Why is it that YouTube has lots of hits for “Guitar Hero blindfold” but none for “Guitar Hero earplugs”? It’s music – you don’t need to see it. With A Musical Story, Glee-Cheese Studio have taken a punt on the idea that music is something you do indeed listen to. What kind of music? With a brown-galore colour palette and a deliciously funk-dipped prog-rock vibe, we have a love letter to the 1970s that practically types the word “groovy” into reviews by itself.
The story is about a band setting out on the road to pursue their dreams at a festival, with love and trippy adventures along the way. The game is structured into story episodes that must be passed in sequence, seamlessly flowing through animations and rhythm sequences from start to end. The visual presentation is stylish, focusing on a small area for the interactive sections, then luxuriously filling the screen for the rest. OLED-havers will appreciate the expansive blackness and bursts of colour.
The gameplay is distinctive thanks to the complexity of its rhythms and its determination to make you listen, rather than read. The musical “score” is a horseshoe shape, with notes running anti-clockwise from top-left to top-right. Musical phrases are introduced as you watch the story animations, then repeated, with the notes appearing on the score as they’re heard. The phrase then loops again and you must parrot it back, the track moving on if you’re successful or looping until eventually you are.
Glee-Cheese Studio has emphasised listening using a limited visual score and long, rhythmically subtle phrases. The score has no markers for measure and nothing to indicate tempo. It is only a brief aide-memoire to supplement an intuitive musical understanding of what you just heard. What you are memorising is entirely rhythmical: there are only three “notes” – left, right and both at once – and they are shown unequivocally on the score.
There is a genuine musicality to the Simon Says instructions which suggests they were written as music first and as level designs second. They are four measures long, syncopated, polyrhythmical, and often lacking a beat. This is a real challenge. We were soon craving a more detailed score to count out these subtleties, but A Musical Story won’t oblige. You can’t think your way through: you have to feel it.
The visual interface can frustrate, though. The left/right/both notes are not well distinguished, using coloured circles that overlap one another and fade out when missed, so it’s hard to prepare for the next attempt. Since the score is a horseshoe, not a ring, there is no visual continuity when a phrase repeats, letting the start catch you off guard. If you’re repeating a phrase then you’re already struggling, so this feels unfair. There’s an assist mode that kicks in to ease some of these grumbles, but it's a compromise. Ultimately, "practice makes perfect" is a strangely bookish message to get from a bunch of camper-van hippies.
In its mission to make you listen to its music, A Musical Story practically hands you a blindfold. The story asks you to relax into its acid-trip jam-session cool, but somewhat harshes the mellow with its insistence on repeating long phrases until they’re perfect. However, it looks and sounds fabulous, and will reward perseverance and repeated plays.