Jon Mak, left, and Shaw-Han Liem are the designers of "Sound Shapes." (Mark Rabo )
"Sound Shapes" is in many respects a traditional video game, some may even say old-fashioned. Users control a character, in this case a ball, and move it left to right or top to bottom across a screen. Simple enough.
Except dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that "Sound Shapes" is not a traditional game at all. It can even be argued that "Sound Shapes" in an instrument masquerading as a game.
Released Tuesday as a downloadable game via Sony's PlayStation Network, "Sound Shapes" contains original music from local pop eccentric Beck and EDM star Deadmau5, among others, and invites users to shred the songs, piece by piece, and then reassemble them to create a music-based universe.
"The word 'gateway' has terrible connotations, but I look at this as a gateway to music production," says Alex Hackford, who works in A&R at Sony Computer Entertainment America. "This shows you how to make a compelling game level, and illustrates how to sequence parts of different music."
Pop music and video games have had a cozy relationship for years. Songs from major artists can be heard in sports games and throughout popular series such as "Grand Theft Auto," and once-hot franchises like "Guitar Hero" invited gamers to reimagine themselves as budding rock stars.
"Sound Shapes" represents a more seamless integration. In the traditional game, levels are presented as grooves on a record, and every movement by the user reveals a new bit of the song.
No two people may ever hear the song the same. The sounds in the game are culled from individual studio tracks — a bass echo here, a tap of a hi-hat there — rather than the traditional masters of a song.
Explained Hackford: "I've seen the landscape change dramatically over the past 15 years, in terms of rights and rights management and what users can and can't do with music, and that was the most difficult philosophical hurdle to get over: your music is going to be combined with other artists to create new gameplay."
Developed by small Toronto studio Queasy Games, Hackford wouldn't reveal the budget used to secure music for the game but says that plenty of time was spent in law firms pitching "Sound Shapes" as the nexus of a game and application.
There is "no definite version of a song," said Zach Wood, a senior producer at SCEA. "The player is essentially sharing in the authorship." It can, admittedly, "be hard to wrap your head around," he said.
Beck delivered three tracks to the game, and levels go so far as to incorporate his lyrics into the universe. As Beck sings, the vocals essentially become instructions on how to explore the level. Playing through the game without audio would be difficult, as enemy patterns are tied to rhythms.
Users can even go a step further and create their own levels, combing, say, Beck melodies with Deadmau5 beats. "Our intention is not to create a new way for musical artists to monetize the music," said Shaw-Han Liem, who developed "Sound Shapes" with Jonathan Mak.
"Yet the game we created has this side to it where an artist, if they're inclined, can give their music to the audience in an interesting way," said Liem. "The audience can listen to it, take it apart and put it back together. I'm not sure all artists would be into this. Many no doubt believe the song they wrote shouldn't be taken apart by people."
"Sound Shapes," which also includes music by Liem and Canadian singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie, never actually presents the songs heard in the game from start to finish.
"Beck was No. 1 on their list, and his manager had made it very clear to me that Beck does not do a lot of things like this," said Hackford. "It was really about matching the aesthetic of artists whose music is modular and can be broken up into constituent parts. It needed to be movable, layered material."
Another thing Beck rarely does is interviews. His publicist says Beck "hasn't been up for very many" the past few months, and representatives for Deadmau5 said the artist was too busy to participate.
But unlike other new revenue streams that help keep the ailing music industry afloat (digital sales, for example), Hackford cautioned against looking at "Sound Shapes" — an abstract game with a development team of two — as a substitute for soft album sales.
"I don't feel like an artist doing this is endemic of a lost opportunity elsewhere," he said. "I think the fact of the matter is these opportunities simply didn't exist before. I don't think it is reflective of any industry decline. This is a sign of advancement."