For better and worse, Gabe Cuzzillo’s “Ape Out” is ultraviolent bebop – improvisatory, staccato, relentless. As a hulking ape that must break out of a procedurally-generated labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors, you smash your way through swaths of armed guards, grabbing unlucky souls to serve as your Kevlar shield against the steady rain of bullets, only to eviscerate them against a nearby pillar. But while the action is rooted in the legions of top-down action games that have come before it, this 800-pound-gorilla of a game lumbers to the beat of a different drum – randomly-generated ones, at that.
In the hyper-capitalist world of video games, it remains an immutable law of the industry that successful projects are expected to generate sequels, even when the game itself represents a complete fulfillment of its core concepts. The fact that “Ape Out” owes a massive debt to the toss-and-whack melee weapons of 2012’s indie classic “Hotline Miami” should be obvious to any indie enthusiast. Yet its bold “Vertigo”-by-way-of-Mondrian aesthetic and absolute commitment to a handful of pure mechanics makes it a far more potent follow-up than the actual “Hotline Miami 2” from 2015.
From a handful of playthroughs of this bite-sized yet highly replayable game, it’s clear that Cuzzillo (and his collaborators ) have a keen admiration for both the style and attitude of jazz. The aesthetic isn’t just a pose – it’s further augmented by Boch’s all-percussion soundtrack, which fluctuates in intensity depending on your actions. Regardless of its particular form, jazz music has a long and varied association with dissolution and destruction, whirlwinds of melody that evoke scenes of scattered papers and shattered bottles. Peer into the chaos long enough, however, and you may find that the genre’s anarchic improvisation can sometimes belie a formal conservatism forged by tradition and nostalgia. The configuration of individual notes might array themselves slightly differently with each rendition, but the song itself adheres carefully to a set of rules, a cavalcade of virtuosic solos whose utter brilliance can become oppressive after an album or two.
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Such is the nature of “Ape Out.” Its excellence is so stark and striking that it flows from its every pore, threatening to overwhelm your very senses at its more harried moments. This is due in large part to the game’s reliance on droves of weak, gun-toting enemies, who can take you apart before you can even react if you roam out in the open. Your ape’s hairy hide can take three bullets before he keels over, but that’s not much when you have a dozen or so guards in every room drawing a bead on you. Carefully testing each angle before you spring out into an open space can be effective, but since your ape requires a bit of runway to stride up to full speed, it’s often advantageous to just keep lumbering and smashing until you hit an immovable mob. Thus, you very quickly learn that this is just as much a game of avoidance and calculated risk than all-out attack, where turning around and galloping down an adjacent corridor is often far preferable to trying to swing it out against the half-dozen brutes with shotguns blocking your path.
That said, when Boch’s dizzying array of tom-tom fills and snare strikes are pounding against your eardrum, it’s hard to pull back from pile-driving your captors into a fine pulp. The nuances of this highly-sophisticated system can be equally as difficult to grasp when you’re swinging away, but they’re discernible once you pay attention. The interactivity of the soundtrack extends beyond cranking up the complexity when you’re taking down a whole room of goons, as Boch himself attests. For example, when you flatten a foe against a wall, the cymbal that results isn’t just a generic crash; instead, it scans for the approximate location of the wall you finished the enemy against and then determines what cymbal corresponds to that on the layout of a real drummer’s kit. Much to my surprise, the musical style of the percussion changes over the course of the game’s four collections of levels, or “albums” – the frenetic “Birdman”-esque jazz soloing gives way to bongos and marching snares as your ape attempts to escape from different locales.
While the game’s sonic landscape is one of the most impressive facets, Boch says he’s not sure what a traditional soundtrack release would even look like. The banging might sound like a raccoon in a trash can to the jazz haters out there, but the system itself is deceptively complex, the result of four long years of research as part of Boch’s academic work as a visiting professor at New York University’s Game Center. To go along with its procedurally-generated death mazes, “Ape Out” pulls different drum patterns from a fathomless bank of samples, each intended for a certain type of stage and a level of intensity. (Many of these samples were created by Boch slamming on drum pads in his office at NYU, but others were collected from other sources.) The game then pulls different patterns and adjusts their intensity and volume dynamically according to the volume of blood you’re currently spilling.
It’s an incredible feat, but one that can be hard to notice when you’re actually knee-deep in it. To Boch, that’s part of the appeal. “As a musician, I’ve always felt that audio is one of the most vital parts of a game, but not a lot of developers take full advantage of it. There are plenty of games that try to integrate gameplay and music, but it’s usually very simple, like making the music quiet at certain times. This is woven into the fabric of the game at a very fundamental level. Not everybody might notice it, but and I think that’s a sign that it works really well.” Since the game’s soundscape is essentially randomly generated for every playthrough, Boch jokes that in lieu of an official soundtrack, he’s going to release a web app that counts your gross words per minute as the ferocity-adjusting variable.
Boch admits that the game’s percussion-only approach might limit its sonic appeal to those who might not have an ear for it. But, to him and Cuzzillo, that spare style is the perfect complement to the primal play of smashing everyone in sight as a big, dumb, dirty ape. And, to me, he has a slight correction. “There’s actually one moment with a little bit of melody in the game. One song. That’s the only real composition. No spoilers, but I actually find it to be an incredibly powerful moment. When your brain gets used to just the pounding action of the drums non-stop, it’s amazing how much catharsis you can get out of a little bit of saxophone.”