According to the developers, Empty Clip Studios, Symphony represents the culmination of two different goals: to “feel the intensity and emotions of the song you’re playing,” and to “entice you to rediscover your own music collection.”

Symphony replicates the emotions of listening to music, rather than producing an entirely new experience. Experiencing the emotions evoked by one’s favorite genre remains the selling point of these music-generated forays. Perhaps some find themselves discovering new music in their gargantuan collections or rediscovering old favorites.

“So what does Symphony do with Enya’s brand of relaxing new age synth? It decided that Enya demonstrates a penchant for violent colorful destruction, creating a host of evil spaceships.”

I wanted to test this system; to break it, and find it wanting. Could a game truly engender an emotion simply by attaching music to a basic Galaga clone? Does the music I choose really determine the challenges and obstacles I encounter?

That’s not to say I wasn’t open to the enterprise, but how, I wondered, can a video game create these emotions through a code-driven process without leaving out the soul of the music?

My entire Mp3 collection has tags that aren’t readable or discernible to the Symphony program. Hence, thousands upon thousands of songs from my 117 gigabyte library remained adrift in a sea of unintuitive file names. Trying to figure out the difference between “Track 1” and “Track 22” is next to impossible. Still, some files fit perfectly into Symphony‘s library forming algorithm. Symphony also has its own collection of songs bundled with the game, though I chose to ignore them in favor of my own collection.

I found myself playing Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” for no other reason than my own slothfulness. It was there, tagged correctly, and available – what better way to test the system than with something the designers probably didn’t anticipate? Enya is the bestselling purveyor of vocal-layered folk harmonies with ethereal reverberations. Her music attempts a transcending of the ordinary and a flight into mysterious spiritual realms.

These are scenes from Enya’s Orinoco Flow video. So obviously, Symphony had a lot to live up to. So many feelings. And flowers. And birds.

So what does Symphony do with Enya’s brand of relaxing new age synth? It decided that Enya demonstrates a penchant for violent colorful destruction, creating a host of evil spaceships. At the very least, this creates a bizarre contrast between the music and game; rather than comfort, Symphony turns Enya’s melodic vocalizations into a bout of fearful survival and intense engagement. Anything beyond the first difficulty level turns “Orinoco Flow” and similar songs into giant deathtraps that require firepower and keen reflexes to conquer.

This contrast isn’t present when playing through electronic or techno music. Anything fit for a modern DJ or a nightclub works brilliantly in Empty Clip’s system, as the enemy waves sync perfectly with the music. Deadmau5’s “I Remember”, for example, hits every cadence of the song in its six minute time span, allowing for lulls and sudden starts throughout. Any music with a strong bass component appears to be a perfect fit.

While Symphony works quite well with Deadmau5, it is actually really hard to play with that mouse head thing on.

Like a digital archaeologist, I dug through my bountiful music collection finding new little treats. Why do I own a song called “Pudgy Young Blondes with Lobotomy Eyes”? Why does the game have a story involving an extra-dimensional demon that steals the souls of music composers from my collection? Does it really matter? I have become a digital librarian, seeking that rare musical track in a sea of bizarrely misshapen track names and file problems. Who even knows what half these tracks sound like? I sure don’t – but who knows what I might find in this sea of poorly-tagged Mp3 files?

Even so, death comes easily with enemy ships and explosions going off everywhere and the colorful and imaginative graphics style make it difficult to perceive and respond to enemy fire. The mouse-based ship movement, unlike the finely tuned eight directions of a joystick, makes dodging such obstacles a tedious and frustrating affair.

In the midst of these issues, Symphony provides a personal connection with my music, along with a desire for musical archeology and discovery. Does the game vary significantly with every song? No, not quite – but the holistic experience on offer is unique to Symphony.

By sheer happenstance, the developers fulfilled their objective. Flaws can make a game endearing, fun, and engaging for reasons other than developer intent; emergent worlds brought to their breaking point entertain as the pieces fall together in new forms and shapes. No one game experience ever remains the same among multiple people and music libraries.You’re bound to have a different experience than myself; perhaps you can tag your Mp3 files more efficiently. I came into the game intending to hate it, but the design worked its way into my heart.


Zachery Oliver

 
Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or followed on Twitter @ZacheryOliver or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.