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Review: Music of the Spheres locks away heavenly beauty in math

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You don’t have to know much about music to understand its sound. Music is a universal language. It conveys meaning and evokes emotion even if you can say nothing of its science.

Maybe that’s why Music of the Spheres, a $5 game by Hamish Todd (available now on Desura and Steam Greenlight), contains no words — only the actions of a moving character, the bullets he shoots from a mysterious sling, and the angels that seem to playfully taunt him from afar. On the surface, the game is about an old man who arrives in Heaven, and the player learns little else.

That’s just as well. I can identify a place like Heaven by its warm, angelic tones — the overall impression. I can’t tell you the specific names of the instruments that disrupt my concentration in the background, but I don't need to.

The beauty of this indie game resides in the details. Music of the Spheres takes its inspiration from the popular puzzle-shooter Portal, where angles and distance matter. The right math can solve any problem. Here, it’s the same concept. Players can shoot up to two bullets at once in eight possible directions using the WEDCXZAQ keys. These can bounce off walls or pass through tiny cracks to seek out the angels that are your targets. Hitting them — sometimes hitting two at the same time — triggers the next stage.

Music of the Spheres

Music of the Spheres is a relatively short game (maybe an hour long, with 46 puzzles you can replay after you finish — a nice feature), with a simple art style and no save function from what I can tell. [Update: The developer has informed me that the game autosaves the last puzzle you finished, so you can quit if you need to.] The design of its puzzles might be clever, but it’s not doing anything from a gameplay standpoint that we haven’t seen before.

What we hear is another matter: the ding of a glockenspiel as the bullets ricochet off the walls. It’s beautiful — reminiscent of Heaven, or at least what we might imagine that to be. Then again, I doubt most people think of heaven as one brain-teasing puzzle after another.

The details are what hold it all back. You can read into the making of the game and how its visual patterns are the combination of math and physics — a reference back to Islamic geometric art, of girih and Penrose tiling. But we don’t learn about these things from playing. The context is missing. The beauty of its abstract structure is trapped in layers of code.

The ending — the final puzzle — is one to be admired. I can’t help wondering about what it means, but I know how it makes me feel. That kind of expression is where Music of the Spheres succeeds.

It’s only a shame that we can see so little of what it’s made of.

Follow @wita on Twitter.

Tags: Music of the Spheres, Hamish Todd, Portal

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