Long ago, indie games were simple little distractions, easy to pick up and put down. I have nothing but admiration for the thousands of programmers with versions of Brickout where the bricks say "moo," but those days are over. That doesn't mean that all indie games have succumbed to feature bloat. On the contrary, some of the best ones stick to one thing, make it look pretty, and add a few hooks to keep people playing. Audiosurf takes your music, turns it into a racetrack, and lets you drive on it. Everything else is window dressing. The core experience is identical to blasting your favorite song while speeding and rapidly changing lanes in time with the music. Audiosurf is just as much fun, but without the cops.
The game's racetracks are sparse, futuristic highways full of colored bricks and bumps which match the contours of the song. The phatter the beat, the bumpier the ride. It's more or less a playable oscilloscope. Results vary; some players may find every track to be stultifyingly boring, because they have no taste in music and are lame. The EULA specifically states that for people who hate their own music, Audiosurf will just make things worse. For everyone else, it can play all the major file formats, from MP3 to Ogg Vorbis, with the exception of DRM-enabled songs from iTunes. Sadly, those are some of my favorite tracks. I like to think of them as songs I'm borrowing from my friend Steve Jobs. The documentation helpfully suggests that I burn those tracks to CD, then re-import them. While I'm at it, why don't I write down the lyrics and re-record them with tin cans and string? I can't blame Audiosurf for this issue, as it technically falls into the "my music is lame" category.
On the easiest settings, the game is a leisurely Sunday drive, ideal for re-discovering long forgotten songs in one's collection. To add a bit of a challenge, the puzzle aspect of the game involves stacking bricks of the same color together in combos and clearing a grid. It's Klax with a car. Higher difficulty levels require quick reflexes and intelligent stacking. It also helps to know when a song will start to rock out. There is no way to fail a song, but when a column spills over, the car momentarily loses control and the screen shakes and buzzes violently. I don't play on higher difficulty levels because that electrocution effect irritates me. If I can't fail a song, why would I need that level of negative reinforcement? Still, I can't complain about something that the game lets me avoid entirely. The online leaderboards seem to indicate that most other players don't mind a few jolts as they rack up huge scores in Ninja Elite Mode.
Even though I officially don't care about scores, I still get a thrill every time I'm ranked as the highest for a particular song. This happened pretty often in the first week, when no one was playing them yet. Recently I've received a steady stream of emails about being "dethroned" on songs by people with stupid names. All of these people are cheaters. Also, just because they score big on a Sleater-Kinney song, it doesn't mean that Carrie Brownstein would look at them twice. I happen to know that if we ever met she would fall in love with me. The leaderboard of her heart has only one name on it, and it's not PwnyTony86.
Audiosurf would have been worth $10 just for the cool ride through musical synesthesia, but it adds all the next-gen hooks we've come to expect. It has in-game online leaderboards, friend lists, and achievements. It has unlockable characters and extra-hard challenge modes. It even has free downloadable content and custom tracks. All these features make it more of a game, but what makes it brilliant is that it gives you one new way to enjoy your own music. That's all. It's a simple idea, but simple is smarter now. This is one game that knows exactly what to do and does everything right.