreading it across three or four different voices in varying timings. I always like thinking of the four fugal melodies as being like four different characters exploring the same space, perhaps finding different power-ups that change their speed, double their power, and so on."
Pugs Luv Beats is up for an "Excellence in Audio" award at this year's Independent Games Festival, along with our new favorite party game Johann Sebastian Joust. Stay tuned for my reporting on the 2012 Game Developer's Conference, which comes to San Francisco next week.