Abstract: Douglas Brown’s Rez: An Evolving Analysis dives into Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s ‘trance shooter’ to reveal how the game’s recursive dynamics – between sight and sound, rhythm and novelty, abstraction and representation – work to construct the player’s spatial and temporal experience.
“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” – Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Rez (Sega, 2001) is a transcendent experience, a unique game which redeemed a stale genre. It has stood the test of time and spiraled in popularity, particularly in trendy clubs and other social areas where its combination of flashy graphics and thumping soundtrack can be displayed to great effect. Part of the reason for this revival in fortunes is that the atmosphere Rez creates is surprisingly immersive and intense, thanks to a fusion of several different aspects into an experience which is more than the sum of its parts. These are the metamaterials that channel the waves of the playing experience, and their divergent construction imbues them with unique properties. Most immediately noticeable are Rez’s iconic wireframe graphics.
Rez looks half-finished, and this is very much intentional. Enemies are designed from textured wireframes which remain on display, and the player connects directly to these wireframes with lines when targeting them. Distinctly mechanical representations of ships, beasts and monsters reference movies like Tron (Steven Listberger, 1982) and Wargames (John Badham, 1983), to which the game owes some of its artistic influences. Having the building blocks of graphics on display like this is a nod to both retro game styles and the ‘hacker’ aesthetic, tying in to the game’s central narrative which revolves around evolution. The player has an unusual degree of creative control over Rez’s world, the traditional arcade experience refracts as players find themselves painting the screen with abstract pixellated explosions of colour whenever an enemy is shot down. The world itself evolves, should the player be successful at achieving ‘analysis’ objectives, from a bland dreamscape with just a few lines or walls to a fully formed Egyptian temple, futuristic cityscape or foreboding databank. Enemies interact with the constantly shifting worlds in diverse ways, some using it as part of their attack pattern, others camouflaging into the psychedelic background, or ambushing players from channels that grow out of the landscape while attention is diverted.
The game’s five Boss enemies are imbued with character by a combination of their colour and animation alongside in-depth attack patterns within 360 degree views, as opposed to Rez’s usual 120 degree view radius. The enemy becomes the level, a technique Shadow of the Colossus (Sony, 2005) would later expand upon. For example, the first boss is made up of a cross shaped core and a dozens of square plates, which it forms and reforms to use as weapons. It goes through stages of invincibility, offense, vulnerability and defense in its attack cycle. To begin with the core is enclosed by the plates, and the player has to drill through them to get at it. In offensive mode, the plates become arms which extend out to strike at the player, while defensive mode morphs them into spinning strips which periodically break off to attack. When vulnerable, the core is exposed and the plates vanish. The boss does not need weak points exposed by extra-textual sources or hints, instead it has character, brought out through altering usage of the same basic materials, which represent how to counter it. The way enemies move, pulsing with the music alongside everything else in the game, generally moving in the opposite direction to background effects, and not onscreen for long saves them from seeming like nothing more than cannon fodder, although the vast majority of enemies are incapable of damaging the player. Each wave is a choreographed dance of deadly colour and motion. Thus it is extremely satisfying to destroy an entire wave in a single shot, even though there is no direct advantage to this, and many waves have been designed to make this possible with skill and speed. There is potential for a new kind of emergent gameplay spectacle since, as though orchestrating fireworks, it is possible for a talented player to turn a well-known level of Rez into a unique artistic event. Combined with psychedelic audio, this potential is Rez’s main draw in unusual gaming spaces like nightclubs, sticking around where previous videogames, notably Wipeout 2097 (Psygnosis, 1996), had faded away. The other major visual aspect of the game, and the key feature which locks in the spectacular aspect and adds much to the immersion it generates, is the way in which everything on screen reacts dynamically to each level’s distinct, evolving soundscape.
The soundtrack for each of Rez’s levels is given unusual prominence in comparison with other games, track and artist names on the level select screen foreshadowing the central role sound occupies in the experience. Everything on screen bar the player’s cursor resonates with the baseline of the track, and the more evolved the game component, the more its resonance with the melody or complex variations of the music. Pace, tempo and rhythm of gameplay and graphics are dictated by the sound. Force feedback controllers pulse to the beat, as well as responding to player actions and gameplay events. During play, there is an equilibrium of pre-programmed gamesound and sounds generated by player actions, creating a mix in which the player feels a level of control over a traditionally distant aspect of the game, increasing immersion. The backing track, too, evolves in reaction to gameplay, each level of analysis adding another layer to the music, so that achieving 100% in a level yields an audio-visual crescendo, fitting motivation to encourage progression. Similarly, subversive readings of the game are discouraged, since shooting down only missiles and not engaging with the experience and thus implicitly the narrative context would create a uniformly dull, scoreless gamescape of bassy, bleak tunnels with the occasional bleep. The different avatar forms generate different sounds for varying combinations on different levels, and the player is given as much freedom and opportunity to be a musical artist as a visual painter of the screen as they play.
I have resisted mentioning Rez’s gameplay until this point partly because it is so simple, but mainly because it forms only a component part of the whole experience, weighted equally with audio-visual content. The triumph of Rez is the creation of a situation where the player becomes so immersed that further gameplay complexity would be a detriment to the experience; it is just interactive enough to draw in the player’s mind completely, just as it envelopes the other senses via visual, audio and tactile feedback. This can be observed as ‘total refraction’ just as easily as it can represent a facet of the sublime or transcendent, yet it is the experience’s remaining in flux, subject to the refractions while the gameplay remains constant that characterises Rez, and explains why the game’s default, and thus implicitly recommended mode is called ‘travelling’, where the player is invulnerable. Regardless of mode there are only two controls: a fire button and an analog stick to target. The player selects enemies on screen with the crosshair, aims up to eight shots and fires by releasing the trigger button. Most enemies are destroyed in one hit, others absorb several but show visible damage. Ten goal items called ‘Network Openings’ are scattered throughout each level, and shooting one eight times triggers a level of analysis. The player’s avatar can only be damaged by enemy missiles or collisions, so many enemies whizz harmlessly by. Rewards drop after defeating tough enemies or entire waves, and enough rewards allow the avatar to evolve up to six times. If the avatar takes damage, it devolves, and if the lowest form gets hit, it’s game over. This simplistic system not only bolsters other aspects of the game by providing space for them to flourish and a player avatar who exemplifies its central themes, but it also allows those facets equal scope to contribute to gameplay. The little robots that defend the network openings move fast and are hard to spot, crucially much more so in a crowded, noisy, reacting world. Higher avatar forms have more of an impact on the game world when they attack, and also are better integrated into the experience, going from wireframe to dancing human forms to spaceships, while the lowest form, a simple sphere, reminds players to focus. Gameplay uses immersion as a facet of the challenge, so the more evolved the experience is, the tougher it is to progress. The ludic payoff for this comes during boss fights, where it is absolutely necessary to be experiencing a state of ‘flow’ to defeat enemies which give out subtle audio-visual clues to the location, intensity and length of attacks, or flag up weak points. In addition, the difficulty of the boss is based upon the player’s relative success in shooting down enemies, so a low hit rate will make for an easier encounter.
Dynamic difficulty encourages the viewing of gameplay as a discrete aspect of this game’s gestalt. The ‘travelling’ mode where invulnerable players can still complete levels or indulge in paidea in an otherwise ludic landscape reinforces this. The real revolutionary aspect of Rez, and the reason why it remains the darling of game studies academics, is that it strikes a blow for the acceptance of games as art, not by providing a sandbox for play or stifling its ludic content, but by holding to a vision of gaming as an experience over a contest from the point of design through to marketing. The game is as frank about its artistic influences as it is about its musical content, seeing itself as an interpretation of a particular artistic style. Secrets are rewarded for either achieving goals in ‘score attack’ mode or simply playing for a long time in one session. Assumed gameplay imperatives; a scoring system, ranking tables and complicated options are all locked off until the player has completed the game. In Japan, Rez was available in a special ‘total intoxication’ edition, which came with expensive headphones and a unique peripheral called the ‘Trance Vibrator’, a large rumble pack which plugged into the second controller port, designed to magnify physical sensation generated by to the same level as graphics and sound. Selling the game as an experience, going so far as to give their product an implicit sexual dimension and tap into all the connotations that entails, demonstrates the drive the designers had to try and break the mould of what a game is supposed to do and how one is supposed to be perceived. Retro-style graphics and simple, immediate gameplay evoke the earliest games, and function as an insistence that this gestalt experience must be considered alongside them. Rez would not be anything at all without its extra-gameplay aspects, and yet it is a game. But is playing Rez like playing an instrument or, as Kandinsky wonders when he considers the figure of the artist as prophet, is playing an instrument more like playing a game?
As far as the term is applicable, Rez is the most self-referential of videogames. Every aspect feeds back into itself and into another facet of the experience, from the pulsing, swirling menu screen and gameplay interface to the hypnotic boss attacks. The developers dedicated the game to the memory of Russian modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky, codenaming Rez ‘Project-K’ prior to release. His quote at the beginning of this article could probably be better attributed to playing Rez than creating any other aspect of art. Kandinsky, himself an accomplished musician, focused his work on synaesthesia, a rare mental dislocation which is still not fully understood. Paintings, which he christened ‘compositions’ depict concerts or soundscapes in a visual form as he saw them. Rez takes this concept and envelops it into gameplay, giving the player the agency of Kandinsky’s artist, surrounded by and yet in control of the audio-visual continuum, and lifts this agency through gameplay into narrative.
All the facets of Rez work in tandem to galvanise an aesthetic inspired by Kandinsky’s work and interweave an abstract narrative which informs the whole experience. This narrative theme is the ‘Hollywood Hacker’ mythos of films such as Sneakers (Phil Robinson, 1982) and Swordfish (Dominic Sena, 2001). The text display in the upper right hand corner of the interface is a constant reminder of the setting: the player operates the GUI of a computer program breaking into a network. This narrative context works superbly as a metaphor to place the player into the shoes of Kandinsky’s artist, motivating them into engagement with the alien creatures of sound and colour by placing them under threat. Enemies represent security programs and viruses, while bosses represent firewalls which must be bypassed. As Uplink (Introversion Software, 2002) proved, putting the player another remove from the avatar as part of this premise is a good way to incorporate controls and the act of playing into the narrative context. The game’s actual storyline, however, is expressed on another level, building upon this theme.
Once the player achieves 100% analysis in all of the first four levels, hitting every single network opening in a run and defeating the boss, the fifth level is unlocked. In this level, the gameplay conceit of the network opening hunt is sacrificed to allow for narrative text. Network openings are replaced with gates which must be blown open, triggering a by-now familiar world evolution alongside an unfamiliar textbox, as the system itself begins to gain consciousness and communicate. The story of level five is about the evolution of humanity from the seas all the way into space, and the enemies and terrain morph at a fantastic pace to reflect the changing narrative. No sooner has the disembodied voice written “In the calm of the mother sea…life grew” than the player is flying through an ocean shooting down enemies which look like fish, and eventually flying up above the world to battle these same creatures as an advanced society. The masterstroke is that during the transitions, the world switches from wireframe into fully rendered graphics, their impact magnified through contrast to the rest of the game’s visuals, yet the pace remains true to the rhythm throughout. This device blasts into focus the distance between the real and the digital, throwing into stark relief the immersive, digital sensations all around the gamescape and, crucially, the player’s own self.
The second half of level five forms the final battle, but maintains and deepens the narrative. Transition out of regular gameplay is marked by the system’s addressing the player directly for the first time: “I hold within me, the memories of all that has passed…who am I?” The player then enters the boss arena, and fights abstract versions of the previous bosses in succession before facing the final challenge. Before this happens, regardless of level, the avatar is converted to a form otherwise inaccessible, transcending alongside the system.. The level of skill required to defeat all five, slightly evolved, bosses in succession is particularly high, but the last test the player faces is in fact one of engagement and immersion within the game, a test of understanding. Limping past the four bosses is possible, particularly with the extra hitpoint awarded at the beginning of the encounter and the ‘Overdrive’ smart-bomb items they leave behind. However, destroying all five sections of the final boss requires not only a fairly clean run, but also intense concentration and focused immersion. The last boss is easier when the player is wearing headphones, since she attacks from all sides with sheets of missiles, and the rail the avatar is on spins the view constantly so sound is vital to locate threats before it is too late.
The final arena doubles as the level selection screen, completing the symbolic self-referential loop that has been gradually built up as the other levels were completed. The player is forced to destroy the fulcrum of the game in order to complete it; literally dismantling the arena piece by piece to free a female shape trapped inside it. If the player dies at any point during the encounter, the credits are displayed regardless, giving a feeling of finality to both loss and victory, provoking a passionate response as the goal is left unfinished and immediate return is impossible. Interestingly, succeed or fail, the haunting message “she still lies trapped within the system” is displayed at the end of the credits, questioning the entire enterprise or perhaps reaffirming the game’s own endurance after completion. Either way, the message reminds the player that the ‘spirit’ of the system and of the game is the immersive experience, not an absolute goal. Should the player succeed, the traditional ending cutscene feels short, since the real payoff lies in the understanding already demonstrated, which contains the moral: evolution cannot be denied. Level five finally uses language and communicates the messages regarding digital sentience which have been implied all along by the other aspects of Rez. Putting the narrative into practice and destroying the computer system in order to let its ‘spirit’ evolve, the player wins the game by ending it, rather than ending the game by winning it. Kandinsky’s artist’s message is also put across as the aesthetic merges with the storyline in the final battle. The evolving avatar forms, the resonating graphics, the depths of sound, the way all of this melds into an addictive experience: the essence of evolution is refraction, is synaesthesia, to become more than the sum of your parts. Thus, the ultimate question the game poses is this: are you are playing it, or it is playing you?
Aaresth, Espen. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Atkins, Barry. 2003. More than a Game: the computer game as fictional form. Manchester:MUP.
Crawford, Chris. 2003. Chris Crawford on Game Design. Indianapolis: New Riders.
Kandinsky, Wassily. 1977. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications
King, Geoff and Krzywinska, Tanya. 2005. Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts. London: IB Tauris.
Lindley, Craig. 2002. Conditioning, Learning and Creation in Games: Narrative, The Gameplay Gestalt and Generative Simulation Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, Tampere, Finland.
Murray, Janet. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, London:The Free Press.
 Kandinsky, Wassily 1977 Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications, p.45
 Lindley, Craig 2002 Conditioning, Learning and Creation in Games: Narrative, The Gameplay Gestalt and Generative Simulation Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, Tampere, Finland.
 The best explanations of Callois’ terms are found in King and Krzywinska 2005 Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts. London: IB Tauris.
Douglas Brown teaches Videogame Theory at Brunel University, London. His interests center around the interplay between narrative and videogames, and his work on gameplay gestalt theory was presented at the 2007 DiGRA conference. He has also worked on several videogames for Square-Enix including Final Fantasy XII. He is currently writing a PhD focusing on the suspension of disbelief and its role in games, when he can wrench himself away from World of Warcraft.
Contact Email: douglaswbrown_at_gmail.com