The middle eight, an element of songwriting that I really love, is sometimes referred to as the “meanwhile at the ranch” moment for a piece of music. At this point, the song has a set structure, and we followed it for a few enjoyable minutes. We know the verses and the chorus. We generally know what to expect – or so we think. And then suddenly we’re somewhere else. Sick. Angels. Elvis wipes the tears from our eyes. A familiar theme, but now it’s weird and inverted. He slowed down, sped up, spun around. Meanwhile? Oh yeah, that’s what happens at the ranch.
I love this description of middle eights almost as much as a good middle eight itself. I love it because it suggests that the song is a journey, that when we listen to it, we discover the territory next to it, within it. And when the middle eight arrives, the ground we’re on shifts and we have a little surprise.
Not every song has a middle eight, and not every song needs one. But I often thought of them while playing Rytmos, a game where each piece of music is a path you draw across the landscape. These paths are really labyrinths. Often these mazes take the form of eights, which I think is a nice piece of random harmony. However, the “eight” itself is not important. What’s important – or what I feel is important when I’m in the grip of this magical, mind-expanding, mind-expanding game – are the loops in figure eight. The point is that the song starts somewhere and ends where it started – but returns to the beginning from an unexpected direction.
Rytmos is a musical puzzle game. I started playing on PC and moved to Switch when I realized it was something that required me to lean into the screen. You have to hold it in your hands. It needs the tangibility and the special power of imagination that handheld games encourage. The idea is simple. Each level gives you a starting point and several towers sticking out of the ground nearby. You draw a line from the starting point and try to connect it to the towers before returning to the starting point to finish.
Since Rythmos is a puzzle game, there are some rules: the line will travel in the direction you choose until it encounters an obstacle, and while it can cross itself, it can only end up back at its starting point. Since Rytmos is a music game, each tower the line passes through triggers a sound that plays on the soundtrack. The more towers you hit, the more sounds you make, and when you progress to the next level in the pack, the sounds you triggered in the previous level will still be heard. When you play a level set, you’re basically building a track by playing a game that’s a bit like an instrument and a bit like a sequencer. In fact, what you really feel is catching the music as your fishing line stretches across the magical waters and connects one speck of shimmering, shuffling sound after another.
Listen: Rytmos is an excellent puzzle game. One of the best games I’ve played in ages. This is partly because of the complications that come with each set of levels – one throws ice cubes around the playing field that you have to move back and forth to find paths for your lane, another may have teleporters that move your lane from from one point to another while maintaining direction and momentum.
Rytmos has plenty of ideas like this, but it allows them to stay fun rather than annoying. In other words, it gets complex, but never gives a puzzle that doesn’t succumb to a little curiosity and experimentation.
Why it? I think it’s because the complexity of the game is ultimately filtered by the fact that you can move the line in four directions, and some of those directions will inevitably not take off. You can be logical, and in the Rytmos course I started to recognize useful spaces in the landscape – spaces that told me, for example, that a turn was possible or impossible – but really, given these four options, the solution to a difficult problem is often just to head in a different direction. As such, Rytmos seems to me very similar to wordless, unconscious problem solving that I can only do by going for a walk.
Geoff Dyer once said that even in the best poetry reading, the words you most want to hear are, “I’ll just read two more lines.” And – whisper it – sometimes that’s the case with puzzle games: I appreciate the brilliance, but also often can’t wait to look back at playing the game if that makes sense. Sometimes it’s easier to enjoy a clever idea in principle and memory than in practice and in the moment. Anyway, it’s not something I felt with Rytmos. I was a bit sad each time a puzzle was solved because it’s so fun to just poke the path. Again, you can deal with them with logic, but also with play – a series of approaches that sound like music to me.
And that’s the key here. So Rytmos is easy? This is not okay. Rytmos rather knows what it wants you to enjoy – the moment when the puzzle comes together (often in the form of a figure eight) and the moment when the chain of triggered sounds reaches a kind of critical mass and becomes music. Puzzles don’t want to interrupt the music you’re all working on.
And that’s the thing that elevates Rytmos from being a great puzzle game to being all-time for me. This is a game that is fascinated by music and wants to share this fascination with the player. When I was playing, I felt the game was actively encouraging me to be more curious about these things.
So. Each of Rhythm’s individual puzzles takes place on one side of a broken space cube that you are slowly putting together. Complete one puzzle and more surfaces will slide into place with their own puzzles. Complete six of them and you’ll end up with a cube, a cohesive piece of music, and you’ll step back to find out that a cube is a planet orbiting a star. Each star has three planets, which means three puzzle sets as well as three pieces of music. Most importantly, each star is themed. Rytmos uses the galaxy to take us into the world of music.
So there’s a star where you play mid-20th century Hawaiian music. There is a star where you discover traditional Indonesian Gamelan music. This level set with teleporters is of course German electronics from the seventies. Entire Solar System Neu! And not only do you learn about these traditions, the puzzles allow you to climb in them as you level up, feel the rhythms, the kinds of choices each tradition encourages. And with those repeating eights you follow, you get an idea of the more universal musical ideas that perhaps combine all these traditions.
The reward for each completed planet is an instrument to play with. That’s great and I love the fact that you can record your own loops and store them in the record case. But the real reward, at least for someone like me who is ignorant and a bit dull, is the sudden realization that all this exists. Rytmos gave me some stuff I knew – Hawaiian surf guitars and all those Neu! – but it also threw me deep into Ethiopian Jazz and gave me names of people I should start with if I want to explore this music myself. What a joy. This puzzle game stretched between the stars has led to playlists, emails to old friends, sharing, borrowing. To think about how different things come together and how they came into being.