Friday, March 27, 2009

Musaic Box, or Classical Music Can Be Puzzling

Yes, you will end up solving a Yankee Doodle puzzle.  Trust me, there are better songs! I was going to talk about Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble today, but then the Independent Games Festival announced the 2009 award recipients.  And despite being the resident indie fanatic here at Charge Shot!!!, I managed to cover only two of this year’s many nominees .  I played Jason Rohrer’s Between (which took home the Innovation Award) with Andrew and reviewed the breath of sweet, fresh air that is Dyson (which unfortunately went home empty-handed). 

Ashamed, I perused the list of winners for something to play and stumbled upon Musaic Box, which was nominated for Excellence in Audio and took home the Excellence in Design award.  Intrigued by the idea of yet another take on the music/puzzle genre, I quickly found the shareware version over at Big Fish and gave it a whirl.

Musaic Box is really two games in one.  One of these games won the award.  The other most certainly did not.  Let’s get the latter out of the way first.

The wart on Musaic Box’s nose is its point-and-click, “Find the Hidden Object” sections – of which there are many.  The basic (and it is basic) plot of the game is that your grandfather left you a mysterious musical puzzle box.  Scattered throughout his cluttered mansion are little puzzle outlines that correspond to various pieces of classical (slash public domain) music.  To find these outlines, you must click around prettily rendered still shots of his house.  Locating them ranges from being incredibly easy - “Hey look, there’s one on the piano bench!” - to causing hair-ripping anger - “Why does this other music machine spit out an outline only after I’ve located three random pieces of machinery and why can’t I find the pieces of machin-ARGH?!”  If you can find the outlines, you won’t notice how frustrating this part of the game can be.  If you have trouble (like I sometimes did), you’ll begin to question your resolve.

After you obtain all the parts of an outline, the good game starts.  Each puzzle is a mix of tangrams, Sudoku, and musical trial and error.  You must fit various Tetris-like pieces into a puzzle with the aim of bringing a particular song to life.  Each piece is made of individual blocks, each with a colored shape that corresponds to a particular instrument’s phrase in the tune.  One block might be a snippet of the drum line, another the bass part of the cadence.  Arranging the pieces correctly results in the music box’s playing of the song.

What makes the puzzle aspect of Musaic Box so engrossing is the multiple avenues by which you can solve each puzzle.  Many of the songs allow you to play the melody in short chunks (each corresponding to a particular red block), which provides a framework for where certain pieces go, much like rooting through a jigsaw puzzle to find all the edge pieces.  From there, you may choose to solve it geometrically, trying to fit the pieces together correctly until the song plays.  You can also playback any individual piece and try to match up how the accompaniment supports the melody.  Or you could try to isolate an instrument and track how its colored symbols evolve and put them in the right order.  Chances are you’ll do all three before the puzzle’s done.  That’s good design, right there.

Above I alluded to a palpable Sudoku influence.  Each arrangement consists of up to four instruments, and each column of the puzzle grid must contain one of each instrument.  This extra level of logic helps in puzzle solving.  “Well, I already have drums in this column, let me try it over here.”  The genius is how the color-coding of instruments simplifies this for the musical layman.

And that brings me to what I like most about the game: how accessible it makes music.  While trained musicians or Guitar Hero fiends may find this game interesting, it won’t be because of their training or fiendishness.  Musaic Box is definitely for musical neophytes.  From what I saw the music is all public domain (which allowed them to tailor their arrangements for gameplay), but they fit that in by making it your grandfather’s collection of classical music.  Nothing wrong with that (even if the collection includes “Good Morning to You,” the melody that inspired “Happy Birthday”).  Its puzzles illuminate how songs are more than just a melody, more than the sum of their parts.  The symbols on each block reflect how composers vary musical gestures to further a song.  A red squiggle may mean one bar of the melody, and when that gesture returns with a slight twist, there may be a squiggle with a dot.  It sounds simplistic, and it is.  But I’m pretty sure that’s the point. 

In my time with the shareware, I encountered a diverse difficulty of puzzles.  Some proved fairly easy, others so maddening they required use of the hint button.  In the middle were a handful that were really satisfying.  There’s something about harnessing your aural and logic skills simultaneously that just clicks.  And when it results in music, even better.  Sure, you’ll be bored with “Yankee Doodle Dandee.”  But feel free to pat yourself on the back after beating “Blue Danube.”

I’ll probably pick up the full version of Musaic Box.  Sure, the plot’s more than a little hokey and the hidden object stuff is aggravating.  But I love puzzles.  And I love music.  I’ll just ignore the other stuff.