All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff.--Frank Zappa
It's an Interactive Random Melodic Art Generator. Or perhaps a Cooperative Organic Virtual Music Experience. If I were feeling particularly academic, that's the kind of crap I might come up with to describe Electroplankton for the Nintendo DS. But I'm not feeling particularly academic right now. In fact, I'm actually feeling detachedly sedate, because for the last half hour I've been toying with Electroplankton. And Electroplankton is about as unstructured, unacademic, and wonderfully disorganized an experience as I've found on a video game platform.
The brainchild of multimedia artist Toshio Iwai, Electroplankton transforms the DS into a sort of virtual aquarium, populated by ten unique species of tiny, smiling, sound-emitting creatures. Like singing Sea Monkeys, each species can be prompted to generate sounds, usually via the DS's touch screen. The end result is often something to which the term "music" could probably be applied.
The electroplankton are segregated by type, selectable from a menu that handily provides brief descriptions of each species' abilities. Choosing a particular electroplankton provides a two-dimensional view into its habitat. The bottom screen displays the creatures in their aquatic environment, while the top screen offers a zoomable closeup of individual electroplankton as if seen through a microscope.
Most of the electroplankton emit musical tones in response to guidance via the touch screen. The Sun-Animalcule, for example, begin their lives as tiny eggs, placed in the water with the stylus. As they hatch and grow, they emit bursts of light and chiming tones at regular intervals. The pitch of each Sun-Animalcule's tone depends upon both its size and location. As the creatures grow, the screen color changes in accordance with a five-minute day and night cycle. Sun-Animalcule that hatch in the day produce different tones from those that hatch at night.
The Sun-Animalcule share a number of characteristics with the other electroplankton. They're incapable of producing dissonant tones, for example. Though it's almost impossible to create a conventional melody with the Sun-Animalcule, it's equally difficult not to create something harmonious. And like most of the other electroplankton, any arrangement the user designs is subject to change as the creatures interact, grow, or disappear.
Some Electroplankton, like the diminutive Nanocarp, respond to sound captured by the DS's microphone. The Nanocarp synchronize their actions to clapping, blowing, or singing by leaping into various shapes. Once in formation, a tap of the D-pad sends a wave of water across the screen, triggering the Nanocarp to "sing." Left alone, they'll swim about randomly, emitting chimes and ripples of water that prompt other Nanocarp nearby to vocalize. Tapping the screen with the stylus also creates ripples, causing the Nanocarp to chime and twirl enthusiastically.
There's huge variation among the ten electroplankton. The Lumiloop, for example, are stationary, doughnut-like creatures that hum soothing tones when spun with the stylus. The Beatnes remember and reproduce melodies with low-fi sound effects from NES games, according to beats tapped out on their bodies. Rec-Rec are fish that can record sounds from the microphone, then reproduce them as they swim across the screen, much like a simple four-track sequencer. Though it's possible to gain a basic understanding of the entire electroplankton family in about twenty minutes, to fully appreciate all the nuances each offers probably requires at least a couple of hours. There's a near-infinite number of musical variations available within each species, though, so the potential for unique experiences is limited only by the user's interest.
Until I played with Electroplankton, I didn't realize the DS was capable of such rich, complex sounds. Some of the electroplankton mimic conventional instruments, like vibraphones or bells. Others create more otherworldly sounds. The title makes full use of stereo effects, usually by shifting tones from one speaker to the next in response to the creatures' movements. As the DS's tinny speakers simply aren't capable of reproducing the electroplankton's vibrant tones, headphones are essential to fully appreciate the experience.
The electroplankton can be enjoyed in "Performance" mode, where their actions are controlled by the user, or in "Audience" mode, where left to their own devices they'll chatter or chime melodiously to themselves. Audience mode still allows the user to interact with the electroplankton, so their actions and output can be tweaked if desired.
Though the beautifully printed 66-page manual that accompanies the title is a veritable tome, the program itself is immediately accessible, regardless of the user's age or musical ability. Electroplankton is not so much about composition as it is about experimentation. It's like fingerpainting with music. Even the messiest, most random of actions can generate something interesting, and each composition inevitably evolves to be replaced with something new. Melodies surface, then vanish. There's no way to save what you and the electroplankton create, and given that some of these creatures have minds of their own, it's often impossible to recreate a melody or a series of sounds with any precision.
By design, Electroplankton defies the user to create something permanent. Though it's sure to be faulted by some for its lack of any save feature, it clearly wasn't intended to offer more than free-form, improvisational play. It's not a goal-oriented experience, and therein lies much of its charm. It doesn't demand or reward skill or precision, instead offering the user a chance to experiment aimlessly in a charming, melodic virtual world.
As I type this, the DS sits next to my keyboard with a school of Tracy in Audience mode, plinking away like polliwogs hopping across piano keys. Occasionally their interactions start to annoy, as they become too repetitive or complex. More often, their output is soothing and hypnotic. Whether I choose to poke or prod them into more organized symphonies, or simply let them amuse themselves, the resulting chill-out vibe they create is much the same.
During the last week, I've found myself tinkering with Electroplankton before falling asleep. I know I'm not creating anything of lasting value, and I'm perfectly content with that realization. In fact, the very impermanence of what I produce in cooperation with these creatures is highly appealing. Like skipping rocks across a pond, it's perfectly mindless, and perfectly satisfying.