What’s So Special About Beat Saber?

Contributed by: Sean Fenlon

Greetings, virtual padawans – bearded beat master Sean here with another ode to VR goodness. This time out I’m going to be talking about rhythm game Beat Saber, one of the latest and greatest sensations to have swept the VR nation. Now, you might have gotten a chance to try this one out already, in which case you’re probably already picking up what developers Beat Games are putting down. But if you haven’t gotten your mitts on it yet, you might well be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Power Fantasies and Wish Fulfillment            

            So what is all the Beat Saber fuss about? Well, it’s all pretty perfectly encapsulated in the “elevator pitch” for the game, the most succinct summation possible, and that is that Beat Saber plays like Star Wars meeting Rock Band. But let’s unpack that little kernel of marketing a bit, because I’ve played my fair share of Rock Band before (and Guitar Hero, and Dance Dance Revolution – though never with one of those dance pads they make for that last one…) and I can tell you that more traditional rhythm games have got nothing on Beat Saber. A big part of Beat Saber’s near-instant appeal comes from the sweet spot this game occupies, nestled right at the overlap of “fun gameplay” and “power fantasy”, by which I mean the idea of letting you pretend to be something awesome that you’re not, or even awesome at something you’re not.

Games like DDR and Guitar Hero have certainly come up with a lot of enjoyable and addictive gameplay over the years, but, at least for me, they’ve always lacked that narrative element that I’m talking about when I say power fantasy – I grew up playing guitar, and I’ve never had any desire to be a dancer, so neither of these franchises has ever offered me much in the way of wish fulfilment that I wasn’t already getting in the real world. Rock Band, on the other hand, gives me fantasy fulfilment for days – I’ve always wanted to be able to play the drums, and am nowhere near coordinated enough to work a real kit, but can safely handle a few drum pads and a single foot pedal (even if I can’t be trusted with anything more difficult than about the medium setting or so). Somewhere in the middle of all these games is a perfect balance of gameplay (more about Beat Saber’s in a second) and fantasy. Being a Jedi is one of pop culture’s most enduring fantasies – what kid who’s seen Star Wars hasn’t wanted to carve their way through a galaxy’s worth of stuff with a lightsaber once or twice?

Get Started Slicing      

            So, about that gameplay – Beat Saber is dead simple to learn, and I can give you the basics right now just about as fast as the game’s great introductory tutorial can.

When you load into any of the game’s ten or so dance-flavoured techno tunes, you’ve got a lightsaber (or lasersword, if you’re looking to avoid the legal department of the House of Mouse) in each hand, one red and one blue. As the music starts, cubes are going to start flying at you in one colour or the other, each bearing a directional arrow. The number of cubes, and their distribution and speed, are governed by the various difficulty levels. Your only real goal is to slice those bad boys in half in time with the music, matching the correct lightsaber colour to each cube and cutting each in the direction indicated by the arrow. There are also occasional obstacles to avoid – big glowing walls to step to the side of or duck down underneath, and spiky cartoon mines to avoid chopping – but that’s pretty much it. At the end of each track you get a score and a grade, you enter your name or initials on the leaderboard, and then you get to choose a new song and do the whole thing over again. Or you can just stick with the same track until you achieve that perfect run, maybe increasing the difficulty until you’re sweating it out on expert. Or maybe you’d prefer to hop out of the headset and hand the lightsabers off to a friend so they can test their beat slicing skills as well?

Bring a Friend

            As you can see, there are a couple of possible ways to get hooked on Beat Saber’s high energy brand of gameplay, and that’s potentially just the tip of the Beat Saber iceberg. For my money, there are two things keeping Beat Saber from complete VR domination, and rumour has it that Beat Games has got both things in the works. The first of these is some kind of true multiplayer, rather than just the headset-swapping, only-one-of-us-is-actually-in-VR-at-a-time affair mentioned above that we can already enjoy. Though I’ve yet to see anything definitive regarding the details of exactly what kind of gameplay we can expect – will we be slicing our way through head-to-head high score battles, or something more collaborative a la Rock Band, or something different altogether? – but the mere fact the multiplayer is coming is pretty exciting.

They’re Playing My Song!

            Likewise, the ability to import songs from your own music will be the key to the longevity of Beat Saber as the dominant rhythm game both out in the wild and in my heart. The current crop of ten or so tracks, a mix of Euro-, rave-, and house-style techno with a sprinkling of hip-hop seasoning, is all well and good, but it was also created especially for Beat Saber, so it’s not like you’re going to hear this stuff on the radio or anything. While the capacity to have any song you want does currently exist (head on over to Youtube for some stupidly impressive video of perennial rhythm game Everests like Dragonforce’s “Through Fire and Flames”) it’s currently only made possible by modding the base game; some kind of official support for additional music does, however, appear to be forthcoming. That’s great news for someone like me, whose musical tastes run more towards rock and metal than techno and electronica, but really it’s great for anyone who wants to get their non-gamer or non-VR-playing friend into Beat Saber.

The game’s included tracks are definitely well-made and catchy like crazy (I think my favourite might be “Escape” – either that or “$100 Bills”) but the idea of being able to play your favourite song cranks the instant appeal of Beat Saber up to eleven – not to mention (as I myself just did above) the potential lifespan of this good time. Let players incorporate their favourite songs and artists into Beat Saber easily and right out of the box, and you create the kind of ‘killer app’-style VR experience that people will likely be playing for years (especially if they can play it with their friends!).

The Future of VR?

            So Beat Saber’s got potential for down the road – big deal. Why, you ask again, should you give it a shot right now? Because all that block-slashing gameplay is a perfect example of one of my favourite golden gaming axioms – namely that it’s easy to pick up and start playing, but difficult to master completely. This might sound like something so self-evident as to not be worth saying, but this really is an important game design consideration, especially given the current state of VR as a medium.

Growing the overall virtual reality playerbase (which will be necessary for VR to survive as the future of gaming rather than just a passing fad) is going to require a whole bunch of titles that can appeal in the long term to both new, inexperienced players and seasoned veterans. Until VR is living in all of our basements next to the Blu-Ray player or the PS4/X-Box One, a lot of that growing the playerbase is going to happen at public experience centres and arcades like us down at The VR Hut. Given the current costs of VR hardware, and the space restrictions associated with room-scale VR experiences, this is just the nature of the virtual beast right now, unfortunately. So the more games and experiences that are well suited to that kind of environment, the better and since so many players are still brand new to VR, that means games and experiences that absolutely anyone can pick up and play, and have fun with. In other words: games and experiences like Beat Saber, that are easily to learn and yet still offer lots of gameplay, are the kind of titles necessary to help VR take over the world. 

            We’re going to need a whole crop of titles like that before VR becomes as rich a platform as it can be, but for now Beat Saber is one of the best there is at doing what it does: providing accessible, high-energy gameplay that scales perfectly to the skill and dedication of its player.

In Conclusion…

            So really there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Beat Saber is so special and why you should take it for a spin.

  • You could try it out because you like rhythm games, or Star Wars, or both.
  • You could try it because you like the music, or the music-based gameplay.
  • You could try it because you like to compete against yourself, or against your friends.
  • You could try it because you want to get into one of VR’s big titles for the future while it’s still sort of on the ground floor

Or you could just try it because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about. Happy slicing!

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