Checking the Score: Rytmos Wants Us to Appreciate Music History

While many point to how lifelike the next blockbuster action title is or how gorgeous an artistic indie darling is when it comes to evaluating a game, these visuals would lose their impact without a stirring soundtrack to score them. From the chip-tunes of Super Mario Bros to the Gregorian chants of Halo, video game music brings players closer to immersion and fantasy. Much like how a movie’s soundtrack sets the tone for dramatic scenes, game music also helps players connect emotionally with the story.

Checking the Score is a monthly feature devoted to these crucial compositions which are literally the soundtrack to our gaming lives. Delving into what makes them impactful, the process of composing them and the intricacies of each score, our aim is to put a spotlight on the aural backbone of gaming.

Music has the power to transport us to different realms and cultures. It’s so important as a component of gaming that it’s branched off into its own genre. There are a plethora of rhythm titles that are hailed as classics because of how seamlessly music fits with gameplay and story. Classics like PaRappa the Rapper, Jet Set Radio, Crypt of the Necrodancer and more move us with their rhythms while giving us an appreciation for how they’re integrated into gameplay. Newer titles like Rhythm Sprout and Hi-Fi Rush find refreshing ways to bring new mechanics to rhythm-based gameplay. Yet rarely does a game pull back the curtain to reveal some of the sounds and melodies that often crop up in our most beloved tracks. Enter Rytmos: a puzzle game that emphasizes music theory and composition to teach players about the history of various musical genres and instrumental movements. Developer Floppy Club shows their commitment to music by crafting games with a strong focus on audio. It’s always refreshing to see games that focus more on the technicalities that make musical genres unique and specific. For the music geeks (like me) who enjoy learning new things, music knowledge is something that can often be underrated. When games dedicate a closer eye to the makeup of a genre, it’s clear to see the composer’s homages in the scales. From games like Elden Ring, in which some lyrics provide additional world-building clues, to building up the immersion in drama or horror titles, to titles like Fuser — which puts the power of musical creation in our hands. Having appreciation for various genres, as Rytmos encourages us to do, only deepens our understanding of the media we experience.

Rytmos is whimsically-minimalist while also serving a healthy dose of musical emphasis. Players must rebuild musical worlds that have shattered by navigating through puzzles on each world. The way players solve puzzles also affects how the music is created since a new rhythm is added to the base layer with every puzzle completed. Once completed, a world also unlocks an instrument primary to the genre for additional free play. It becomes a musical delight as we travel through different solar systems in this rhythmic galaxy. Deciding to start from the inside out, the system Oryx focuses on the mbira instrument and its history. Dating back 3000 years ago from the west coast of Africa, the mbira inspired the westernized kalimba that many people around the world have come to love. The little hand piano is often used to compliment natural melodies making use of a lot of wood-winds and percussion. Rytmos goes as far as explaining in detail how the kalimba and mbira were used as healing instruments during rituals. Its thematic elements continue to resonate today with its use in lullaby themes, tranquil themes and other general themes of restfulness in games.

With many planets to explore, the relaxing vibes continue when we reach the Kaelo system. Featuring music inspired by Hawaiian music from the Golden years of the 1930s-1960s, we learn of how Mexican cowboys introduced the Spanish guitar in Hawaii in the late 19th Century. Rytmos continues its historical insights by illustrating how Hawaiians detuned the guitar into what is now “slack key.” This customization is how we get classic “surfer” tunes that make iconic use of the steel guitar (we can hear a lot of this in the Animal Crossing New Horizons OST, for example). This slack key is used along with other metallic percussion instruments to create an island aesthetic. The melodies created through this form of play also heavily inspired Country Western music — just imagine a banjo or acoustic guitar playing some of those rhythms It speaks to the Hawaiian identity of the instrument when it’s commonly used for ocean themes and beach ambiance.

Before wrapping up our journey through the musical universe, we’ll want to stop in the system of Sato. The planets in this solar system highlight Japanese environmental music from the early 1980s. A lot of these rhythms were used in environmental and ambient music. Rytmos gives interesting contextual facts as well to explain that this genre was originally designed for shopping experiences, architecture and environments. Also known as “background music,” the planets in the system Sato make use of synthesizers and traditional instruments to create melodies. Some of these rhythms can be heard in games that make use of cyberpunk genres — which usually take heavy inspiration from 1980s culture and Japanese influences (the entire VA-11 HALL-A OST comes to mind). This is appropriate, as Rytmos teaches this genre is often linked to the hyper capitalism during the 1980s when many Japanese new age artists had close collaborations and sponsorships with big corporations. Music carries a lot of historical and cultural contexts that can be influential to their genre. Rytmos takes time to honor various experimental and traditional genres because they lay much of the groundwork for contemporary music we currently enjoy.

Music is a study that is not just technical, but historical and cultural as well. Games have made their mark by introducing us to rhythm mechanics and amazing soundtracks. A music’s influence can be heard in ambient themes and cinematic moments. Music can affect immersion in a game or solidify world-building. Rytmos is a unique blend of play — not just gameplay, but instrumental play as well. By offering players the opportunity to learn about instruments and their histories, Rytmos asks us to embrace the importance of music across various eras. It’s also a game that encourages differences, as each person may reveal melodies differently through puzzle completion. The beauty of this is that Rytmos will sound different to each person that plays it until the entirety of each planet is completed. As a lover of music theory, this is another whimsical feature. Rytmos offers more to the music lover beyond gorgeous compositions, as it also explores the deep roots of some of media’s greatest musical influences while offering entertaining value.