Electroplankton Review

As you may have read, I recently imported iNiN's crazy rhythm game Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! (DS), and along with it I also picked up Toshio Iwai's Electroplankton (DS). Electroplankton, more than just about any game I own, is extraordinarily difficult to categorize. See, right there, I may have already been inaccurate, depending on your point of view. I'm not even sure Electroplankton is a game. It comes in the form of a cartridge that is used in a video game system, the Nintendo DS, but as a largely abstract music synthesis environment it lacks almost all of the qualities we would generally associate with a game.

I'm going to delay that particular esoteric discussion for another article, however. For now, let's not focus on what Electroplankton should be called, but rather on what it's all about and whether you might want it yourself. The game was "Created by Toshio Iwai," as stated on the game's packaging, its instruction manual, and even its tiny cartridge. Iwai, a multi-medium "media artist" of almost cult status in Japan and other parts of the world, handled the direction, design, and programming of the game. There was a small supplemental team, but as with all of Iwai's ventures he had complete creative control as well and handled most of the production and development himself. The game is packaged in a reflective blue cardboard box about the size of two standard DS cases, and contains a regular DS case and a set of ear bud headphones; the manual was a pleasant surprise. At least 80% of its 64 pages are completely hand-illustrated and hand-lettered (in incomprehensible-to-me Japanese) by Iwai. Nintendo has announced plans to bring Electroplankton to non-Japanese territories, and my hope is that the manual gets the full translation treatment. It would be heartbreaking to see the game ship with a standard 15-page glossy booklet instead of Iwai's surplus of simple but charming line art.

What did I call Electroplankton before? A "largely abstract music synthesis environment"? Sure, but for the sake of brevity, let's just stick with "game." Upon loading the game, the player hears the distinct sound of an orchestra tuning up and is given two options: Performance Mode and Audience Mode. In Performance Mode you choose from ten different types of creatures, the titular electroplankton. Each species gives the player a different means by which to create or manipulate music or other sounds. They are all presented as small smiling stylized sea creatures, and are all directed in some way with the stylus. In Audience Mode, the game will select one species and take control itself, sometimes randomly and sometimes through clearly pre-defined interactions. However, at any time, you are free to intervene and modify any aspect of what's going on. Since the plankton are so wildly varied in terms of control and purpose, here's an individual rundown on the workings of a few of them. Throughout the descriptions I have included a few links to examples of sound clips generated with Electroplankton. Give them a listen if it strikes your fancy!

Selecting the first plankton, Tracy, generates six triangular creatures, each one representing a different instrumental sound: piano, bell, a plucked string instrument, and a few types of pitched percussion. Using the stylus, you draw paths on the touch screen for each plankton to follow. As they travel, they play notes determined by the curve and location of the paths you draw. Additionally, the tempo at which the notes are played depends on how quickly you drew the path. If you begin dragging the stylus across the screen slowly then gradually speed up, the plankton's melody will start off slowly then increase in tempo. Pressing left or right on the d-pad will decrease or increase, respectively, tempo across the board, and pressing Select will erase all paths and stop the sounds.

In my experience, it is not worth attempting to form a coherent melody or harmony using Tracy, despite the presence of six distinct timbres. It is simply too difficult to approximate a melody given the sensitivity of the paths; even a slightly chance in curve or position can have a great impact on pitch. For this reason, when I'm in a Tracy mood, I just abstract it out completely. I'll draw shapes or write things on the screen--my signature, for example--in different places and using different timbres, just to see what they sound like. You won't create a brilliant piece of music to show off to your friends, but let's get one thing out of the way now: Electroplankton is not music creation software. It's a personal musical experience...thing. The game will not save your creations, which is a little disappointing until you realize that 99% of the time you won't be generating anything worth saving. Electroplankton is entirely about the experience, from its whimsical visuals to its tactile interactions to its variety of sounds.

I'll touch on that a bit more later, but for now let's move onto door number two: Hanenbow. With Hanenbow, the player is presented with a fern-like plant, whose leaves can each be rotated 360 degrees. The Hanenbow electroplankton themselves are launched up out of another leaf, which can also be adjusted to modify the plankton's trajectory. As the little buggers land on and bounce around on the plant leaves, they will sound notes; each leaf has its own pitch. Pressing left or right on the d-pad will decrease or increase, respectively, the frequency with which plankton are launched onto the plant. With the ability to change the angle of plant leaves and the plankton's speed, there are essentially unlimited possibilities in terms of where the plankton will bounce and thus what melodies and rhythms they will form. One rather obvious "game" I play is to attempt to keep the plankton bouncing on the leaves as long as possible before they finally bounce off and plop down into the water below. This is another mode in which you won't necessarily find yourself attempting to create a specific melody--but every so often you'll just happen to hit upon a perfect assortment of angles and speeds, and your Hanenbow will be locked into a pleasing and hypnotic musical line. In fact, I've been letting one loop as I write this paragraph. It just so happened that two plankton fell into a really pleasing descending harmony. This is one of Electroplankton's great strengths. You're never quite sure what you're supposed to actually be doing with the thing, and then suddenly--ah, that's it. As the little guys suddenly get it together, you realize that's what it's all about. It's currently 5am as I write this; one dim light is on in my studio apartment, I hear the occasional car pass by my window, and behind it all a short and haunting melody plays quietly.

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Whoops, got carried away again. Sorry about that. Electroplankton has that effect from time to time. On to Luminaria, four colorful plankton in the shape of eight-pointed stars. The screen here is laid out into six rows and six columns of arrows, each of which can be rotated to face any of eight angles (up/down/left/right, and the diagonals in between). Each arrow corresponds to a pitch; they are organized in a consecutive ascending pattern: the lowest pitch is in the upper left, the highest in the lower right. The plankton start off at the arrows in each of the four corners of the screen. When you touch a plankton, it moves in the direction of the arrow it is positioned on, and when it hits another arrow, it moves in the direction that arrow is pointing, and so on. Each time it hits an arrow, a note is played. Hitting directions on the d-pad will realign every arrow in the screen in various ways depending on which direction is pushed. Since each arrow has a specific pitch and since you can discretely control where the plankton travel, it is theoretically possible to work out specific melodies for all four plankton, but they tend to move so fast that it becomes too hectic. In fact, "hectic" is the best way to describe the music created by Luminaria. Each of the four plankton moves at a different speed, they quickly shift between very high and very low pitches. I tend to prefer using the d-pad to randomize or align the arrows, then modifying them from there if I'd rather be hearing a particular pitch range. Not much more to say here, so let's check out...

Sun-Animalcule. You create these guys yourself. Presented with empty ocean, you tap the screen in various places and generate tiny little plankton. As rising bubbles pass over each plankton, they will sound notes whose pitches are determined by their position on the screen. Though the Sun-Animalcules start out quite small, you soon discover that they grow over time, and that the environment has its own day and night cycle as well. As the plankton grow bigger they take on more overtones and produce fuller tones until they eventually die. In addition, the various times of day have entirely different sound sets. By creating plankton at various intervals, you can have all sorts of timbres sounding at once. With patience, Sun-Animalcule has the most variety in its overall soundscape, and once you have gained a familiarity with its layout it becomes quite possible to deliberately lay out rough melodies. It can be very soothing both to watch and to hear the plankton transform.

With that, let's shift gears a bit and discuss the good old Beatnes, the workhorse of Electroplankton. Unlike the game's other modes, this can be used to easily create very specific melodies and harmonies. The player is presented with one of four backing tracks taken from classic NES games (the tracks can be cycled through with the Select button) and is given five scales, each with a different instrument again based on classic NES sounds. Only in-key notes are provided, so it's not difficult for non-musicians to construct a pleasant melody. Melodies are inputted by tapping on the various notes of the scales, and they are looped four times, growing softer with each repetition. Hitting left or right on the d-pad will, respectively, decrease or increase the tempo of the backing track; hitting up or down will return it to normal. Beatnes is the most involved and least contemplative Electroplankton of them all. It requires the player's constant involvement, or the music becomes uninteresting. Not surprisingly, it is the type used in demo versions of the game, since the player's actions are very tangibly represented and their effects are immediate.

That mode is similar to Rec-Rec, which takes player involvement one step further by essentially being a basic four-track recorder. There is a drum loop in the background (you choose from seven different loops and can switch on the fly with Select), and over it you can record up to four loops through the DS' built-in microphone. For simplicity's sake, I generally use my own voice, simply singing or humming into the mic, but there's no reason you couldn't record instrumental or percussion tracks in there--just bear in mind it won't necessarily come out super hi-fi. It's a good quick and dirty way to sing short bits of harmony with yourself. Like this goofy Shacknews jingle.

There are even more types of Electroplankton to explore in the game, each with its own distinct personality. There are behaviors and features that take time to fully grasp, despite the game's simplistic and approachable nature. Even after fiddling around with Electroplankton for weeks, there was something of a "secret" hidden in Hanenbow that put a smile on my face when I uncovered it. I won't spoil it for you. Those moments are part of what Electroplankton is all about, when you'll suddenly stumble upon that one musical phrase or visual cue, the one that explains why you've been poking at little sea creatures when you could have been decimating armies or learning spells. It's the type of game that probably isn't even a game, and consequently is very difficult to recommend.

When I say that, I don't mean it's of poor quality, I simply mean it is actually difficult to tell just who will enjoy it. I can't imagine enjoyment of Electroplankton being dependant on whether one is a gamer or a non-gamer; I suspect there would be plenty of people in each category who would feel quite opposite. By the same token, I can't imagine it makes much difference whether one has any musical experience. As a musician, I enjoy being able to deliberately construct layered harmonies in Beatnes and Rec-Rec, but those modes do not depend on such an ability, and the rest of the game is so abstract that trying to apply learned musical principles is generally more frustrating that simply sitting back and absorbing the ambience. When I first acquired Electroplankton, I was somewhat disappointed. I had played a Beatnes demo and loved it, and in retrospect I suppose I expected the rest of the game to have that kind of structure. Of course, it doesn't at all, and it took me a while to really get what was going on. Like I explained earlier, this is not music creation software. It is much more analogous to a museum installation or an interactive music visualizer. The sounds, the visuals, the interactions--they are all part of the enjoyment, and for those who are patient and willing it can be surprisingly compelling. In my experience, Electroplankton is best played during periods of free time, when you won't mind simply sitting back and conducting a few crazy aural experiments.

Toshio Iwai's latest interactive art project is not for everyone, and that's not a bad thing. Nothing about it makes it inherently "good" or "bad", though it is certainly well-crafted and complete. It is simply a unique experience. It was definitely not created by a committee, it was not born out of focus groups; it does not provide a goal, nor any obstacles. It doesn't remember anything about the past, it does nothing but react to your actions at any given moment. It can be thought-provoking, it can be meditative, it can be dissonant and jarring or harmonious and pleasing. It can simply be amusing. It can be lots of things, but it's not for everyone.