A sound pitch: audio puzzler Sentris threatens to unleash your inner musician

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”

sentris

 

This short piece originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into the maw of Gamesradar+. If they ever put it back up, I’m happy to take this down – but Sentris is out today, so I thought it would be nice to have this online *somewhere*.

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”

The game consists of a set of concentric circles which are constantly rotating, looping any notes attached to them. The player has to play a rhythm puzzle game with notes of varied lengths from varied instruments being fitted to a core theme. Though the theme is set for each puzzle, the player can provide variety by choosing the instruments, sustain and whether to fill in the gaps in the tune structure.

“It’s a puzzle game about matching colors, yes,” says Kalman “but the puzzle pieces themselves are visual representations of musical structure. The puzzle element is stacking blocks, but each block is a musical note — literally a single building block of a song. The way you build up notes to solve the puzzle means your song unfolds organically, in a way that is truly unique to your play session. I’ve watched dozens of players play the prototype, and I’ve never heard the same song twice.”

“Sentris is a game first, and therefore has to be fun and challenging, even if the sound is muted. The variable musical system is there for players who want to pay attention to it. Part of my plan is to offer a freestyle mode, where the puzzle elements are replaced by an even greater level of musical control on the part of the player. I’m walking on a tight rope between a puzzle game and a musical instrument.”

Kalman’s personal history is interesting – before becoming a self-employed developer, she was the Director of QA at Unity. You’d think there couldn’t be anyone better placed to be making indie games and Kalman loved the place. “I had a really good, long run with Unity. I shipped Unity for iPhone and Unity for Windows which were huge milestones for the company. I made a lot of great friends, and enjoyed the experience of living in Denmark. I worked with a world-class team. The industry needs tools like Unity.”

Despite this background with Unity, Kalman is a self-taught programmer, designer and musician – all within the last few years. “What’s the saying? “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing”. I’ve learned a lot about creativity in the past few years. The overwhelming lesson I’ve learned is to just keep going. Try to do things that are exciting to you. Try to do things that you don’t know how to do and you will continue to grow and expand. This applies to any creative work, and it’s helped me keep moving forward with Sentris.”

Her touchstones – Rez, FreQuency, Um Jammer Lammy, Gitaroo Man, Soundodger – seem to point to possible directions for future development. But she’s wary of adding additional complexity to the game. “I love the simplicity of the current prototype. Abstract UIs take time for new players to explore and understand, and I’m very pleased by the pick-up-and-playability achieved so far. Going forward I’m exploring additional puzzle and play mechanics that enable even more musical variability in solutions.”

“I want players to be able to make multiple, different songs with every play session. I’m also experimenting with different attributes of the blocks themselves, and how to reinforce the musical relationship between notes & instruments within puzzle mechanics. I want to make sure that it’s fun for new players and for expert players, and that means making it fun to develop the ability to read the puzzle, and making it fun after a player is able to understand how to solve the puzzle at first glance. In short, there’s a lot I want to do to make it even better!”

Now, given the erstwhile hype and the current doldrums of crowdfunding, Kalman’s attempt to turn her admittedly-limited prototype into something more subtle and complex by Kickstarting it deserves to be called brave. But with ten days to go, she seems to be set to achieve her $50,000 goal. It must be a sound pitch.

Sentris is on Kickstarter. We’d moot a late 2014 / early 2015 release on Mac, PC and Linux.