Neither music game nor music software, PixelJunk 4AM is perhaps best described as a music toy. Somewhere buried beneath the ambient visuals and arcane interface, Q Games' latest is built upon the well-worn fundamentals of multi-track mixing. But rather than providing players with faders and channels and the other familiar features of the mixing desk, 4am makes esoteric use of Sony's Move motion controller. It casts the player as a sort of orchestral conductor, wielding the controller as a baton used to pluck sounds from the air and tap out rhythmic stabs that layer on top of the soundscape.
Meanwhile, in gathering an audience from across the globe to eavesdrop on your creations in real time, pairing players with listeners, 4am has ambitions toward becoming a virtual concert space in which we can express ourselves musically, albeit using the library of sounds and effects provided. In terms of back-of-the-virtual-box features, 4am has a lot going for it - although it'll take you a little while to grasp how it all slots together beneath its inscrutable texture and presentation.
Reach down through the tie-dye psychedelic visuals to that core and, in essence, 4am is a four-track music mixer, with one channel proving a bass loop, another drums, another rhythm and the last the melodic synth line. Each of these channels can be played in isolation or in unison, dropped in an out of the mix with a double tap of its corresponding button on the controller. Hold down the button to solo the track, silencing the other three to, for example, highlight the bass or hi-hats for a few bars, then tap all four buttons in unison to bring the band back.
Each of the four channels has four associated loops, all slightly different to the others. Moving the controller to one of the four points of a compass in front of you and 'grabbing' it in space using the trigger button selects a loop. So, for example, you activate the 'drum' channel by tapping the X button before pointing the Move controller above your head till it shakes to indicate it's found a loop, then grabbing it and releasing the button to activate a four-to-the-floor kick drum pattern.
Between the 16 loops at your disposal, it's possible to make some moderately varied pieces of music, although you are unable to change the tempo or rhythm of either the individual components or the track as a whole. However, you are free to manipulate the effects that are applied to each of the four channels individually, clicking the Move button and moving the controller in space to change the type of effect and its intensity. Lifting your arm up tweaks the pitch while side-to-side motions add delay effects. Rotating your wrist adds a phase to the track and if you hold down the trigger button while you apply the effect, it'll record your actions and loop your inflections.
Finally, flicking the controller to each of the four points of the compass in front of you will trigger four different sound effects on each of the four channels, from snare hits to hi-hats to more esoteric sounds. This element of 4am offers the greatest potential for player expression, as you can hold down the trigger to 'record' your own rhythm, which will loop over the track until cleared with a double tap of the trigger button. As far as we can tell, the game subtly quantizes these overdubs (shifting them so that they are in time with the rest of the music), so even players with a poor sense of rhythm can create something that sounds coherent and interesting with relative ease.
The 16 loops and 16 sound effects are pre-set when you first begin a live session, and when you first start playing 4am you've only one arrangement to play, with more unlocking as you spend more time with the toy. Unfortunately there's no 'practice' space, so you have to work out what loops are positioned where live during a session, making more controlled, planned performances impossible till you've played a particular set a few times.
Japanese multimedia artist and long-time Q Games collaborator, Baiyon, has supplied the music itself. As such, all of the loops and sound effects are of a similar type, perhaps best described as ambient electronica, a style that suits the imprecise nature of the toy, blending loops together comfortably. It's difficult to imagine the concept working well with other musical genres, but the downside is that each set can sound samey and it's difficult to differentiate between sessions. Also, not all of the melodic loops quite fit together, leading to some awkward clashes - especially in the random set, which draws in 16 apparently random samples for you to play with.
Where 4am becomes more exciting is in its unique network features. Always connected, other listeners around the world can join your session at any moment. A subtle indicator pops up above the psychedelic visuals to indicate every time another person 'joins', and the pressure to perform well increases with each additional attendee. Listeners can shake their own Move controllers to encourage you, and the only score-like record 4AM keeps is how many crowd members you've had for each particular set, and how many times they cheered you on. It's curiously effective and, as soon as you have an audience, the experience shifts dramatically in tone and sense of importance; you wince when you make a poor transition, and nod your head in excitement when the jigsaw pieces come together.
4am's strength is its simplicity and tactile nature. It's an ingenious use of the Move controller, the rumble feature providing crucial spatial feedback and eliciting an unusual visceral excitement through mixing music in this way. The implementation makes play feel like performance, the physicality of your inputs connecting you with the music.
But 4am is too obfuscated for serious music producers who will grow frustrated at the limited number of samples and the lack of visual feedback over which tracks and effects are active at any one time. And the experience is also too inscrutable for beginners, who will find themselves lost in the matrix of noise, unsure of how it may be truly directed or tamed. A fascinating toy, then, but a toy nonetheless.