May 6, 2017
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The Next Wave of Games Don’t Need Screens

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Game developers look to the radio dramas of old—and Alexa—for fresh inspiration.

 

Warning: This piece contains story spoilers for Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

I am standing in one of London’s dank alleyways, just a few steps from the scene of a grisly murder. The sounds of street traffic are distant enough to just barely register over one’s thoughts. Inspector Lestrade has since been called away to the other officers present. I typically wouldn’t enjoy being ripped from my cozy Baker Street study to analyze a common deal gone wrong, but it pays to be thorough, and so I approach Lestrade’s lieutenant to inquire further.

But I am no true Sherlock Holmes, and that murder victim was no mere commoner, and soon enough I am forced to listen to the sounds of Scotland Yard burning to the ground. Were this a classic “choose-your-own-adventure” novel, it would simply be a matter of flipping back to my last dog-eared page. Instead, a charming narrator asks if I feel like stepping back to my last crossroads, and my journey with Schell Games’ Baker Street Experience continues on.

For as long as electronic airwaves have existed, stories of intrigue and daring heroism have captivated audiences young and old alike with franchises like Dick Tracy and the Shadow.

While radio inevitably took a backseat to film, a strong community of storytellers has managed to keep the craft alive in one form or another up to the modern day. The BBC regularly produces audio dramas through their radio and online channels, and podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown, or The Once & Future Nerd have managed to cultivate dedicated followings.

Now, a third wave of audio drama is set to be produced at the hands of game developers, who are taking the techniques of old and infusing them into a fundamentally altered, yet familiar structure, with listeners playing a vocal role in the action. Instead of simply absorbing the thrilling tales of daring heroes and villains, it is your own voice (speaking into a phone or Amazon Echo device) that determines the next step of action with built-in voice commands. Do you “follow” Inspector Lestrade? Or do you “investigate” the mysterious woman darting into the nearby cafe? What might it feel like to actually say goodbye to a character you’ve grown to love?

Something Old, Something New

For Bonnie Bogovich, the relationship between a narrative and audio has always been special. As a former sound designer and composer at Schell Games (known for their work on I Expect You to Die), Bogovich channeled her love for classic radio dramas during regular jam sessions, two of which resulted in the creation of Baker Street Experience.

“I was relistening to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series and found myself thinking about how the sound design, especially in the BBC series, is amazing,” Bogovich says. “You can be sitting in your car and be completely immersed in this world. They dramatically acted everything out. I thought wouldn’t that be an awesome way to present a game, where all you had was sound?”

Jonathon Myers, former narrative designer and writer for companies like mobile giant Zynga and Owlchemy Labs, co-founded the studio Earplay with a similar idea in mind: To tell emotionally resonant stories. Since funds as a fledgling startup were understandably sparse, they decided to experiment with an interactive audio-only format.

Bogovich and Myers weren’t simply looking to channel their fandoms, though. Both called upon their experience in the world of theatrical production to lay the foundation for projects with already close ties to the stage.

Bogovich, herself a former stage manager in the Pittsburgh area, gained experience with alternate storytelling methods while writing such musicals as Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera, a “4D” show that included a live backdrop of video footage to supplement actors onstage.

Before transitioning to an appropriate electronic medium, Myers and his wife would write out dialogue and player prompts, then act it all out with friends as the “players” in local coffee shops. Earplay’s name is itself a riff on the National Public Radio’s longest-running series of audio dramas, which ran from 1972 to the 1990s. Their work would eventually translate into its highest-rated narrative, Codename Cygnus, a hardboiled secret agent caper. The Baker Street Experience was developed over the course of two week-long game jams, necessitating a highly personal and collaborative environment akin to theater.

“In some ways, it’s just a way to get all these theater troupes of people, people who love interactive stories, together to make fun stuff,” Myers says. “Even the actors can get in and give notes on how to better the characters. We also record in chronological order, which is just weird [for game development]. Because it’s all about the creators, the whole time we’re in the process, we can’t wait for people to experience this moment. It brings about a certain sense of perfectionism. That’s something I very much want to guard as a company.”

While their work draws from the classic works that came before, it’s the interactive element that creates new challenges for the previously linear medium.

Codename Cygnus image courtesy of Earplay

“The instructions to the person across from us [during testing] were ‘don’t say anything unless you’re supposed to say something, and when you are, say it,'” Myers says. “It was eye-opening because it’s a lot harder to write those prompts for experiences when people can speak at anytime.”

Myers co-founded Earplay in early 2013, a year before devices like the Amazon Echo would even be sold. This forced the company to develop their own app and monetization structure, since little existed in the way of monetizing individual interactive episodes.

Though Bogovich would go on to create The Baker Street Experience specifically for the Amazon Echo, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for her team, either. Since the Echo wasn’t originally built for longform interactive games, the technology created restrictions that affected how Schell Games needed to structure their story.

Each bit of narration and dialogue needed to fit into absolutely no more than 90 seconds, lest the Echo time out. During audio prompts, if the player needed to consider their choices for more than 15 seconds, it would similarly time out since it assumed the player had just left, forcing a restart of the entire experience. For Bogovich and her team, this meant they had to script out very concise, meaningful dialogue during each interim, making every second count, not unlike a radio broadcast bookended by strict start and end times.

Perhaps most importantly, the challenge facing teams who want to make interactive audio narratives for devices like the Amazon Echo is that there’s currently no way to charge for the product. This obviously presents a problem for teams who can’t find a workaround, like teasing additional content on a different platform for the player to find, but with the explosion of Echo and Google Home sales in the last several years (over five million sold by Christmas 2016), some find it a thrilling field to explore.

“If these devices are being spread so wide, there’s no excuse not to use them as a testing ground to develop new things that would really benefit people, at least get them keen on the idea of audio-only development,” Bogovich says.

While audio dramas have always held an audience, the element of interactive choices may open up new windows for blind or visually impaired players, who understandably struggle with a heavily visual medium, though perhaps in a more roundabout way than expected.

“Rather than audio dramas being the zenith of blind accessibility and bringing in more blind gamers, I see it as bringing in more sighted players to blind accessible games,” says Adriane Kuzminski, a sound designer and advocate for blind accessibility in gaming. “When it comes to Alexa or these games, that’s having more sighted people interact with a device that speaks to them. The more we have this large population interacting with this, that’s going to then bring up blind accessibility in other ways. If we can just see these things as common, then we won’t have to fight for blind accessible features. They’ll already be there.”

Kuzminski, who also aided Earplay in recording actors, as well as editing and porting dialogue over to the iOS disabled-accessible app “VoiceOver,” says the challenge will be twofold. On one front are the aforementioned growing pains of implementing accessibility tools into other platforms. The other is how teams like Schell Games, Earplay, or any other might use interactive audio dramas as a platform for convincing developers to implement blind accessibility tools. When your only tool is audio, developers must learn a number of tricks in order to communicate a message across. Kuzminski believes these principles found and developed through audio dramas could translate well into turn-based strategy games, or even fighting games.

Of course, if you’re going to get people, sighted or otherwise, to play an interactive audio drama, you need excellent storytellers to create stories that can stand up to both classic game and radio narratives. To that end, Earplay hired on former Telltale design director Dave Grossman as Chief Creative Officer and former CCP Editor-in-Chief Eddy Webb.

Webb, who now works as Earplay’s executive producer, was responsible for creating much of the lore and story content in EVE Online and World of Darkness. Grossman, whose credits also include work as a designer and writer on the Monkey Island franchise, helped breathe fresh air into the narrative adventure genre with 2012’s Telltale’s The Walking Dead’s first season.

For Grossman, the work feels significantly similar to his previous experience with Telltale, with one simple caveat. While older incarnations of radio dramas predominantly told stories to listeners, the interactive element of something like Codename Cygnus opens up opportunities for more meaningful storytelling.

“The main thing to remember is that the player is playing a central role and that you have to concede some authorship to them,” Grossman says. “Then it all becomes about when do you do that?”

Grossman claims to take a bit more direction from relatively contemporary radio dramas, which have worked to modernize some of the more ridiculous elements of those older narratives.

“They tend to be a little heavy-handed in the older material, and that’s a style all on its own that you can ape for campiness and humor” Grossman says. “It’s always a juggling act of ‘how much are we going to lampshade the awkwardness of this and how much are we going to sneakily show things to the audience without showing them?'”

“It’s always a juggling act of ‘how much are we going to lampshade the awkwardness of this and how much are we going to sneakily show things to the audience without showing them?'”

Whereas something like Baker Street Experience’s branching narrative fundamentally alters who you talk to or where you go, Grossman compares Codename Cygnus’ prompts more to The Walking Dead’s personality-based decisions. While the path you take will largely stay the same, how you get there and what others think of you along the way will be colored by how you respond to the world around you.

Empathy as a tool for storytelling is on the menu, too. During our conversation, we raised the instance of The Walking Dead’s Clementine having to say goodbye to Lee, the one friend who had protected her from the world’s cruelties. The scene stands as one of gaming’s most memorable and intensely sad, if only because of the immense bond built between the two and the difficult decision Clementine must make. One wonders what it might be like to physically utter the words “goodbye” to such a character.

“What I think it comes down to is, when you’re drawn into that space, you’re doing some of the work of imagining what’s going on,” Webb says. “I think you become more emotionally attached to what happens as a result of that.”

In theory at least, it doesn’t seem too farfetched a concept. Part of what makes certain fandoms fall in love with a game’s cast is an ability to see a piece of ourselves (faulty, idealized, or otherwise) in a character. Author J.K. Rowling notably set the Harry Potter fandom alight with the casting of a black actress as Hermione for a theatrical adaptation, only later reminding her fans that she never once described the character’s skin tone.

Could Lee’s death mean even more if we imagined him as someone we knew?

Could an interactive audio narrative present players with more ability to imprint their identity onto a character without sacrificing meaningful development? Could Lee’s death mean even more if we imagined him as someone we knew?

Considering they’re among the first to wade into the territory, these are questions developers like Grossman, Webb, Myers, and Bogovich are excited to tackle. Certainly no one on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds team in the 1930’s anticipated frightening a nation with the power of their broadcast. Though mass media has largely desensitized us to such fantasies, it may be a moment ripe for smaller bits of introspection and world-building.

“It feels like we had faith, and people wanted it,” Myers says. “We could tell when we demonstrated it that people enjoyed the experience. The distribution channels weren’t there, though. Now they’re opening up and putting players out in front of us that want what we create. It’s sort of redemptive in that sense.”

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