Rhythm is a very primal thing. Right from the very first moment of our existence it is there, our own heartbeat offset against the comforting beat of our mother’s. So to design games without considering rhythm can only be detrimental to your cause. If you want to tap into merriment of the soul then beat should be a fundamental part of player experience.
When I talk about rhythm in game design I’m primarily referring to the players actions. Music is an obvious provider of rhythm, but in an active not passive medium it should only really be an enhancer (unless of course it is part of the game-play! i.e. Guitar Hero). In effect player input provides a beat and the quality of the game determines its suitability as well as the sense of connection the player feels with the experience. You can start to see why relying on music alone to give a sense of rhythm is a hallmark of weak game design.
The best games have a tangible sense of ebb and flow that imitate the natural cycles present everywhere in life. We’re very adept as humans at detecting things that aren’t quite right or broken. Things that are un-tuned or disjointed upset our natural balance. So we naturally gravitate toward things that are harmonious. Especially in this modern age with all its distractions we are calmed and excited by rhythm and the recognition of patterns and beats. They are comforting and give us a sense of control. This sense of control and of tapping into the heart of the game is therefore a critical sensation that you must get the player feeling.
The ease at which player actions fit into the rhythm of a game will affect their enjoyment. It is so important that player actions are not a disruptive force. They should be in-tune and in natural harmony with the game systems. Effectively the player should be the heartbeat of the game, the source of life that makes the system work. The player should have a very tangible grasp of how their input is affecting the game. In game design terms this desirable sense of ‘oneness’ with the game is a direct result of the player feeling an integral part of the experience and certainly not passive or secondary to it.
Empowering the player with rhythm is a massively useful tool in your arsenal as a game designer. You are directly responsible for how the player engages with your game and therefore the connection they feel with it. Creating that sense of wonderment from players really feeling they are bringing life to your game is something special. Rhythm, beat, ebb and flow are universal and essential to the very essence of life. As a game designer you should be considering them with every mechanic you implement.