Friday, March 5, 2010

Having Fun for Charity with Chime

Chime_Coverart Gaming and charity share an interesting relationship.

On one hand, you’ve got Penny Arcade’s mammoth Child’s Play program.  It started in 2003, when the guys behind gaming’s most popular webcomic collected game and cash donations to provide an extra special Christmas for their local children’s hospital.  Now, it serves almost 70 partner hospitals, inspires crazy gaming marathons, and generates upwards of a million dollars each year.

On the other hand, you’ve got everyone else.  Child’s Play, thanks in no small part to Penny Arcade’s massive following, casts a large shadow.  It’s hard to know to whom to give or what to do if you’d like to help out outside their specific organization.  Last October, the game journos at Rebel FM recorded a special podcast to inform listeners about the Children’s Miracle Network.  After the earthquake in Haiti, Microsoft promised to donate relief funds if enough people logged on for a session of Halo 3: ODST (my compatriot Rob and I did our part – and got slaughtered by the Covenant).  Both are excellent examples of gamers banding together to make a difference, but it’s easy to miss announcements of these causes amidst the persistent blogroll of studio closures, press releases, and well-endowed figurines.

OneBigGame is one such charitable organization I feel deserves more attention.  Founded in 2006 by Martin de Ronde and others, this non-profit publisher “seeks to raise money to solve problems afflicting children everywhere, by creating videogames through a collaborative industry-wide effort.”  It’s motto: “Play, so others can.”  To execute its mission, OneBigGame publishes games and then donates sizable portions of the proceeds to charity. 

They released their first publication a few weeks ago.  Chime, developed by British studio Zoë Mode, is a music-based puzzler available via the Xbox Live Arcade service.  Players who purchase the game can rest assured that at least 60% of the measly five-dollar price tag goes to a good cause.  Your “donation” even earns you a hefty Achievement!  Just buying the game should make you feel all warm and fuzzy.  But is playing it any fun?

Hell yeah.

It’s hard not to see the imprints of puzzle games past in Chime’s excellent gameplay.  Players place shapes (which are reminiscent of Tetris) on a grid (similar to that of Lumines) in order to score points and amass coverage (in a fashion akin to Qix or Jezzball).  Shapes fit together to form quads, which clear whenever they’re struck by the constantly-moving beat line (back to Lumines).  Forming successive quads increases your multiplier, and that scores you more points.  Quads also contribute to your overall coverage of a level.  In timed mode, increased coverage means more time to play, and covering 100% of the level serves up a healthy point bonus and clears the grid so you can start anew.It's less complicated than it looks. While the puzzle aspect is certainly a unique evolution of tried-and-true ideas, Chime’s real hook is its integration of music into gameplay.  Zoë Mode’s resume includes more than a few music games, including Guitar Hero song packs, so they have plenty of experience chopping up master tracks and assigning the bits to in-game actions.  You won’t be pressing orange and green buttons along with guitar riffs, however.  The music is generated vertically in a way, as opposed to simply moving forward through a prerecorded track.  Pieces placed on the grid generate notes, with location affecting pitch.  When quads are formed, they cause musical phrases to bubble up out of the ether.  As you cover more and more of the level, more and more of the song plays. 

Of course, not every song is suited for the Chime treatment.  Wisely, Zoë Mode only included tracks that seem to benefit by being broken down and reassembled.  Moby, Lemon Jelly, Paul Hartnoll of Orbital, Markus Schulz, and Philip Glass all provided songs gratis for the game.  The first four artists are all DJs, purveyors of various subsets of electronic music.  And I’m not surprised that electronica works wonders in Chime.  The individual loops and samples, whether they are ambient squeaks and beeps or the robotic voice in Moby’s “Ooh, Yeah,” do not need to be experienced linearly.  There is a constant beat, of course; it’s not as if you’re creating the song wholly from scratch.  But much of this genre is about gradual increases in complexity – a perfect aural parallel to Chime’s entrancing gameplay.

In rereading that last paragraph, you may notice the name Philip Glass.  Yes, the composer did lend his track “Brazil” to the game.  At first, I was skeptical, but it’s actually my favorite of the five songs available.  His repetitive, minimalist style fits the game perfectly.  A constant percussion phrase underscores most of the level, while quads summon everything from sighing strings to dancing flutes.  If you need any more convincing that Glass is perfect gaming music (or you need a more succinct explanation of Chime), watch this video:

You should play Chime.  I can’t stress that enough.  Play it for charity.  Play it to challenge yourself in timed mode or to relax in free mode.  Play it because it splices that sense of accomplishment puzzle-solving provides with the particular pleasure that comes with creating music.  Play it, so others can.