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Some madcap designer made a roguelike that’s controlled by a synthesizer

The novelty of Crypt of the NecroDancer is that it spins the cruelty of the roguelike into a beat-matching formula. You have to hop across the grid-based dungeons and attack the beasts that get in your way to a rhythm. Looking at it now, Crypt of the NecroDancer is probably the friendliest way to introduce a musical foundation to the roguelike—it’s more action-oriented, less drawn out tactical decision-making. The Broom Institute’s Synthesizer, on the other hand, is an example of how you might make a systemically dense sub-genre (the roguelike) even more complicated with the addition of a music-based theme. 

the “master volume” represents your health points 

Simply put, Synthesizer is a roguelike that is dictated by the changing values of the titular electronic instrument. To convey all the relevant information of a game controlled by a synth, the interface has been made to match that of a VST (Virtual Studio Technology)—the analog music studio made digital. There are pointy knobs that twist between states and multiple LCD displays to observe between each move you make.

If you look at a screenshot of Synthesizer, then the 8×8 grid containing a visual representation of the game world in the bottom left, and the battle log on the bottom right, is what most roguelikes will display. Everything else is done in the background. Whereas Synthesizer pads out the rest of its screen with tools used to tweak and analyze electronic music, and that you are required pay attention to in order to survive its dungeon crawl.

If you’re not familiar with VSTs at all then attempting to play Synthesizer is an overwhelmingly daunting task. Even if you do know your way around a VST, it’s going to take a while to marry its terminology to that of the roguelike. In the game’s highly necessary instructional video (above), Synthesizer‘s creator explains that a “beat” is a “micro-turn,” while the “pattern” can be understood as a “level,” and the “master volume” represents your health points. For the most part it all translates with ease.

your tactical decisions mimic the process of composing a song  

But this isn’t merely a cultural exchange program for nouns. The top half of Synthesizer‘s screen is where matters become more complex. You can see two Oscillators: one determines whether your attacks will hurt your enemies or cause self-harm, the second one does the same but for your enemies. It’s the sound waves in these Oscillators that you need to pay attention to. If they fall into the negative values then you’ll hurt yourself, so you want to only attack when the waves are in the positive values.

Below the Oscillators are Filters. These are affected by items that you pick up which, ultimately, change the sound waves in the Oscillators. An amplifier, for example, increases the height of the wave and therefore the attack damage. Whereas a low-filter pass will cut out all positive values meaning that you can only self-harm. There are also ways to change the shape and width of the waves.

Lastly is the step sequencer. Located bottom-middle, this displays when you (represented by the @ symbol), enemies, and the effects will move. Each square across the sequencer’s grid is a beat, and each one that is filled in black shows you when the unit it refers to will move. You, the player (represented by the top row), can only move every four beats, but some enemies can move every two beats, meaning that they appear to take big leaps across the game world as you move. 

That’s more or less the basics of Synthesizer. And if the video above isn’t cutting it for you then there’s also a written version of the instructions that you can read through to make sense of it all. Hopefully, I’ve been able to get the idea of how its various components interact with each other, as the beauty in the design of a game such as this cannot be seen or shown, it has to be understood, preferably by trying it out yourself. Sure, it’s complex as hell, but once everything in Synthesizer slides together and you’re able to determine when to take a turn or skip a beat, you find that your tactical decisions mimic the meticulous process of composing an electronic song.

You can play Synthesizer for free in your browser over on itch.io.