2013-10-03

Co.Labs

This Audio-Only Video Game Has Nothing “Video” About It

How two oddball game-makers figured out that killer games don’t need graphics.



For as long as there have been video games, there have been graphics to those games. Even the earliest text-based video games from the 1980s required graphics to be displayed on your screen--for example, the letters that made up the words. But what would happen if someone wanted to take the “video” out of video games and make users rely solely on their other senses?

That’s exactly what Marco Corradini and Alessandro Cuzzocrea at Pixel House wanted to find out, so they created an experimental game called Vanished that puts the user into a world where he has to rely on only his hearing and sense of touch to navigate the game.

“The idea for this game came about randomly,” Marco Corradini tells me. “I was testing some Commodore 64 games when I stumbled across Zork,” which is a text based game. “As I was playing, I noticed how immersive the experience created solely by my imagination was. Simply by reading some lines of text I was immersed in another world. It was unexpected. So I came up with the idea of using that game’s mechanics, but in a different way: to present an entire game only with audio to create something really immersive.” Then he built it for iOS. Here’s how it works.

Form Without Graphics

When you launch Vanished on your iPhone, you are asked to plug in your headphones and close your eyes (you can keep your eyes open, but the screen will show nothing). You’re then launched into the world of Vanished, where you play a character who wakes up to find all light has disappeared from the world. The only sensations you experience in the game are sounds and touch. Your job is to navigate towards various sounds to explore your world and to fight off monsters you can hear but not see along the way.

The game relies on the iPhone’s built-in compass which you use to turn your character in different directions (you physically need to rotate around to set your character’s direction). You move forward in the game by tapping the screen and you fight off monsters by shaking your iPhone when the sounds they make get close and your phone vibrates.

“Today everybody's always trying to achieve increasingly detailed graphics in video games to create something impressive--something that surprises the player,” Marco says. “But we sometimes forgot that graphics are nothing more than a tool to simulate a visual experience--to show images that are then processed by our brain--generating the game’s environment. On one hand graphics are good because they help assist the player in the creation of a world that resembles the idea of the game’s developer and permits the inception of foreign concepts into the mind of the player. But on the other hand those graphics may be viewed as a limitation to the imagination. With Vanished we tried to untie the concept of ‘visual’ from that of video game. The game, the objects, and the enemies are there, but it's up to you to give them form.”

Imagination As Hardware

As a person who enjoys my Angry Birds Star Wars and Dots I have to admit when I first heard of Vanished I assumed it would just be one big gimmick of a game I would install and delete within two minutes. But I was wrong. While I don’t want to reveal the ending of the game, I will say there is much more going on beneath the sounds you hear and it’s the subtext and story in the end that mixes with your audio journey and imagination to create a feeling of despair I’ve never felt before in a video game. By the time I finished Vanished I felt the same way I did when I first read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And during the game I felt as I did when I was an eight year old boy worried about what was under my bed after my mom turned out the lights--which is exactly what Marco Corradini and Alessandro Cuzzocrea were going for.

“We were inspired by the Lovecraftian idea that ‘the strongest kind of fear, is the fear of the unknown,’” Marco tells me. So they made a horror game based around the most powerful sense humans possess--sound. Indeed, ask any psychologist and they’ll tell you it is sound more so than any other sensation that generates the fight or flight response we launch into from the moment we are born. It is sound--the creek of the closet door; the tree branches scratching on a window pain--that makes the child cower under his blanket. Those unknown sounds spur the imagination, which Marco and Alessandro believe is “the most powerful hardware a game needs.”

“Having a game with beautiful graphics is great,” Marco says, “but we must remember the importance of the personal experience created by the player himself. Today the player’s imagination is undervalued. Even though there are games that allow you to modify elements, very often everything is defined from the beginning, which only gives the illusion of imagination. I think it’s important to not tell everything and let the player’s mind complete the missing parts. After all, when you're a kid, you do not need incredible games to have fun. You just need a few small things. The imagination does the rest.”

Designing a Videoless Game

You would think that designing and coding a video game that has no graphics would save a lot of development time, but Alessandro tells me that’s not the case. “In a ‘normal’ game developers see what they code,” Alessandro says. “In this game you don't. So we had to test a lot to understand if the mechanics were working correctly. We did save a lot of time by removing any kind of animation from the game, but we spent an equal amount of effort trying to design something that works well even with no visual feedback for the player, like the timing of attacks, the strengths and weaknesses of the monsters, the level system, et cetera. The player can easily learn these things in a graphics-based game, but they're not so simple to understand if you can’t see them.”

In designing a normal video game, developers will frequently storyboard the levels much as directors do with Hollywood movies: they visually sketch everything out ahead of time so they know--and ultimately, the player knows--how to get from A to B to C to the end. But since Vanished has no graphics, Alessandro and Marco relied on “chapters” instead of your standard levels. A script was written and divided into chapters that mark the end of one level and the beginning of the next that helped both Vanished developers and players navigate through their sightless journey.

However, from a pure coding perspective the most challenging thing about Vanished was what you might expect: getting the sound right.

“We probably spent more time making the sounds than anything else in the game,” Alessandro says. “I wandered around like a madman to sample creaking doors and unusual sounds in the night. We also used some sample libraries, but most of the sounds and all of the music are our creation.”

Specifically, Alessandro says the code to handle 3-D sound, based on real-time mixing and low pass filtering, was a challenge, especially given that both he and Marco only formed their company a few months ago and their previous game was more traditional--a graphics-based side-scroller where sound wasn’t as critical.

“It’s harder to maintain the overall volume and to make every sound audible than you would think,” Alessandro says, “not to mention to develop a combat system only based on sounds and gestures. It's been quite a challenge.”

The Future of Experimental Gaming

I’m actually a big fan of Vanished now, but this game isn’t going to take the App Store by storm, something Marco readily admits when I ask him about the appeal he thinks his experimental game has.

Vanished has very limited appeal,” he says, not beating around the bush. “The App Store is almost completely marked by casual gamers. That's normal because the iPhone is a phone and not a console, so the average user is looking for something to kill time and not an immersive, original experience--much less a strange one like Vanished.”

His reply actually makes me a little sad that the casual gaming world doesn’t seem “ready” for more games like Vanished, so I ask him if he feels there’s enough experimenting going on in the video game world--a world populated with clones like Angry Birds and Plants vs Zombies.

“Maybe there's a bit of copying and pasting out there, yes. Especially for the highest grossing games. There are a lot of clones and a lot of different games with the same gameplay, but games are designed to a ‘standard’ and it's the market that wants it that way,” he says. “Despite this, the indie game scene is full of original ideas and great games. Thanks to the App Store and the Google Play Store--and Steam, but that's a bit more complicated--for the first time ever, normal folks like us can make games and hope to see them downloaded worldwide.”

But the lack of nonstandard games is not going to stop Marco and Alessandro from continuing to experiment. Their next game is an experiment at almost the opposite end of the spectrum from Vanished. Instead of using sounds and the player’s imagination to take a journey into a sightless world of horror, the two developers hope to move their players into a zen state.

“The idea revolves around creating a fixed relationship between the player and the game, which fits well with the smartphone-as-platform,” Marco says. “It’s a game that grows with the player and allows him to create a space to find peace and tranquillity.”

It’s a game I’m sure fans of Vanished can’t wait to finally see.

[Image: Flickr user Patrick Dinnen]