The scary audio games that shun high-res graphics for high drama


The rise of the iPhone has brought with it many big changes in how we use technology. But it has also helped more radical and off-kilter ideas to gestate and grow, like the humble audio game.

An audio game is essentially a video game without graphics, or with graphics that are as rudimentary as a menu or some text. It’s about as far away from the likes of Destiny and the cinematic PS4 title The Order 1886 as you are likely to get.

Audio games existed prior to iOS, with early innovators including famous Japanese designers Kenji Eno and Fumito Ueda’s Sega Saturn title Real Sound as well as GMA Games’ Doom-alike Shades of Doom and Richard van Tol, Sander Huiberts and Hugo Verweij’s racing game Drive.

But it’s on iOS that the medium has found its voice. Titles such as BlindSide and Somethin’ Else’s horror-themed Papa Sangre series have met a broad audience much wider than the blind and visually-impaired gamers that are traditionally targeted.

Sean Bean voicing Papa Sangre II
The atmospheric and scary Papa Sangre II features the gravelled tones of veteran actor Sean Bean. Image via
The Order 1886 vs Blindside
The Order 1886 on PS4 (left) has some of the most realistic graphics to date; Blindside (right) has a rudimentary interface and relies on its audio for impact.

Now audio games are maturing and evolving further. In November, Dave Grossman joined interactive audio drama developer Reactive Studios as chief creative officer. Grossman was a key figure in the design of classic LucasArts adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island, and his hiring provides a kind of creative legitimacy to audio-driven play in the games industry.

Grossman sees interactive dramas such as Reactive’s episodic Codename Cygnus as being in competition with audiobooks and radio theatre. His idea is to bring the audience into the experience – to have them actively participate as characters in the story and to provide them a much larger number of narrative branches than in games like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead.

Without need for further art – the most expensive part of developing a typical video game – Reactive Studios, and other companies focused on audio-driven game experiences, have much more freedom to innovate and experiment.

Codename Cygnus and the Papa Sangre games are among the best examples of how this is already happening. Others include The Three Monkeys, an upcoming audio-only fantasy role-playing game for PC, in which players will guide their blind hero through perilous open-world environments in a quest to save the world from darkness.

Also in development is a French project called A Blind Legend, which will allow players to orient and navigate a story-rich world, blocking, dodging, striking or repelling enemies via three-dimensional sound cues. These are coupled with tactile gestures and haptic feedback on the iPhone.

And then there’s Mayday! Deep Space by the New York Times bestselling author Daniel H. Wilson. Mayday wowed critics when it came out earlier this year on iOS with a previously unheard of gameplay hook: players issue any of around a dozen voice commands to a distressed survivor stranded on a ramshackle spaceship and watch and listen via a communications interface as he moves around.

You might have heard about the wildly successful podcast Serial, which re-examined the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee. Its production team expected a modest audience, but the podcast was downloaded over 75 million times and had celebrity fans including Ewan McGregor and Chris Pine.

So there’s clearly room for major innovation in audio-driven game experiences, whether it is in audio-only games like The Three Monkeys, interactive radio-style dramas like Codename Cygnus or video games like Mayday that sport pared-back graphics mixed with strong audio-based storytelling. – Richard Moss

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