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VICE vs Video games

Lightning Bolt’s Bassist Is Making an Amazing-Looking ‘Rhythm Violence’ Game

The Rhode Island noise duo's Brian Gibson is about to shake up a stale gaming genre with "Thumper."
01 April 2015, 9:55pm

Cymbals don't look all that dangerous until vulnerable parts of your body are in incredibly close proximity to them, a churning crowd is pressing at your back, and the man beating down on them is doing so like an ADHD colossus. At All Tomorrow's Parties' 2006 "United Sounds Of" festival at Camber Sands' dilapidated Pontins holiday park, I swear I was inches from having my throat cut by Brian Chippendale's kit—so I pushed back, ducked out, and got myself a nerves-calming pint of some lousy beer.

I watched the bodies writhe from a position of (relative) safety; the band, Lightning Bolt (no idea? Check out this Noisey interview), buried somewhere within the throng. The stage wasn't for them—they'd set up on the floor, in one corner of the center's second room. Even from outside the epicenter of the racket, though, I was moved to thrash a limb or two in wild celebration of this duo's blithesome bombast. Lightning Bolt have always done that to a man, and a few drinks in the effect is only ever going to be amplified.

The band's other Brian, Gibson, has a lesser known side-line to his bass-slaying position as 50 percent of Lightning Bolt—indeed, it's been a full-time gig for him more often than not. He's served as an artist on several games for Harmonix, the studio behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band, as well as the about-to-relaunch Amplitude and the Disney-affiliated Fantasia: Music Evolved. But much of what he's done in the past will be cast into shade when the colorful aggression of Thumper strong-arms its way into the rhythm action genre sometime next year.

A project several years in the making so far, Gibson collaborating with now-Seoul-based programmer Marc Flury on its creation and the pair coming together under the umbrella of Drool, Thumper is pitched as a "rhythm violence" game. "You are a space beetle," says its website. "Your goal: kill Crakhed!" Some further explanation is offered—"You control a space beetle while careening towards a confrontation with an insane giant head from the future"—but, really, all most people have to go on is the electrifying trailer that came out in February, which you can see below. (And just imagine it in VR, without throwing up on yourself.)

Of course, I had to call Gibson up to learn more for myself.

VICE: I know you mainly because of Lightning Bolt, but you've worked in the games industry a long time, right?
Brian Gibson: Yeah, I was hired at Harmonix in 2001 as an intern. I guess I was that, for a few months, and then I got hired properly after that, as an artist. But at the time I didn't really know how to do game art, at all. The art director had seen some of my paintings, a lot of which were abstract, and he knew me through Lightning Bolt too, so I think he was interested in helping me out. I was so into learning stuff, though.

And now there's Drool, and Thumper. What did you learn at Harmonix that you've been able to take across into this more personal project?
I guess, with a lot of music games that I've seen, I feel like there could be ways of better tying what's happening with the cues that are coming at you with the fiction that's happening in the game world. And also, I wanted to simplify things, to strip things down, to make it about simple, physical interactions. I was really into music games, but I like other video games where the character on screen is doing something that's "real," that you can connect with, and I think Thumper is taking some of the abstract mechanics of music games and trying to make them into something worth caring about on a more primal level. It's more about survival.

It certainly looks like "survival" is very much the name of the game. Is it as tough as it looks?
It's definitely supposed to be tough. It looks tough, and it feels tough, but the gameplay itself eases you into it—we help people learn the game, so it's not so punishing as to be alienating. But a big part of the game is to try to create this sense of impending danger, and being in this precarious state where you can die on any corner. It's a really threatening environment.

And that's reflected in the music that's on the trailer, isn't it? This doesn't sound like your regular rhythm action game, does it? There are no pop ditties here...
It's definitely not playing along to pop tracks. The music in the game is there to serve the mood, more than anything else. I don't even know if you could call it music. The musical side of the game sort of emerges from the physical interactions happening in the world, and also the atmospheric feeling of it. A lot of the musical sounds in the game are these noisy, textural drones and throbs that I think of as the sounds of its world, and it's a world that's very alive but also machine-like. So it's sort of a music game, but all the "music" in the game is really sound effects, too. It's totally built around elaborate sound effects.

That makes me think of Rez, which wasn't a rhythm-action game but had this musical side to it which developed as you used your various abilities.
Yeah, it's definitely more in that vein [than a regular rhythm action game].

And in terms of the game's development, it's been some years in the making so far for Marc and yourself, hasn't it?
Yeah, we've never really been doing it intensely, full-time, as both of us have had other projects. I've definitely had plenty of things going on simultaneously, not least of all my Harmonix job. But we've both been really consistent about it. We talk twice a week on Skype, and we've been making this gradual, but steady progress. It's amazing to see how far it's come, if you saw some of the early prototypes we had, as it's all built in our own engine. From the very beginning, we've had to build everything, and we've slowly developed it to the point, now, where it does look pretty polished. It looks like a real video game! Which is quite exciting.

Lightning Bolt, "The Metal East," from the album 'Fantasy Empire'

So how ready is it? How far away are we from actually being able to play it?
It's pretty close to us being able to build out the game, but we've been really refining the first few levels so we can reach this point where we can say: "This is what the finished game will looks like." And from there we'll be building out all of the later levels around that frame. You don't want to build all the levels before you've established the core fundamentals of how scoring works, and so on. I don't think the rest of the process will take too much time, because we've got really efficient tools for modular level building. Marc built the engine, and I'd give feedback, and it's pretty incredible. We've both been so committed to this, for such a long time, and that's amazing–especially as he's been away, overseas, for so long. Our enthusiasm hasn't waned at all.

When you've been able to show it off, as you did at PAX East recently, what's the reception been like?
It's been going really awesomely. Everyone who's played it at PAX and at GDC has seemed on our wavelength. We've been staring at this thing every day for so long, it's hard to know exactly how it comes across to other people. You know, when you get so close to something you can't really see what it is anymore? We're in that place, so to finally get it in front of people was just super rewarding, and a lot of people seemed to be really affected by it.

How does that kind of player feedback compare to when you're reading reports or reviews on your music, or just speaking to fans about it?
It's pretty similar. I was thinking, when we were at GDC, that it was a bit like being on tour, but you don't have to actually play a show—you just stand there and let other people perform. I guess making a game is a bit like making a record in so much as you do the performance once and then you can make a million copies of it, and send it out to people and get their responses for free. It was awesome to just stand there and watch people play the game and tell us it was really fun. And I'd already done all the work! There was nothing I had to do, unlike when I'm on tour with the band.

If the game isn't the easiest to describe—and I've seen journalists struggle to express exactly what it is—is it something that just makes sense when you actually get your hands on it?
Yeah, I think so. Most people—the vast majority of people—who played it, they figured it all out. There were a couple of things that were being misinterpreted, in the way we were cueing them. The game starts off being pretty clear as to what you do when certain cues come towards you. There was the occasional person who had a problem, but it is simple to play—it just uses one button, and the stick. It's not like other games where you have to learn all these different combinations of button presses. I'm personally into simplifying things like that, and I think that's evident with Lightning Bolt, too—just the way we have the drums, bass and vocals set-up, and that's it. Music doesn't need to be about these elaborate patterns, and likewise I like stripping a game down to its rhythmic elements, this backbone, and just having the player do the right thing at the right time in a really satisfying way.

I just want to play it, frankly. What formats will it be available on, and when?
It won't just be for PC. We're at a point where we're unsure what other platforms there will be, but there will be some. As it's just the two of us, it'll take us a while to work through all the options, but virtual reality is a definite possibility, and something that a lot of people who played the game mentioned to us. I'm kind of familiar with VR, and I do think this game could be cool in that context. It could also be pretty scary, but I think that's a good thing! So far as a release date, we're looking at early 2016, we think.

Lightning Bolt's new album, Fantasy Empire_, is out now on Thrill Jockey. Find the band here and Drool here._

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