rezcover.jpg ['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Rez HD, a port for Xbox Live Arcade of the Dreamcast rail shooter.]

On the surface, Rez is nothing more than a simple on-rails shooter. You cannot control your avatar, only what you shoot. The levels are finite, the enemies predictable, and the mechanics simple.

However, the developers (headed by original designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi) have utilized a number of visual, aural, and tactile elements in the game to create a surreal experience that can often defy explanation. This is an experience that goes beyond just pure gameplay.

Design Lesson: It is possible to layer and intertwine simple aesthetics with each other in order to create a more engaging player experience.

Before I start talking about the game, I feel it's important, more than most games, to have some understanding of what this game is like. If you have not played it, check out this video on YouTube or any of the other videos of the game available. It doesn't replace actually playing the game, but at least you'll understand the game on a basic level.

The aural component is possibly the most significant of the three senses stimulated by the game. Each level of Rez is based around a trance music track. At the start of a level, a very basic beat is established. As you work further into each level, the music itself becomes more and more complex. The basic beat always exists, but now there are additional phrases of music that are more up-tempo and fast paced, ultimately creating the final musical track of the level.

By actually starting with a simple beat and adding additional layers to the music itself, the game is able to draw the player into its world gradually. As the music intensity increases, so does the intensity of the gameplay itself. It feels natural, never jarring, and it's something I didn't fully notice until after I started thinking about what really made Rez work as a game.

What Rez does next with the audio is where it becomes interesting. There aren't any specific sound effects in the game, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, the sounds meld into the music itself, with synthesized sounds playing as you shoot that fit the surrounding music and feel like a part of the track.

The player, as a result, feels as if he is affecting the music along with the gameplay, rather than the music being ancillary. This draws the player further into the game, and makes the sound and gameplay feel as one cohesive, intertwined unit, instead of separate entities.

Rez1.jpg The visuals use the sound as a jumping-off point to add to the player experience. Rez uses a very colorful, but geometrically simple visual style. The game seems to be made up of simple lines and polygons, so it wouldn't seem there is all that much to be entranced by.

In actuality, the entire world is in-sync with the audio of the game; the player avatar throbs with the same beat of the music; the background of the world flashes and changes colors according to the musical beat as well. Couple this with the colorful explosions, reminiscent of audio visualization algorithms, and you get a very stimulating, yet relaxing experience.

The game also uses the rumble of the controller to add a final, tactile, layer to the entire experience. As the player creates havoc on screen, the controller rumble matches the game, giving another feedback loop to the player's senses. Controller rumble is fairly standard of games, but Rez goes one step further.

It offers “trance vibration”, which on the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game is realized by using additional controllers (There was a separate USB peripheral for this in previous versions of the game). These additional controllers will vibrate with the musical track and other sounds (thus also the visuals) of the game itself, rather than just player actions.

Multiple controllers in trance vibration mode create more unique sensations, as different controllers are used to vibrate at different times. The impact of the vibration of the controllers ties the aural and visual components together. You begin to feel the gameplay that occurs on screen.

While other games stimulate these three senses, Rez is unique in the way it truly intertwines and layers them together. The concept of seeing the music exists in the game. While playing the game, I ended up “zoning out”. I would not thinking about what I was doing, but rather I just played.

The feedback from the game is such that it drove me into a further state of calm and meditation, rather than anxiety and alertness (something many games do). I often found my own physical surroundings disappearing as my conscious mind became one with the game.

This made me ultimately have a very different experience than I have had with most games. Most games involve actively thinking, processing, and decision making. That didn't feel like the case in Rez. I was certainly still performing these actions, but I wasn't thinking about them, rather I was just doing them. I was in the zone. This is ultimately what was engaging about the game.

It's extremely difficult to discuss a game such as this, due to its cerebral nature, but I hope I've made a good first step. I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on Rez and how its elements work together to create a unique, engaging player experience. Being able to discuss a game such as this is important to gain more understanding of game design, and I feel I've only scratched the surface with my limited time thus far with the game.

I can say, almost assuredly, that I will play Rez numerous more times over the years, not only to have fun and zone out, but to further understand what makes the game work so well. So much here is difficult to discuss without playing the game, so I'd make the recommendation to check it out, if you can, and see how it makes you feel.

Rez has opened my eyes to better ways to intertwine aural, visual, and tactile elements together to draw the player further into the game world. Often we treat these as complementary, separate elements in games, but that clearly does not have to be the case.

[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]