You are a space beetle. Before you is a road, winding endlessly through the cosmos. On the horizon, an abstract form takes shape. If you squint, you can make out a pair of eyes, leering back at you. Between it and you are a series of obstacles, waiting in the wings to shatter your form. Only one thing is evident: This thing on the horizon is profane, and you must destroy it. Welcome to Thumper.
Brian Gibson and Marc Flury together form DROOL, the development team behind Thumper. As Harmonix luminaries, (the studio behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band) Gibson and Flury have a storied history with the rhythm-game genre. With Thumper, the team delves into a whole new spin on the format, which they describe as a rhythm violence game.
Each press of the button in Thumper is a kinetic experience. Mysterious gems litter the cosmic highway, and as the player guides the space beetle to crash into them, a percussive kick drum plays and rays of light shine off into the infinite darkness. The player learns subtle ways of interacting with the world such as pushing the analog stick to make sharp turns, or sustaining a primary move to shatter barriers in the player’s path. Each interaction is accompanied by a musical response, allowing intense sections of the game to double as aggressive drum fills.
The world of Thumper is oppressive and hypnotic. While the infinite vastness of space stretches in all directions, the player is bound to one cosmic rail. Grim and bizarre imagery surrounds the player, such as inhuman fingers curling around the track and hateful faces forming in the distance. Cruel beams of red light punish the player for mistimed inputs, cracking open the space beetle’s carapace and stealing its skin. When the player fails and the space beetle dies, the level restarts without delay, demanding that the player try again until they get it right.
The try/fail cycle is a familiar trope in both storytelling and the gaming experience, but Thumper takes it one step further by making it a primary game mechanic. When a new stage is unlocked and the player embarks into new territory, they are faced with nigh-impossible tasks, sometimes entirely dependent on the player’s forming memory. Each punishing collision and destruction of the space beetle is a satisfying learning experience. The player grits their teeth and tries again, learning from their mistakes and discovering new inventive ways to clear obstacles.
Thumper is an unapologetic video game. There is no narrative, there are no characters, only concussive gameplay and brooding electronic music, working in harmony with a suite of sinister visual assets. Thumper feels like a game from a world where there is only one game and your value as a person is derived from your performance. Thumper is a piece of high art, with all the charm of your favorite propaganda poster and it demands to be played. Thumper is available now on Steam and the Playstation Network.