In Thumper, there’s just you. A chrome-plated beetle that moves at high speed, always on the edge, attempting to escape. Tight corners that would be impossible to traverse by a human being lock you onto the game’s hellish highway, forcing you to stay on the beat and react fast. There are spikes and snakes to avoid. There’s also a certain enemy that demands perfect precision several times in a row, or see you scrubbed from existence via an inescapable laser. Intimidating bosses roam each stage as well. Everything tries its best to stop you mechanically, but it’s right inside your head where Thumper struck its needle.
The influence of the rhythm games genre is used for tormenting the player with all kind of negative emotions, with a promise of nailing a high score and, eventually, becoming better. Fear, uncertainty, nerves, and never-ending pressure due to exigency are constant. And there’s a reason why the developers decided to label their project as “rhythm violence”. It’s not so much about seeing the beetle using its own body to rail on obstacles or performing jumps with as much strength as it can get from its tiny wings. But rather, what the experience altogether does to the player.
The tutorial, a mere facade used by the game to turn itself into an unknown visitor of your mind, takes the theory into practice in mere seconds. It lets you in on the basics, repeating a few patterns you’ll be seeing often in the upcoming levels, and immediately stops holding your hand. Everything becomes more and more complicated, and by the time you get through the finish line, you’re left speechless.
Anything that can give you a quick exit has been thought by the developers to prevent you from doing so. Although you will fail often, respawning is immediate, and there isn’t enough room for respite except for merciful, yet scarce, breaks in between sections. You can always pause and exit the game, of course, but there’s a seductive element to its movement that grasps you.
There’s still predominantly a rhythm game underneath the nightmare. The scoring system will remind you of that in every single section you manage to survive, granting you different grades based on your performance. If you get hurt or happen to miss a platform, you can say goodbye to an S grade. But if you manage to perform above average, doing perfect turns, that are seemingly impossible due to high speed and the quick reflexes they require, they’ll get you a nice, satisfying bonus each time.
Thumper wants you to perform at the best of your capacities and isn’t afraid to push you back often, demanding even more from you on the next stage. It always appears keeps you on a leash, distracting you by score leaderboards and a search for perfection that comes tied with the genre, only to cause punishment if you don’t only meet, but exceed on its standard.
I played it for the first time when it launched on PC back in 2016 , and I’ve recently picked it up again for my Switch. For a moment, I thought I had gotten over the fear and anxiety I felt during that one initial playthrough. But I got sucked in again as it were the first time.
Playing games in bed have come almost a routine thanks to the console’s nature, but Thumper is the first to cause a disturbance in a moment that is supposed to be relaxing after a long day of work. It forces me to sit down in bed, dedicating my full attention. Regardless of the weather outside, I can’t help but start sweating in less than half an hour. It drags you into the screen in much the same way a massive open-world is able to, but instead of wonder and discoveries, you feel trapped.
Music and sound design play a big part of this, meshing together in a way that’s terrifying to witness. Every time a new platform or turn is approaching, you hear a distinct sound attributed to it. If you wear headphones and pay enough attention, you might be able to prepare your fingers ahead of time. But it’s also how the audio revolves around you, blasting primitive, eerie sounds and marching drums that become more intense as you progress.
It manages to create a strange connection that certainly drifts away from your regular rhythm game. The feeling of wanting to overcome the challenges upon you is there, but you don’t have a selection of difficulties to rely on for practice. There aren’t any rock or pop songs in there, either. Rather, there’s the company of a dedicated soundtrack that is so in touch with the game you can almost feel it.
Thumper remains true to the definition of a nightmare. It feels like something that only the darkest corners of your mind could make, defying speed and a human space for colors and shapes that are both intimidating and gorgeous to lose yourself into. There’s a constant sense of danger, laughing at the face of your well-being and evoking emotions deep inside you, regardless of how you felt prior to entering the game.
It’s only you in Thumper, trying to escape from a bad dream that is preventing you from waking up. The beetle is hit several times, suffering from damage and the inevitable fate it has fallen into. Each level is a purgatory of dedicated precision, chaining you to a loop of patterns and rules to follow.
And you can get through it eventually. But even after years of waking up from the nightmare, the memory is still roaming inside my head. Going at full speed, looking for a way out.