One of the surprises of PAX East 2015 was Thumper, which looked nicely neon-chrome but turned out to be dark and ominous neon-chrome instead. A bug races down a track while oppressive music plays and obstacles appear to the beat in a call-response style. You not only see the next pattern show up ahead of you but hear it as a musical cue and getting past it is generally as simple as hitting a single button or a button/joystick combo move. On paper it’s simple, in practice not so much, especially when dealing with multiple musical cues one right after the other.
The PAX East demo is Thumper‘s first level, which of course is your all-purpose basic tutorial. The track extends into the distance with its tendrils waving lazily overhead, and despite the clean art style it’s pretty clear from the music and atmosphere that this is a bad place to be. A triangle-gate blocks the path ahead, sending out light-rectangles on the path that you can dispatch by hopping over them. It’s nothing complicated but each successful hit to the beat sends a ripple of light back up the track, and you can see by the waving of the gate’s tentacles that it doesn’t feel great when it hits. Pretty soon you’re holding the jump button and angling with the stick to slide around corners, simply holding the button to fly over stretches of lines on the track, and linking multiple moves together to avoid wiping out as a radiating cloud of chrome shards. Mechanically it’s simple to describe, but keeping it together on the track as the music and lights assault your senses gets rapidly harder as the intensity ramps up.
There’s a lot that’s been said, in fact, about the ominous, oppressive tone of Thumper, but like any game it’s all in how you approach the experience. Over the years Doom has gone from the industry’s Satanic whipping boy, responsible for all the ills of gaming culture, to a pixel-gore action funhouse, and if we can do that to the Hell-soaked halls of Doom then it should be pretty easy to see Thumper as a musically aggressive challenge. Personally I tend to settle in to a “Bring it, you f***; show me what you’ve got!” attitude after about a minute, and less than that in VR.
Thumper‘s big announcement a few weeks back was that it’s coming to the VR systems, headlining on the PS VR but available for all platforms, and the PAX demo I got to play ran in Sony’s new headset. Somewhat surprisingly it doesn’t change the experience too dramatically, but being able to look up the track as it spools down from the distance did help with anticipating the coming actions. Or at least it does when the track isn’t running through a tunnel, of course. What VR provides is a way of tuning out the outside world, putting you right behind the beetle and giving a wider view of the environment as it races on by. It also added a great sense of scale as the gates and, eventually, the end-boss Crakhed sent their attacks speeding down the course at you. Crakhed in particular goes from being a big ugly head to an actual giant physical object rising above everything and burning with madness, perfectly driving home exactly what it is you’re racing to destroy.
During my appointment I got to chat a little bit about the features of Thumper, and ask the big question about the possibility of randomized tracks. Each of the main levels is hand-crafted but the experience seems like one that might lend itself nicely to randomized obstacles. The answer was a definitive “maybe,” but it’s being looked at and considered as something that could be added later as free DLC. The key word, however, was “maybe,” so view this possibility with guarded optimism at best.
Whether Thumper gets this feature or not, though, it was still one of my favorite gaming moments at PAX East. Sitting inside the world of Thumper, barreling down the track as it twists and undulates, tentacles folding over the course while the beetle strikes sparks from the sides and the music and sounds try to pound my ears into submission was one hell of a gaming experience. There’s a chrome beetle with places to be and giant looming heads to destroy, and if it has to travel through the oppressive paths of a musical realm to do it then those tracks are going to be grinded to shreds by the unstoppable force of a bug that doesn’t stop for anything.