Thumper works beautifully in VR, where the private cinema of the headset locks you onto the rail your silver-plated trilobite rides, tackles all manner of rhythm action violence before expiring, inevitably, in an burst of jagged shrapnel. In truth, though, this is the kind of focussed, relentless game that creates its own private cinema regardless of whether you’re playing with PSVR or nothing at all. Sat in our chattering offices, the world beyond the screen didn’t so much bleed away as vanish instantly. Suddenly, I was right in there, zipping along after that weird, heroic insect as we raced deeper and deeper into blood red caverns, measureless to man. To break off after a level is to feel light-headed and a bit wobbly – you’re returning to the surface too quickly. To break off during a level is unthinkable. The bends!
A lot has been made of Thumper as a rhythm game driven by horror rather than simple neon sheen or techno dreaminess, as is more often the case. There is something to this. Thumper reminds me – and I appreciate that this is not a very inclusive analogy – of Level 4 of the Seattle Central Library. Most of that astonishing building is breezy and light, formed from expansive angles and cheery airport carpeting. You see sky and you see sunshine – well, as much sunshine as you ever normally get to see in Seattle. But Level 4 is a different story. Level 4 didn’t get the memo. Level 4 is blood red and made out of intestinal curves. Meeting rooms, apparently – but I dread to think of any decisions that got ironed out in this hellish space. Level 4 is awful, but it’s intoxicatingly awful. It makes you feel queasy, but you don’t really want to leave. You want to go deeper. You want to understand.
That’s Thumper. What an aggressively horrible place this game takes you to – and how surprising that it builds its Rothko nastiness from clean lines and smooth arcs. Thumper places you on a track that bucks and loops like a rollercoaster as it moves through a landscape that’s bloomy but filled with hard glass and chrome, like a perfume ad burped up by the abyss. Should horror be so cleanly constructed? Apparently it can be, anyway. The razored geometry looks first organic and then frankly Cthulhian. Fringes ripple away at the edges of the endless, lurching track you zip along: bars of light gathering and then bowing to form centipede legs, rib cages, the praying hands of cultists and even the vaulted ceilings of an infernal cathedral. On you rush. And then you make a mistake. And then you make another. And that means you are dead.
It’s a generous game in terms of its levels, and yet it manages to remain largely uncluttered. At Thumper’s core, it’s all about working out how to survive the various hurdles the track flings at you and then, if you are up to it, working out how to thrive and boost your score as you go. You’re always moving, and there’s always something coming down the track towards you: light spots on the ground that you have to press a button to thump against, corners of varying lengths that you have to twist away from at just the right moment in order to navigate. Further on, spikes erupt from the earth that you must flutter over, and spars cross the track that you must hunker down to smash through. Loops of light appear above you and encourage you to hover and smash all at once, then suddenly there are multiple tracks to jump between.
Onwards and onwards, fresh gimmicks await. The complexity is always matched by the deviousness, as each new idea encourages you to make mistakes, to operate beyond your competency. It’s all up, down, left, right on the thumbstick with regular jabs of a button, but within that the game is constantly trying to trick you, to wrongfoot you. You fall into spotting patterns, so when the pattern changes – two left turns and only one right, spikes where you expected spars – you throw yourself into oblivion. It’s a two-strike world. One hit takes away the trilobite’s wings. (Did trilobites even have wings? They generally don’t when I’m playing, anyway.) A second blows the trilobite to pieces. Onward!
Even the music is trying to do you in, teasing at rhythms that will lure you into complacency only to leave you splattered across some cosmic windshield by a middle eight you were not expecting. What does it sound like? It sounds like Wendy Carlos doing some metal-working. It sounds like all the horrors on earth saying: you must do better! Then there are the bosses: sticking points for me, each one, because suddenly you have to hit every mark. You have to thrive rather than merely survive if you want to earn the glowing patches on the ground that mean you can fire a shot at the vast baddy suddenly lurking at the edge of the rail – and that’s often only worth it after you’ve first shattered any defensive measures they may have erected.
The bosses show just how adept Thumper is at conjuring nightmares from simple geometry. One might be a triangle, another a rippling wheel of light. As the game progresses, they become increasingly organic, but even then there’s a daring refusal to engage directly with the things that people think they find scary. It’s all hints and feints: simple shapes that are pushed towards menace by a little wriggle in the animation, a suggestion of something that cannot be fully seen. It can be terribly claustrophobic, riding that rail.
Oh yes, and it’s fast. It’s so insanely fast. Cobble that together with the precision required to succeed and the relentless allure of the wonderfully horrible art, and you have something special. Don’t weep for me, but I have really hurt my thumb playing this game: stabbing the controller buttons when really I only needed to tap them.
No matter. Thumper’s one of those experiences where the feedback you’re getting is driving you forward so irresistibly you dare not look too closely at exactly what your hands are doing on the controller – for the fear that it will stop everything from working, and then where will you be?