The game design of Pitch Perfect

The best scene in the 2012 film Pitch Perfect is the Riff-Off. If you’ve never seen it, watch it above. (If you have seen it, I know you’ve already clicked to watch it again, because it’s irresistible.) This scene was put about in advance of the film’s release to build interest, and it worked on me: a capella groups at College who meet up for rough-house midnight showdowns while a whooping audience appreciates their skill? Fantastic.

The Riff-Off is a contest with simple rules. Groups trade off singing songs within a randomly-selected category. A group can steal the focus from opponent by matching lyrics – you start a new song with words that also appear in their lyrics.

(The Riff-Off concept returns in Pitch Perfect 2, with slightly different rules. I’m sure YouTube clips of that will appear online in due course, but for right now you’ll have to run to the cinema to see it!)

I’m fascinated by the Riff-Off as a piece of game design. It isn’t just a contest where performers are evaluated by judges or a crowd (those are in the films too, in the big set-pieces at the end). It clearly has game elements going on as well. It is positioned as part of a performance-showdown tradition, with improvised (freestyle) battle rap as the most prominent example in current culture (8 Mile is the filmic go-to here). In this tradition, the battlers take turns to improvise rap verses belittling their opponent, with the acclaim of the crowd determining a victor.

Battle rap evolved naturally out of hip hop culture, with antecedents going deep into history. The Riff-Off, however, was invented by the creative team of Pitch Perfect – presumably screenwriter Kay Cannon, who (like so many other comedy heavyweights) has a whole bunch of improv experience in her background. That’s another ingredient of the Riff-Off’s structure: the creative fearlessness and momentum switch-offs of a ComedySportz game.

The Riff-Off is insanely watchable. It’s a really appealing idea for a showdown, with rules that are easy to grasp and a clear progression of play. But there’s a reason why we haven’t seen underground Riff-Off leagues exploding in the speakeasies of North America and the world: degree of difficulty.

A Riff-Off demands an insanely high level of player skill. The teams need to have a deep, deep catalogue of songs they can pull out and perform at a moment’s notice. They need to have the ability to recognize songs offered up by their opponents, a clear recall of the lyrics for those songs, and an ability to scan those lyrics ahead of what is being sung and compare them to their repertoire to find a lyrical match where they can be interrupted. (That’s psychologically challenging as hell – the brain works really hard to focus on the words it’s hearing, not the ones it might be hearing soon.) And, of course, they need to be tight, strong performers as well.

This makes it a perfect game for a fictional world. We watch it and we can love the show and follow the action – and it even has enough game structure that you can run a “rookie makes the risky play” story move through it. But if you want to see one in real life? Well… the closest you’ll get is likely this game recreation of the first film’s showdown.

Or is it?

Okay, here’s my blue-sky of how you could do a riff-off, for real. First, you need your groups. No scrimping here – you need a team of true-blue performers, dedicated to their craft, who eagerly learn as many damn songs as they possibly can. That’s a tall order, but the world is wide and people love their music so I guarantee there are already many groups out there who have this down.

Then it gets tricky. The hand-off/interruption stuff? That could be handled with cybernetics. A small support team, one or two people running a database of the group’s repertoire, lyrics and all. As soon as the opponents start a song, that team has to bring up those lyrics and trawl the database for matches, then get suggestions into the ears of the singers so they can hit their cues and seize the music. And this isn’t just brute-force – they need to match the category as well, and ideally the mood of the show-down and the crowd. All this swift co-ordination with the clock ticking as the other team is singing.

That, I think, could work. It would still be hard as hell, of course, and I would pay dollars to watch. But ideally it wouldn’t be something you pay to see – no, no, the Riff-Off is performed under cover of darkness in an empty swimming pool of the basement of an eccentric billionaire’s mansion. That would be amazing.

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