The Future Sound Of Mushroom 11

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When I first heard about Mushroom 11, I was intrigued by its core concept: players control a strange amoeba-fungus creature by erasing it, using a glorified version of the eraser tool found in most graphics editing software. Erasing the creature causes it to regrow itself from the opposite side, so the creature can be made to move around and change shape. A puzzle platform adventure based on this idea sounded interesting. But what really got my attention was when I watched a trailer and recognized the music. It was The Future Sound of London, one of my favorite electronic music artists. Some quick searching online revealed that The Future Sound of London provide the entire score for the game, mostly in the form of previously released tracks, but also with a few that can’t be found elsewhere.

Well, then.

The Future Sound of London started out in the techno scene in the UK in the late 1980s under a variety of aliases, but soon became pioneers of ambient electronic music. While their most famous track, Papua New Guinea, is great, it doesn’t reflect what their sound would become through the first half of the 1990s. They were very prolific, releasing four albums and six EPs, but disappeared after their 1996 album Dead Cities. During this time, the pair explored separate artistic interests before reuniting in 2002 with some drastically different music. First came Papua New Guinea Translations, which took their classic techno track and reimagined it across the length of an album, moving from old-school synth-heavy electronica to trippy funk to spaced out psychedelic music. The psychedelic bent continued with a trio of albums under their Amorphous Androgynous moniker, which sounded nothing like their earlier work. Featuring psychedelic rock inspired by classic music from the 1960s and 1970s, the only hint of electronic production lay in the mixing of a huge array of live instrumentation tracks into a strange amalgamation.

Soon, however, they began to release under the name The Future Sound of London again. This began by taking a look back at their old work. The From the Archives Vol. 1 compilation consisted of an array of older, unreleased tracks which the pair revisited and touched up for release, and would eventually be followed by no less than seven further entries in the From the Archives series between 2007 and 2015. The duo also finally released their album Environments, which had achieved near-mythic status among fans. First teased in the liner notes to the 1994 album Lifeforms, it never materialized and was thought to be lost forever. When it was finally released in 2007, it was followed by several more albums in the Environments series, produced in parallel to the From the Archives series. Each entry in the Environments series featured more and more new music mixed with the old archival material, with Environment 5 in 2014 being the first completely “new” Future Sound of London album since 1996’s Dead Cities. This led to more albums of new material, including Environment Six, Environment 6.5, and the Environmental portion of the Archived : Environmental : Views compilation.

Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for The Future Sound of London’s music to feature in a game. Throughout their career, The Future Sound of London have always been enamored with combinations of different media; their music releases also contain an array of digital artwork, and they made all their own music videos, dabbling with early 3D computer animation. Also, true to their name, they always looked to the future, especially the way technology could transform music and art. They were among the first music groups to sell music over the internet as digital files (and indeed, they sell their recent work through their own online storefront), and in the 1990s they experimented with “live” shows that were broadcast from their studio in London to radio stations and music venues around the world using ISDN lines. Indeed, their 1994/1995 album (the 1995 re-release is more commonly found) ISDN collects many of these live broadcasts. Thematically, their music dealt with futures as well; their 1990s output — the Lifeforms and Dead Cities albums especially — evoked a future where advanced technology had fallen into disuse and organic life now flourished in the ruins. This is exactly the type of world that Mushroom 11 depicts. Players guide the amoeba-fungus creature through the ruins of cities, abandoned farmland, and deserted countryside, encountering all manner of strange creatures that now inhabit these places. It’s a natural match for The Future Sound of London.

When I wrote about Capsized, I noted how the developers had artfully re-purposed the Solar Fields album Movements to act as the soundtrack, and wondered if that could work with other albums as well. But rather than use a single album as its soundtrack, Mushroom 11 pulls several tracks from the first four Environments albums (with the exception of the music for the title screen, which is “Field of Flowers” off of From the Archives Vol. 1). The Environments series is The Future Sound of London at their most ambient, especially these early entries which seem inspired by nature. Track titles like “The Empty Land” and “North Arctic”, both of which appear in Mushroom 11, conjure images of wild landscapes untouched by human hands. I would have expected other music from The Future Sound of London to be more fitting for Mushroom 11’s bizarre lifeforms (see what I did there?), but I was surprised at how well the chosen tracks fit the game. A lot of The Future Sound of London’s music would have stood out and demanded to be listened to, overshadowing the game itself. But these tracks blend in perfectly, letting players focus on the game while conjuring the perfect tone.

Interestingly, it’s the previously unreleased tracks that stand out the most, full of strong percussion rather than ambient soundscapes. I assume that developers Untame were in contact with The Future Sound of London when constructing the soundtrack in order to get access to unreleased material, and in one instance a different mix of a previously released track (the original version also features) to fit a particular scene. I’m not surprised that The Future Sound of London were interested in the project. Even without music, exploring the strange landscapes of Mushroom 11, filled as they are with mutated flowers, insects, and other creatures, would have brought The Future Sound of London to mind. And the unusual method of control is also fitting. The Future Sound of London were always interested in finding new and unexpected uses for technology, and a game that simply rehashed old ideas — no matter how striking its landscapes and creatures were — would not be nearly so interesting.

Controlling Mushroom 11’s creature is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a game before. It’s done entirely with the mouse, so it can be played with one hand (useful if you may have suffered a particular type of injury), and it requires a new way of thinking. Holding the left mouse button summons the eraser, a ring around the mouse cursor position that at first seemed far too large. Surely I would erase the creature out of existence with a single swipe? But I soon found that broad brush strokes are exactly what’s needed. As I made my first fumbling attempts to erase the creature and have it regrow itself into a new position, a brief but incredibly helpful video clip appeared on the screen (without interrupting my play) to demonstrate that I should take an altogether more aggressive approach. Rapid, sweeping erasures are the order of the day, making the creature move quickly across most terrain. It’s not possible to erase all of it, and the faster it’s erased the faster it regrows. I especially enjoyed sending it through tunnels, where the narrow aperture translated to high-speed travel.

I also learned not to place too much value on passing obstacles unscathed. While the creature can only regrow itself when it is on solid ground, a single one of its cells is all that must survive for the entire creature to be regrown anew. In short order I was sacrificing big chunks of the creature to spike pits or acid pools, just to get a tiny tendril through, from which it would be born again. In many cases, this meant that barreling headlong into danger turned out surprisingly well, and even when more planning was needed, executing the plan tended to require sprinting rather than creeping. But there are some notable exceptions to this. Holding the right mouse button conjures a smaller version of the eraser, useful for certain challenges that require forcing the creature into a specific shape. These sections were more like careful, considered pruning, trimming the edges off and funneling growth in specific directions over many passes, often while maintaining precarious balance or a foothold pseudopod-hold in a convenient crevice. This is interesting in its own right, but the slower pace felt out of place when the rest of the game emphasized fast movement.

All of this happens against the post-apocalyptic backdrop, full of clues as to the nature of the calamity that struck. I never got a full picture of what happened, but I enjoyed the creepy and sinister hints I found in the background, which implied that people had gotten up to some very weird things. I also loved how creepy the creature itself is. When it encounters another lifeform, the amoeba-fungus creature absorbs it, with a brief colored stain as the only evidence that it once existed. While this isn’t too disturbing early in the game, when the creature mainly eats glowing mushrooms, flowers, or mindless flying insects, soon the wildlife starts defending itself. Spiders with acid-tipped legs frantically try to fight the creature off, to no avail as it regrows and surrounds its prey. Others fight similarly hopeless battles for survival, but the creature is unstoppable. Nearly impossible to kill, it just keeps coming, and even if it is completely destroyed, it respawns from one of the weird giant flowers that act as checkpoints in the game. In fact, finding and eating every living thing in a level acts as a bonus “score” objective, leading players to search for small secrets or attempt optional, difficult puzzles to satisfy the creature’s insatiable appetite. Before long, I felt I was the villain of this story, although it’s not clear if the creature is an intelligent entity or if it acts purely on instinct.

This is best encapsulated by the boss encounters at the end of each level. Initially these are huge, terrifying mutant creatures, and my struggle against them felt like justified self-defense. But as the game progressed, it increasingly seemed that it was their self defense that was justified, and I could not help but feel their terror as the nigh-invulnerable amoeba-fungus creature circumvented their defenses and ate them alive. The life that has spread across Mushroom 11’s world may seem strange and alien, but the struggle for survival is all too familiar.

You may have noticed I mentioned spike pits and acid pools earlier. Unfortunately, Mushroom 11’s greatest weakness lies in the mismatch between the environmental puzzles and the environmental storytelling. There are places where it works, where a location features obstacles that make sense and work in tandem with background details to help players piece together what happened there. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Figuring out how to guide the amoeba-fungus creature across a series of freely rotating wheels studded with pegs makes for an interesting puzzle, but there’s no reason for those wheels to be there. The spaces the creature moves through are very obviously designed as tests, requiring thoughtful application of the erase and regrow control scheme, rather than acting in service to the world Untame have created. As I played, my actions felt disconnected from the world to such a degree that I often found myself forgetting to pay attention to details and clues as I moved past them. Both parts of Mushroom 11 are strong individually, but they rarely reinforce each other.

It doesn’t help that these environmental puzzles are often far more deadly, and difficult to pass, than the living adversaries are. On many occasions in Mushroom 11, I knew what I needed to do to proceed but had a lot of trouble executing it, as I frantically erased to try to access time-limited windows of opportunity. The worst offenders are sections that require splitting the creature into two (or more!) parts. These are fascinating conecptually, but it makes it much harder to anticipate just where the creature will regrow when erasing sections of it. Also, if any part of the creature reaches the edge of the screen (for example, bits falling off of it while it climbs onto a high ledge), they are automatically erased. On a few occasions, I’d managed to get 90% of the creature up onto a platform I was trying to reach, but the game’s camera decided to follow the 10% that was plummeting to its doom instead, erasing the majority of the creature that had succeeded in its task and forcing me to restart from the last checkpoint. I also encountered frustrations common to many physics-based 2D games, where things never behave exactly how I’d expect. It was particularly difficult to discern how heavy the creature is. It feels very floaty when falling, and sometimes I was forming it into appropriate shapes to be carried along by gusts of air. But move it onto a lever or wheel and the creature seemed to weigh it down far too easily.

These details meant that the later stages of the game became increasingly frustrating. I gave up on finding and eating everything in the levels and just tried to pass them, with many failed attempts. But these annoyances are not enough to tarnish Mushroom 11 as a whole. It’s rare to encounter a genuinely new idea like the erasure-based control scheme, and learning its nuances is a joy. And while Mushroom 11 is a must for any fan of The Future Sound of London like myself, its cleverly designed puzzles and strange, mysterious world will easily entice everyone else. I think you’ll find it a fascinating place to visit.

And if you find that you like the music, know that there’s plenty more where that came from.

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4 Responses to The Future Sound Of Mushroom 11

  1. Gregg B says:

    Hey Walter!

    This was a really interesting read, not least because I’ve recently been listening to Accelerator. I loved Papua New Guinea back in the day (which was at uni around 2000, some time after the day, but still) but I don’t think I was ready for the rest of their music then. I had Central Industrial kicking around my MP3 collection at some point and that’s a really evocative track. I also remember We Have Explosive and Landmass on the Wipeout 2097 soundtrack — both fantastic. These days I’m way more conducive to their sound (as an Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada fan) so starting to make inroads into their repertoire, at last. Your write-up was informative and will help me in this regard!

    I remember talking to the developers of Mushroom 11 at an expo some years ago and just in passing they mentioned FSOL were providing the soundtrack which piqued my interest. I own it but have yet to play it!

    • waltorious says:

      Good to hear from you, Gregg!

      Interesting to see which Future Sound of London tracks you know. We Have Explosive is from the Dead Cities album, but Landmass is actually exclusive to the Wipeout 2097 soundtrack.

      Since you know Accelerator, I can give the early history from there. They followed that album with Tales of Ephidrena in 1993, under their Amorphous Androgynous alias (which would not be used again until their psychedelic music after their hiatus). It’s the first release that starts exploring more ambient music, while still retaining some techno tracks in the vein of Accelerator. It’s good, check it out. Then they followed that with the double album Lifeforms in 1994 which goes all in on the new ambient sound. That album was my real introduction to them. ISDN and Dead Cities came next; I’m not as crazy about ISDN (although it’s definitely still worth a listen) but Dead Cities is great.

      It’s actually a little weird to use the term ambient to describe their music because it’s certainly not always quiet, with many tracks (like We Have Explosive) featuring heavy percussion. They are noisier and more eclectic than, for example, Aphex Twin’s Collected Ambient Works, but still experts at creating mood, soundscapes and the like.

      Also, while their albums are great, be sure to check out their EPs too. They tend to take a track from an album and stretch it out over a half hour, moving through several distinct interpretations. The Cascade EP is an early one, and may have been released before the Lifeforms album [EDIT: checked this, it definitely appeared before the album]. There is also a Lifeforms EP which is good. My personal favorite, however, is the My Kingdom EP, talking one of my favorite tracks from Dead Cities and giving it the spotlight, reworked in interesting ways.

      So I was very excited to hear that they’re working on a My Kingdom Revisited release that’s coming out this Friday! (May 4, 2018, for posterity.) I’m not sure what it will be like but I imagine essentially a new EP, starting from the original track and evolving it along some new trajectory. I’ll be grabbing that on CD because I’m crazy and still collect physical releases of music, but it will also be available digitally of course. They sell everything recent at fsoldigital.com.

      I hope you enjoy checking out their music! Incidentally, you mentioned Boards of Canada who are one of my blind spots (or should that be deaf spots?). I heard a lot of praise and listened to a few tracks (all from Geogaddi, I believe) around 2002 or so, but they didn’t really click with me then and I never went back to seriously listen to their stuff. Another friend has been pushing me to do so, however, so I’m hoping to give them another shot soon. And maybe I owe Aphex Twin more attention as well. I have their first Collected Ambient Works release, but I don’t think I ever really sat down to listen to their later work.

      • Gregg B says:

        Sorry for the super late reply! I appreciated the detailed response and will definitely be digging into their music more. Since your post I listened to… ISDN and Tales of Ephidrina. It was some weeks back now so my mind is foggy but I recall enjoying it.

        I forgot to mention that this FSOL push has been in part due to me getting into Orbital last year after they did an incredible festival set I was at. This year they’re due to release another album after quite a while off the circuit. Their latest single, Tiny Foldable Cities, came out a few weeks ago and I think it’s great!

        That’s a video edit so it’s a bit shorter than the full version.

        Geogaddi and Tomorrow’s Harvest I found difficult to get into but I think Music Has The Right To Children and The Campfire Headphase are good starting points for Boards of Canada. As for Aphex Twin his Selected Ambient Works volumes are essential but the rest of his work is wildly different so it’s hard to recommend a place to start. I suppose all I can say is just jump in somewhere and brace yourself!

      • waltorious says:

        No problem about the late reply, but sorry for spam filter issues causing further delays.

        Orbital are another group that I haven’t ever taken the time to check out, despite hearing good things. I should do so. Tiny Foldable Cities is pretty cool. It actually reminds me a little of Plaid, another of my favorite electronica artists.

        I’ve listened to Music Has the Right To Children before (much later than my initial bad impression from the Geogaddi tracks) and liked it, but wasn’t necessarily blown away by it. But I should give it another listen, and also check out The Campfire Headphase.

        Oh, and by the way, the new My Kingdom Revisited EP from The Future Sound of London is great. So there are now two great EPs based around that track.

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