Released in 2001, Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez was ahead of its time, blurring the lines between gaming and listening. Lewis Gordon asks him about the release of Rez: Infinite and why it’s taken 15 years for technology to catch up with his radical ideas.
Duplicity lies at the heart of Rez. The game lures you in with Tron-esque visuals and a techno soundtrack before delivering a sucker punch of gooey, new age trippiness in its final level. It was a disorientating reveal when the game was released back in 2001, and it’s lost none of its potency in the remastered Rez: Infinite, recently released for PS4 and PSVR. But speaking to the game’s creator, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the game’s shift in tone perhaps doesn’t seem so surprising.
Mizuguchi reveals himself to be a dreamer, so far ahead of the curve that he had to wait 15 years for technology to catch up with him to deliver Rez in its ultimate form: virtual reality. VR has allowed him to better capture the synesthetic experiences that have dominated his thinking for those interim years, channeling the ethos of abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky –“hear the colors, see the sounds” – into a game that has you assuming the lotus position as you gain more lives.
“The quest for Rez was, okay, how can you experience that emotion and how you can actually feel it?”
In the mid ‘90s, prior to the release of Rez, video game studios were just beginning to experiment with the idea of game focused on music. There had been great soundtracks, sure, but little in the way of entirely music-centred games.
1996’s Parappa The Rapper, a bizarre schoolyard rapping game, was one of the first ‘rhythm’ games, followed by Beatmania in 1997, a game where players took on the role of club DJ by manipulating a robust-looking keyboard and turntable controller. Dance, Dance, Revolution, released in 1998, had players dancing to the beat of the music, albeit with a robot-like rigidity that felt antithetical to the actual notion of dancing. By that point, with the button prompt formula locked in, the only way those games could develop further was through the countless peripheral controllers – drums, guitars, microphones – of Rock Band and its ilk; components that took the games further away from the expressiveness of music.
Mizuguchi is quietly damning of the typical music-focused game, describing it as an “on the surface musical rhythm feel good sort of game”, where players are asked to “tap tap tap” in time to the music and nothing more. He bemoans their reductive score systems, in which “you either score well or you don’t score well – a good or bad situation, very straightforward and very easy to understand,” as a fundamental misunderstanding of why we listen to music.
“Music is a lot more emotional [than that], it gives you feeling, it’s a lot deeper,” he says. “And so the quest or the mission for Rez was, okay, in this interactive product I’m going to make with a musical element, how can you experience that and how you can actually feel it?”
Mizuguchi did dabble with the “tapping” rhythm genre in Rez’s predecessor, 1999’s Space Channel 5, but removed the visual button prompts other titles relied on, instead asking the player to replicate the chanting of the aliens in the game. But Rez took that framework further, making a greater effort to obscure its music game origins, removing the score and obvious rhythm elements. Instead, you shoot, you move forwards, and the world explodes in sound, brought to life through the player’s agency.
“I ended up being the evangelist, either feeding Sega information or trying to get them on board with these ideas”
Born in 1965, Mizuguchi spent his teenage years consuming the deluge of music videos created after the arrival of MTV in 1981. “Up until that point music was just consumed by listening. The arrival of music videos meant the addition of a visual perspective on how music is consumed. I was really excited about that.”
Citing the music videos for New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’, Mizuguchi was struck by the way the visuals could add another dynamic layer to the songs, and wondered where it could go next. “I was starting to think, what is there after this? What is there beyond this? And as that was forming in my head, the elements of interactivity mixed into that led me to video games.”
At university in the late ‘80s, Mizuguchi acquired the skills he needed to explore this question properly, studying virtual reality, 3D audio and computer graphics, disciplines that allowed him “to peek into the future a little bit” even as the 8 and 16-bit era was in full swing. After university he joined Sega, a company that hadn’t yet embraced the futuristic technologies Mizuguchi had been working on. “They weren’t there yet,” says Mizuguchi. “I thought maybe they’d be like-minded people but to be honest it wasn’t that. I ended up kind of being the evangelist, either feeding them information or trying to get them on board with these ideas.”
The idea for Rez was dreamed up amidst a throng of bodies, light and techno at Zurich’s Street Parade in the late ‘90s, now Europe’s largest techno street party. Recounting the day with wide-eyed joy, Mizuguchi felt an immediate resonance with both the functionality of the music and the spectacle of the experience.
“There’s absolutely no waste in each sound that’s produced or put out there. And so even though it was in a very minimal form, each sound had a function and it played a role. Combining that powerful sound with this movement of bodies that I was seeing, and then the movement of the lights, and how they were all synchronizing and coming together, it was this sort of chemical reaction that I had never seen before and never felt before. It felt so good. It’s safe to say that it almost served as a basic layer or foundation when I think about the creation of Rez.”
“With virtual reality, we’re able to express and realize a very hard to describe expression”
Mizuguchi explained to the composers of Rez exactly what he felt, saw and heard during that day in Zurich, honing in on the unfussy, essential elements of techno as he perceived them. “My demand was that they didn’t decorate the music as they wrote it. If it was unnecessary decor then it wasn’t well received, it wasn’t welcome. And I remember giving feedback that sounded like this. I would say, ‘This note doesn’t work emotionally’, or ‘This note doesn’t work visually.’ And what I mean by that is that it doesn’t have the strength or the power or the energy to move you in an emotional or visual way.”
Emphasizing the visual aspect of the game, he notes that Rez’s original codename was Project-K – the K standing for Kandinsky. If the street parade was a synesthetic experience for Mizuguchi then he wanted to impart that feeling to the player, a feeling that’s “cross-sensational, a fusion of sight, sound, and touch.”
By his own admission, it’s been an incomplete vision until now. Working within the confines of a television was always a frustrating process for Mizuguchi. “I had to basically squeeze into this flat screen an idea I had in my head that was not flat, that was enormous, gigantic, overwhelming. And I had to do my best to interpret that into this flat screen experience. There was a lot of frustration inside of me.” And despite enabling the 3D function of televisions with 2011’s Child of Eden, there was still the essential barrier of the screen: “It’s almost like you’re standing on the outside and sort of peeking through a window and playing the game.”
With the arrival of VR, Mizuguchi has found the perfect vehicle for his synesthetic ideas, a medium in which he is able to convey an almost unbroken experience of the vision in his head. Our usual modes of communication – our spoken and written language, the visual image – tend to lose some of our meaning, he says.
“When we imagine something, a lot of people either verbally say what that is, or they write it out in text or draw it. It’s in a verbal form, written form or visual form, and what’s in your brain is broken down into different means of communication. Now we’re able to go back and express our imagination through a form that isn’t broken down because of all these tools that are available to us. You know, right now, specifically with virtual reality, we’re able to express and realize a very hard to describe expression or experienced expression.”
Even on a flat screen, the experience of the original Rez sometimes felt like new age naffness dressed up as sleek, shiny futurism. But in VR and with Rez: Infinite, the game’s fuzzy spirituality finds a greater expression in its kaleidoscopic particle effects. The game world, from the pyramids of early Egyptian civilization to its female deity, hums with the essential interconnectedness of life, as close to a literal imagining of Carl Sagan’s famous line, “we’re made of star stuff”, as you’re likely to find in a video game. And while cynics might poke fun, Rez remains an experience of both awe and comfort. Sagan followed up his famous quote with “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” In Mizuguchi’s dream of Rez, we get a little bit closer to that expression – and a little bit closer to the cosmos itself.
Lewis Gordon is on Twitter