The game starts with a black screen. A woman’s voice, speaking in Japanese: “Real Sound. Kaze no Regret. This software brought to you by WARP Inc.” A string quartet, swelling and romantic, begins to play—press the start button, and the music stops suddenly with the sound of a bell.
A light hiss of static. An acoustic guitar picking up the same theme as before is quickly joined by a ticking clock. A deep male voice starts to narrate: “Every so often, when you meet someone else, you have a feeling that it’s not for the first time.”
The screen remains black.
The 1997 Sega Saturn Japan-only release, Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, is a fully-voiced interactive romance game with elements of mystery and suspense, featuring two elementary school students with plans to elope, a portentous clock tower, and possible murders in the underground. With no visual elements for its entire runtime, it’s something like a choose-your-own-adventure radio play. In other words, it’s not a videogame, but an audiogame: a game in which graphics are nonexistent or optional and can be played through sound alone.
Its creator, Kenji Eno—who died tragically in 2013, at only 42 years old—was a game designer and composer, and one of the few figures working in videogames who had a consistent commitment to radical experimentation in everything he was involved with. Before this point, he was best known for D (1995)—an anxious and intense horror-puzzle game that forces the player to complete it within two hours without any way to save or even pause—and Enemy Zero (1996), an Alien-esque space station survival thriller scored by Michael Nyman, in which the enemies are invisible and only able to be located through the pitch and volume of the sounds they emit.
The braille instructions shipped with copies of Real Sound
It’s this special attention paid to sound within gameplay that gained Eno a following in Japan by those who were blind and of low-vision. After several of their fan letters, he met with many of these players in person, to see firsthand the ways in which they engaged with videogame software and hardware not originally intended to be accessible to them. These encounters served as the inspiration for Real Sound—Eno wanted not just to create a game “for the blind,” but rather a game in which a blind and a sighted person would have the same experience of playing it. In exchange for it being a Saturn-only release, Sega agreed to donate a thousand consoles to blind players—Eno himself included a copy of Real Sound with every console. At first glance, the game’s case looks like any other Sega Saturn game. But open the game’s packaging, and you immediately encounter something that hasn’t been included in any console game before or since: a sheet of instructions in braille.
Playing Real Sound as a sighted player, it’s hard not to be disoriented at first. Its dialogue—better acted than in any game I’ve played—cannot be skipped over or sped up by mashing a button repeatedly. We’re used to visual distinctions between “gameplay” and “cutscene,” where the former requires our active attention and the latter for us to sit back and relax; in Real Sound, the player must hang on every word, always listening for the next chime that indicates that you have to make an immediate decision as to how the story will go. I wasn’t sure what to do with my body at first; whether to close my eyes, look at the blank screen, or vaguely stare into space (I chose the latter). Small sonic details that I never would have noticed in a conventional videogame—like the moment-to-moment interactions between the musical score, the actor’s voices, and the elaborate sound effects—suddenly came together to form an entire world in a way I had never experienced.
Real Sound is far from the first or only audiogame, though it is one of the very few ever released for major consoles. Soundvoyager (2006), a set of diverse and relaxing audio minigames within Bit Generations for the Game Boy Advance, was the first audiogame released by a major studio since Real Sound, though the absence of voiceover in its menus keep it from being fully accessible. Papa Sangre, a 2010 release for the iPhone/iPad, is a marvelously creepy experiment that makes full use of three-dimensional sound design (headphones are vital) and is an excellent introduction to the audiogame genre. Much more common are amateur homebrew audiogames for the PC—Audiogames.net maintains a list of hundreds. Bokurano Daiboukenn and its two sequels, some of the best examples of these, are free Japanese side-scrolling action RPGs in the style of Metroid or Castlevania, focused on exploring worlds, collecting powerups, and defeating enemies, all through sound.
Audiogames tend to be accessible by design—Amy Mason, in an article for the National Federation of the Blind, however, notes that most games played by blind and low-vision players are accessible to them only by accident. This was the case for Eno’s Enemy Zero, with the sound-based play centered around invisible monsters. Other accessible-by-accident games include text-based games like King of Dragon Pass (1999), Kingdom of Loathing (2003), and various interactive fiction works that can be used with screen access software (including text-to-speech programs). Even many 2D fighting games like Mortal Kombat are largely accessible as well, the audio cues being ample enough for a blind or low-vision player to play without too many issues, except for the maze of title, mode-select, and character-select screens. This is a problem that Mike Zaimont of Lab Zero Games addressed directly, updating the fighting game Skullgirls Encore (2014), so that all of its menus were fully accessible through text-to-speech programs. Other games take much more effort on the part of players to be made even slightly accessible. A Kotaku article earlier this year profiled Terry Garrett, a blind player who beat The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) after five years, using two speakers set in his chair that split the game’s audio to right and left channels in order to help him locate Link more effectively in his surroundings.
Whether accessible to blind and low-vision players on purpose or by accident, these games represent a tiny fraction of those that are made. Accessibility to deaf and hard of hearing players is better overall these days, but there are countless games that have crucial puzzles that hinge upon audio cues with no visual elements, lack captions to spoken elements, or rely on particular sounds or music to indicate where hidden objects are located or if an enemy is approaching. (Audiogames are, needless to say, largely inaccessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing players, though again incorporating detailed captions would even make many of these playable.) The message is clear: videogame culture tends to assume that all players have the same bodies that function in the same ways, and this assumption is rigid enough that even the most trivial tweaks that would make a game accessible—audio and visual cues, text that can be read with a screen access program, and so on—are not only rarely implemented, but often never even occur as a possibility.
Thinking about audiogames brings another, even more fundamental bias within videogames to the forefront, embodied by the term “videogame” itself: as a medium, videogames tend to privilege one sense, vision, above all else. Narratives of game development often center around the progress of computer graphics, from 8-bit to 16-bit to 64-bit, from 2D to 3D, from blocky polygons to vivid hyperrealism. Games are hailed for their renderings of faces, landscapes, water, and blood. Alternately, they’re praised for their character designs, unusual graphic stylization, or their incorporation of aesthetics of other visual media into their look, like watercolor painting, papercraft, or comic book art.
Yet despite the importance of sound from the very earliest stages of the medium, when it comes to writing about games, the “audio” of audiovisual is relegated to the margins. This is true when it comes to playing games too, where as soon as sound is not strictly necessary to play a game, it becomes a completely optional part of the experience. A game is muted so readily, so casually, in order not to bother the people around you at home, in a car, or on a subway. Or maybe you just want to play in silence, or listen to other music. This is perfectly reasonable—it would be absurd to suggest that everyone should play games with the sound turned on at all times. But the fact that audio is treated as so optional when it comes to videogames again shows us a bias, one that means most people are perfectly willing to think, play, and write about games while only paying attention to what appears onscreen, and not what comes out of the speakers.
Audiogames are one way to confront this bias head-on: with no visual elements to talk about, you’re forced to contend with the intersection between interactivity and sound. Putting sound at the center of the story of a videogame amplifies other elements within the mix as well—there’s a neglected shadow history of the medium centered around the questions of audio, one that brings together games with cultures, communities, and technologies that aren’t usually talked about in this context. Blind and low-vision players are one; another is the role of the voice in videogames, a focus on which brings an array of long-forgotten games and pieces of gaming hardware back within earshot, few more forgotten than Nintendo’s Satellaview.
While synthesized voices appeared in games as early as the beginning of the 1980s—the terrifying computerized speech in the arcade game Bezerk (1980) is perhaps the first example—the mid-to-late 1990s saw the release in Japan of a now-obscure peripheral that brought voice acting to the forefront. The Satellaview, a satellite modem for the Super Famicom (known elsewhere as the Super Nintendo) came out in 1995, and was designed to receive signals from St. GIGA radio station, which specialized in broadcasting content at fixed time slots to interact with certain Super Famicom games. Players could use the Satellaview to access “SoundLink” data, very much akin to a radio play. Sometimes, actors gave real-time walkthroughs to the featured game, but the real draw were fully voice-acted cutscenes, something that would be unthinkable with the standard Super Famicom hardware. Starting in 1995, three different Legend of Zelda games were released for the Satellaview—BS Zelda no Densetsu, BS Zelda no Densetsu: MAP2, and BS Zelda no Densetsu: Inishie no Sekiban (the “BS” stood for “Broadcast Satellite”)—with SoundLink actors providing full voice-over narration. Yet the full experience of playing these games cannot, as of now, be recreated: the SoundLink broadcasts meant to accompany them each happened several times, but then never again, an ephemerality we associate more with live performance than with videogames. In yet another symptom of the lack of acknowledgement in the importance of sound to the medium, perhaps one of the most crucial early experiments in combining games with storytelling has become little more than an esoteric footnote in conventional game history.
The same might be said, perhaps, of Real Sound: Kaze no Regret. A cult hit among a very particular group of players, it’s an oddity that accrued to its name several pioneering firsts—first audiogame on a television console, first console game fully accessible to the blind—that also unfortunately proved to be lasts (the two planned sequels never came to be). Yet this game, singular even within Kenji Eno’s legacy, still has much left to teach us: about the other stories to be told about videogame history; about paying attention to that which is all too easily ignored; and about rejecting small-mindedness in favor of committing to real accessibility and respect for all possible players. Or, in Navi’s words: Hey! Listen!