I tapped the colored light pads on a MIDI drum pad in a near daze, a melodic, electronic track pulsed through my ears. My avatar, a rotoscope image of a woman, jogged down neon tinted lanes dotted with music notes, inexplicably morphing into a unicorn and then a cosmic squid. Despite trying to maintain focus on hitting the beats in perfect rhythm, my mind couldn’t help but melt into a relaxing state of electronic zen. That sensation defines Roto Color Rhythm: a music game that wants its players to mellow out instead of testing their reflexes.
“Part of what we're trying to also do is look at the meditative, relaxation aspect,” explained designer and Blue Volcano CEO Brendan Votano. “So the initial idea for the game came from ‘what do I want to play after I get home?’ After either a stressful day or going to a concert, going to see a music festival, I just want to chill out and relax.”
I was able to sit down with Votano and programmer Roger Sodre to give Roto Color Rhythm a whirl. As with most rhythm/music titles, the core mechanic has players hitting notes across lanes. Roto Color Rhythm stands out, not so much because of its gameplay, but for its indie soundtrack, psychedelic presentation, and focus on translating the immersion of attending a live electronic concert into the interactive space.
“One of the things we were really seeing when it comes to music games is they might be fun to play but they don't immerse people in that experience like going to a concert,” Sodre stated. “Like, really just kind of being there and enjoying it and just feeling that rhythm, feeling that flow, and just having a good time. It's more about ‘how fast do I hit the pads,’ ‘what's my ultimate score,’ ‘don't screw up,’ and we kind of felt people don't resonate with that. And that's something we really wanted to address with this game is ‘let's all have a good time.”
One of the game’s major pillars is the myriad of options players have to engage with it. Roto Color Rhythm can be played using traditional controllers, computer keyboards, tablets, and even Guitar Hero/Rock Band instruments. For those who want to to achieve the full DJ experience, the game impressively supports a plethora of professional equipment such as drum pads and piano keyboards. “We're trying to recreate that experience, so we're using the MIDI controllers, which a lot of musicians use to create music.” Votano explains. “So if it plays, it feels like they're part of that creation process. You're using the same tools as professional musicians.”
Me playing Roto Color Rhythm using a finger drum pad
I played using an Akai-branded finger drum controller that sported nine pads on a 3x3 grid. Blue Volcano programmed the button’s colored lights to correspond with that of the game’s note lanes (red, blue, and green), making it easy to know which rows to hit. Any button within a row would activate the appropriate lane (a red note could be hit using any of the three pads in red row, for example) though each had a secondary mixing functionally. Votano encouraged me to avoid hitting the same set of pads as well as experiment with the various knobs and sliders, which had their own sound bending effects. Such configuration is possible with any equipment plugged into the game, so players can set up their controllers up to function as they see fit. Since I’d never messed with DJ equipment prior to playing Roto Color Rhythm, it felt legitimately cool to not only play DJ master but to feel like I was competently doing so.
Despite its focus on providing a relaxed experience, I found that Roto Color Rhythm still maintains some element of challenge. The shifting camera angles and cosmic-neon art effects occasionally distracted me from following the notes. More uptempo songs featured more complicated patterns that had me rapidly tapping the pads on the MIDI controller. Much of that challenge stemmed from my unfamiliarity with the peripheral – using a gamepad or Rock Band guitar would have created an even more laid-back experienced – but a relaxed groove began to sink in once I started getting used to the control setup. Songs continue largely uninterrupted when you mess up. There are no jarring sound effects or visual cues indicating a mistake, which let me kick back and actually enjoy playing/listening to melodies without the fear of failure.
With Roto Color Rhythm’s main hook in place, Blue Volcano is still designing the modes that will keep players returning for more. In addition to unlocking songs through an undetermined single-player/career-type mode, players can access a song’s individuals “stems” after completing it. For non-musicians, stems are the individual elements of a song such as the drum portion, the guitars, etc. A planned Remix mode will allow players to take a stem of music and combine it with other unlocked stems from different songs and mix them to form something original–just as real DJ’s do.
Roto Color Rhythm's soundtrack primarily puts a spotlight on the indie electronic scene, though other styles are represented including progressive rock, alternative pop, and even some metal. Why the focus on indie electronic? Simple: It’s the scene that the team enjoys most. Votano and Sodre regularly attend such concerts around their home of Austin, TX. If they hear something they think would be a good fit for the game, they’ll reach out to the artist in hopes of getting them on board, sometimes at the show itself. Additionally, since DJ’s typically rely on heavy visualization elements in their shows, the genre plays perfectly into the game’s trippy presentation. A still-evolving roster of talent lend their tracks to the game, including Zebbler Encanti Experience and Eyelid Kid.
Blue Volcano also goes the extra mile to ensure Roto Color Rhythm brings the niche electronic scene to a wider audience in a similar manner that Guitar Hero and Rock Band created countless new fans of rock music. Each artist has a their own information page in the game that includes their touring schedule and links to their social platforms. Players can also access an overlay menu with the performer’s info while playing a track if they ask themselves, “just who is this?” during gameplay. A performer’s music video typically plays in the level’s background. “...All these other elements related to the band are always sort of in your face,” says Votano. “So that's part of our give back to the artist as well. We want this to be win win for both of us.”
Collaborating with more obscure acts also eliminates much of the “red tape” that comes with working with a giant label. According to Votano, bigger performers could say “We like the idea, but unfortunately we have to talk to our manager, who has to talk to our label… who could ultimately just say no or that this is the asking fee and that's it. I can't imagine trying to get, like, a Katy Perry track to show right now, you know what I mean?”
In addition to enjoying it alone, Blue Volcano wants Roto Color Rhythm to be a social experience that anyone can hop into and have fun with regardless of their experience with video games. Votano and Sodre tested this by stealthily setting the game up in local bars, and then observed people, gamers or otherwise, take turns playing it. The public’s response? Everyone had a good time. “That's another big element to this. In the karaoke kind of style, as soon as someone goes up and does it, their whole table's going ‘woo!’ and then ‘who wants to come up next?’” said Sodre. In addition to playing with music equipment, the game can even be configured to work with lighting and other external equipment for those looking to create the ultimate party experience.
Blue Volcano projects Roto Color Rhythm’s release for February 2018. Roughly 30 tracks will be in the initial release, though Blue Volcano has a two-year road map for regular updates post-launch (the team is toying with the idea of regional packs such as “The Sounds of LA,” for example). The team hopes one day the game could even be bundled with MIDI controllers to get potential users out of the gate. Thus far, Roto Color Rhythm feels like one of the most unique and authentic music offerings on the horizon that genre enthusiasts and indie electronica fans alike should definitely keep on their radar.
Edited by Marcus Stewart