For better or worse, rhythm games that require you to synchronize your actions with a beat are by far the most common form of music-themed video games these days. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way to integrate music into gameplay, and a few interesting game-like things have been taking other approaches recently, like the meditative SoundSelf or the hybrid synthesizer/game console Ming Mecca. This kind of music game isn’t common enough yet to constitute a movement or even a trend, but maybe it’s the germ of one.
FRACT OSC is the latest and one of the most exciting additions to this fledgling genre. It describes itself as a “musical exploration game inspired by synthesizers,” and that’s pretty accurate. The game places you in an abstract neon landscape somewhere between Myst and Tron, and the environment is peppered with various kinds of music-making machinery. The gameplay is divided about half and half into puzzles that require manipulation of the environment, and music sequencer puzzles where you’re arranging melodic patterns. The first kind of puzzle, where you’re moving around boxes and redirecting lasers and such, will be familiar to anyone who’s played this sort of game before. But it’s admirable how smoothly the environment will audibly respond to your efforts, adding a layer or two to the ambient soundtrack as you get closer to a solution. This adds to the sensation that you’re in a world literally made of sound, that music is woven into the fabric of its reality.
But it’s the music sequencer puzzles that intrigued me the most. These puzzles present you with a piano roll-style display that lets you compose simple melodic and harmonic patterns which get more intricate as the game progresses. Without spoiling the game too much, what I admired most about these sections was how they guide the player to create certain kinds of musical structures, but without dictating specific solutions. For example, I might need a dotted, syncopated rhythm to progress, but the exact timing of that pattern might be open to interpretation. Most impressively, the game manages to convey all of this wordlessly, through carefully constructed audio and visual cues. Another nice touch is that the patterns you’ve created then later appear on other surfaces in the game, underlining the fact that you’re not just an observer in this world, you’re a maker.
As a music teacher (and perpetual student of sorts), I was inspired by the sense of balance in gently guiding the player, which is the same kind of balance I strive for in lessons and classes. Teaching composition is especially tightrope-y in this way. Saying “this is the way things need to be” doesn’t help a student think for themselves, but providing no direction is, of course, no help at all. It’s not unlike the dilemma that a game designer faces—you want to give the player some agency, but you also don’t want them to miss all the wonderful set pieces you’ve created for them.
I couldn’t help but think to myself as I was playing: could this kind of music puzzle be used as an educational tool to help students navigate their own creative processes? So much of composition is already about balancing possibilities and limitations. While it certainly might pique someone’s curiosity to learn more about music, I would stop short of saying that FRACT OSC is educational in its current form. But I can imagine similar strategies that could potentially illuminate ordinarily challenging musical concepts. We could see puzzles based on a visual rendering of the harmonic series, or a synesthetic representation of functional harmony.
While the puzzles are the real meat of the game, the world they are situated in is much larger geographically, and you can find yourself wandering fruitlessly from time to time, searching for the next thing to solve. At first I was put off by this, until it suddenly took on metaphorical resonance. Creativity, too, is full of wandering, full of countless, often frustrating detours into cul-de-sacs and dead ends that you thought were highways. To be successful creatively, you have to be okay with this often-circuitous journey. You have to accept getting lost—and this is what the game was seeming to say to me, too. It helps that FRACT OSC’s meanderings take place in such a scenic and animated environment—while searching you might stumble across a breathtaking, surreal vista, or glowing pink crystals and green geodesic domes that emanate reverberant tones, or a fairy circle of levitating oscillators. The game is full of discoveries like this.
FRACT OSC also has to walk a fine line between between being too trivial for musicians and too opaque for non-musicians, and this is most apparent in the game’s “studio,” which brings together all the oscillators and modulators that you unlock as you play the game into a reasonable facsimile of a digital audio workstation. You can make credible electronic music with this studio, and export the result as a WAV file or YouTube video, but the interface has some obvious limitations. For instance, the piano roll is pentatonic, there’s no automation to speak of, and you’re stuck with a few preset drum patterns. Still, the synths themselves sound great and are satisfyingly tweakable, especially after unlocking the “advanced” settings, which include a variety of options for filters, LFOs, waveshaping, and envelope shaping. For expert knob twiddlers, you can even get pretty noisy and experimental if you’re so inclined. It made me wish that the synths were available as a VST or AU plugin that could be incorporated into the context of professional audio editing software.
In the meantime, FRACT OSC is something of curiosity that is likely to delight musically inclined video game fans and perplex others. I only hope that it gains enough traction to inspire similar efforts from other game designers.