Features: The History of BIT.TRIP, Part 2
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
In this installment, Gaijin struggles to find the fun in CORE and crafts what they feel to be a beautiful game in VOID.
ON THE MAP
Luckily for Gaijin, BEAT was a success; had the game tanked then the series would’ve likely gone ahead as planned, but it ensured them that they were on the right track. “There was talk of whether should we cut it to four or five games, but we always kept coming back to six,” artist Mike Roush said.
Reveling in the acclaim of their work was not a luxury the small outfit could afford to keep up, as their allotted time for development of the next game meant that as soon as one game was out the door and in Nintendo’s hands the team had to get cracking on the next. When their first title had finally released, the team was already knee-deep in game two: CORE. By the time BEAT was out and had a following, the team said, there wasn’t any time to address the more vocal feedback from players centered on e.g. a checkpoint system, so they just barged forward. “We’re releasing so many games as a small studio that we can’t take the time out of our work schedule to revel in, ‘We just finished something, guys, isn’t that fun and great? And look at the news, it’s awesome!’” lead designer Alex Neuse said. “We have to keep moving. We don’t have a lot of buffer time these days.”
“Every time we release one of these we say we’re going to have a party,” Roush said. “It never happens and we just start making the next game.”
Storyboard for CORE's first cutscene, which lined up with the final version quite nicely.
CORE’s concept was inspired by Cosmic Arc, a game developed by Neuse-favorite Imagic and released in 1982 for, what else, the Atari 2600. One of its stages put players in control of an alien ship’s blasters and had to shoot at meteors coming in from four sides, which influenced the foundation for Gaijin’s sequel. And having just created a game based around rotating the Wii Remote, the team wanted to give the D-Pad a go. But the trio struggled to make the game gel — simply put, they found it just wasn’t any fun. Actually, it kind of sucked for a while.
In the final game, a disambiguation of CommanderVideo is locked in the center of the screen and beats fly by in the space around him, and players intercept the beats by selecting one of four directional lines and shooting as they pass. At first, Gaijin had the beats coming towards the Commander along the directional lines, but Neuse said that since the beats could always be hit the game provided no challenge, was boring and strayed from the beat-based gameplay they were shooting for. Another iteration quoted the 2600 game Turmoil, throwing eight vertical stacks on the field and having players switch between them to fire at incoming beats. At one point players could move the core along the beat lines, but that proved to be “insanity,” according to Neuse.
“All of those (iterations) just sucked,” Neuse said.
It wasn’t until about halfway through the game’s three-month development that the team took a step back to pinpoint exactly where the game was going wrong, and they managed to solve their conundrum examining what makes music/rhythm games fun. They came up with a Guitar Hero-esque timing-based solution across the original concept’s four lines, and the final game’s idea of using the negative space for beats to whirl around fell into place.
Finding the fun was a huge relief for the team. “(It) was really scary, because there were parts of development where I was basically thinking to myself, ‘this isn’t fun,’” Roush said. “Then, all of a sudden one day, it was fun.”
With gameplay in place, Gaijin’s efforts shifted to cranking out the rest of the game. A screen-clearing bomb was added to help stem the melting of brains that came with missing a beat in a segment, but one issue that wasn’t settled until the last minute was which of two control schemes to use — one “fired” immediately on pressing a direction, and another aimed with the D-Pad and fired with a button. Neuse was split 50/50 on which to use and feedback from playtesters swayed him towards the aim-and-fire option; it was a decision he came to regret. “I think that CORE is a stronger game with the original gameplay mechanic and I wish that I had just stuck to my designer-brain guns and said, ‘No, this game is about pointing, it’s not about aiming and firing,’” he said.
Roush worked diligently on evolving the art style, taking it into a deeper, more abstract direction. He wound up taking it so deep, in fact, that he’s confident players haven’t quite parsed out the events and symbolism going on in the backgrounds. “Everything means something,” he said. “Nobody ever figured out that level 1 is essentially (CommaderVideo’s) body; (for instance,) the moving machines are his legs working. Halfway through stage 2 it moves into his anatomy — you can see his “junk” from the inside (laughs), then it goes into his stomach, intestines, lungs...all of level 2 is essentially his brain starting up and sending signals out.
“BEAT was sort of this weird little story in the background. CORE is way out there but a little more literal.”
Roush managed to sneak in a few hidden tidbits into his work. Hot off seeing a Saw movie but unable to recall which one, Roush set about modeling one of the movie’s sinister, “insanely hideous” chest-ripping just for fun — it’s that “weird yellow thing” floating about in the background of level 3.
With the game out the door and on players’ consoles, CORE wasn’t met with the same universal acclaim from the BIT.TRIP faithful and instead turned out to be a fairly divisive title. "A lot of people pick it up and say, ‘Oh ****, what? Forget it,’” Neuse said. “It is more about gameplay than anything else. It’s wholly unique among video games in that you’re using your brain in a way that you don’t normally. It’s very confusing, but there is a method to the madness. And when you can tap into it you see the merits of the gameplay, but it’s hard to tap into it."
Even Gaijin is split on CORE’s gameplay.
“I’ve never been past half of level 2,” Roush admitted. “It’s embarrassing to say but I can’t deal with the frustration involved in me playing CORE. Instead of going on sort of a rampage, I put the controller down. (...) Some of us who play BIT.TRIP games have this funny thing where basically we’re playing and at a certain point we go, ‘&$%^ Alex! This is bull$#!7!’”
“I actually think I got worse over time,” designer Danny Johnson said. “When I first played I could get into that vibe, but when I put it down and came back I couldn’t, it left me.”
BIT.TRIP VOID, despite being the third entry in the series, brought about a lot of firsts for the series. It has a floatier, more free-form style than previous titles, whose no-boundary setup reflects CommanderVideo’s exploration of interpersonal boundaries and emotions. The change away from the rigid structures of BEAT and CORE helped cement part three as one of Gaijin’s overall favorites. “With VOID, you can play it and get a sense of satisfaction even if you lose,” Johnson said. “The highs and lows are less, so you’re not punching in walls.”
“I think VOID is beautiful,” Neuse said. “I think it’s almost a better spectator game than it is a player’s game. I love watching it. There’s something about VOID that puts me in this meditative state — the music so chill, the gameplay is very straightforward, it’s black and white and you don’t have to really think about anything else.”
It took a little while for Neuse to realize just how much more freedom the new structure allowed, enabling him to design stages that sent in patterns from all sides and communicate to players that they are now in a much larger area, something that playtesters struggled to come to grips with initially. As he built the stages, Gaijin layered on complexity in the game’s audio and visual departments, to the point of becoming much too “noisy;” this prompted the team to scale back its presentation to the point of minimalism. Visually, the final build of VOID looks drastically different in tone than earlier iterations, trading in midnight colors for black and white over a sunset backdrop.
“I didn’t really like how it looked at all,” Roush explained. “There wasn’t anything about it that made me excited. The void was made up of different colors, the background was different, so (about halfway through) I said I just want to make it black and white.”
Gaijin had wanted VOID to be devoid of a HUD from the beginning, and the new abstract, minimalist look fit snugly into this desire, allowing the team to place the score ticker and other elements unobtrusively in the backdrop. What didn’t fit snugly at all for a while was their original control idea of a completely pointer-based game, where players moved the void around like a cursor and adjusting its size based on the Remote’s distance to the sensor bar. Neuse said this method completely destroyed the sense of meandering and flow they strove for. Plus, getting the size control mechanic to work was a nightmare, so out it went in favor of the nunchuck’s analog stick.
Of all the BIT.TRIPs, VOID was given the least amount of time to complete due to the team losing two weeks up front for E3 2009, but this turned out to not be a problem: VOID wound up having the easiest development of all six games. And Gaijin couldn’t have been more pleased with the results. “It’s a very beautiful game, not just in visuals but the gameplay is quite elegant and fluid,” Roush said. “In some ways I’m surprised we were able to do it in that short an amount of time:”
The free-form elegance of VOID wouldn’t last, however, as the next game had its sights set on platforming and a corporeal CommanderVideo. Feeling the importance of ensuring that game four would be a success, Gaijin took a good, long look at what made other mascots so popular and successful. So what’d their research for a silver bullet find?
Eyeballs. Lots and lots of eyeballs.
_Earlier: The History of BIT.TRIP: Part 1