Like any artform, music is highly subjective; all styles are considered good in their own right, including some of the white noise John Lennon recorded for the White Album. Still, the old timers who claim that the music from their time was so much better may be onto something here. The ‘70s was a melting pot of creative expression and liberation; an era where multiple music genres blurred the lines to create genre transcending rock music. With no structure to adhere to and no restrictions in creative expression, rock and roll music during the ‘70s took the swing from jazz and Chicago-style blues to create a style of music that would forever change the music landscape. Jimi Hendrix, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd, just to name drop a few.
Music has also been an integral element of presentation in video games, especially since the NES era where the lo-fi chiptunes would spawn an entire mainstream musical genre of its own. Beyond just an aural element, music would also be transformed into its own gameplay genre with the likes of rhythm action games like Bust a Groove, the plastic peripheral-powered hits like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and even the more recent release of AVICII Invector. These games have largely been score-attack affairs, but now a little indie studio in France, called Glee-Cheese Studio, is working on creating a unique spin on rhythm gameplay with their upcoming artistically-charged narrative game, the succinctly titled A Musical Story.
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A Musical Story tells the tale of protagonist Gabriel who, right from the main title screen, is already in a comatose state, fighting for his life in a hospital room. The game then takes a dive into Gabriel’s mind, attempting to retell his life by reconstructing memories, with each of these tied to some form of musical beat and flow. The story is beautifully presented via animated cutscenes and without using a single word of dialogue, written or otherwise. Reliving Gabriel’s memories as a musical slideshow is both surreal and entertaining.
The animated sequences are punctuated with frequent gameplay portions, and in A Musical Story these sections are quite different from the typical rhythm action affair. Where most music games tend to make use of visuals cues and other scoring sensibilities, in A Musical Story it all comes down to listening to the music. The opening message encourages the use of headphones, and this has practical implications as the timing of the button presses are done in line with the musical beat. While these button presses appear along a circumplex, the timing is really guided by the music. There’s no score-chasing here, and the game allows multiple attempts, but players are expected to get every single beat and note right before progressing the story. That being said, these segments never frustrate even when they get a little challenging, and it’s never an ordeal to reattempt certain rhythm sections, especially when the music sounds so good.
Sound design is a term which often gets thrown around in gaming, but in the case of A Musical Story the sound design is basically the game design in of itself. While the main goal is focused on moving the story along rather than chasing a score, there is still a sense of satisfaction and achievement that comes with perfectly nailing a rhythm sequence.
A Musical Story does exactly what its developer intended – a musical rhythm action game with a strong artistic style going for it. The angle of timing the rhythm action by listening to the music rather than looking for visual cues is an innovative and nuanced gameplay mechanic. The music also tells a story, by providing context to the visuals without relying on any form of dialogue. By the time it launches on Xbox, players can look forward to a musical escapade that stands out from the rest.
Huge thanks go out to Digerati and Glee-Cheese Studios for giving us access to A Musical Story on PC via Steam. You’ll find the game launching on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PC and iOS later this summer. Keep an eye out for it.