Header image by Nicholas Darby
At first, it was the darkness that terrified me.
It was the complete and utter sensory-arresting shadows that were truly upsetting, as I tentatively stumbled down narrow corridors, arms outstretched, blindly feeling my way forward. One step at a time. I realised that the first half of the ghost house with its corny masks and silver cobwebs and off-kilter mirrored rooms was all but preamble; that this power-cut maze was in fact the real scare of the Haunted Grimm House—being robbed of my sight and forced into incomprehensible blackness. Then it suddenly occurred to me: the darkness wasn’t the problem. I wasn’t scared because I couldn’t see—I was simply terrified of being so unexpectedly and unwillingly disempowered.
Void of visuals, audio games have been historically designed with a similar outcome in mind. The vast majority of audio games—games which rely solely on sound to create their environments—belong to the survival horror genre, and thus tend to associate the player’s lack of sight with fear. In many respects, this design choice serves to disempower players, often forcing them to be constantly running or constantly hiding from or constantly evading an ever-encroaching danger. London-based Incus Games hopes to reverse this trend by instead empowering its players with its forthcoming audio open-world adventure Three Monkeys. In Three Monkeys, the land of Byzantia has been stricken by a solar necrosis curse which has plunged the realm into complete darkness. Guided by companion Yoskar, the player must then explore the realm from pole to pole in search of the evil White Witch, battling bandits and hunting for food along the way, before reversing the spell.
“At first, we looked at the market and there weren’t really many audio games out there,” explains Incus project manager Steve Willey. “When people think of audio games, they might first think of text-based games—there are a lot of great text-based games out there.” Wiley notes other successful audio series such as The Nightjar, The Blindside, and Somethin’ Else Studio’s iOS gem Papa Sangre. While these games have shown that audio games can find appreciative audiences, they still use fear as their driving mechanic, which can diminish player empowerment. Three Monkeys aims to present players with a choice: that they can instead hunt and seek and attack, as opposed to merely running and hiding in fear.
The desire to instill its players with this sense of authority is what sets Three Monkeys apart from the rest of the audio game spectrum. By liaising closely with the Royal London Society for the Blind, Incus aims to have Three Monkeys appeal to all players, from those both within the visually impaired community and those without, by creating an audio game which feels like any other visualised game. Kevin Satizabal, a music graduate and market communications representative from the RLSB, has been integral to this process. Blind since birth, Satizabal has been playing audio games for several years, and his supervision has played a huge part in moulding the logistics of how Three Monkeys will play out once complete.
When I spoke to Kevin last year, he explained that the majority of games aimed at the visually impaired community lack scripted tutorials—mainly because they’re made by blind programmers, coding these games out of the goodness of their hearts. This means players must read screeds of documentation in order to learn all the keystrokes prior to playing, and, while this is fine up to a point, such preparation can be draining. “People underestimate audio games,” Satizabal said. “I think a game like Three Monkeys, one that is clearly going to try to present audio techniques which have been used in a good way, is going to have a certain appeal.”
Satizabal stressed the importance of truly appreciating the power of binaural recording, which are reproductions of sound the way in which humans hear it, and literally means “using both ears.” Founded by Clement Ader in 1881, the first binaural transmission saw the French inventor placing a series of telephone transmitters across a stage at the Paris Opera House, whilst listeners as far as two kilometers away tuned in via separate receivers. In 1933 AT&T designed a real time mechanical head with microphones for ears which popularised the technology, laying the blueprint for where the medium stands today. Satizabal noted how it can harness the power of imagination, citing the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The viewer doesn’t actually see the act of murder firsthand, yet such distinguished soundplay in concert with brutal insinuation allows the viewer to visualize the spectacle nonetheless.
In essence, audio games must carry this ethos throughout their entirety. Naturally, how this is achieved hinges on how well these games map and signpost each challenge. “There’s a lot of techniques that we’re snatching from a lot of different areas,” says Willey. “I think there’s a few things that would be potentially more costly for game studios to do that we’re actually undertaking, for example—we’re doing a lot with binaural audio. Obviously you can only go so far with binaural processing, so what we’re doing is actually embarking on recording our voice actors with binaural capture. This means they have to actually act out the voice acting in front of the microphones because it captures them within a space.”
In doing so, within Three Monkeys’ fighting segments, for example, the action will play out in tutorial form. Although this may, to an extent, contradict the game’s “player empowerment” mantra, it also helps the player better understand their choices and decisions later in the game: whether to duck, whether to use their sword, whether to use their bow, and how to strategize. Ultimately, Three Monkeys won’t make up the player’s mind; they will be given the influential tools and then be left to decide how best to use them against the game’s obstacles. Each of us imagines things differently, and this is something Three Monkeys hopes to capitalise on.
“VR technology tricks the [user’s] brain into thinking it’s doing something that it’s not,” Wiley said. “With audio it’s similar; people are starting to look into ways wherein it’s not a question of limiting the capture or the processing of binaural technology, it’s more about the psychological ways you can trick the brain into thinking it heard something from somewhere.
While other audio games have tended towards imbuing players with fear, that is not to say they’ve been unsuccessful in doing so. Somethin’ Else’s brilliantly atmospheric Papa Sangre II was Metacritic’s highest rated iOS title in 2013 —testament to the game’s wide-reaching appeal—and also received “incredible support” from the visually impaired community, according to Somethin Else’s head of products Nicky Birch. Whilst acknowledging the game’s “powered by your fear,” marketing slogan as slightly shallow, Birch quickly outlines that the fear of the unknown is just as applicable to both visually impaired players and those with unimpaired vision.
“I think that [visually impaired players] maybe don’t find blindness as fear as scary as, say, a visual player would,” agrees Willey. “For example, looking at Papa Sangre, Somethin’ Else weren’t specifically targeting the visually impaired, they were just targeting gamers. So that meant actually they were playing on that element of fear, which then meant less empowerment. I guess because nothing else had been done in that genre, they were well entitled to do that. The thing is, if the genre carried on in that direction—where we sort of said you can only do fear-based games—it becomes a bit like the zombie culture; it can’t carry on forever. So it’s maybe more a case of that because the genre has progressed so far, not many people have explored further emotions.
I am not visually impaired. My experience in the Grim Haunted House cannot come even close to the realities of visual impairment. Yet, after less than five minutes with Three Monkeys, it’s almost hard to believe that there aren’t audio games which grant the player such control. It’s an entirely simple concept, yet an entirely obvious one. And even then, playing Three Monkeys doesn’t feel like other audio games. In just five minute I was in the game; I was transported to Byzantia, roaming its hills, and absorbing its grandeur. Byzantia could be as much Los Santos or Skyrim as it is a blank screen powered by imagination and sound. According to Willey, the response from both camps has been quite exceptional: “The indie scene is really interested in new ideas and it really makes us happy when people say they played the game and it felt like just a cinematic normal game, and that it wasn’t detrimental minus visuals.”
“We don’t think it should be.”