The modern abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866. His life was filled with music from the start; his parents were pianists, and he himself learned to play the piano, cello, and zither at a very young age. He trained as a lawyer at the University of Moscow and practiced law until the age of thirty, when he began to study painting.

 Don't you wonder sometimes?
Kandinsky's Composition IV

   Kandinsky claimed that when he saw color, he heard sounds. The conflation of senses, such as hearing sight or feeling sounds, is a condition known as "synaesthesia." He tried to capture this "visible sound" in his paintings: the color's tone was the sound's timbre; the hue was derived from the pitch, and the saturation came from the volume of the sound. Ultimately, Kandinsky's paintings consisted of nothing more carefully arranged geometric shapes.

   Today, Kandinsky is widely credited as one of the earliest and most influential abstract artists. The impact of his work can be seen everyday in the ideograms that mark audio equipment: the solid square "Stop," the interrupted square "Pause," the forward-pointing "Play" and double-pointed "Fast Forward" - these symbols take their meaning from images found in Kandinsky's experimental paintings.

That's the color of my room
Blue, blue, electric blue

   Kandinsky said of art, ``Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.''

   So what does this have to do with Rez, the latest project from developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Sega spinoff United Game Artists? Rez's motto is "Go to synaesthesia"; its working title was "K-Project." The "K" stands for Kandinsky.

   The "Project" stands for "incredibly ambitious project." Rez is entirely unlike any other game available today; though those words are often tossed about by marketing like so much confetti, in this case, it's true. More than anything else, Rez is an interactive piece of digital art that is true to the synaesthetic spirit of Kandinsky: an interactive experience that melds sight, sound, and even touch into an engrossing whole. It's a great game, too, but it's clear that Rez was designed from the start around its audiovisualtactile experience.

 And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
Ground Control to Major Tom

   The story, though ultimately unimportant, bears repeating. In the near future, world wide computer networks crisscross the globe, and mankind is dependent on advanced artificial intelligences to keep things running. When a virus attacks the global data network, known as Eden, the system suddenly develops self-awareness and then shuts down. The player takes on the role of a hacker, who must break through Eden's firewall to reawaken the A.I. More than anything else, this setup explains the game's trippy wireframe graphics and pulsing techno soundtrack.

   At its core, Rez is a rail-shooter in the vein of Panzer Dragoon. The player is propelled along a set path with limited freedom of movement within that path. Your avatar in Rez can "lock on" from one to eight shots before firing; once a volley is released, all shots are fired simultaneously. Getting hit by an enemy or projectile causes the player to "devolve" a level; the player can (re)evolve to a higher level by picking up neon-blue polyhedrons. Though there are six stages of evolution available during the main game, the benefits are mostly cosmetic - though its appearance may change drastically, your avatar's weapon never develops beyond the starting eight-shot blast. Higher levels of evolution are still worthwhile, however, as they allow the player to take hits and devolve without ending the game in progress. By picking up red Overdrive canisters, the player can store and unleash a temporary Overdrive attack, blazing through a section with temporary invincibility and automatic targeting of foes.

We know Major Tom's a junkie
Ashes to ashes

   It may sound like an ordinary shooter - and as far as the core gameplay is concerned, it is. What sets Rez apart is the strength and creativity of its design. The main game of Rez contains five levels; each of the first four levels corresponds to a great civilization throughout human history: Mayan, Egyptian, and so forth. The fifth level is a spiritual tour de force that traces the evolution of life from a formless primordial soup to ocean life, land animals, mass extinctions, regrowth, and even transcendence. The stage culminates in a hauntingly emotional final encounter that places the previous five stages in a new light. Though this may sound overbearing, these themes are far from preachy or distracting. Mostly, they are merely suggested by the level's dynamic architecture, color schemes, and musical motifs.

   Each of the levels begins in a silent, empty void. As the player progresses throughout the level, prismatic cubes will occasionally appear. Unlocking these cubes sends the player to the stage's next "layer." Each added layer is a hyperspace shift into a more complex space: the music gains new instruments, nuance, and complexity; the graphics explode with extra dimensions; the enemies dissolve into particles, only to regroup and reattack with increased fervor. Every level has a unified visual theme from start to finish, but each layer features small unique architectural elements, movement paths, and instrumentation changes to set them apart. At the end of the stage - ten layers, if the player manages to capture and unlock all of the optional cubes - is an epic boss battle. These encounters all feature stunning design and multiple forms, and might take as long or longer to complete than the preceding stage.

 Pray tomorrow takes me higher
Screaming "Let me out"

   What elevates the title beyond mere eye and ear candy is its interactive nature. The stages' music and visuals are strongly bound together; changes and mutations in one are mirrored or countered in the other. More importantly, everything the player does creates sound and vision - not mere sound effects, but music. Every time the player presses the lock-on button, a snare drum snaps. Each enemy lock-on brings forth a hi-hat click. Firing plays out a musical phrase, different according to the number and type of targets, stage, layer, and avatar. Explosions are hard-hit power chords; layer changes are swelling crescendos. All of this is matched by a frenetic display of cycling colors, rotating perspectives, oscillating boundaries, and non-Euclidean geometries. The Dual Shock's vibrations are also carefully balanced between accenting the music and reinforcing the player's actions. Though not released in the U.S., the optional Trance Vibrator peripheral adds another level of tactile force feedback, utilizing a different vibration signal than the Dual Shock controller.

   Though its five main stages may seem short, Rez is packed with replay value. Completing stages unlocks that stage in Score Attack and Traveling mode; completing the game unlocks a secret-packed Beyond mode. Performing well in the Score Attack and Beyond modes unlocks new stages and songs, a boss-bashing gauntlet, a five-stage continuous "direct assault," visual remixes that apply to the entire game, a new evolved form, and the ability to set a number of gameplay flags and options. The difficulty of unlocking new features increases with the player's skill and accomplishments, assuring a steady stream of challenges. The amount of replay value and items to unlock is, for a shooter, staggering. The Traveling mode lets the player experience Rez's stages free from the danger of damage; the stage select screen suggests that it is perfect for "practice or just chilling out." You can probably think of some creative uses for this mode if you stretch your mind a bit.

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive
There's a starman

   What is Rez? Rez is not an elaborate WinAmp plugin - an interactive visualizer that changes music into shapes. Neither is it a traditional music game such as Konami's Bemani series or Frequency; though the player's attention weaves around the soundscape, rarely is the music created consciously and directly. Rez is a shooter, but this is as much for emotional reasons - few genres are more visceral or appeal more directly to the emotions - as for gameplay ones.

   Rez is synaesthesia: the melding of music, graphics, and gameplay into a unified whole that leaves distinctions difficult, if not entirely meaningless. Mizuguchi and United Game Artists set forth to channel the same creative forces that inspired Kandinsky over a hundred years ago. In doing so, they have done more than make a fun, engaging, and inspiring game. They have established themselves as defining pioneers in the major artistic revolution of the 21st century.

Review by Andrew Vestal, GIA.

Kandinsky biographical information, painting, and quotation from WebMuseum: Kandinsky, Wassily.
Developer United Game Artists
Publisher Sega
Genre Rhythm
Platform Dreamcast / PlayStation 2
Release Date  11.22.01
Rez Absolute Set limited to 500 copies
Full game and credits screenshots
Japanese box art
Producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi
Director Jun Kobayashi (MEM)
Art Director & Lead Artist Katsumi Yokota
Sound Creator Keiichi Sugiyama
Full game credits