The Sound Of Music

Sound Shapes lets Ryan Winslett pretend he's a musician.

By: Ryan Winslett

Filed Under: Editorial Music Rhythm

I’ve had a song stuck in my head for the past couple of days. It starts in with a banjo line; a playful little beat that’s eventually accompanied by the occasional kick of a drum or the metallic crash of a hi-hat.

“Where do I know that song from?”

I’ve been pretty busy these past few weeks, so my brain has devolved into a swirling pool of sporting events, movies, video games, interviews that need to be turned into stories and, of course, music. Somewhere in that concoction a simple ditty is crawling up through the murk, reminding me of… something.

Was it in Ruby Sparks? Maybe it came from that new Mumford & Sons track I finally got around to listening to. Or maybe, like 90 percent of the songs I get stuck in my head, it was in another damn car commercial.

At last, it hits me.

“I wrote that song in Sound Shapes.”

Okay, maybe that’s giving me far too much credit. But I sure as hell put the thing together from scratch. Maybe saying I “arranged” that song would be more appropriate. Either way, I poured half a dozen hours into creating it and it’s MY song.

Sound Shapes was released on the PlayStation Network a few weeks ago. It’s a simple platforming game that offers a unique symbiosis between exploration and sound. Picking up “coins” in a level adds a new layer to the steadily building soundtrack. Even some of the environmental elements add to the tune, making each world a beautiful little mix of discovery and music.

Before long, I fired up the level creator and found myself staring at a blank white grid. As a writer, the blank page often terrifies me. I have to fill this space with my own words and, if I’m lucky, those words will be mildly entertaining for the people who are going to read it. Sometimes, though, a story is so full of its own life that it practically jumps from my brain and onto the computer screen in front of me. At those times, the blank page is a wonderful thing to behold. It means I have plenty of room to enjoy myself and watch this latest creation take form. That’s exactly how that blank grid made me feel in Sound Shapes. It wasn’t an obstacle, it was a playground.

I’ve always been a fan of music, but I’ve never learned how to actually play anything. I own an acoustic guitar but, after a few weeks of trying to teach myself how to play, it now collects dust next to the TV in the guest room. My girlfriend has a piano and even gave me a few lessons years ago, but then I got too busy to keep up with it. When it comes to music, the kazoo is about the only sound I’d be able to add to an ensemble – and let’s face it, nobody wants to hear a kazoo.

My lack of musicianship is the reason I’ve always been drawn to musical games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. No matter how much people argue to the contrary, playing those games is nothing like playing the actual instruments (except maybe the drums in Rock Band). I can’t play those real instruments. What I can do, however, is keep a beat and press a button at the right time. I get to pretend I’m playing the music I’ve always wanted to actually play and, as a result, video games once again serve their ultimate purpose of allowing me to escape into fantasy.

My first level in Sound Shapes gave me that exact same feeling. Instead of worrying about “What should I do with this vast emptiness,” I began grabbing sounds (piano, guitar, random noises, acoustics) and plopping them down on my empty screen. A song took form. I became a musician.

That first song evolved into a three-screen level that, I’ll admit, is pretty terrible. The tune is great, but the world I built around those notes–a few rolling hills, a death-defying jump or two and an overabundance of flowers set against a night sky–isn’t anything to get excited about. Once I played a few more campaign levels and unlocked some additional creation tools, I found myself right back inside the editor mode, rearranging bits and pieces until I had created a second song -heavy on the banjo- that put yet another big, goofy grin on my face.

The main tune is only about three seconds long and, while building my latest level, I heard it played on repeat for a good eight hours, over and over and over again. Even then, I never grew tired of it. I called the song “Saturday Morning” and, again, it was my song, dammit.

I still haven’t finished that second level. As I said, things have been hectic as of late. When I went to work in Sound Shapes, two hours would disappear in what felt like five minutes, and I couldn’t risk getting swept away in that ocean of delightful noise when I had so many assignments to finish.

But I guess I could only ignore it for so long. The song wants to be shared with the world, and so it has been calling to me from the back of my mind, demanding to be finished. And once I’m done writing this, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Filed Under: Editorial Music Rhythm

About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.

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