Jonathan Mak’s first game, Everyday Shooter, was notable for (besides just being great) being made almost entirely by one person. It remains the video game response to authorial control. Sound Shapes is a big departure because it is so exemplary of collaboration. Not only has Mak worked with a co-designer in Shaw-Han Liem, he brought in other musicians (Beck, Deadmau5, and Jim Guthrie) and visual designers that dictate the platforming musical worlds they create. This collaboration extends even to the players, who can also craft their own levels and share them with others.
Like another sidescrolling platformer that needs no mention, there are worlds subdivided by levels. In Sound Shapes, the worlds are albums composed by one of the musicians and each album is divided into tracks. Like musical notation, the player naturally scrolls from left to right although there are some concessions for the sake of level design. Coins are also collected and each one adds a note to the soundtrack, with coins found higher on the screen corresponding to higher notes. There is no rule that demands the player to grab every coin to finish a track, but the audio feedback might as well be.
Jim Guthrie’s album, Corporeal, balances mundanely simplistic puzzles in an office setting with platforming hell in the middle of the corporate ladder. Deadmau5’s D-Cade finds itself in the frenetic bleeps and bloops of classic arcade games (and electronic music, of course) while alluding to the violence that would eventually come out of them. Fittingly, this is one of the tougher albums. I am Robot and Proud’s (Liem’s stage name) Beyonder pairs off elements found in nature with the extraterrestrial.
These worlds and others that the albums create are all diverse, but they do have some common ground. The player character is an unassuming ball, oddly reminiscent of the bouncing dot on sing along songs. It’s simple but also necessary to fit into all the different settings. It can slide along black surfaces and stick to lighter ones. Also, the blob doesn’t like red surfaces. Those kill it. However, checkpoints are generously doled out to keep the player in the moment. This is important because moving hazards keep to the beat of the music.
While Sound Shapes contains great musical worlds to play around in, it sometimes relies too much on platforming controls that aren’t quite as precise as others in the genre. Spinning the dot around circular objects can lead to awkward moments of hesitation or death as the movement controls flip around. Such soft spots might not have been particularly noticeable if not for the game’s encouragement of speed runs (complete with online leaderboards) and platforming trophy challenges.
Thankfully, Sound Shapes also embraces its other side. There is a fully featured level editor that eases players in gently. Before anybody even gets all the materials available, they must first complete all the albums that come with the game so they get an idea of how the different parts might be used. Additionally, a Beat School mode teaches players the basics on beats, melodies, and sound loops so anybody can get started even if they’ve never picked up an instrument.
While the editor may be easy to start playing around with, don’t mistake it for being shallow. Once up and running, there is a surprising amount of depth to delve into. The proof is easily found by checking the community’s output. Adventurous gamers can search through the latest published levels, but there is also a top picks section home to a lot of original material. This isn’t some cold search engine production either. The designers go through the levels and hand pick their favorites.
Sound Shapes may not feature the greatest platforming around so fighting for the fastest times on each track isn’t where it shines. Sound Shapes is best when it highlights collaboration. Jonathan Mak ceded individual control for the sake of collaboration. The music and the visuals collaborate to create diverse worlds. Most importantly, the platforming collaborates with these musical worlds to create an experience that rises above competitive instincts.