Unbeatable devs talk cyberpunk and gatekeeping anime sounds
In the wake of their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for anime rhythm game Unbeatable―which was funded in 15 hours!―we spoke to the folks at D-Cell Games about the history of rhythm games, cyberpunk, gatekeeping anime sound effects, and generational nostalgia. The team includes:
- Jeff Chiao (producer, beatmap designer)
- Rachel Lake (lead vocalist, Beat’s voice talent, PR/community management, art)
- Andrew Tsai (director, art direction, animation, code, story)
- Mireille Arseneault (main programmer, improvised audio engineer)
- TJ Maddux (composer, songwriting and live recording)
- RJ Lake (director, narrative design/story, storyboarding, biz dev)
- Vasily Nikolaev (composer, music production, sound effects artist)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To be honest, I’m garbage at rhythm games. This is the first I’ve been interested in because of the accessibility options, so I’m looking forward to it a lot.
That means a lot actually. That’s definitely something that we’re really keen on. [We’re] trying to build something that might be a lot of people’s first rhythm game, or at least the first rhythm game that they actually want to give a serious try.
Because the big kicker here, is that we’re not just making a rhythm game―there’s a whole narrative component attached to it. And we know that there’s a lot of people who probably will only want to play the game for the narrative, kind of like how there are people who probably would only want to play this game for the rhythm game. So we need to make sure that both sides of that coin are accessible to whoever wants to pick up this game, and play it for whatever reason.
Rhythm games seem to have evolved over the years, it’s not just a direct analogy of playing instruments, but different sorts of expressions and permutations.
Yeah. Especially if you go to an arcade, and you see some of the arcade cabinets that they have imported from Japan. They’re all ridiculous and wild. You played Chunithm by hovering your hands over the controls, and doing weird, waving motions through a laser grid to track where your hands are.
My favorite of the wilder, newer rhythm games, like arcade setup ones, is Dance Rush Stardom. It’s like [Dance Dance Revolution] (DDR), in that there’s a giant mat that you stand on. But unlike DDR… it’s a giant touchpad that you’re standing on, and it’s analysing your feet motions on this extremely granular level, so it’s tracking slides and all these other things.
The really cool thing about Dance Rush Stardom is it’s probably the closest any non-Just Dance-esque game has gotten to getting people to actually dance. But my favorite aspect about Dance Rush is that there is a person who needs to be on standby, at all times, with a mop to wash off the rubber residue from people’s soles, because of how much you basically are scraping your feet against this glass mat.
Rhythm games have moved largely away from the idea of just being a performance or something analogous to a musical performance. The first rhythm game, arguably, is PaRappa, which is sort of a performance game. But almost immediately after that, you get Dance Dance Revolution, and then Guitar Hero kind of like warps the whole stretch of things.
The interesting thing is that as rhythm games have stopped trying to abstract the act of playing an instrument, a lot of them have become a lot more focused on the actual act of keeping a beat more.
Yeah. It’s because there’s no physicality anymore that you need to keep track of, you can get a little bit more wild with the things you have to do on a moment-to-moment basis.
It also lets random games be more accessible because not everyone can use those plastic controllers at all.
Yeah. Although to be fair, because of the way that the Guitar Hero thing works, you could play those with an Xbox adaptive controller.
We have spent a lot of time talking about just the history of rhythm games right now. This is how you know this is a team that has paid attention to these things [laughs].
And you didn’t even mention Beatsaber. VR has brought that physicality back in a really cool way.
In other interviews, some of you have touched on cyberpunk influences. I thought that was interesting, because it’s a departure from what we’re accustomed to seeing in terms of dystopian aesthetics when it comes to the cyberpunk genre.
The original version of the game was a story centered around a Japanese pop idol. And so that went hand-in-hand with like, a cyberpunky, kind of future aesthetic.
As the story moved on and became a very different thing, we went through a lot of iterating over the past three years on what this thing was aesthetically, what the core narrative was, and what that meant. The aesthetic influence grew broader. But I think the thing that we’re taking from cyberpunk, that’s core to this narrative still, is that sense of interplay between government and the populace.
Like the tiny anti-authoritarian.
I think that we are cyberpunk in the same way that say, Jet Set Radio (JSR) is cyberpunk, where that game is absolutely in conversation with stuff like Ghost in the Shell, but aesthetically in another world. It’s not even trying to be playing with Neuromancer… it’s taking specific elements of the “this is a future anti-authoritarian dystopia” narrative. It builds back up after stripping it back down to those elements.
We are sort of taking that same approach with how we are incorporating cyberpunk influences. We’re just building it back up very differently. A few times we’ve seen YouTube comments that say [Unbeatable] has a JSR influence, and that’s absolutely true. But the things that we take aesthetically are so dramatically different from where that is, and it’s just interesting to see how people can still key in on those core similarities, even though they end up in a very different place.
Yeah. I read what you described as the dynamic between the characters, Beat and Quaver. And maybe because I’m a bit older, my reading of [the differences in their relationship] was generational. Combining it with the 90s anime aesthetic, it feels like a reinvigoration of this whole segment of culture.
A lot of Unbeatable ends up being about ways nostalgia ends up in a feedback loop, and also―very importantly―things that our generation finds nostalgic, and how those read to people who have no concept or context for that. There’s definitely points where you will have something that is a touchpoint for Beat, but Quaver has absolutely no context for that. A lot of the narrative is keyed into that as a core theme.
Ultimately, we’re getting a lot of people who grew up in the 90s [who] are now starting to build things in the game space. It’s the first generation, right now, that grew up in a generation where the games that they were playing were made by people who had also grown up playing video games. I was influenced, growing up, by a game like Super Monkey Ball, and that is such a strange aesthetic place to be in… the early 2000s were a very strange space. Culturally, there’s a lot of different things that happened that really changed the course of world history all at once… you had a lot of Western culture at that turning point feeling very solipsistic. The late 90s, early 2000s, music culture, and MTV, all of that stuff has almost a casual, fun nihilism to it, because there’s almost a sense of “Well, nothing matters, we kind of solved everything.”
Then immediately after that, you have a million world events just happening all at once. I was 10 years old when 9/11 hit. That’s something that really imprints on you. So the things you make are going to be in conversation with the pop culture you liked at the time, but they’re also going to be about the ways that pop culture interplays with those events.
I ended up growing up into a world that effectively changed pop culture-wise, entirely, by the time I was around 10. I think that is a pretty interesting thing that we’re covering in Unbeatable itself.
I think that’s a big reason why so many people are latching on to this 90s aesthetic as well, is that if you grew up during those years, when the entire world was at war, and nothing made sense and the economy was failing, there isn’t a whole lot of culture to grasp onto. So you end up latching on to the nearest thing that you have, and [that] ends up being what an older sibling shows you, what your parents might have been into. And so… even though the 90s ended in the 90s, it kind of persists a little bit. We hit that critical mass where I think most people, at least below the age of 50, have some… longing to go back to when times were simple.
What’s interesting about the 90s is that it tried so hard to be the future. You can get a good example of this with the transparent consoles―you have the transparent Game Boy Colors, and they’re like, “This is the future.” And now these days, you’re trying to have everything that’s [becoming] more like the past. Everything’s trying to be older today, and everything was trying to be newer back then.
Vas, I read on your game blog that you successfully managed to figure out how they made those old-school 90s punching effects.
Yes, that took months to figure out because there’s a huge lack of resources online. A lot of these sound effects are… very, very gatekept within the anime industry. They’ve been around since probably the 70s, and they’re still used and repurposed today. A video I watched―I don’t remember who made the video―but he mentioned that what’s probably happening, is that they’re actually literally handing each other a hard drive, with all the sound effects to each other for a contracted cost. But it is insanely difficult to get the sounds, and you will get in trouble if you’re using the sounds unlicensed in any commercial media.
Honestly, it’s a microcosm of the whole thing we’re doing, because there’s a lot of things that will take a piece of media that they love, and they’ll just be like, “Okay, I want to do something like that.” But part of the reason that I think Unbeatable has resonated, is we’re taking all these influences from things we like, but we’re trying to actually understand them and how they got made in the first place.
Are you going to get in trouble, incurring the wrath of patented 90s punching sound people?
[Laughs] Oh, no, I want to open source this.
This is really fascinating to me, because it reflects a lot of the same trends with tech behind all kinds of gatekeeping mechanisms.
Yeah, the thing that’s fascinating, too, is just how similar the tool sets are. A lot of people have a lot of nostalgia for, say, game soundtracks from the early 2000s. And the biggest touchpoint for the sound of those things is a very specific group of sample CDs and a Korg Triton. Those two elements are just all over those things, because they’re really cheap, they’re really easy to knock out music fast with, and it’s basically pre-baked. And people will wonder, “Why doesn’t anything sound like that anymore?” Largely, it’s because we’ve gotten better and cheaper with other things as time has gone on. It’s always fascinating to see how the limitations of an era ended up becoming the signifiers of that to people.
Maybe to add on to the gatekeeping thing, that’s also a general thing in terms of technology in the game industry. Tools and libraries and code that is made by large studios are often not really made available, ever, usually. And so a lot of industry wisdom… can’t ever really be shared with the greater game dev community at large.
It goes into the whole thing with game preservation too, which is a whole other ballgame.