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Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi on the origins of his rhythm game, and its hidden meaning

Why Rez is more than a game about purifying cyberspace

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi talked about the "creative serendipities" that opened his senses and led to the pathway to creating Rez, the 2001 musical shooter that experimented with the concept of synesthesia — or, as Mizuguchi described it, "the expression or impression of cross-sensational feelings."

At his GDC 2016 postmortem, Mizuguchi, who sometimes spoke through a translator, also revealed the underlying concept of Rez. While the game appears on its surface to be about a hacker traveling through and purifying cyberspace, it's also a metaphor for conception and birth. The player avatar, Mizuguchi said, is like a sperm cell traveling and trying to connect with an egg, a metaphor the developer tried to communicate through the abstract player forms and Rez's ending movie.

Rez's origins date back to Mizuguchi's high school years. He said that two games — both vertical scrolling shooters — were early influences on his idea to combine music, color, sound and shooting action. The first was Namco's 1982 arcade game Xevious.

"I was a high school student when I discovered it," Mizuguchi said. "The more I played, the more I was sinking into the illusion that as I played it was creating music back at me. That opened up my imagination about what this all means, and how do I create something off what I'm experiencing right now."

The other early influence was The Bitmap Brothers' Amiga game Xenon 2: Megablast.

"When I was in university, my friend turned me on to Xenon 2," Mizuguchi recalled. He said the game's music would repeat in his mind, over and over. "It really almost shocked me ... this game gave me a sense of 'This is a new media, a new media perspective' — meaning games as an art form can exist. The marriage of sound and music was something undiscovered [to me] at the time, until I met this game."

Xenon 2 featured music from electronic dance musician Bomb the Bass, and Mizuguchi remembered that hearing dance music and seeing game mechanics "being intertwined in a real balanced way was something I didn't know existed."

"Back then I think it was still pretty unusual," he said, "but it gave me a sense of hope that this could be a new space to express new entertainment experiences."

After university, Mizuguchi went to work at Sega, where he worked on arcade titles like Sega Rally. The job, he said, opened his eyes to new "multi-sensory" experiences and exposed him to an international audience. His work at Sega's arcade division also brought him to Europe. During one trip, he attended Street Parade, a massive music festival, in Zurich, Switzerland.

"It was my first techno experience," he said. "The beats, synchronized to the color of the lights and the movement of the people ... I was just blown away.

"The word synesthesia popped into my head."

Mizuguchi, also inspired by the work of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, began to think about how to express what he was seeing and hearing, but in computer form. He described his inspiration for what would become Rez in the following words:

  • a marriage of game and music
  • create music as you shoot down enemies
  • the best sensation in a game
  • keep you coming back for more
  • puts you in a trance
  • bodily sensation — vibration matched with music
  • synesthetic effect — sounds affecting visuals

Mizuguchi and the team at Sega's United Game Artists started "experimenting with shapes, sounds and colors, and how it makes you feel when it's fed to the screen." Their research include watching and repeatedly rewatching a video of Kenyan street musicians and dancers, as they tried to get to the root of the "groove" inherent in the video. The Rez team tried to find an answer to the question, "What is it that makes us feel good to watch this?"

They attended taiko drum festivals and went clubbing in Japan in the name of research and discovery. Mizuguchi said the team studied DJs, and the interaction of sight and sound, in their attempts to recreate certain sensations in a video game.

"The DJ makes us all feel good," Mizuguchi explained. "He's the mood maker, the mood designer — atmosphere, tone, all of that. With every new track, or beat, he's trying to elevate our feelings. He's feeding us a feel-good quality with level changes.

"How can we design that in the game? If I could figure out how to make that happen ... that's what I want players to experience."

Mizuguchi showed work-in-progress versions of Rez, when it was little more than just a cursor on a screen, hitting targets and firing off musical sounds. At one point, the player character ran through Rez's cyberspace world. At another, the avatar was more mechanical instead of humanoid. Mizuguchi said the team found Rez's "magic" with quantization, syncing the various, sometimes random, sounds to a beat.

As for the player character, which ranges from spheroid to human-shaped to its highest form — that of a baby — Mizuguchi said the human forms are part of Rez's larger metaphor.

"We all know the story of Rez ... you're hacking the system, purifying, cleansing, rebooting the network back to normal," he said. "We had another story. This is really hard to explain. Everybody had the same experience: You were sperm. This long but short journey we all took before our birth, the lone surviving sperm is traveling, trying to find and meet the egg. The story ends here with Rez ... it's right before the actual birth."

Rez was first released 15 years ago on Sega Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. A high-definition remake was released for Xbox 360 in 2008, and Rez will return later this year with Rez Infinite. That version of the game is bound for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR, and will go beyond a the scope of a remake. Mizuguchi and his new company, Enhance Games, will add a new level called Area X, which he said was "an experiment."

"We're using the current technology," he said of Rez Infinite's new area. "[We will explore] what is a VR-oriented Rez. The concept is particles moving with the music."

Mizuguchi said he hopes to release Rez Infinite alongside the launch of PlayStation VR, which is scheduled to hit this October.

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