Hip-Hop Week | Hip-Hop vs. Game Design: How Game Designers Incorporate the Freestyle Elements of Hip-Hop into Hip-Hop Themed Video Games

Hip-Hop Week concludes with this post on In Third Person! For the grand finale, I look at the point where the elements of hip-hop freestyle collide with game structure. Has any game ever found the right balance? Thank you for joining me on this adventure!

The element of improvisation is a foundational block of hip-hop music and culture. In the beginning, the scene started with DJs, rappers, and breakdancers making things up as they went. Though hip-hop music and culture has been mainstream for quite some time, the ethos of what freestyle means still permeates.

Translating that freeform nature of hip-hop has been a challenge in the world of video games. By virtue of being a game, the “game” part needs some sort of quantifiable benchmark to define success. This flies in the face of the freeform nature of the culture.

Let’s look at a few ways in which developers have tried to provide structure for the purposes of making a fun game, while trying to maintain the freestyle nature of the activity its emulating.

On one end of the spectrum are games like DJ Hero. Simulating the experience of being a hip-hop DJ, you mix, cut, and scratch along to a pre-defined track. It sounds great, and the game does give you areas where you can put your own touch to the sound, but you’re essentially playing DJ Karaoke. It’s a fun game, but following the footsteps of another DJ always felt weird to me, even if these tracks sound better than anything I could have made myself. The only real touch you add to the song is when parts of the song dropped because you screwed up. Otherwise, you’re just hitting buttons to an existing record. Other games in this end of the spectrum would include the karaoke experience of Def Jam Rapstar, and the rhythm action of Parappa the Rapper.

On the other end is Floor Kids. In this rhythm game about breakdancing, you’re free to perform any moves you want for the majority of the song. It scores you based on your ability to time your moves in rhythm, and you’re given bonuses for performing certain moves at certain times, but you’re free to dance however you want.

On paper, this sounds like the correct way to approach a breakdancing game. In practice, I couldn’t stand playing it. The spirit of improv is there, but you’re still required to hit a numerical goal at the end of the day. With no rules in place, you can perform the exact same dance routine across every single song in the game and win. As a game, it’s almost too free and too easily exploitable to be fun. It didn’t help that each character only had a handful of moves, making it so that you’ve seen everything a dancer has to offer before you even finish a single song.

The closest thing I’ve seen to distilling the DJ experience is DropMix. This hybrid video game and board game asks players to place instrument cards on a board, which then creates almost-pro-DJ-quality mash-ups instantly. When played in Freestyle mode, where you can mix anything you want to your heart’s content, it’s incredible! But it’s also not a game, as there’s no objective to achieve.

When you play the actual game modes in DropMix, the whole thing falls apart. The games have so much structure that you’re playing a level two yellow card in order to get the most points. While this action also added Carly Rae Jepsen singing “Call Me Maybe” to the mix, it’s simply a side-effect of you trying to score the most points instead of trying to make the best-sounding mix.

Oddly, the game that I think gets the closest to capturing the freestyle essence of hip-hop is Mad Verse City. It’s a mini-game contained within Jackbox Party Pack 5. Pitting players in a freestyle rap battle, each player is given the start of a line that they must complete in writing, plus write the full line after. From there, the computer performs each rap in a robotic voice, which surprisingly still works. After each battle, players will vote for who won based on whatever criteria they so choose to determine a winner.

Though the game gives you a writing prompt, you have a ton of room to get creative. You can throw in as many rhyming words as you can, take a personal jab at your opponent, or not rhyme at all if you really wanted to. At the end of each round, you’re not judged by the game’s AI that determines success by crunching numbers. You’re judged by your peers, who will hopefully apply a human touch to determining the winner.

Will we ever get to a point where we find the perfect mix between improvisation and structure? I guess if you take out the writing prompts from Mad Verse City and asked players to write everything, that would be it. But I understand why those prompts are there, as most of us aren’t going to make Eminem shake in his boots. Also, there’s still many questions regarding how to best translate DJ-ing, dancing, and other elements of the culture. In any case, there will be many more hip-hop games to come, and it’ll be interesting to see how developers continue to deal with this design challenge.

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2 thoughts on “Hip-Hop Week | Hip-Hop vs. Game Design: How Game Designers Incorporate the Freestyle Elements of Hip-Hop into Hip-Hop Themed Video Games

    • Jett February 22, 2019 / 4:30 PM

      A pioneer for hip-hop in rhythm games, and a pioneer for rhythm games as a whole!

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