BaraBariBall: The Game With No Soundtrack
It had all the makings of a disaster. I was on the second floor of an old school building now repurposed as an art space, about to play a multiplayer game in front of a crowd of people. The room felt like it was sweating as much as I was, and just for good measure, to make sure that I had no possible way of keeping myself collected, there was a cute girl there.
Still, my first time with BaraBariBall will stand as one of my favorite gaming moments ever.
Akron, Ohio is home to a small but passionate film community, and thanks to Director Steve Felix, in 2011 their annual film festival blossomed into the Akron Film + Pixel Festival. Along with the usual films and forums, attendees were also treated to games that showcased evolving narrative ideas, like Every Day The Same Dream and an early build of Diamond Trust of London.
Other such events have followed, and it was at one of these events that I finally got to play BaraBariBall, a competitive multiplayer sports game by Noah Sasso. In the game, two to four players are represented, with the object being to shoot a ball into water on either side of the battle area – think Super Smash Bros. with a volleyball through the lens of an Atari 2600.
After a few matches against Felix, the controllers were handed off to a young boy and a young girl. They were brother and sister, though given their rapport I’d hopefully have surmised that on my own had they not told me. It was exciting to see that the language of games was nothing new to them, and my role had now become that of a “color commentator.” I talked with them while they played, sitting on the floor making the kind of ludicrous comments I know kids love, but that I’d probably never say to another adult. Probably.
“Those kids are so cute – they’re having so much fun!” I heard people in the newly gathered crowd say.
“That guy on the floor is so hilarious,” no one mentioned.
But those kids? Me? We were in our element; we were having fun with an amazing game, not one of us caring about visual fidelity or any of the other things we’re so quick to be critical of these days. It was just good old-fashioned fun with an amazingly well-designed game.
It’s not often I get to watch other people play, and as I sat there enjoying the feeling of just being a spectator the sounds of the game really began to resonate with me. It’s a game with sound effects that include lots of smacks and punches, each one extremely unique.
Also, there’s no soundtrack. It’s you and your opponent(s), alone in the arena with nothing but these amazing sounds.
I was lucky enough to be able to correspond with the game’s creator, Noah Sasso, to find out what gives the game its distinct feel and how the sounds were created.
“I obsessively love music, but I get really frustrated by the soundtracks of most games,” he said. “I like when developers are able to create an interesting relationship between the sound and the game rules or world – or even just use styles of music that don’t often appear in games – but it sometimes feels like we can’t get past 8-bit arpeggios, scary drones, or weak copies of Hollywood’s weak copies of Western classical music.
“I love the radio stations in Grand Theft Auto, I love how Johann Sebsatian Joust re-purposes Bach, I love almost everything on the Earthbound soundtrack, and I love how Rhythm Tengoku is actually precise and responsive enough to feel like you’re actually playing an instrument.”
Sasso also made note of the trippy arcade-shooter Spheres of Chaos, which he cited as having the best procedural audio of all time.
As for the audio in BaraBariBall that made me squee with delight, he says it was all performed by Mike Fisher. And yes, you read that correctly – performed. It turns out there’s an extraordinarily simple answer to why the sound effects are so unique.
“It’s mostly tabla,” Sasso said. “In a fast, real-time game like BaraBariBall there’s a lot of opportunity for using audio to signal the game state, such as using different tones for different strength or speed attacks or whiffs, and the super pure, clean sounds of the pitched drums are perfect for this, as well as just sounding awesome when really loud.”
As I said earlier, the sound effects are allowed the spotlight – there is no soundtrack. Given that the game is not ready to release yet, it’s conceivable that one could still be in the works, but Sasso says that probably won’t happen. “No plans for a soundtrack at this point, at least not during a match,” he said. “The next steps for the audio will be to re-record all of the sounds in the game with a better microphone and record some new ones to fill a couple gaps.”
BaraBariBall ended up in Akron under unique circumstances – the game is basically on a world tour. Usually this tactic is reserved for bands prior to an album’s release, and it’s a very old-school approach in an age where you could just send out a few press e-mails. So how did Sasso end up touring his game?
“The game was originally developed for No Quarter, which is an annual exhibition of games commissioned by the NYU Game Center,” he said. “They basically give a bunch of developers some money to make games meant to be played in a public, arcade-like setting, then install them in a big room and have a party, so BaraBariBall came into being as a local, social event game. There’s obviously something special about competing shoulder-to-shoulder against someone with a gang of people watching and waiting to take the controller from the loser.”
There’s no shortage of inventive, independently-made games, but very few have the features that BaraBariBall does, in particular the competitive multiplayer component. The reason? Sasso thinks that games’ rulesets can be their Achilles’ heel.
“Multiplayer games are unique in that they can live or die by the reality of what’s possible within the ruleset,” he said. “Finding an exploit in a game like Demon’s Souls or Spelunky can be bad – the community around the game can fracture, which is obviously terrible.”
Tying this thought in with his title’s eventual release, Sasso added that a game’s possibilities can sometimes be too deep a well for anyone to grasp in a reasonable amount of time. He continued, “So, the challenge is finding a point at which you’ve mapped out enough of the game to feel reasonably confident letting it go.”
“But BaraBariBall will definitely be available to everyone soon,” he reassures me, adding that there’s still testing and balancing to be done.
Noah Sasso and his team don’t need to worry, though. Everything about BaraBariBall is just smart, from a world tour that lets people play the way it was intended to the unique sound design. It’s a simple premise that scales back the aggression of modern competitive titles, leaving players with a classic, arcade-style experience in its purest form.