The Immersive Wonder of Audiosurf
Audiosurf captures how a song feels, not just how it feels. it captures the the mood, the pace, the style. Audiosurf isn’t just a game; it’s music for deaf people.
You’ve probably heard of Audiosurf by now. Chances are you’ve even played it. But just in case: Audiosurf is a game that takes any mp3 on your computer and renders it as a road for you to ride. Slow beats will rise up slow, uphill climbs; fast beats will slide into downhill rushes. As you ride (or “surf”) you pick up blocks of a variety of colours (determined by the music’s loudness) and place them in a grid in order to collect points.
To be sure, there is no shortage of games that take your music and render it as a game. But Audiosurf manages to do something a little more intimate. You don’t just play a game based on your songs. You play your songs. It doesn’t just render the songs visible. It render them tangible. The ups are ups. The downs are down. The louds are loud and the gentles are gentle. You don’t just see your music in Audiosurf; you feel through a sensation less like listening and more like dancing.
If the above paragraphs didn’t make it obvious, I am something of an Audiosurf evangelist. I’ve spent more hours playing Audiosurf than Fallout 3. I want people to understand it. I want people to love it. I want people to realise it is not just another music game. To that end, I find myself regularly recommending songs to people that I think show off Audiosurf’s true potential. But Audiosurf’s pleasures are as varied as music itself. Slow songs are as enjoyable as fast songs even if they offer an entirely different ride. There is no single song that can encompass the full spectrum of pleasure that Audiosurf allows. Instead, I have devised a mixtape. A playlist of ten songs that demonstrate just what Audiosurf does. I want to give this mixtape to you.
Unfortunately, I can’t really give you the songs themselves, but I’ve tried to use well-known enough songs that you should be able to easily track them down. For the full experience, put copies of all the songs in the one folder so that you can just click “next” at the end of each song (sadly, Audiosurf lacks any custom playlist feature). Though, don’t fear if you cannot track down copies of all these songs. Any of them by themselves is just as worthy of your time, and hopefully they will lead you to a whole new appreciation of just how magical this game is. Enjoy.
1. “Killing All The Flies” – Mogwai. (Found on Happy Songs For Happy People)
A nice little four minute instrumental to get you in the mood. “Killing All The Flies” starts slow with a prolonged uphill climb and the strumming of a lone guitar. From there it ever-so gradually builds as more instruments enter the mix, and the steep hill ever so slowly levels out.
And then, halfway through, just as you are getting relaxed, everything explodes. The road plummets you down through a red tunnel of guitar distortion. The traffic here is so busy that you will be focusing more on staying alive and not overfilling your grid more than actually collecting points.
But then you are at the bottom, the song is quiet again, and you are out of breath. The final uphill climb gives you a chance to clear the board and come to terms with what just happened. Now you’ve been tossed around. Now you are ready to play Audiosurf.
2. “It’s Not Meant To Be” – Tame Impala (Found on Innerspeaker)
Audiosurf is not just about the uphill and downhill smooth rides. Some rides are jagged and bouncy. The entirety of Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker, for instance, is a wall of psychedelic guitars, cymbal crashes, and chamber vocals that have you bouncing over jagged roads and wheeling around corkscrews. It’s an inertia-inducing ride. Particularly, the album’s opening track, “It’s Not Meant To Be” is something you must experience. You know you are in for something special the first time a sidewards corkscrew drops you straight down.
Also surf: The entire Innerspeaker album.
3. “Right Here Right Now” – Fatboy Slim (Found on You’ve Come A Long Way Baby)
I’m not the greatest fan of house music, but believe me when I say that Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here Right Now” is the ultimate, classic Audiosurf experience. Either Audiosurf was made for Fatboy Slim or Fatboy Slim was preemptively made for Audiosurf. It is impossible to know for sure, and I can no longer separate the one from the other.
“Right Here Right Now” turns Audiosurf into what can only be described as a pointy-nippled rollercoaster (no really, look at the map). The initial build is slow and smooth as the chain cranks you up the first hill. The traffic fills quickly as the song ups towards its first salvo and then BAM you are over the first peak and bouncing down the first lot of… whatever it is that voice is saying. Let’s go with “Ain’t nothing fine. He loves my rail.” That’ll do.
Then the cymbals (or something that sounds like cymbals) come in around the three minute mark as you continue to fall, each bringing its own short tunnel. Then you are at the bottom and ready to start climbing all over again. Take a breath. You’re only halfway.
The climb begins again with another salvo of “Ain’t nothing fine. He loves my rail.” And smooths out into the synth-violin-ish rhythm again. The climb is fast and steep and you just know you are about to be dropped.
Another lot of “right here right now right here” fades out into echos for the steepest climb for a fraction of a second before what I can honestly say is one of my favourite moments of any game ever. You go over the second spike and fireworks! Rings! The steepest damn drop you will ever experience! You go down and down and down and, if you are anything like me, you are saying “Oh god,” under your breath repeatedly as you do so.
The pacing is perfect, taking just enough time to pick you up before it throws you down. And then the song ends with a slow uphill climb to give you a chance to clear the board. There is an awkward spoken word section meant to introduce the album’s following song, “The Rockafella Skank” which doesn’t quite fit, but does give you a chance to calm down and find your Ventalin inhaler.
Also surf: The entire You’ve Come A Long Way Baby album.
4. “Skinny Love” – Bon Iver (Found on For Emma, Forever Ago)
After Fatboy Slim, you might need a bit of a break. Fortunately, because Audiosurf channels the songs themselves and doesn’t simply use them as a base for some other type of gameplay, it works with practically all styles of songs—including slow songs. Case and point: Bon Iver’s calm, beautiful, guitar and ghostly voice work just as well as the fastest house song. The uphill ride is equal parts relaxing and haunting with the chorus picking up with the smallest, swiftest hills with Iver’s heartfelt cries. There isn’t much else to say about this. It just works.
5. “Casimir Pulaski Day” – Sufjan Stevens (Found on Come on! Feel the Illinois!)
Another slow song. The most difficult part of Stevens’s slow ballad about being in love with someone dying from cancer is seeing the road through your tears. I had listened to this song dozens of times before I surfed it, and it had never gotten to me. But surfing it, being that intimately focused on its guitar plucks and Steven’s restrained, poetic observations hits you with the full power of its candidly-presented lyrics. The words travel through those little coloured blocks and get beneath your skin.
The brief trumpet instrumentals quicken the pace and give you a moment to blink the water out of your eyes before the next verse. Then there is something in the background on the exact line where the person dies. I don’t know what it is, but it quickens the ride just enough to punch you in the face.
And then the song ends on a surprisingly positive note with the choir and the trumpets and the “da-da DA da”s. You slide over the hills as though you are surfing right into heaven. It’s sad, sure, but it’s beautiful.
Also surf: “Chicago”
6. “Bad Romance” – Lady GaGa (Found on The Fame Monster)
Okay. That was a downer. Let’s pick it up a bit now for the second side of this mixtape.
In the shopping centre I used to work in, they would play the worst pop music. But every time a Lady Gaga song came on I thought, “This would be great in Audiosurf.” And it is!
“Bad Romance” has three peaks, each steeper and further downhill than the last. The beat feels a bit slow and steady to be almost off-putting but the escalation of the song and the fanfare of the chorus keeps it interesting, as does the build up to the third and final act. Leave your skepticism at the door. You don’t have to enjoy listening to a song to enjoy surfing it.
7. “Blue Monday” – New Order
There is something skeletal about New Order’s “Blue Monday”, as though the flesh has been stripped back from the instruments’ noise. Every clank, beep, and drum is rendered so sharply by the game. This ride is jagged, off-putting, and unreliable. It starts you then it stops you. It jerks you. It bounces you over paths bumpier than the main street of Springfield. This is the song to ride if you want to see the formula of Audiosurf laid bare. Every sound of this song is so dissonant and jarring that it stands out more than it melds together.
Mind you, it is not an easier surf. The road is packed with traffic from the get-go as the machine-gun drum bursts introduce the song and rarely go away. The stop-starting will throw off your rhythm and timing, too. And it’s long, coming in at over seven minutes with almost no uphill breathers. This song needs your full attention. If you blink, you will overfill.
Also surf: “Crystal”
8. “Hearts A Mess” – Gotye (Found on Like Drawing Blood)
It feels weird to say that a song surfs just like its film clip, but that is precisely how Gotye’s “Hearts a Mess” surfs like. In the film clip, large creatures with spindly legs walk around a world, kind of bobbing up and down with the song’s hallmark guitar plucks. When you surf it, you feel as though you are one of these creatures; going up and down over these hills is just your head bobbing as you step with your giant, spindly legs. It feels less like surfing and more like strutting.
And then there are the drops during Gotye’s howls, as though you are surfing right down his throat. Overall, a relaxed yet eerie surf.
Also surf: The entire Like Drawing Blood album.
9. “Teardrop” – Massive Attack (Found on Mezzanine)
What is there to say about Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”? You know the song. You can probably guess exactly how it surfs. It’s slow, relaxing, beautiful, and haunting. Most of the song consists of quick, shallow dips from one drumbeat to the next. Really, there is nothing else to say about it.
Also surf: “Angel”
10. “Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love” – Underworld (Found on Second Toughest of the Infants)
Finally, what better way to close proceeding than with a sixteen-minute electronic epic. The thing I love about Underworld is their songs have movements. That is, there are sections of their songs that are clearly distinct from the other sections, yet they are bridged so subtly and perfectly that you rarely notice the shift from one to the other until it has already been made. This makes them a very interesting band to surf as the road can shift and change drastically beneath your surfer.
“Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love” has roughly three movements, as the name suggests. The first is a very gradual, steady, traditional climb and drop. The traffic builds and builds until the road is utterly crowded with keyboard tones and cymbal crashes. It can be a hard path, getting through it alive, but if you survive this you should survive the rest of the song.
The first act shifts into the second roughly around the bottom of the first hill via this distorted pseudo-guitar rhythm starts playing over the beat. This section plays straight and bumpy, like staccato heartbeat monitor.
The third act starts with a large but busy uphill climb before Act Two returns with a vengence in a downhill clash of noise towards the finish line. Then, finally, the song fades out over a good 90 seconds, giving you ample time to clear the board.
Also surf: Every song by Underworld ever.
And that is my Audiosurf mixtape, for you. I hope you like it. By no means is this an exhaustive list of songs worth surfing. A good mixtape gets the listener into new bands that they then go off and discover for themselves. Hopefully this does the same for your audiosurfing. These are the kind of rides awaiting you. Go out and find some more.