Format reviewed: Dreamcast
Developer: United Game Artists
Synaesthesia (n) [sĭn′ĭs-thē′zhə] 1. Sensory overlap whereby it is possible to experience stimuli through different sensations than usually expected, i.e.: the ability to hear colours or see sounds. 2. The core concept behind a cult Dreamcast shooter. 3. A long word that makes you sound smarter than you probably actually are. We’ll be mainly dealing with the second of these points today but in order to do so, it’s important to understand the concept behind the first part as well. After all, without it, Rez simply wouldn’t be the game it is – a sensory feast that demands to be played in the right conditions. So kill the lights, crank the volume and let’s do this.
Rez’s working title of K-Project was a reference to a Russian artist by the name of Wassily Kandinsky, a painter known for his abstract works in the early 20th Century. Kandinsky’s creations were often based on synaesthetic principle, the idea that visual stimulus could allow the viewer to hear what they saw or at very least could experience how colour, shape and sound (or indeed the visual implication of it) could connect into one sensory explosion, something Rez’s producer and creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi was clearly keen to replicate when creating Rez – legitimately one of the strongest arguments for videogames as a true art form as exists today.
At its core, it’s the simple mechanics of Rez that allow it to be such an audiovisual feast. It uses only directional control – used to move the targeting reticule and to angle the camera to a degree – and two buttons, one for regular shots and one reserved for the panic button that is Overdrive, a smart bomb that damages all targets in view and grants temporary invulnerability in times of need. That said, the game’s presentation can be seen as just as simple. Liberal use of wireframes and flat-shaded polygons allows plenty of room for artistic interpretation and makes the action easy to follow, not to mention ensuring that it all runs smoothly (relatively, at least – a locked 30fps on Dreamcast, a relatively steady 60fps on PS2 and locked 60fps or higher on later releases) even on the relatively modest Dreamcast hardware. As avatars, environments and even the HUD pulse in time with the music, everything is made to feel interconnected – you can see the beat, track progress and achievements sonically and even feel the music with the right setup, whether that’s the Trance Vibrator peripheral released later (and only in Japan) for PS2, additional controllers for the modern rereleases or just an obnoxiously powerful subwoofer.
Framed as a voyage into a supercomputer attempting to shut itself down after become self-aware, Rez showcases a level of synergy between visuals, sounds and physical stimuli far beyond anything else the medium has to offer. Whereas similar rail shooters like Panzer Dragoon and indeed even most older 2D shooters offer immediate player feedback when an enemy is destroyed, Rez instead delays and offsets such feedback so that it synchronises with the beat of the underlying music, which changes with each stage. The result is that everything is uniform – while the patterns produced might be slightly unusual, their place within the rhythm, whether on the beat or off it, is guaranteed. Couple this with the gorgeous visual eruptions that occur after hits and kills and any beat-based rumbling that may be going on and the effect is complete, giving players the sensation of impact on the world via up to three senses at once (we’ve never smelled nor tasted a game, nor do we ever wish to) and in the process blurring the three into one incredible experience, especially when the game is all you can see, hear and feel. See why we said to kill the lights now?
Ingeniously, this sensation is grown and evolved, cultivated rather than being dumped on players from the off. Each stage starts with just a simple beat, during which time enemy kills and lock-ons naturally have a much more significant impact on the soundscape. As more and more patterns and instruments are layered on with each passing wave, this feeling of control, of real impact on this virtual world, never lessens – in fact it grows, the underlying soundtrack’s gradual evolution brought on via controller input, if not quite so directly controlled as the backing track booms later in a level and you’re left just adding flourishes here and there. But it never feels like that. Having been allowed to plant the rhythmic seeds at the start, you assume ownership over the musical crops that grow from them and the whole journey is that much more engaging as a result. It’s not a complete misnomer, either – the countless permutations of lock-on and shot timings mean no two playthroughs of any given level are ever likely to sound exactly the same, as similar as they may look.
Escalation is a key theme here, not just within levels themselves but also over the course of the entire game. Traditional game design dictates a need for an increase in challenge in response to progress and fortunately, that ties into the formula of other media as well – whether it’s the crescendo of a musical piece or a build-up to a big story reveal, escalation is a classic way of securing involvement in a piece. You want to see the payoff and in Rez’s case, that payoff is utterly glorious. When you feel like things might have peaked with Area 4’s intense ‘running man’ boss battle, complete decryption of all four areas unlocks a fifth, and it’s not like the others. Gone is the ten-zone structure and the need to chase down the password protectors that gate progress through earlier levels, but gone too is the sanctity of the wireframe world you’ve been inhabiting all this time. The closer you get to Eden, to the AI core, the more things start to push back and between the visuals jumping between grids and full (albeit basic) 3D, the new gating system and the evolutionary tale that plays out around you both thematically and mechanically, it’s genuinely one of the greatest videogame levels ever created and, for fear of labouring the point, an incredible artistic achievement. And when that sample from Marlena Shaw’s California Soul drops, it just makes for an utterly incredible moment and one that we’ll never forget.
Even if you were to derail the Art Train and discuss Rez purely as a videogame, you’d struggle to avoid pulling into Hyperbole Central. Scores are hidden during regular play so as to allow the experience to enjoy centre stage, although that isn’t to say that the scoring system isn’t up to scratch. Quite the opposite, in fact – by allowing players to earn point multipliers based on total lock-ons before firing, a risk/reward mechanic is born that promotes pushing the limits of patience and willpower in order to score big while not allowing enemies to flee the screen or wreak too much havoc without being blasted. Casual play and score attack play look very different and strategies that work in one mindset absolutely do not apply to the other. So while you’d usually eliminate a foe before it can open fire in a regular session, a score attack runner will see an enemy projectile not as the pitiful ten-point boost it grants and extra trouble it creates but as an additional multiplier, taking them one step closer to the coveted eight-way shot that earns the most points.
Amazingly, this even extends to bosses, the dynamic difficulty scaling quite easily manipulated when you know the rules. Hit more than 98 per cent of hostiles and you’ll face the super-hard Tera version of a boss, braving significantly tougher and quicker attack patterns for a respectable score boost. Giga variants replace them in the event of less impressive enemy clearance, with the weakest Mega versions of each also on hand in case you should leave too many enemies alive en route to the boss. That’s not always a bad plan, though – if you’re just hitting Direct Assault mode to unlock new stuff, the quicker and easier option is always going to be preferable to that which would score you most points in a mode where points don’t matter, and some of the Tera bosses are hard. Seriously.
Rez isn’t something anyone should experience parts of in isolation. It’s a game that deserves, nay demands, to be played from start to finish. In the dark. Loud. In one sitting. It’s not like it takes long – around an hour on a decent run, once you understand its basic rules – and it’s more than likely to leave an impression. Whether you cherish it as an amazing gaming experience, a peerless sensory assault or a piece of interactive art doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you cherish it.
Art Director, Katsumi Yokota Talks Rez
Tell us about your involvement with Rez.
I presented my overall art direction ideas to the designers, and then made the necessary adjustments in order to maintain a consistent world setting and graphical style. I was also responsible for the player character design, the HUD design, and the background level design for Area 1 and Area 5. There were six designers, and each was responsible for the art design and data creation for different parts. My job was to provide the key words and concepts, and each designer then thought about and created their own data based on these key concepts.
What makes Rez different from the likes of Panzer Dragoon?
In the case of Rez, we had to display lots of visual feedback to match the timing of the sound and music. Even matching small effects at the edge of the screen to the music could result in a mismatch between the visuals and the feelings experienced from the sound. The sound would provide a stronger impression; however, the visuals would end up not matching up. So, it was necessary to create large visual effects that encompassed the entire screen, but in order to maintain the overall visibility required for a shooting game, we had to display these large effects in the background, at the ‘back’ of the screen. This way, the effects never blocked the view of enemies attacking, et cetera. However, sometimes the background objects at the front would overlap the graphic effects. By drawing these objects using the wireframe techniques, we were able to display both the background objects and the effects at the same time.
How did Rez’s unique visuals come about?
As a creator, using the latest technology [at the time] on the Dreamcast and PS2 to create these sort of ‘retro’ graphics was quite interesting, and I believe that there were many players at the time who also felt the same. For Panzer Dragoon, the design work was focused on expressing a fictional world in the most realistic fashion. Our objective was to give the player the feeling of being in a different world, filled with living, breathing characters with their own lives. Rez was focused on creating a feeling of constant link between the sound and the visuals, and I think we used the best methods to achieve this.
How did you make the levels stand apart?
The five stages were created using the same methodology. Although the music and backgrounds are different in each stage, the way each stage was created was the same – each stage is constructed using wireframe graphics with a graphical effect layer at the very back. We used this method because we were unable to synchronize the visuals and the in-game sounds using any other method. Only Area 5 was created a little differently. In order to differentiate each stage we applied a specific keyword, and in this case we used themes from four ancient civilizations – Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus, and Hwang Ho. In addition, in every area we displayed characteristic, representational objects in order to more effectively differentiate each stage. If we hadn’t used these techniques and keywords when creating the stages I think it would have been very difficult to convey our ideas to the player. Geometric structures moving to the
music, and the combination of representational objects based on these ancient civilizations enabled us to achieve our goal of clearly differentiating each stage.