Telling a Story with Sound, Gameplay, and Skrillex

Screenshot of a pixel art character with sword and shield, looking out at a glitched game world

Here at The Writing Center, we run something called the Digital Video Workshop at least a dozen times (most likely more) every semester.

In it, we talk about how different elements of a video work together to create meaning. There are both visual and audible elements in any video worth watching, and if it’s well made, the sound matches what you see. In fact, doesn’t just match it; it frames it. The sound takes what you see on the screen, and changes the way you process it.

And if you don’t believe me, see if this changes your mind.

But I’m not here to talk about re-cuts of slapstick comedies on Youtube, I’m here to talk about Skrillex.

And I promise that’s the first time I’ve ever said that to anyone.

Joking aside, I know Skrillex is one of those particularly divisive artists, where some think he’s brilliant, and some don’t recognize dubstep as legitimate music. I’m not about to take a stand on that issue, but I am going to tell you that you can learn something from Skrillex today, and have some fun doing it.

I started out talking about the Digital Video workshop because it applies in kind to games. In fact, games have an additional element to go along with audio and video: interactivity. And believe it or not, Skrillex has brought us a fine little browser game that manages to weave all three in together.

See, Skrillex (which is to say, a developer by the name of Jason Oda) made a classic Zelda-inspired game as a way to promote his new album. It’s (perhaps unimaginatively) called Skrillex Quest, and you can play it for free, and rather quickly, right here.

If you’d rather not play, you can just watch an entire 16-minute playthrough right here (warning: Skrillex means lots of flashing colors and lights, and if you have any issues with seizures from video overstimulation, you might want to opt out. Seriously).

The game’s story is both rather dark, and rather amusing. You play as the hero of a dying video game world, which is completely glitching out and being destroyed because of dust on the cartridge (a trope anyone with an old Nintendo or Genesis is no doubt familiar with).

The hero fights his way past graphical glitches in what appears, according to pretty much every character in the game, to be a hopeless cause. And since the game only takes about 10 minutes to play (there’s a timer to ensure it), I won’t spoil the ending.

The game is, as you might expect, set to Skrillex’s music. In fact, realistically, Skrillex Quest is really just an advergame made to show off Skrillex’s music.

But here’s the thing: it works.

Individually, none of the elements in the game are especially impressive. The visuals are purposeful, but the blocky pixel art has limited appeal. The gameplay is relatively simple, with just the arrow keys to move and spacebar to attack, and even those controls aren’t exactly satisfyingly tight. The sound is all taken straight from various Zelda titles, and the music is, as discussed, Skrillex.

So if you look at Skrillex Quest as pieces, you’ll come away unimpressed. So instead, look at the way the elements all work together. Watch how the music changes to fit the situation. Notice how much of the story is being told through sound (and the rest through rather creepy dialogue). Listen to how the sound effects actually work somewhat together with the music.

Combine that with the interactivity of the gameplay, and this comes together into a pretty immersive experience for a 15-minute Flash game. This game wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if you played it on mute, it’s more fun as a game than as just a music video, and if you didn’t want the visual experience, you could just, y’know, listen to Skrillex on Spotify or something.

Instead, it’s an experience greater than the sum of its parts. The game makes the music more interesting, and vice-versa.

So whether you like Skrillex’s music or not, it’s worth keeping Skrillex Quest in mind the next time you need a good example of how the pieces of a good multimedia piece work together.

Barring that, it’s also just fun to play.

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