Beat Farmer – An Introduction

For a few years I’ve had this idea sitting on the backburner. Every few months I get a jolt of inspiration which sends it rising to the forefront of my thoughts for a week where it bubbles and simmers, only to retreat again and lie dormant for a while. If I’m honest with myself, I should admit that I’m easily discouraged by difficult problems that don’t present an immediately apparent solution. I, like most programmers, am astoundingly lazy. Unfortunately, this vision of a game is fraught with challenges, both technical and artistic, that are not easily overcome.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for music and rhythm games. While at DigiPen, Synaesthete was the first game I worked on that I utterly enjoyed; other projects were fun, but that was the game that scratched the itch I didn’t know I had. When we first started, the possibilities seemed endless and I felt like we were making something truly unique, something that broke new ground. In the end, time and resource limitations constrained the game to follow a particular path. A lot of the design decisions we made were emergent; our hand was forced in ways we hadn’t anticipated, driven by the limitations we had built around ourselves with each previous decision made. It was, to date, the most natural form of game design I’ve experienced and something that I’d like to try to recreate with this project.

At its heart, the premise of Beat Farmer is very simple and probably readily apparent from its name alone. Your job is to tend and cultivate a musical garden.

You know, seeing it in writing really takes a lot of the mystery out of it, but I suppose that’s the purpose of this; to demystify the mechanics and chart a course towards the ephemeral experience I’m after. This will continue to be a broad description of the game as a whole, painted in big, sweeping strokes; I’ll reserve musings on specific mechanics for future posts.

I’ll elaborate on that high concept a little bit. I seek to create a game, a music farming simulator, in which the player’s actions directly affect the creation of a musical number that’s unique to her experience. At first, it will be unintentional. Layer by layer the song is built, with different rhythm mechanics governing the pitch and timing of notes. A number of other factors will influence the texture of the music, the tempo, the key, etc. – subtle variations at the start have a ripple effect that bubbles up to the top.

As the player starts to become more familiar with the mechanics, more manual control is unlocked so that, with practice, specific sounds can be achieved, much in the same way a synthesizer’s knobs can be tweaked and tuned to provide the desired tone. Additionally, once a garden patch has matured and a song has been completed, the gardener can prune and graft away at the finished product, ‘riffing’ on the end result in a way that provides endless hours of entertainment. This idea was heavily influenced by the prolific yet relatively obscure artist Denkitribe. In particular, this track and this track. Both of these are required viewing before you continue reading. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

A central concept in the Beat Farmer universe is that sounds resides in seeds; or rather, the potential for a sound resides in a seed, in much the same way that a flowering plant does. The conditions surrounding a seed’s germination and subsequent growth influence the end product. In the real world, a peach tree that’s exposed to plenty of natural sunlight and planted in elevated, sandy loam type soil results in a sweet fruit that is pleasing to the palate. Similarly, a hearty hi-hat sapling in Beat Farmer that’s watered and fertilized regularly in a weeded garden results in a crisp, tinny sort of sound. A poorly tended plant bears the markings of its failure, producing a shaky, unsteady tone, lacking its full timbre.

Interestingly, sometimes this sort of sound may be desired, which opens up a new avenue for gardeners seeking an off-the-beaten-path kind of sound. I’m very interested in the concept of rewarding players for intentionally performing ‘poorly’ (and doing it well) if they’re pursuing a specific goal. Indeed, some of my favorite music — Burial comes to mind — contains a lot of atonal fragments, sounds that most people would classify as dissonant.

I’ll leave you with a very thought provoking article by the talented Brian Eno which I stumbled upon by accident earlier this year. To hear someone of his caliber echoing many of the same thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head was very encouraging and helped breathed some life back into this project for me.

Brian Eno – Composers as Gardeners