Timing and Context in Beat Sneak Bandit

Preamble: When I was at the Independent Game Festival awards with some friends, a few of us remarked that practically all of the nominees were of such high quality that we wanted to go home and play the ones we hadn’t played with yet. I was kind of relieved to see that kind of quality, given the controversy this year about dereliction of judging duty, where some games didn’t get played or barely were played at all. The quality of the nominees doesn’t excuse that by any means, but it would have been a much worse slap in the face if the games that did get through were shoddy. It also shows that the bar is set pretty high for independent games these days.

To me that means we need more different awards or venues for showing less polished, more experimental, lower-budget works. It also seems to mean that independently produced games can start taking over the mainstream awards, since independent games took home about half of the supposedly more mainstream, big- budget, publisher-funded Game Developer’s Choice Awards. So there’s a model for ferment and perpetual creative revolution: the current “indie games” overtake mainstream games, while more fringe venues for games produce a new crop that can rise up to dominate the indie game awards and be pushed forward in turn. Brandon Boyer probably has something like that written down somewhere already.

On to the real purpose of this post: I’m going to tell you about Beat Sneak Bandit, a rhythm-sneaking game for iOS that won Best Mobile Game at the aforementioned festival.

Like a lot of smartphone rhythm games, Beat Sneak Bandit involves tapping a touchscreen to the rhythm of a song. The well-deserved win at the festival was no doubt due to a combination of quirky characters, cute and stylish artwork, and neat audio design alongside an interesting elaboration of the tap mechanic. I mostly want to talk about the gameplay and audio design.

In Beat Sneak Bandit you can’t just tap along with the song; you have to strategically time those on-the-beat taps depending on where you are in the game. Thematically, you’re a thief sneaking through corridors of a mad-scientist mansion and trying to avoid searchlights, guards with fields of vision, and homing vacuum bots. Gates and trapdoors open and close, and there’s usually a minor cacophony of timed objects in a level, since each different object has its own associated sound when it changes state, moves around, opens or closes, etc. It’s a testament to the excellent pairing of audio design and level design that this game doesn’t sound like a horrifying mess; every level has its own 8-beat loop which replays both the audio and the behavior of the objects. Once you get the hang of the 8-count beat, the challenge of most levels falls into place and becomes a sequential puzzle: first walk over here, then drop down when the trapdoor opens, wait for the enemy to come towards you, then move quickly to the left, etc. It’s a nice distillation of sneaking gameplay from fancy 3D titles like Metal Gear Solid or Deus Ex or Thief: you just gotta wait for the right time, then go. At the micro-level of interaction, you’ve got to do all this on the beat, which for me meant tapping constantly on the bezel of my iPad, then switching to the touchscreen when it was time to move.

Rhythm games have always been one of the few types of skill-based games that I can master with what feels like a reasonable amount of effort. This might be related to the fact that I started playing the drums after playing a lot of Rock Band, or could just be from being shoved into music lessons since the age of 5. I actively crave more complex rhythmic challenges, and get annoyed with the simplicity of games like Patapon, where most of the challenge ends up being in grinding and gearing your little soldiers, not in keeping a beat. Precision isn’t that interesting to me either; there are plenty of games that will drop you from a Perfect to a Great for being 1/60th of a second off the beat, but not all music is about being so tightly “in the pocket” that you’re a human metronome. Unless you want to sound like Stephen Morris of New Order, who’s renowned for sounding a lot like a drum machine, or want to avoid being kicked out of Steely Dan for not being an uber-precise professional, millisecond accuracy isn’t the most fun thing about music.

Beat Sneak Bandit is the first game I’ve played in some time that made me feel like I was playing along with music. Not just repeating the notes on the screen, as in Rock Band, but improvising to a beat, playing something that had to have the right meaning and impact, but also follow the other instruments rhythmically. Again, this is probably because Beat Sneak Bandit doesn’t allow you to continuously tap, but lets you mix it up; rests and silence are as important in music as sounds and continuous rhythm.

Unfortunately, the familiar feeling of improvising or arranging music completely threw me off of solid performance in the game, because the goals are radically different. In music, you’re creating something that sounds good, to a beat. In the game, you’ve got to pay attention to strategic movement. I’m not silly enough to consciously be thinking “ooh, this would sound good I’m gonna do a solo — oh CRAP I’m dead!” I’m talking about something much more subtle, the fact that stopping or not stopping feels natural to me in a rhythmic structure for aesthetic reasons, not strategic ones. The overlap and disjuncture created a really interesting feeling for me when playing the game; it’s representing something real, and important, and beautiful, but it’s also quite different from reality (as games maybe ought to be, in most cases.)

Frank Lantz pointed out to me that the game is somewhat similar to Rhythm Tengoku, which also involves awesome contextual rhythm. That game is much more strict about split-second precision — at least if you want a perfect score, which I always do in these games — so although I’m wild about it, I was also a bit frustrated. Beat Sneak Bandit strikes a nice balance, and gives your brain puzzles to chew on; it’s like a right-brain / left-brain workout.

I’m still waiting for a rhythm action game that lets me play more complex patterns — not just more precise ones — without a prescribed note-chart to follow. Is there a game out there where I can play triplets, drags, ratamacues? Where these things have not only challenge but lexical meaning? I’ve lost everyone but the drummers at this point, but all you need to know is that there are these things called rudiments. They’re the building blocks of rhythm in a certain school of thought, and they’re taught through books like this 1935 Classic, Stick Control.

It may be another game I’ll just have to figure out how to make myself, but since I have a backlog of those and my programming skills are dusty enough to choke a horse, for the love of God please tell me if you know of a rhythm game with more complex patterns!

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