Over the past few years, we have called Thumper many things: a VR fever dream. Rhythm hell. A spiraling highway of death. A game that “metes out violence.” A game that will “blow your damn face off.” All of these descriptions were intended as compliments. On the eve of the game’s release (it’s since been released four days earlier than expected) I caught up via conference call with Brian Gibson and Marc Flury, two friends who defected from Harmonix to bring the world their demented vision for a new kind of rhythm game.
Kill Screen: So how long have you guys been making Thumper?
Brian Gibson, composer, designer: A long time. Maybe seven years. The first few years were pretty slow-going. We also had our jobs at Harmonix. This was a thing we were doing on the weekends.
What was the game like at the beginning?
Marc Flury, visual artist, designer, programmer: It started as such a simple concept. It looked sort of like a Guitar Hero/Rock Band thing except you could turn. It seemed too obvious. I think I agreed to work on it mostly because I like Brian.
When did the idea come along to do a VR version?
B: Maybe a year and a half ago, Marc went ahead and ported it over. We were both positively surprised.
Did putting it in VR show you anything about the game that you hadn’t been aware of?
B: On an emotional level, the impact of seeing this stuff scaled up so it looks huge. It gives you this grand sense of scale that you will never get from the 2D version.
You mean, like, the tentacles? The organic parts of the rails?
B: And the bosses too. In VR we were able to make them 4x bigger because there are no edges to the screen. Crackhead, that one boss you are fighting against, is so big in VR that you have to look up to see the top of his head.
it’s dark, dissonant, orchestral
Since Thumper is a rhythm game, I wanted to ask you about the game’s soundtrack. It’s unlike any other rhythm game music. What kind of music would you say it is?
B: I think of it as dark, dissonant, orchestral, percussive. I wasn’t targeting a specific genre. But it’s just dark, dissonant, orchestral. Marc, you have a better vocabulary than I do . . .
M: The music is really influenced by the game design, right? The goal, ideally, was not to make it feel like songs or other music. It’s not like we were trying to create a new form of music. But we were just thinking, well, if you experience the music through a new type of game design, then the music should sound different from what you expect. The music emerges from how we designed the levels. It’s been through so many variations. It used to have a kind of minimalist Terry Riley type vibe. Then, I went into techno experiments. A lot of what informs the current feeling is a kind of dark, Olivier Messiaen type feeling. I remember this one time when Brian’s laptop was stolen. His laptop was stolen multiple times during development. But the last time it was stolen, he had to replace all the sound libraries. You hear a lot of those in the game. A lot of it was just chance, maybe.
Huh? The laptop he was using to work on the game was stolen? Multiple times?
B: With the last one I was on tour with my band Lightning Bolt. We were in Sweden. Gothenburg, Sweden. It was stolen out of the van while I was playing the show. I was working on the soundtrack on that tour. I was getting a lot done. So I actually lost a ton of work.
Oh, man. That had to make your heart sink.
B: Yeah, it really bummed me out for a while. But it was really a blessing in disguise because I was able to rethink what I was doing and maybe take a step forward that I wouldn’t have. But, yeah. What Marc said is right though. The soundtrack to the game–. I was never thinking about the genre. I never thought of it as music even. The sounds were physical things happening in the world. The ambience of the environment.
So it’s sort of a music of game mechanics and game design?
Okay, so the music emerges from the world. But the world is a pretty weird place. Where exactly is the game taking place?
B: There was actually an article on Kill Screen that called it a fever dream. Calling it a fever dream is pretty much right where I want it to be. It feels like something your mind would create. It feels abstract and incomprehensible, but also iconic, where everything makes sense in its own way, but if you woke up from that dream then maybe it’d just be like you wouldn’t even be able to put it into words.
I don’t know if y’all have ever had insomnia, but occasionally I will have it. Hours and hours will go by. Then I will start to realize that I’m seeing vivid colors and crap. And I will be like, “Whoa, what am I looking at?” Then it goes away. Maybe this is a weird thing for me to be saying.
B: No, I think that’s a common experience. That, or when you are sick and have a fever. Also, where you start to hallucinate before you fall asleep. Sometimes you can be awake while you are dreaming. Flipping back and forth between being awake and being in that state. I have this thing happen where I’ll be like, “I was just experiencing something that made a lot of sense and was very significant, but it’s so abstract that I can’t even remember it now, because now I’m thinking in words and language.” But while I was in the dream state, I was thinking in a more primordial . . . just pure—just my brain organizing these thought forms. It’s hard to describe. But that’s where I want this game to be set. That’s a cool thing to shoot for.
It’s hard to describe
Back to the stolen laptop. So, you were riding around Europe on the Lightning Bolt tour bus developing the game?
We don’t tour that much. Sometimes I go on a tour and I can’t work. But there’s been a couple of tours where I get a ton done. Way more than at home. I think it’s because, like, sitting in the van. There’s nothing to do. I can have a cup of coffee and zone out. I can’t procrastinate. You’re just stuck in this van. I can get a lot done. There’s also been tours where I’ve been too burnt out. I don’t know what the difference is.
Has anyone else in Lightning Bolt played the game?
B: Has Brian Chippendale played it? He played it a couple of years ago. I haven’t showed it to him since then. He’s not a huge gamer. It’s funny. The last tour we did in Europe, I’d work on the game in the van on my laptop as we drove, whether it was a four or six or eight hour drive. He’ll just sleep in the back. He never wants to play it. I think games aren’t his thing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.