PixelJunk 4am GDC 2012 Hands-on Preview -- Makes Artists Out of AmateursBy Dennis Scimeca - Posted Mar 08, 2012
Baiyon is a Japanese DJ who operates out of Kyoto, putting on live performances that have attracted a cult following. In addition to spinning records at clubs Baiyon also works in experimental art, mostly paints, ink and charcoal, printing out digital images, painting over them, and then re-scanning the images to produce the final work. Baiyon is known in the video game world for collaborating with Dylan Cuthbert of Q-Games, the creators of the PixelJunk series, on PixelJunk Eden. Now Baiyon and Cuthbert are collaborating again on another entry in the PixelJunk series entitled PixelJunk 4am.
4am is a departure from the PixelJunk lineup inspired by the PlayStation Move and fueled by Cuthbert's interest in playing with music. “I've always liked synthesizers and playing with effects, but I'm not a professional,” he told me. “I wanted to combine the amateur with the professional.” PixelJunk 4am brings the art of the club DJ and gives it to the amateurs. It is essentially a live performance space that combines a visualizer (a program that translates sound into images) with an electronic music composition tool, but that's an uncharitable, reductive description at best. It is a deep and nuanced experience.
4am's visualizer works on four channels, where most visualizers only recognize the two channels of a stereo mix. There are different visualizers called Events for players to select, each of which includes a different set of DSPs. The acronym stands for “digital signal processor,” in reference to the 1980's when computer chips were required to create the sounds that modern-day club DJs use in their performances. Cuthbert and Baiyon refer to these DSPs colloquially as “effects” while demonstrating PixelJunk 4am, and they come in four different categories called “loops.”
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Rhythm loops are basic, like a drumbeat beneath the rest of the song. Kicks are percussion that act more like punctuation. Synthesizer loops act like melodies, and the Bass loops are pretty self-explanatory. Players select the loop they want to compose by pressing one of the four buttons next to the Move button on the controller, and they can mute channels to focus on building one type of sound at a time. This comes in handy because players have to “find” tracks within Events by using the Move's vibration, and then “grab” them and throw them into the mix. By grabbing a track and raising, lowering, shaking or twisting the Move controller, players can then alter and distort the tracks to make new sounds or rhythms. The visualizer reflects all of these changes, creating a soundscape that players can broadcast live to the world, and which other players can then watch through a free viewer they will be able to download on PlayStation Network.
If PixelJunk 4am sounds trippy, that's a fair assessment. It is not, however, outrageous. The controls are tricky: After trying to jump right into the game I had to ask for the tutorials, and even then had some trouble grasping the fundamentals. 4am is simply unlike any game I've ever played before. Cynical critics may say it isn't a videogame at all, but 4am is yet another in a rising tide of video games that argue for a transcendent definition of what a video game actually is, and make the argument that it's more like a canvas upon which creators may paint their creations. In the case of PixelJunk 4am, that's literally what the point is.
The 3D space in front of the monitor or television literally is a virtual audio canvas. The speed and orientation of the Move controller directly and immediately affects the sound composition. In addition to finding and altering effects on the four loops, quick movements on the edges of the composition space (read: the boundary of where the Move is tracked) produce quick sounds that act like drum hits. Like Baiyon's work in conventional art, the player can create a soundscape, add new layers, and then create an entirely new composition. Unlike Baiyon's work with paint, ink and charcoal, PixelJunk 4am allows players to then strip off and replace some of those layers. Effects can be repeated, but nothing is permanent in 4am if the player doesn't want it to be, and there is no recording. Every performance, and every broadcast out to the PlayStation Network, is always live.
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Cuthbert and Baiyon are still experimenting with the game. They're thinking about a vocoder function as downloadable content once 4am is released. A vocoder takes human speech and alters it through processing. This would take advantage of existing PlayStation 3 headset peripherals. PixelJunk 4am is slated for a late Spring release. Cuthbert hopes to release it by May.
PixelJunk 4am literally plays like an instrument. It will require some study and practice, like a new brass musician practicing long tones to form their embrasure, the proper shape of their mouth and lips by which to create good sound from the instrument. I have no idea if I'd ever be able to master this new instrument called PixelJunk 4am, but I'd certainly like to try.
I was too blown away by the game to ask where the title “4am” comes from, but towards the end of the demo I got into a conversation with Baiyon about his influences, like Israeli jazz music and the jazz coming out of Chile. Then Cuthbert volunteered that Baiyon would be performing a set at a “Venus Patrol Party” event that evening. “What time does the event start?” Cuthbert asked. “One a.m.,” Baiyon answered. “What time does it end?” Cuthbert asked. “Four a.m.,” Baiyon said plainly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I think I got the answer to my question without asking it.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him at GDC this week on Twitter: @DennisScimeca