Kickstart This: Band Saga & Interview with Rekcahdam

By: Paul Eres

On: September 24th, 2014

Band Saga is a musical roguelike—basically it generates action roguelike dungeons based on its own Genesis-like FM sequencer, which can then be played through. You can generate levels based on importing your own MIDI music, or by composing music within the game (which can be shared with a text string online with other players). Also interesting is that you can change a song while playing through the dungeon based on that song, which would then affect the dungeon you are in. And as you can see from the trailer, the animation is also very nice.

I interviewed Rekcahdam to get a more in-depth look into how it all works, read it under the jump!

If I understand the Kickstarter correctly, the game uses sequenced music in a particular format to generate levels. This means a player wouldn’t be able to generate music from their own sound files (e.g. like Audiosurf and similar games), but advanced players would be able to adapt songs they like, in-game, to that sequenced format, and then play levels based on their own adaptions? E.g. I couldn’t just load in a Zelda song in mp3 format, but I could take a melody from a Zelda game, adapt it to the game’s sequence, and then play the level associated with that.

Do I have that right? If so, do you worry that the popularity of games like Audiosurf may set up the expectation that some players would be able to play games based on their favorite songs without any work on their part, and that they might be disappointed when they find that wasn’t how it works? And are there advantages that doing it your way has over those games, such as a more one to one, clearer correspondence between individual notes and game elements than those games have?

You can’t import an mp3 file into the game to generate a level unfortunately. But, it does allow you to EXPORT mp3 and wav files of the game’s soundtrack and songs you’ve modified or created in-game.

Band Saga stores everything in midi format so you can also import and export midi files. So if you find a midi file of Zelda’s Lullaby you can import that into the game to generate a level! I decided to go this direction because I wanted to encourage players to not only experience the music in a different way but also experiment with music creation themselves!

I’m not really worried about any expectations from other music and rhythm based games because Band Saga is not in anyway similar. The only game that remotely compares to Band Saga is Sound Shapes with its level and music creation tools. Like Sound Shapes, Band Saga comes with a soundtrack that players can experience while they’re playing the game. Every song is designed specifically to generate a level for players to enjoy. In Sound Shapes you can create your own levels but the music creation is very limited. Band Saga takes it 10 steps further and gives the players the ability to make their sounds and music by using its retro-authentic sounding built-in FM synthesizers and level generation algorithms.

Yes, there is an advantage to having a one to one relationship between the notes and the level elements. The advantage is that players have much more freedom over what sounds and how they relate to the levels they create. This leads to a more personal and authentic music and gameplay experience. Other games that import mp3 files tend lack variety in the level generation and I find myself getting bored pretty quickly. In Band Saga, if they choose to do so, players can craft a very specific experience with their music which makes every level feel like you’re playing in a new world all together.

You label your game a roguelike, but the only roguelike element it seems to have that I can see is procedural generation of levels. Are you worried that fans of roguelikes would take issue with this, saying that it isn’t a true roguelike because it isn’t turn-based, doesn’t have permadeath (assuming it doesn’t, correct me if that’s wrong), etc., and is actually seems to be a “roguelikelike” or a “roguelite”? Or do I have this wrong and does it have more roguelike aspects besides procedural level generation? As a second part of this question, what are your favorite roguelikes? I’m partial to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup myself.

As most people experienced at Tokyo Game Show 2014, Band Saga has many “roguelike tendencies” which is why I feel it’s perfectly fair to call it one. Band Saga has a coherent story so it does have “story points” (aka check points). But, between each “story point” players will traverse a Binding Of Issac style level where, if they die, they will be brought back to the previous “story point” which feels a lot like permadeath. You lose all of your abilities and you’re left to strategize on how to complete the level on your next attempt. Band Saga will definitely keep you on your toes! As far as not being turn based, I was careful to describe Band Saga as an “Action Roguelike” because I know that traditional roguelikes are turn based.

I definitely enjoy some Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup when I find the time. I’m pretty old school though. NetHack is still my shit!

About the generation of levels, could you give us some hints about how it works? For instance, do more complicated and longer songs mean more complicated and longer dungeons? Do songs with faster tempo mean levels that are more action-packed and quicker, and with slower songs being calmer, more serene levels? Do particular instruments refer to particular types of game entities (e.g. guitar being “magic items” and drums being “enemies” and flute being “traps”, or something like that)?

Each instrument in a level’s song is synonymous with a particular room. When you complete a room you unlock one of those instruments and you will hear it being added to the song. Unlocking that instrument also gives you the ability to modify what notes it plays. Modifying what note’s it plays affects what shows up in the next room. When you complete a room you’ll notice that some enemies drop “note points” and you’ll see a crystal appear. When you activate that crystal it will take you to the sequencer which is displayed in a grid format where each row on the grid corresponds to a different level element and the amount of note points you collect in-game dictate how many times you can modify an instrument’s note sequence.

While playing Band Saga you will gradually learn the rules as to how the sequencer relates to the level design through story and gameplay. For example; modifying the 5th row of an instrument’s note sequence changes the probability that certain items will show up in the next room. Before you open the door to the next room, Band Saga will give you a hint as to what you might find in that room if you survive it. Sometimes the player might be weak from the previous battle and they might want to increase the chances that they’ll find health pickups in the next room instead of weaponry. Other times the player may just want a more powerful weapon. In the TGS Teaser Video I noticed that the next room held a Tornado attack power-up. I decided that I wanted something different so I used my note points to add a note to the 5th row on the sequencer. After exiting the sequencer you’ll see that it changed from the Tornado power-up to the “Golem Buster suit” power-up .This all happens in real time while playing the game’s story campaign but, there is a mode where players can just make music and levels and share them with their friends.

Although this explanation may seem daunting, it’s only because I’m explaining it in somewhat technical detail. This doesn’t reflect how the player actually learns the game. As I mentioned earlier, much of the rules are taught through story and gameplay and it feels fun and natural. And, a lot of the interfaces in the game will be made to feel and look much more intuitive. There will be a table to remind you of the rules of level and song creation as well.

Do you worry that the levels not being “truly” randomly generated, but being basically a particular song corresponding to a particular dungeon, will mean that players may simply memorize the level layouts, replaying the same level / song over and over, using memorization as a tool to beat the level, thus removing some of the difficulty of roguelikes where traditionally each time you play it’s different? Is there any automated way to get a truly random dungeon, besides importing a random song each time you want to try a new one? Perhaps a game mode that uses music generating algorithms (genetic algorithms for melodies or similar), so that the game can create a new song for the player each time they play that mode, with a new dungeon for that randomly generated song?

There is still some randomness in the way Band Saga generates a level from a song. When you create a song you’re basically giving Band Saga a bunch of probabilities. So adding a note on the 5th row of the sequencer will increase the probability from 50% to 60% that an enemy will drop a the “Golem Buster” power-up in the next room. But, you can still get unlucky and get another power-up all together. Of course, if a probability of a specific item drop in the next room is set to 100% then you can be sure that an enemy will DEFINITELY drop that item. But, that is EXTREMELY rare and it would never happen for every item in every room of that particular level.

The only way this could happen is if a player were to create a level/song from scratch that manually forces everything to appear exactly the same way every time. If you were to just import a midi file of a random song it’s EXTREMELY unlikely that any item , enemy or obstacle will be set to a probability of 100%.

This is a bit of a controversial 90s console wars question, but do you feel that the Genesis or the SNES had a better sound system? I know a lot of musicians and people involved in sequencing music tend to have strong opinions on this, and I personally prefer SNES music over Genesis music, but I noticed that you described Band Saga’s FM sequencer as being Genesis-like, so I just thought to ask why you went with Genesis-like rather than SNES-like or even NES-like — was it just personal taste, was it easier to code, or what?

Ahhh, I’ve had this debate so many times haha!

The SNES definitely had a more advanced sound chip for sure and I imagine it was easier for most composers to deal with back then because it was sample based. And because of its superior sampling system you could potentially get some quasi-realistic sounding instruments. It would have been much MUCH easier for me to code a SNES-like sequencer but I find the Genesis FM chip more intriguing.

Every instrument played through the Genesis sound chip had to be programmed specifically to sound the way that it did and synthesized in real time alongside gameplay itself and something about that resonates with me. Those limitations forced composers to be more creative than usual. I think this helped to create some of the most surreal sound and memorable soundtracks that I could never forget even if I tried.I can’t imagine Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and 3 Gunstar Heroes, Vectorman or Thunder Force IV sounding as interesting as they did on any other sound chip.

The NES sound chip is similar to the Genesis chip in that all the sounds were also synthesized in real time as well. I’ve done plenty of NES/Gameboy style soundtracks (Seedling). I’ve even wrote my own Gameboy-like web sequencer (Pulseboy). After my experiences with those styles I figured I’d try my hand at the Genesis FM chip.

TL;DR: It’s just my personal taste haha!

Thanks to Rekcahdam for the interview! If any of you like action roguelikes and/or Genesis-style chiptune music, or the idea of hacking a level as you play it, you’ll probably want this game to be made, so consider backing it!

(Full disclosure: I am backing this game, for $5, myself, so I want the Kickstarter to succeed, and although I don’t know the developer, he is a “friend of a friend” through Laura Shigihara, who recommended that he approach me for an article on TIGS. Also, I always like do these disclosure things where appropriate, this isn’t just a gamergate-appeasing thing. – PE)

  • Anonymous

    Cheers for the interview, the better we people can explain it or understand it, the better odds of it coming through or people picking it up.

    On the full disclosure, I appreciate better insight into the relationships between the content creator and the writer for the sake of honesty when it benefits the reader regardless of whatever new “Gate” picks up. Given how tough the questions (hence better answers – everyone was waiting for answers on that “Roguelike” thing and to debate the Genesis vs SNES again) were, I have a really strong reason to look forward to your coverage of other works or other writers here.

  • Jabberwok

    I really like this concept, but I’m still unclear as to whether the music affects the level geometry itself, or just item and monster spawns in each area.

  • Rekcahdam

    Yes, it affects the placement of the level geometry as well as the monster and item spawns in each area.

  • uyggyu

    oh great, another pixel shit, how original