Card Dungeon Articles RSS Feed | Card Dungeon RSS Feed on en Launch Media Network Music Soothes the Savage Critic: How Good Game Music Hijacked My Brain Sat, 06 Jun 2015 17:30:01 -0400 Matt Amenda

I recently reviewed two rogue-likes, Card Dungeon and Voyage to Farland. They were both similar games when it comes to mechanics, theme, and artistic merit. But one had fantastic music, and the other didn't. I gave Voyage to Farland 2 stars. Card Dungeon got 8. 

That got me thinking: was Card Dungeon really that much better of a game, or was the music so awesome that I was more willing to overlook the flaws? I tried to be impartial and intelligent about the reviewing process, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the music might have brainwashed me. How many stars did Card Dungeon squeeze out of me just by having good tunes? How many of my favorite games only got there because they had awesome music and I didn't even notice?

Obviously we all know good music in games when we hear it, but I think that music influences our perceptions of the quality of a game more than we realize.


There's a term in advertising that applies to this phenomenon called an "executional cue".

Defined in this short piece from the Advances in Consumer Research journal, a cue is "an extremely flexible concept for describing aspects of a stimulus which may prove meaningful to a respondent". A cue can be anything: a shade of red, a cotton shirt, a guitar riff, anything that's calculated to make you want to buy something. Artists take advantage of this all the time to affect the emotions of the viewer. What colors will make people happy, or sad, or disgusted? When composing a photo, what will make the subject look lonely, or vulnerable, or triumphant?

But when evaluating the artistic beauty of a game, people talk about the sound of a game a lot less. Well, why not? Every instrument in a song, every note, every melody and harmony and chord progression, is a calculated choice from the composer to do one thing: change your mood. Music and sound design, in the end, might be even more instrumental (ha ha) in shaping our emotional experience in a game than what we experience with our eyes. Each instrument has its own traits that we associate with it, and each has its own emotional trigger.

Why was The Last of Us so sad and melancholy all the time, even when you were just walking around? Because there were a lot of tinny, grating violins in the background - when paired with a scene where you walk through the rotted remains of some dead family's house, associate them with woe, poverty, heartbreak, etc. But then that is pleasantly subverted in the famous Giraffe scene, when the strings come in cautiously but hopefully as you approach the giraffe, inspiring feelings of awe and child-like wonder, and finishing with a simple, repeating glockenspiel-keyboard melody, reminding us that even at the end of the world of man, beauty can still be found.

Can you imagine if some assclown put bongos and a tuba solo to that? It would ruin everything, wouldn't it? Remember...

No matter how touching or cool the scene/game is, nothing can surmount a terrible sound choice.

Or on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Hotline Miami 2 soundtrack. Holy hell. If I ever had to kill every last human being in the room and I got to pick what music to play to it, it would be this soundtrack. It's 50 tracks of glorious, pounding '80s techno so intense that every time I died I felt like I was disappointing the music for not killing hard enough. I became a bloodthirsty maniac.

Yes, the gameplay was awesome and the killing was satisfying, but that game would not have been nearly as good without a soundtrack to commit wholesale Soviet slaughter to. I didn't need a reason to slay two dozen mobsters with a brick: the music was enough to make me do it.

You hear that, HatredThat's one way you could have let me have fun killing a sea of brainless bystanders and cops. When I reviewed that pretentious turd I didn't even mention the music, because there wasn't any worth mentioning: just some droning doom noise in the back. It was enough to make me feel a little empty and bitter, but it also made me bored. It definitely contributed to feeling that the game was pointless. A little bit of screamo or something would have made me feel more awesome while I was murdering.

Brutal Legend

See, all it takes sometimes to nudge your feelings in the right direction is the well-timed use of the right kind of music.

Just think back on all your favorite moments in video games. When Link opens a treasure chest, how do you think it would affect you differently without the old "da da da DAAAAA" chime at the end? How about if instead of hearing Mario's death jingle when he fell in a hole, we were greeted with dead silence?

Even if you're the kind of gamer that cares more about the mechanics of a game than the art, the influence that music has on the experience is everywhere, all the time. That's why I always try to get the best possible sound out of my games, whether with some nice headphones or giant speakers, because sometimes a few notes are all that separates a dull game from a miraculous one.

Card Dungeon Review Fri, 05 Jun 2015 02:30:02 -0400 Matt Amenda

This game has a pro and a con that I never thought I'd see go together.

Con first: Card Dungeon is one of the ugliest games I've ever seen.

Pro: It's one of the most clever, engaging, and fun Rogue-likes I've ever played.

It's the first time in a while that I have been thoroughly surprised by a game's quality, especially when it has tried so hard to scare me off with its hideous art assets. Nice try, Card Dungeon, but I know underneath it all, you're a fantastic game.

This game's concept is crazy and cool

Card Dungeon is mostly a traditional Rogue-like, in that you have a randomly generated dungeon, one-square-at-a-time turn-based movement, high-level difficulty, and permanent death. It's a time-tested formula that has been around since the original Rogue in 1980. Because of that, a lot of lesser games like the one I reviewed a few days ago just try to copy it and add nothing new. Hundreds of horrible knock-off cash-ins pollute my Steam queue every year.

That's why I'm pleased to say that Card Dungeon mixes it up in ways that makes it very compelling. If you guessed cards were somehow involved: good job, smart guy. You read the title.

Yes, the inclusion of cards is the main reason this game stands out. Everything is a card: the heath potions are cards, the enemies are cards, the character traits you select for the hero at the beginning of each run are all cards. But most fascinatingly, your attacks are all cards. You start out with a few default cards, like a quick slash that does 2 damage for a few mana points, a small healing spell, and a shocking spell that damages and stuns. You can only hold 3 of them, and they degrade with use very, very quickly. Every time you find a new card, you have to decide whether to replace one of your old cards or discard it forever. The variety of cards is humongous: you get everything from poison knives and basic sword moves to land-shark summons and spells that turn the floor into lava.

This means that your entire moveset will change potentially several times in a single floor. You start out as a sturdy paladin and a few minutes later be a warping necromancer that throws shuriken at people. If you get a loadout you really like, you're always making a gamble to keep it longer or switch out the cards again before they disappear. I've ended runs before because I ran out of all my offensive spells. Your strategies have to constantly evolve to match your new skills.

The art is really awful

The card designs are charming and humorous, each one an irreverent deconstruction dungeon-crawling tropes. I'd appreciate them a bit more if they didn't look like some middle-schooler drew them in MS Paint.

Come on guys, there are thousands of online artists out there who would kill for a chance at designing cards. Surely you could have found someone with a little bit of drawing talent? How could you make a game all about cards and junk and not have decent artwork on the damn cards? This stuff is like the ass-end of Newgrounds. If you're going to have art that sucks this hard, you should have just gone all the way and let some kindergarteners doodle some cards for you. That would have been cute and funny. This is just bad.

But Yea, the music was glorious

And then I heard the music, and I stopped caring about the crappy art.

Truly, I am dumbfounded at this studio's sense of priority. For the art design, they hire somebody who can barely art. For music they hire Ian Dorsch, award-winning composer behind Gears of War 3, Escapist magazine, and Zero Punctuation among many others. Boggles my mind. Ian must have owed a life debt to somebody on the team, because how the hell else does this kind of thing happen?

But somehow, the sound of epic choirs and wailing guitars calms my rage and makes me love every second of this dungeon-crawling mess. It's a music for singing the songs of mighty heroes, for upholding good and smiting evil. It's freaking badass. Bethesda oughtta call this guy to do the music for the next Elder Scrolls game. Holy schnikes.

Hell, everything's good

Aside from the disappointing artwork, this game is a parade of good decisions and smart design. The monsters are imaginative, varied, and tricky to fight. The movement is strategic, yet fast-paced. The combat is predictable enough to be fair, but hard enough to be tactical. I died lot, and not once did I feel that the game screwed me over. That's not something I can say of a lot of Rogue-likes. Also something I can't say about a lot of Rogue-likes: this is one of my favorites.