Feature Article

Sentris: The Evolution of a New Kind of Music Game


Feel the music.

The inspiration for Sentris, a music game by designer Samantha Kalman, came out of her experiences with playing in a band. In the original Kickstarter campaign video for Sentris, she explains, "Making music is a feeling unlike any other. It's an intense emotional rush, being surrounded by music that's coming from inside you and your friends. The first time I experienced it, I knew I needed to find a way to share it with everybody." Kalman was here at the offices of CBS Interactive last week to make an appearance on the Giant Bombcast. When she was done chatting it up with that crew, I sat down with her to talk about the evolution of Sentris, which is going into Early Access on Steam next month.

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Sentris is not about duplicating pre-existing songs the way that you do in rhythm games like Rock Band. Instead, Sentris provides you with musical frameworks with certain requirements that you need to meet, but outside of those requirements, you're free to string together sounds any way you like. Having played some early levels from Sentris, I found the experience of playing it altogether different from that of playing most other music games. It's a more meditative experience, with the colorful, slowly moving visuals contributing to the feeling of a pleasant, focused trance as I drop sounds into place, creating a song as I move toward solving the puzzle on any given level.

Given that the game allows for a good deal of freedom in terms of how you approach it, I asked Kalman if it was interesting to observe how different people play Sentris. "One thing that's been interesting to me," she said, "is the gap between beginner and expert play. I get to see a lot of beginner play, and everyone is a beginner when they first play the game, and the way it gets talked about is being a very meditative experience, but it becomes less true as you get more advanced. When you become an expert player in Sentris, a huge element of what makes that true is that you're performing your own music. You become more of a real musician as you get better at the game."

When you become an expert player in Sentris, a huge element of what makes that true is that you're performing your own music. You become more of a real musician as you get better at the game.

Samantha Kalman

But even though the levels are scaffoldings that enable you to create your own songs rather than songs themselves, Kalman has enlisted the help of established musicians in creating some of those levels. She's still tinkering with the overall structure of Sentris, but has an idea of what form she wants it to take. "Right now I'm feeling really positive about embracing an album model," she said, "where the tutorial is an album, and then, I'm working with Disasterpeace and Danny [Baranowsky] and Symbion Project, so, like, here's a Disasterpeace album. And here's all these different songs that were made for the game for you to play. And here's a Danny B album. And then I'm also making level editors and instrument editors so that anyone can make an album as user-generated content and share that with people."

Striking the right balance in level design between structure and freedom has been a challenge in designing Sentris, and Kalman got some insight from someone who has a lot of experience with music games. "At GDC, I had the pleasure of meeting [former Harmonix CEO] Alex Rigopulos, and he made me really think a lot because he said, 'In our games, we find that people can only really focus on one thing at a time. They can only focus on trying to accomplish a challenge, in which case they're ignoring the music and how to craft that, or they're thinking only about how to craft the music and they're not paying attention to the puzzles.'"

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"I had never thought about it in those terms before, because my core mission was always to smash these ideas together into a game in which you have to do both to finish the game. But since he said that, I've noticed that people's attention would shift back and forth between, 'I'm gonna start out just pushing the button and make something and see how it sounds,' and 'Oh, there are some targets here, I'll try to solve the puzzle.'" Kalman says that the different types of puzzles in the game encourage different kinds of play. "The pitch-based puzzles are the game part, you have to solve the puzzles, but the rhythm puzzles are the other part of it." These, she said, give players the opportunity to focus more on what sounds good to them.

I think that Sentris' emphasis on player freedom and creativity could make it an important entry in the world of music-focused games. Kalman is eager to see how players respond to it when it becomes available on Steam Early Access in August. This release is just the next step for Sentris, though; there's still more work to be done. "Depending on how large the community becomes," she said, "I'm expecting to be in Early Access for about six to eight months, and be finishing features, adding many more levels and more music, high-quality recordings of all these analog instruments, and figuring out the right shape for the game, before launching it early next year."

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