David Ventura surprises me by saying he'd never played a rhythm game before moving to Japan, where he'd end up working with a company known for making them. That was the studio iNiS, creator of beloved oddball rhythm action games like Gitaroo Man and Elite Beat Agents.
Ventura had a background in experimental electronic music composition, albeit no formal training, and it was the studio’s personality that drew him in. “The kind of people that work there, just the vibe of these like crazy musicians trying to make wacky games - that kind of got me hooked.” Years later Ventura took a job working at music software company Propellerhead in Sweden, but the Japanese influences remain strong and factors into the name of his game studio 151A, which is meant to be pronounced ‘Ichi-go Ichi-e’, a Japanese expression that means ‘once chance in a lifetime.’
“I think my philosophy in terms of how I create games, and how I create music is very Japanese, as I've absorbed it over my time living there,” says Ventura. “The idea that every experience you give the customer every day, that you go to work and you do your job, it could be the last day that you have: it could be the only time you have a chance to interact with someone, whether you're meeting a reporter, you're meeting a customer or client or somebody you work with. I think it's important to do the best to share the experience with them.”
Our once-in-a-life-time meeting, as it were, is to talk about 151A’s debut game Hexagroove. It’s a DJ sim, though you won’t be messing with a plastic turntable controller, and despite the Japanese influences it's no strict exercise in precise rhythm-tapping either. The sub-title ‘Tactical DJ’ encapsulates it better: this is a DJ sim in the vein of an RTS, where your goal is to guide a sea of virtual clubbers into a state of euphoria and good times.
Instead of hitting notes to a pre-recorded track, the player a wide range of musical loops and samples (over 420 in total) that range across ten genres of dance music, from trance to house to electro. As well as essentially producing your own music, though, you’ll also need to read the rules of the room and what the clubgoers want. “If you take away the drums, for example, they don't know what the rhythm is, so they stop dancing and start just kind of rocking back and forth,” Ventura says. “You add something in it that's good, they get happy, the better you play the music, the more energetic they become, and the more wildly they move around.”
The dancers themselves are represented as columns at the bottom of the screen, part of the game's abstract visual style, but are nonetheless an expressive bunch when swaying and bouncing to the beat, and by the time you’ve really worked them up they start whooping and clapping. Clubbers are procedurally generated but will nonetheless behave according to the type of venue you’re playing at, beginning from a mate’s humble pool party to cavernous basements, and before you know it you’ll be headlining a big stage at a European festival as the sell-out headliner.
Whichever way you’re musically inclined, Hexagroove tries to build on some basic principles around what makes a good track to dance to. “Parts of it are built on what's emotionally important to me in terms of what I like about music and what I like about being in the club and DJ-ing,” says Ventura. “But there's also a very analytical standpoint to it: how many instruments you can have going at once versus how often you change them, their setup, and things like that.”
The theory is backed up by the execution. Rhythm-tapping does come into play as a minigame where you’re bridging from one section of a song to the next, such as tapping out a drum-roll pattern, but the core experience is much more freeform, so that you’re beginning with drums then layering up melody, or mixing up different loops. The idea is your tunes will never come out the same way twice, and the game should be able to accomodate just about any style that's constructed on solid foundations.
It’s also to an extent funneling you towards success. Not that you can’t mash the same musical cues obnoxiously over and over (and piss off your virtual ravers) but what you play can never sound ‘bad’ either. Part of this approach stems from Ventura’s experience at Propellerhead, whose Figure app was designed for people interested in making music but also had guardrails that keeps notes in key or where just holding down a rhythm wheel automatically taps out a rhythm for you.
The music itself comes from the contributions of musicians including Yuji Takenouchi (whose game credits include sound design on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls), Legowelt and Runners Club 95, though you’re not really playing their tracks at all. Ventura describes their contributions to Hexagroove as like providing the player with “buckets of musical Legos,” so that you’re piecing their samples together to make new songs instead of prescribed ones. “That was the challenge in directing the artists because most of them are used to producing songs and scores to whole soundtracks,” he says. “So to work with them and have them take a step back and say, the goal here is not to build six complete songs, it's to build the pieces for people to make hundreds of songs.”
Does that suggest Hexagroove is more of a musical tool disguised as a game? It seems a bit of both, and a sort of harmonious coming together of Ventura’s past experiences. The game has local multiplayer options, while the post-launch plans (it's due out on Switch in October, with PC to follow) revolve around adding a music-sharing feature and new samples. Hexagroove looks and sounds like a fresh spin on the music genre and the art-stroke-science of DJing: hopefully there's enough depth in its combinations to keep players banging out tunes into the small hours.