Feeling stuck is a common feeling among people trying to do something creative. Many music-makers report hitting a block and feeling like nothing they make is good enough. A lot of people give up. Developer Samantha Kalman is hoping an abstract game featuring colorful rings will help.
On the surface, Sentris looks like bizarro Tetris. Peel back a layer, and it's a music-making puzzle game. Go deeper still, and it's a game that exists to invoke an emotion. Sentris tries to help the musically-inclined break through their creativity blocks and feel the joy of trying and succeeding at making something that's beautiful or weird or catchy or crazy.
"It's an experimental game," Kalman told Polygon. "The goal of it from the outset has been to be something that mixes and balances both a puzzle game that should be engaging while it's muted, and a musical instrument as a vehicle for personal expression. My big goal is to get more people making music."
Sentris is different from other music and rhythm games in that players make their own music as they play. It's not a game about shooting something and the music appears like Rez, or solving a puzzle to unlock songs like Lumines, or hitting notes perfectly like Rock Band. Within the game's systems, players can build their own music and create something unique to their experience.
The game has an abstract rule-set like Tetris, but Kalman says it's definitely not Tetris. The game takes the form of concentric rings, which serve as a visualization of musical structure. The outer concentric rings are sound sequences that represent different instruments. Different colored rings represent different pitches. The inner concentric rings, which spin counter-clockwise, have grids and color targets. Using the controller, players can select one of the sound sequences from the outer rings and drop them into the inner rings. When players drop a sequence, the sound will play every time the inner ring loops around.
Here is where the puzzle and music elements collide. On the puzzle side, players have objectives, like placing a certain-colored sequence into a grid within the inner rings, or filling a grid with any number of sequences. The sequences stack, so dropping a new one on the same spot will push existing sequences further down. The sequences on the outer rings also appear in a set order (like in Tetris), so players have to decide which sequences to drop at what time. As a standalone puzzle game, Sentris has deep mechanics that will allow players to strategize the best way to clear each level. Players will have to look at which sequences are coming up and try to visualize how dropping one sequence will affect the positioning of current and future notes.
On the music side, Kalman believes the constraints of the puzzles force players to be more experimental in their music-making. It takes away some of the fear and trepidation of just making something without worrying if it's good or bad. When players aren't so focused on whether or not their music sounds good, they're more likely to take risks, which can lead to interesting musical break-throughs.
"There's no such thing as perfection and there's no such thing as failure," she said. "That means it's possible to make something that maybe doesn't sound great, but it's also possible to make something that sounds wonderful, that you love, and you made it."
For Kalman, Sentris represents her own experience with making music. In high school, she always wanted to make music, but after hours trying to learning to play the keyboard or tinkering with electronic music software, she'd always hit a block. "It was overwhelming, and I would always compare myself to the music that I loved to listen to. I'd be working on some music for hours and it would still sound shit, and I believed I wasn't good at this, I sucked at making music, and I'd never be able to do it."
It wasn't until she was invited to play in a band after they saw her drumming on a Rock Band drum kit that she was introduced to a world of musical experimentation, of not worrying about failing, and of taking risks and seeing where it led. She describes this moment as a breakthrough, and she wants anyone with an interest in making music to have a similar experience.
"It was a new emotion of some kind, and it felt so good that I knew this game I'd been thinking about for years needed to invoke that feeling in everybody, because everybody deserves to know what that feels like," she said. "It's an important part of the human experience. I don't know if [Sentris] does that yet, but that's my lighthouse to keep striving for — to make the game be something that makes people feel filled with overwhelming joy that they're making something they love."
Sentris is coming to Steam Early Access on Aug. 22, 2014. It is currently in development for PC, Linux and Ouya.