I didn't become a computer nerd until I was in high school. Bizarre as this may sound, I didn't grow up with a computer at home — and neither did most of the people I knew. In high school, though, I became a full-blown geek.
That impressed the adults in my life, but it didn't feel like anything special to me. My ability to click things quickly on a Mac in 1996 was a gift, I figured, and I couldn't very well brag about a gift, even if I wanted to. I just had an affinity for noodling, and I knew enough to know how much I didn't know. Still, what I could do seemed to look like magic to adults like Mr. Mitchell. He ran my high school's Media Center and played an enormous role in the life of a guy who'd grown up without a PC. He empowered my newfound love for technology, mostly by setting me free in a playground full of Macs. Every so often, though, Mr. Mitchell stood over my shoulder smiling as I noodled, and that made me feel good.
I never knew what it felt like to be the observer in that kind of situation until I met Tom-Ivar Arntzen, the game maker behind Klang. A few weeks ago, as I watched him play his creation at blistering speed with what appeared to be minimal effort, I grinned and assumed Mr. Mitchell's role, marveling at a computer screen and a younger man moving so quickly that I couldn't keep up.
It didn't start that way, though. A few minutes earlier, I was playing Klang and doing pretty well. Or at least that's what I thought until Arntzen showed me how its really done.
During the past decade or so, I've spent more money than I care to calculate on fake plastic instruments, which is a roundabout way of saying that I love a good rhythm game.
I'm also a sucker for creative twists on gameplay, especially mashups. Gears of war blew me away by adding cover to combat. The Uncharted series hooked me by combining third person shooting, platforming and exploration. I was delighted to realize that Metal Gear Solid 4 would let me play it as a third-person or a first-person shooter. And years before, that franchise taught me that stealth was a viable alternative to shooting everything in every game.
Within a minute or so of playing Klang, I realized it ticked all of those boxes.
It's a rhythm game, but it's also an action game. That's kind of confusing at first, but also kind of awesome eventually. It didn't feel like it was trying to be different for the sake of being different, but more like it's developer had an insight but it never occurred to me. There's no reason these two things can't work well together. I just never realized that.
I began my hands on time with Klang after Arntzen suggested that I should go in blind. He designed the game to teach players how to play it while playing it, he said. The prospect of jumping into a game in front of its creator with no preparation made uncomfortable, but my job is the play the game, not feel comfortable. I picked up an Xbox 360 controller connect to a PC and began.
I controlled little neon character at the bottom of the screen who looked like he'd dressed that morning for a Tron cosplay convention. Beats thumped in the background, and glowing neon orbs shot at me as everything on the screen pulsated to the beat. My job was to deflect them in time with my dual swords.
I could move with the left analog stick and jump with the press of a button. A cone-shaped user interface element gave me the heads up that a projectile was incoming and from what direction. When a flaming ball of electric death got close enough, I had to press the corresponding button — X for left, B for right and so on. Getting the timing just right sent the death orbs ricocheting back to my enemies. Hit them enough, and they explode in a multicolored death.
Next up was a level that platforming as a challenge, and even that was designed with rhythm in mind. I ran and jumped my way through levels, pausing every so often to fend of the kinds of attackers I'd met in the tutorial. That's when I realized that combos come with rewards. Play with perfect timing as Klang wants you to, and you'll earn rewards like giant sword slashes that damage every enemy.
I played another level where even the background animations danced to the beat. The formula remained the same, with new layer added. Old platformer standbys like wall jumps, for example, were part of my travels, but of course they're timed to the beat, too.
I lost control when I met the devil bat, but it was the death rays from the ceiling that really got me.
Up until then, I'd been relying half on my knowledge of platformers and half on my knowledge of rhythm games. It was a challenge, but one I make my way through. I wasn't going to earn an S rank in the post-level tally, but I wasn't dying, either.
I ran my way through a level and hopped onto something like an elevator when the bat appeared at the same time as the deadly yellow lasers. Unlike previously stationary enemies, the bat flew around the screen … well, like a bat would. And at the same time, that freaking laser zapped through my already cramped crucible. I didn't just have to account for what was flying at me, but where I was at all times. My early game success evaporated with the challenge.
I wanted to master it, but my time was limited. I wasn't going to become a Klang expert in the half hour I had to play it. Why not let the creator show me how it's done, I figured.
Arntzen was happy to comply. Of course, he cranked the difficulty up to 11. And that's about the point at which I became Mr. Mitchell.
A one-man band
A few years ago, Arntzen told me, he collaborated with a few other people on a game, but that project fizzled. He walked away with the belief that he could and should make something on his own.
Arntzen has been working on Klang for years, almost entirely by himself. And he's not a programmer. He uses a program that does most of the programming for him and noodles with code as he needs to. That sounded more than a little bit like me, so of course I was into his story.
He told me some of this as he was setting the game up for himself. He told me more as he multitasked, playing levels that killed the best of my skills combined with all of my concentration. Of course, he made the game. He's should be better than me, but it was still impressive.
Then he introduced me to Nightcore Mode, where Klang goes blitzkrieg and enemies launch neon missiles like clouds drop raindrops. Things happened so quickly that I could barely keep up. Then he paused.
"It's optimized for keyboard, too," he said, set the controller down and placed his hands on the home keys.
I couldn't decide what to watch when he unpaused Klang: his fingers moving like Data at a Star Trek: The Next Generation computer or the action unfolding above his hands. I knew I'd lost the narrative when he paused, frustrated at a mistake he'd made that I couldn't even see.
Klang is unique, maybe somewhat confusing at first, but ultimately creative and cool. Arntzen strikes me as more or less the same. After I shook his hand and walked toward my next appointment at PAX East 2016, my vague senses took form as I wrapped my mind around one of the most interesting appointments I've ever had.
Of course they're the same, I thought. Why wouldn't they be? Klang is independent development writ large, where the lines between creator and creation are blurry and anyone can make a game — even if they go it alone and don't really know how to program.