Vaporwave’s been given any endless permutation of strung-together definitions, but it shouldn’t be a stretch to say much of “classic vaporwave” music shares a few high-level traits: it’s smooth, haunting, and often more deeply complex than meets the ear.
If that’s true, then Marbloid is a crystal-clear reflection of vaporwave in game form. Released Nov. 28 on the iOS App Store, this aestheticized app is a Marble Madness-inspired endless runner with a twist: a particularly smooth one, with a haunting addictiveness and yes, symbolic subtext.
While you’re apt to find any number of ancient vaporwave flash games, the era of polished vaporwave video games—especially those produced by a multi-person team—has only continued blooming in recent years. A 10-person effort headed by German game development studio Supyrb, Marbloid joins other standout 2018 vapor-games, like glitched-out dread-fest OK/Normal, funk-scored rhythm game 3D Blast: In The Groove, and the trippy adventure Broken Reality.
Superyb Co-Founder and Designer Andreas Gaschka partnered with coder Johannes Deml to reboot a marble labyrinth app made for a client into the enticing soundscapes of vaporwave.
“The vibe, the atmosphere, the variety of the genre invited me to dive deeper into it,” Gaschka says. “Ancient marble busts and columns juxtaposed with a weird funky sound or midi melodies felt fresh.
“Marble is a homonym: It describes both the sphere and the stone. I created this very first style frame showing a marble on a marble runway, and we both really liked the appeal of it. It had the visual uniqueness to assist our gameplay.”
In Marbloid, the player rolls what Superyb calls “the restless mind of an entrepreneur, captured in a magic marble” through 6 different vaporwave landscapes, each more precarious and complex than the last. The game’s simple tilt to move, tap to jump controls belie their true nuance, as it takes a fair degree of angular finesse to master Marbloid’s ever-escalating momentum, made both sensitive and precise by what developers call “clever programming tricks.”
Though these physics lead to frequent deaths at first—especially once boost pads are unlocked—after you get a handle on it, cruising across Marbloid’s procedurally generated islands to the tune of each level becomes smoothly satisfying.
Speaking of music, Supyrb’s tactical tilting action game takes In The Groove’s bona-fide vapor song list a step further by creating an original soundtrack with the help of two vaporwave mainstays: Eyeliner and Donovan Hikaru. The pair, respectively known for classic albums like Buy Now and CRS 2.0, composed the game’s main theme and tracks to enhance each level’s hypnotic immersion.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with the productions of Donovan and Eyeliner,” Gaschka said of the partnership. “Their track names create a setting similar to our start-up narrative, like ‘Bose Lifestyle’ or ‘Kevin Caraway Investment Model.’ We reached out to other producers as well, but quite quickly we established a great connection to these two artists, who collaborated for the first time on Marbloid.”
Eyeliner feels the pairing was near-destined. “Prophetically I remember Luxury Elite telling me I should work with Donovan Hikaru and she was 100% right…it turned out me and D.H. are quite similar technically and attitude-wise,” the artist, also known as Disasteradio, writes. “He has music ‘falling out of him as a sheer expression of his nature’ …both of our musics come from a similar place I think—probably the suburbs.
“We are altogether on a time triangle between me in New Zealand, D.H. in USA and Supyrb in Hamburg, so there was always one person had just woke up, and someone who was staying up late,” Eyeliner adds of the collaboration. “Totally cute, it felt like a special project.”
Donovan Hikaru elaborates on both the fun and creative inspiration the project afforded the pair:
“I’ve been of a fan of Eyeliner since I discovered vaporwave a while back. His music is like this faceless atmosphere and groove that just leaps out of its own vacuum and captures your body and mind,” he says, adding that Andreas and Johannes’ own immersive, vapor-game design partnership was likewise inspiring. “Their ability to inject heavy doses of style, authentically, into a very accessible, sleek, and contemporary mobile game is second to none!
“To me, it’s like if, say Daft Punk and Pharrell teamed up with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Vektroid, and managed to write an unlikely crossover super hit that transcends both underground and commercial appeal.”
But it’s not just the controls and music that make Marbloid a solid, if not plasmatic, game. The game’s twist on endless-runner convention addictively gamifies the concept and repeatedly tempts the risk-taker in all of us. At regular points while rollicking through a level, continuously collecting points, multipliers, and scattered Emojis (to be later used as in-game currency), players can choose to Exit the level or keep rolling. Quitting while you’re ahead safely banks your points and earns achievements, while soldiering on and failing loses it all.
Ultimately a game of hubris vs. dexterity, Marbloid’s imagery only heightens the anxiety. Changing by the level, the game’s visuals represent traditional vaporwave aesthetics in their near-exhaustive entirety. Variously marbled busts and floors, glimmering iridescent cassette tapes, bursting PS1-graphic Fiji bottles: it’s all here. And while tried (and tried again) and true approaches may appear cliché in some spots, Supyrb justifies their chosen motif with both thematic and personal relevance.
“A good game creates a certain feeling, a mood inside the players. It’s like storytelling without telling a story,” Gaschka says. “The founding of a company is tied to a lot of risks, to a lot of decisions, to a certain uncertainty. Playing the prototype, we realized that steering the marble close to the brink ignited a similar thrill we had, when starting up.”
Like vaporwave’s collective refraction of capitalism, Marbloid is similarly meant as a metaphor for millennial entrepreneurial culture. More than just a winking nod to the “jump in, cash out” stereotype of hip app designers, Marbloid’s backstory also suggests a deeper, allegorical eulogy for a generation’s mortally wounded digital optimism, forever looping through a happier past. To Gaschka, this interpretation likewise supports the game’s infusion of some more modern symbolism.
“I was listening to Donovan, Eyeliner, Luxury Elite and Internet Club when we nailed down the narrative and they all have this special early internet company vibe, but we were experimenting with the visuals to find our very own artistic expression,” he says. “Vaporwave is a brainchild of the internet remix culture, so why not remix its aesthetics with more contemporary ones?”
“I loved the idea of six different art styles orbiting vaporwave and net-art,” Eyeliner echoes. “It points at a question about the multiple viewpoints of the visual style, acknowledging the prismatic nature of vaporwave.”
More than formulaic, Eyeliner adds that parts of the interactive gaming experience allowed for innovative new genre interpretations.
“The workings of the adaptive music stuff (the game’s music changes based on difficulty and a few other things) kinda broke my brain up a bit!” he says. “There is a lot to think about in terms of musical form, thinking of ‘the listener’ also as a ‘game-player.’”
To Donovan Hikaru, Marbloid provided an opportunity to enrich his own vaporwave experience.
“Trying to come up with epic tunes while driving, learning how to use F-Mod and rearranging loops in it, blasting the theme music endlessly during mix sessions throughout our home and my loving wife not killing me for it!” he concludes. “All part of the awesome journey that became the Marbloid music score.”