Part One: The Longest Road on Earth
For the longest time, music as a primary feature in a video game came in the form of rhythm mechanics or critics praising the soundtrack of a particular game and citing it as a highlight of their time with a game. As time passed, musicians became more interested in video games as a medium and developers – due to the freedom afforded by independent development or the high budgets of AAA development – started looking towards music to differentiate their creations or enhance them. As an industry, it feels like the era of Guitar Hero or Rock Band being the sole representations of music as a game feature are past us, now that games like Crypt of the Necrodancer are so beloved that Nintendo hands the developers the Zelda IP to work with. There are still “traditional” rhythm games coming out like Fuser or the well-received demo of Unbeatable, but I am glad that developers and musicians (and the increasingly frequent mix of the two) are beginning to stretch their creative muscles with music as a game mechanic and what that experience can be; from the on-rails action of Double-Kick heroes and FPS BPM: Bullets Per Minute, to VR multiplayer Ragnarock and fan favorites like Sayonara Wild Hearts, music games are more varied and interesting than ever before. As someone who is terrible at rhythm games, due to poor memory and even poorer rhythm, this is literally music to my ears and two such games have caught my eye this year that I would categorize as music games. Obviously, I’m referring to the games in the title of this article, but both attracted me for very different reasons, so let’s take a look at what these games are, what I thought of them as games, and if/what they bring that’s different to the music game genre.
Considering how much I love Kentucky Route Zero, it’s no surprise that a game like The Longest Road on Earth (TLROE) would be something that I would be interested in; at least in tone and theme, those two games try to deliver a bittersweet melancholic experience about the struggles and obstacles of modern living. TLROE is specifically crafted to evoke those reactions through an ambiguous and wordless narrative of four vignettes exploring the mundane and the meaningful (as explained in the game’s official page and store listings) of life where the player experiences (and personally interprets) the narrative through visuals and music alone. The visuals, in particular, have a striking quality to them; the black and white color palette gives off a Great Depression vibe to the game and can arguably excuse the 10 euros the game demands, because they are high quality and serve poignant moments regularly.
This article is about music games though and I wholeheartedly believe TLROE is a music game, not because of the wordless narrative or the fantastic soundtrack, but because of the role and the importance the music plays in the game. As I was beginning TLROE, I was stunned that no one made the obvious comparison to Variable State’s Virginia – another gorgeous-looking, wordless, story-focused, ambiguous game with a killer soundtrack – but I realized that despite sharing all of the core attributes, those two games could not be more different; TLROE is a music game, Virginia is not. TLROE’s songs set the mood, the tone, and – either through their lyrics and/or compositions – provide the player with “food for thought” as the combination of visuals and songs force the player to start interpreting and reacting to the experience. Unlike Virginia or other games with a killer soundtrack, TLROE’s songs feel part of a closed loop design where the song informs the visuals and the visuals inform the song; neither feel like they came first and most likely have been developed at the same time with the same goal in mind. Virginia is a great game, but the absence of that brilliant symphonic soundtrack would have made the game less impactful and drop the quality level, however the game would still function; if you remove this specific music from TLROE it’s as if the game is meaningless.
As an example of the difference, I would often linger in Virginia after the music faded and the game pushed me to transition to the next scene, because part of the brilliance of that game was that it felt like being a kid again, watching a complex mystery and pausing to catch more clues or appreciate the craft of constructing a compelling mystery; TLROE instead feels like a brilliant and interactive music video. It’s not that I don’t want to pause and appreciate the craft it took for the visual narrative to be constructed, but I’m preventing the core feature of music to occur as it was intended and it makes the rest of the experience feel incomplete; the stunning pixel art of the game and its evocative vignettes can only work when the correct song informs the player of the mood and context of the scene. Put simply, Virginia’s score works as pacing for first time players and as icing on a cake; you’re supposed to move on when the music fades, but you can still linger and discover stuff that add to the experience because that experience is not beholden to the music. TLROE simply does not function when the music is not informing the player of what they are experiencing; it feels like a prototype for a game where the build has the final version of the visuals and simple movement mechanics.
That leads handily to the last question which is “does it deliver?” and the answer to that is a resounding yes; I loved TLROE. It’s not for everyone (no entertainment is), but even in the sub-sub-genre of narrative-driven, wordless games it won’t please all who try it; it’s a meditative game that asks you to interpret its imagery, listen to the songs and their lyrics, and connect your personality, history, and opinions with those elements to craft something that is less of a story and more of a familiar feeling – one that isn’t entirely welcome, but feels poignant and worthwhile. In other words, it’s an artsy fartsy game and I really enjoy those experimentations in video games; for me, there’s something about watching a pixel art rendition of looking through the bus window while listening to ‘sad pop’ that reminds of those bus drives I hated when I was a teen, going to and coming from school counting the stops and “chalking off” the people before my stop arrived. There are easy ways to break this experience like wandering off or reading the layout wrong, which forces the player to slowly walk to where they are supposed to be, missing key moments where the music and the visuals would hit a perfect combo and instead, push a button in silence and slowly observe a character model make its way across the screen. It’s those moments though that make you realize the next perfectly timed sequence was something you made happen and it feels all the more personal for it.