Over the years, I’ve played every type of music imaginable, performed in a lot of weird places, and met many wonderful people despite questioning my life choices at almost every part of the process. I have shed literal blood, sweat, and tears while performing. Essentially, music for me is as necessary as it is utterly draining. And that’s why I adore Thumper so much. Within the game’s abstracted visuals and chaotic sound, I have found the most fully realized representation of the panic, dread, and ultimately elation of playing music that I have ever experienced.
Thumper bears little resemblance to music video games as we have come to know them. In many ways, it could be considered a horror game. Its visuals are dark and industrial — its soundtrack more reminiscent of Alien or Suspiria than AC/DC. Certainly, on an aesthetic level, the fact that Thumper eschews the corny rockstar avatars and endless butt rock so prevalent in other music games is enough to pique my interest. However, the reason Thumper succeeds where I feel other music games have failed goes deeper than that.
My problem with “rock star simulators” like Guitar Hero and Rock Band is that while they capture some of the visual qualities of playing to a crowd, the details ruin it for me: for example, the fact that your only concern is to get to the end of a long highway of notes solely to impress the polygonal audience in front of you. That, or the fact that the way said audience judges you boils down to, “Hey, this band won music because they got to the end of the song while hitting all the notes in the precise order and timing that they appeared.” You may be holding a facsimile of a guitar, you may be on stage in front of a virtual audience, but the only thing you’re focused on is your score. No musician thinks like this, and I’d be willing to bet no audience member does either.
So how does Thumper avoid this? It does this by removing the stage, the audience, and the instruments completely. It’s just you as a little scarab beetle being jettisoned along a seemingly endless path of things that want to destroy you. Occasionally you’ll be greeted by a giant head that you’ll need to kill in order to proceed. Sounds just like live music, right?
What’s important is that instead of relying on recognizable visual cues, everything about Thumper’s design feels wonderfully symbolic. Even if you consider the game alongside similar titles such as Amplitude or Audiosurf, these games lack the sheer physicality of Thumper. When I finish a level in Thumper, I feel physically tired. It’s exactly the same kind of exhaustion I feel when I come off stage having played a show never entirely sure how I managed to get through it, but feeling like I gave my absolute all to get there. Hell, this is a game where the developers had to warn people to take regular breaks after hearing multiple complaints of thumb injuries. Playing Thumper is a grueling act of self-flagellation, but the need to prove to yourself that you can conquer it always takes priority.
However, even in your most zen moments with Thumper, where you feel like nothing can touch you, things can and do go wrong. Sometimes, it’s all going to become too much to handle, and you’re going to miss a couple of notes. It doesn’t stop Thumper’s highway from moving at such relentless speed, just like it doesn’t stop a band from playing when an individual member messes up. When you hit a wall in the game, the sense of impact jolts you out of the experience for a fraction of a second, forcing you to refocus and get back up to speed. You have to be prepared for things to go wrong so you can get back into the fray as soon as they do. You have to improvise.
At some point, the process has to become intuitive — the notes are coming at you too thick and fast in order to actively perceive each one. If you spend too long thinking about one note, the next one will have wiped you out in the blink of an eye. It’s why musicians practice: so they don’t have to be so acutely perceptive as they perform. It’s also why you practice in Thumper, repeating levels until you no longer have to think about them. To say the game is unforgiving is an understatement, but, hey, such is the nature of rhythm — you’re either in time, or you’re out of it.
Playing this game took me back to all the times I’d break a string, or an amp would blow up, or I’d somehow end up with blood all over me, and the age-old mantra always applies: The show must go on. Through its unforgiving momentum as well as its brutal physicality, Thumper elicits that same feeling of terror.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing quite like knowing that against all the odds, you managed to get through it and get to the end of the set. Thumper’s challenges resonate with me in exactly the same way, allowing the overwhelming sense of panic and fear to give way to a feeling of total elation when you finally get to the end of a stage, even if you don’t quite know how you managed it. In this sense, Thumper more accurately represents the experience of performing music than any rhythm game before it.