Learning to Necrodance

 

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Crypt of the Necrodancer
2015 RPG/Rythum Action Game, developed by Brace Yourself Games

 

Guitar Hero 3 was my favorite game for a long time. Probably the best thing about it, other than the swish plastic guitar it came with, was the fact that I did not need background music on to play it.
The second or third thing I tend to do when I open up a game for the first time is turn the music off and supply my own. I am aware that this is often a terrible thing to do, that I am missing out on the orchestral brilliance of many game soundtracks.

Music is too important, however, to leave to orchestral soundtracks. Music is the way by which we express the mood of life, and only rarely do I wish to express that mood in terms of hollywoodesque sweeping orchestral scores. Most often I want to play games to a handpicked few tracks, which evoke the right feelings. If I want to feel like nothing can stop me Dessa’s punchy and forceful “Fighting Fish” does nicely; like I want to curl up into a ball and have the whole world disappear, nothing better than The National’s soulful and moaning “Anyone’s Ghost” and if I just want to melt into whatever I’m playing basically anything by Pure Reason Revolution will do nicely.

Crypt of the Necrodancer does not do background music, instead it ties the whole experience of the gameplay right back to the fantastic electronic beats that lie at its heart. Crypt of the Necrodancer (henceforth “Crypt”) is the product of a happy marriage between a turn-based rougelike dungeon crawler and a rhythm game. The game wears its dungeon-crawler RPG aesthetic like an ironic tee-shit, attractively designed, but outwardly misleading. There are dungeons and treasure, monsters to fight and shrines to pray at but the barest essence the game is the beat. The monsters, traps and the player (if they are doing it right) moves in time with the beat, each one counting what might be thought a turn in a more traditional RPG experience. Different levels have different soundtracks which vary the beat every time one descends further into the “zone”. Further, after every three levels there is a boss, who has their own theme, usually doing something slightly different and irregular with the beat. The music throughout is completely excellent (although only for those with a taste for the electronic), aping a variety of different musical styles, while still remaining grounded in a distinctive signature chip tuney sound. However, I am no music critic, and we are not here to talk about music. The reason that I would like to talk about Crypt today is the way it demands the player interact with it. You see, the experience of playing Crypt is most similar to the experience of dancing in a nightclub, and the way this is achieved is very clever.

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Crypt is a game about dancing or failing to dance, about learning patterns and then repeating those patterns to music and about learning which patterns can be combined together without tripping over your own legs (well, fingers). Crypt’s gameplay is a unique combination of three factors; first, the structure of Crypt’s gameplay is completely determinate. That is, when two elements of the world interact, there is only one possible outcome, dependent on the way those two elements are interacting. Two, the fact the turn structure of the game is described by the tempo of the music that is playing on the level, giving the player little time to think up strategies and encouraging action upon the instant. Third and finally, the game’s randomization elements give the player a diverse and unpredictable set of tools and problems to approach, without the possibility of forming a set strategy. When these elements come together, what one has is a game about learning dancing steps, and performing those steps in disconnected, almost freestyle sequences.

One of the most interesting things about Crypt is that it eschews the standard rougelike love of the indeterminate—at least as far as damage and movement goes. Every element of gameplay in Crypt is bound to a square grid and the world is navigated entirely with the input of the directional keys. Press the key on the beat and the character moves, miss the beat and your character still moves, but late. Monsters move like chess pieces, being locked into certain patterns or only being able to move in a certain subset of the cardinal directions (some do not move at all). When it comes to fighting, there are no “to hit” rolls or randomised damage. For the player, attacking is achieved via the same controls as movement, and one can (without the right items) either move or attack. Every enemy has a set health bar and a set movement pattern, after they die they drop a set amount of gold. Gold is important, the gold that drops from enemies is dependent on one’s current “multiplier”, which climbs when one does not miss beats, kills enemies and does not get hit. Get hit or miss a beat and the multiplier goes away, and thus the opportunity to make shedloads of gold, which will be needed to purchase the stuff that keeps you alive. As one’s multiplier climbs the world becomes alive, changing from a dungeon to a light up dance floor, making sure that one always knows if one is doing well without having to actually read the multiplier output on the HUD. With most enemies if one ends up next to them just before they next move they will attack the player. Some monsters have ranged attacks, or cast spells, but only within certain proscribed arcs and at predictable times, so these are (almost) always avoidable.

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Indeed, all of the monsters in Crypt can be easily avoided or circumvented, just so long as one moves the right way. To take the most basic example, skeletons. Skeletons move every second beat, throwing their hands up in the air before they do so. They always move towards the player if they can, and therefore a standard little interaction emerges between the player and the skeletons over time. The player moves backwards, the skeleton moves forwards, then the player hops back towards the skeleton and de-bones them. Fighting a dragon? Get above or below it, move down (or up), attack, move down, attack, repeat until dragon is dead. Different weapons available to the player put different spins on these interactions. With a spear the player’s attack range increases by one space, so skeletons can be charged at without thinking much about it, while a broadsword allows the player to strike diagonally, killing enemies by passing them on either side as well as in front of them. The combat is so simple it can fool one into thinking that it is easy, but it is not. Learning how to kill an individual enemy is easy and there is even a practice mode available where one can learn how to deal with specific enemies by trial and error. However, while the early zones have plenty of corridors that allow the player to tackle threats one by one without being surrounded, the later dungeons provide vast open spaces, where learning how to deal with being surrounded is simply a fact of life.
Almost every element of the game (the exceptions being the level generation system, loot and the contents of shops) follows the general pattern, everything has a collection of determinate properties, which makes interacting with it completely predictable. Bombs take three beats to explode, destroying everything within a one tile radius, hot coals can be stood upon for one beat before doing damage on the second and shrines provide an entirely predictable benefit based on their type. When one does something stupid therefore, it is always one’s own fault (at least the second time one does it). You knew that there was ice there, which would take you sliding towards the dragon’s fiery maw, of course dropping a bomb there was a stupid idea there was a push monster right next to you, who held you in place while it went off. When one dies it is because one has not followed or understood the rules. The situations that the player finds themselves in must be read like procedurally generated sheet music, a set of instructions that must be followed precisely, or risk destroying the piece.

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By completing different zones, one unlocks new characters that put a further spin on the central mechanics. For instance, the monk gets free items at shops, but explodes if he as much as touches the gold which enemies drop, while “uncle eli” has infinite bombs, and can kick them at enemies, but can never wield a weapon. These characters do not entirely change the structure of the gameplay, but they do change the patterns that one has to learn and repeat—they are all very different styles of dance. However, there is a sense in which these extra characters feel quite out of place in a game with the mechanical purity of Crypt, the differing styles clash with the dance, rather than support it. At least in my experience, but then again I struggle with the central gameplay anyway, so it is entirely possible that these characters open up vistas of gameplay that I simply do not have the talent to unlock.

As said, I am not particularly good at Crypt. The reasons for this are multitudinous, but lying at the heart of them, is the fact that I am terrible at site reading. While I breezed through the first couple of sections relatively easily, I now realize this was because the game was teaching the basic rules, trying to teach how to read the dance floor. I stress, there is a sense in which the game must be read rather than thought through. These rules are telegraphed and communicated with the language of the dungeon crawling RPG, the tropes and trappings of that genre provide the most basic rudiments of a player’s understanding of Crypt’s world. However, there is a sense in which the further one gets into Crypt, the less and less like an RPG it becomes. The tempo increases the deeper into the crypt one ventures and the number of creatures increases. So the time available in which one can think about and plan actions decreases rapidly as the game continues. Indeed the tempo increases to such a point where really thinking through the situation in which one finds oneself is impossible and instead one must rely on muscle memory. Every monster represents a set of moves which must be carried out, while the environment places limitations on the moves that can be performed, but the music thumps on—and will eventually run out—so action is demanded.

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The more difficult the dungeon, the less room for error, and the closer the rules must be followed. Thus, the more important it is that every single button input is the correct one and the more like a traditional rhythm action game play becomes. After a while one does not really even think about the situations one finds oneself in anymore, one just repeats the patterns that work.
If you have ever been to a nightclub and after a couple of pints been persuaded to step onto the dance floor, the feeling will be familiar. One must move, and move in a way that suits the beat, but that movement must also be constrained by the need to (depending on the club that you go to) smack into other people. Further, if one is actually “on the pull”, as it were, one has to try and pull this all off without looking like a dick. So one does not think, one moves. If one has any training in dancing, it can look pretty good. Set repetitions of music plus the available space lead to the deployment of rote movements (there is always that bit of a metal song where everyone clears a couple of feet around them and thrashes their heads around like they are trying to shake their brains out through their noses). The difference is that one leaves a club with less currency and loot than one went in with.
It is not that strategising and thinking ahead are completely impossible, there is a fair amount of down time to be had between rooms of monsters, and therefore a fair amount of umming and ahhing over whether one wants this weapon or that one. However, this kind of planning is about setting oneself up to have the best chance possible when the rubber does eventually hit the road, tuning one’s instruments for the big show. However, because Crypt is a rougelike, one is always at the mercy of fate as far as items go. An unlucky run can see the player trying to slay dragons with knives, while a backpack full of the most useless shit rattles around on their back. A good run can see the player a levitating specter of rhythmic death, streaming out arrows from on high as dungeon walls crumble around them. Such is the way of roguelikes, and perhaps the reason that I have never really liked the genre. However, once again, in Crypt this randomization is tempered by the fact that one knows that if one was really good, the knife would be all one really needed.

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So what does Crypt teach us? Interestingly, there is a storyline, but it is so beside the point that I have a hard time seeing where it would even make sense to talk about it. The default player character is called harmony, who is a plucky young bard venturing into the Necrodancer’s Crypt in search of her father, who disappeared in there looking for a maguffin to save Harmony’s mother’s life. When a zone is completed one gets a little cutscene portioning out some more of this story. The writing is not bad, but it is desperately hard to see why it is that we should care about any of the characters involved. The story has been told a thousand times, in a thousand different ways, and it adds little to the overall experience. It is also very difficult to see where it meets up with the experience of actually playing the game. If we take the dictum that “the mechanic is the message” literally, what is Crypt trying to tell us? Crypt, as I said at the start of this piece, is about dancing and failing to dance. It is about acting on instinct, not letting oneself be overly distracted by thinking about what is going on and instead just moving. I find myself tapping out its patterns on the bus, distractedly drumming a tattoo of left, left, right, left on an invisible direction pad.

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The successful player, like the successful dancer, moves in a way that looks entirely effortless, but which in fact follows a strict ruleset, invisible from the outside. The moves are instinct, but the way that they flow together comes from a proper understanding of the situation and appropriate responses to it. In essence, the controls are made to be, eventually, ignored. In the hands of someone who knows what they are doing the question is not moving to the beat, or knowing how to perform a certain move, that is as simple as learning a technique. The real question is how to express a response to the situation one finds oneself in, with the repertoire of moves one has available. That is, the game becomes a matter of self-expression. The determinate structure of the gameplay does mean that there are correct and incorrect responses to situations, but the game of chess which is presented to the player in Crypt is a multi-dimensional one, with hundreds upon thousands of viable variations to be navigated through.
Perhaps it is cliché, and there is a sense in which all games come down eventually to the same thing, but what this all boils down to is communication. Learning to dance in Crypt is like learning a language. At the beginning, the significance of every word must be pored over and carefully reflected upon, in order to learn to place it in its proper grammatical structure. However, once the significance of a word has been appreciated, it must be fitted into sentences that can actually be used in conversation. The structures that bind together sentences, at least in most languages, must be learned by rote. However, once learned, they can be deployed in any of a million ways to express any of a million thoughts. Of course, one does not express thoughts through playing Crypt well (beyond the sense in which one is expressing the action that one is thinking about via playing), but one does deploy different practical concepts through play. One shapes the game world through one’s actions, and if one has learned well, changes it so that it is the way one wishes it to be. This is, in itself, a form of communication, telling the game what to do in terms that the game understands and appropriately responds to. In some games this structure is more hidden than others (learning to express a practical concept in Crusader Kings 2 is a pretty laborious and labyrinthine process) but it lies on the surface of Crypt’s structure. The way in which the beat controls both the player and the monster’s actions links cause and effect in a very obvious sort of way, which always comes off in a very predictable and determinate fashion. If one has learned the language well, it is obvious, the world responds with praise, gold and victory. If one has learned it badly, one dies very quickly.

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That returns us back to music, dancing and nightclubs. Dancing is also a form of communication, or at least a form of expressing a practical concept. Do it well and one will create something, if not beautiful, then at least shared and enjoyable. Do it badly and one trips over, spills one’s drink and one looks like a dick. Crypt captures this feeling masterfully, through its flashing lights, colorful design and fantastic music. It looks great, when everything is going well at least. Crypt does not have anything to say, but it does have things to show you, if you are willing to learn the moves.

 

Innumerable thanks to Alex Addison, who so kindly donated me a copy of Crypt of the Necrodancer for this piece.

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Learning to Necrodance

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