Runnin’ Down a Dream

Life has a sort of rhythm to it. You feel the ebb and flow throughout days, weeks, and months. Small tasks that get you bouncing your feet all the way to monumental occasions that demand an orchestral finale in your mind. I’m sure right now you’re either listening to something or you’ve had a tune in your head for a little bit while perusing the internet. It’s cool. Me too. Music can envelop emotions wrapped tightly to be ripped open with the right chord or note. It can bring like-minded people together with similar tastes, or divide in favor of what they enjoy.  For some it’s a side-dish to a well balanced meal of lunch, for others: it’s every last crumb on the dinner table.

For Gabriel, the guitar was his solace in a life of controlled monotony, applying stickers to bean cans in a factory for longer than your granddad’s entire vinyl collection. But constructed practices with the ever present jam session brought Gabriel and his friends to small gigs around town, laying down progressions and rhythms that spoke louder than words ever could. When a multi-day festival sets its stakes in the heart of Pinewood, the band pull together a beat-up van held up by their hopes and dreams and set foot on a journey of friendship and heartbreak.

The title screen places Gabriel tattered in bandages laying dormant on a hospital bed with no explanation. With music traveling everywhere with Gabriel, the sonic backdrop for our story is built up by the player. Using the left and right arrow keys (or triggers on your favorite controller), you’ll construct Gabriel’s time with his band starting with a silky bassline, eloquent drum tempo, or a soulful acoustic lick.  These pieces mesh together to create one of the best soundtracks so far this year. Overflowing with emotion, scenes unite guitars, synths, keytars, even just the rhythmic tapping of two drumsticks to strike a chord through every minute of A Musical Story’s 3 hour runtime. I got chills on multiple occasions just feeling the passion provided through each strum or key played and I was instantly hooked.

Gameplay is laid out in a form similar to musical Simon. Notes are displayed on a curved track and once shown must be played perfectly to continue forward. Once each layer of the song is completed the scene blooms to show a moment in time for Gabriel during his trip to Pinewood: traveling the road, stopping at cheap motels for a smoke and drink, or bringing the instruments out for an impromptu jam in the forest. These memories are pieced with beautifully paletted visuals, each scene looks like a oft-remembered dream: muted in intricate details but popping with color and personality, that when combined with the gorgeously crafted soundtrack wastes no time pulling you into this world and not letting go until the credits roll.

Gabriel’s story also pieces together the struggles of a man filling the holes in his life with addictive tendencies. Anytime not at work building his craft as a musician, there is booze at hand and drugs close by him: a nasty byproduct of the 1970s musical revolution. These scenes throughout the game are terrifyingly brilliant, seeing the shadows of Gabriel’s past refusing to let go of the dreams of a better future, with a wild crescendo near the back of the game.

But while these scenes combined with the soundtrack are as gripping as they are fantastically orchestrated, the freedom given to some of the 16 beat lines also makes the back half of A Musical Story a little too messy to flow comfortably through. The latter half sludges the tempo to a crawl, letting menacing synths bury the need of a metronomic guideline and letting the futile plinking of guitar strings lead the player through a quicksand-like turn of events for Gabriel. But this also makes the jazz-like structure of the instrumental tracks very hard to play correctly, causing me to miss notes constantly on the back half and eventually turning on the timing assist and abandoning A Musical Story’s achievements given for playing a chapter perfectly through. That one XKCD comic came into mind a lot and I realized if the added bonus of being perfect wasn’t embedded into my mind from the start, this story would’ve progressed so much smoother with less restarts and expletives muttered under my breath.

But once you remove that tracker from your radar and just let yourself become immersed within the sultry tones of a band facing the tough challenges of a dream forged by miles of asphalt, you’ll see what a hidden gem A Musical Story really is. Easily providing a Soundtrack of the Year bid behind enough interactivity to keep you engaged, this is absolutely worth an afternoon to sit down, tune your instrument just right, and follow the notes of a path well worn to a dream into the great wide open.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.