It’s deadly and alluring,
the sound of pounding heat,
enslaving all
who dare succumb
to the temptations of
the forbidden beat…

– Bad Religion, “Forbidden Beat”

It is the solemn duty of the young to obliterate the expectations of the old. Each new generation of adolescents chisel their identity from their parents’ ideals, terrifying their elders and seizing them with a deep ontological fear of the future. With a certain punk attitude, I held it as a certainty that I would never experience this fear from a videogame.

I was wrong.

Please Insert Soul
Take Dance Dance Revolution and remove the social catastrophe of being seen dancing in a mall, and you have the basic concept behind Audition, created by T3 Entertainment and originally published by Yedang Online in Korea, now distributed in North America by Nexon. Add a dash of Rez-like trance, a competitive but affectionate social community and a healthy dose of licensed pop songs, and you have a game that is fast-paced, hypnotic and utterly terrifying.

I stumbled into Audition’s Matrix-like world more or less by accident while researching rhythm games; it was a quick download, and free, to boot. In short order, I found myself piloting a generic, uber-cute avatar and surfing channel-style for “beginner” game lobbies, looking for action. Most of the available games were “normal,” with various street names associated with their specific styles: “CC4/CC8,” “b-boy,” etc. “Normal” mode consists of a matching mechanic whereby players replicate sequences of arrow-key and spacebar presses to make their avatars dance. Eventually I settled on “Beat Up” mode. Beat Up more closely replicates Dance Dance Revolution than any other Audition game mode: Arrows scroll toward the center of the screen where players must match their keystrokes to the beat of the music. Keep up, and your avatar unleashes a flurry of slick dance moves; lose the beat and your avatar shakes its head in full-fledged teenage disdain.

I’ve played hard games, but even a game like Mega Man feels beatable. It might be wickedly difficult, but you still get the sense that if you played it long enough and worked hard enough, you’d eventually finish it. It’s just a matter of time investment and sheer force of will.

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Not so with Audition. Halfway through my first Beat Up game, I had to push myself away from the keyboard to collect myself. I felt physical pain from trying to keep up with the flying arrows. Needless to say, I was crushed under a heretofore unknown weight of epic fail. My three glib opponents completely and totally annihilated me. What they were achieving in speed and coordination simply wasn’t possible.

Several explanations crossed my mind. First, it was all a cruel joke – these were Japanese AIs seeded into the community as part of some nefarious psychological attack on the West. Second, something on my computer was broken. Third, simultaneously most frightening and plausible, was that these people, these children, weaned in an age of instant messaging and ubiquitous cell phone texting, had somehow surpassed the capabilities of my primitive 8-bit brain. Blessed, fickle Youth had abandoned me. I was old. I recalled my stepmother’s nauseated intolerance for the high-speed loops of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and despaired.

I can hear the hardcore gamer contingent scoffing from here. If you doubt for a moment the soul-deep terror that is the virgin Audition experience, go and download the game right now, find a Beat Up room on the Free channel, and request “You’re Already Gone.” Then come back and finish this article.

I’ll wait.

Are you humbled? All right, let’s keep going.

I am extremely stubborn. Once I gathered my scattered wits and regained the ability to form a coherent thought, I swore to myself that I was going to crack Audition. No teenybopper was going to scare me away from a game.

Even when you’re losing horribly – the continuously updating score on the right side of the screen, ordered by rank, is merciless – Beat Up makes it relatively easy to keep looking cool; all you have to do is make sure you continue to hit the spacebar when the downbeat slides across the screen. You can miss as many arrows as you like, and the game will disapprovingly flash at you, but your impossibly cute avatar will keep looking cool. I struggled along, one song after the other, miss after miss, but I kept my avatar dancing with that spacebar.

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And then something astonishing happened: I started to get it. And once I got it, Audition magically shape-changed from being the most horrifying and impenetrable game experience I’ve ever had into the coolest thing ever.

Slave to the Beat
Audition isn’t a casual game, despite the presence of numerous casual markers: short play times, transparent rules, continuous save-free play, an item-based advertising model. Although the rules can be learned in minutes, mastery requires about a month of semi-serious dedication; “pro”-level skills take significantly longer. And, like a standard fantasy-based MMO, if you drop out of regular play, you’ll return to find that all of your friends are 10 levels ahead of you and worlds ahead in ability. Your reflexes can atrophy as quickly as embouchure for a musical instrument.

When you find the beat, however, the feeling is incredible. Your keyboard becomes an instrument through which you “play” a pounding, intense rock song. When you claim the highest score, you slide into the lead dancer position, supported by the other players worshiping at the altar of your groove. Whether you’re playing backup or lead, Audition reaches deep down into the shared performance experience that has driven homo sapiens to make music and dance since the birth of the species. Beat Up, performed well, closely replicates a creative “flow” state that is almost nirvana – if you release thought and embrace the physical pulse of the music, you’re carried along in a fast and furious musical flow that you share with your fellow performers. The game’s mechanics encourage this mindset with visual cues and flourishes that reward a steady, flawless performance; you achieve “beat up” status by sustaining 100+ perfect “moves.” Once I’d tasted a little Beat Up success, there was no going back.

I suddenly started to improve rapidly. From stumbling my way through Level 1 songs, I found myself pounding madly along, perfect after perfect, with Thunderbirds Are Now! I learned to identify particularly challenging songs and request them, with the smiley-faced IM-speak encouragement from other dancers. Then, in one session, I won by a significant margin – and the host banned me from the room.

I had reached the inner ring.

I knew I had to go to the next level. I had to break out the credit card.

The First One’s Always Free
Audition‘s avatar usage is extremely clever. Basic outfits come free or can be earned with “beats” – in-game currency you accrue by performing well in dance competitions. But this attire is unequivocally lame, garish or drab. Cool gear must be purchased individually using Nexon Cash in increments of $5, $10, or $30. Ten dollars will get you a nice high-end outfit; $5 a decent one. Really cool stuff can only be earned by competing in Tournament Mode. By and large, the community respects “pro” skills no matter what you’re wearing, but there’s an inescapable sense of being left out of the club unless you’ve customized your avatar. And in true free-to-play fashion, by the time you get to that level, you’re generally quite happy to pay Nexon something for the game experience it has provided.

When I first started playing, I was convinced these high-level hot stepper kids had something I fundamentally didn’t. This is partially true: They did have something I didn’t, and not just endless patience or time to spare – they knew the songs.

This actually makes a significant difference in your performance. Hardcore Audition players identify desirable songs by their speed and difficulty, but a significant number of the game’s “mainstream” players actively seek music that they already listen to outside the game. (And it works both ways; players have reported purchasing music they first heard in Audition.)

My CD shelves are populated with Johnny Cash and heavy metal; I would rather gouge out my eyes than sit through an Ashlee Simpson concert. Once I started playing Audition, however, a new aural landscape opened up before me. Rather than semi-sullenly tuning out environmental music at the mall, I started to recognize bands and individual songs. And because I associated them with the feelings of accomplishment and socialization I absorbed in Audition, I actually enjoyed hearing them. Whereas I had actively disliked – to put it mildly – the repetitive beat and high-pitched vocals in Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” after mastering it in Audition I found myself tapping along with it on the radio. Audition is, among other things, an as-yet unmatched music marketing engine.

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Audition Is My Anti-Drug
The indescribable flow state of a high-speed Beat Up match is more like a drug than any other game I have experienced. Other titles have approached it; Ikaruga relies on a similar sense of precision timing, as do rhythm-based games like Rez, with its infamous Trance Vibrator. But no game encourages collaborative flow quite like Audition. You know the second one of your teammates makes a mistake, and you know when you’ve pulled into the lead, switching smoothly into that coveted, unique-moving lead dancer position. It’s a natural high produced by the achievement of a pure aesthetic state that hones your reflexes and sharpens your mind. One player on the Nexon forums said it best: “Audition is my anti-drug!”

Audition offers a transformative experience, both terrifying and uplifting. It provides naturally a host of sensations approached only chemically by previous generations. Bruce Holland Rogers, in his short story “One,” writes of an online game, incomprehensible to adults, through which children enter a Zen-like state of mystical understanding, much to the teeth-gnashing of their elders. Audition is not that game, but it may be a missing link; a transverse into that thought-suspended place of oneness with the beat of the universe. This, for Audition and beyond, is the essence of “pro.”

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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