Sound Games


Can sound be used as a primary gameplay mechanic? In this blog post, I’ll be showing you videos of a number of recent games that have tried to answer this question – they’re all fun and fascinating in their own ways.

As an audio content creator for the video game industry, I’m definitely intrigued by the trend of using audio as the primary mechanic in a video game. In an audio-driven game, the players have to use their ears in order to play – sound takes over the responsibility to deliver crucial gameplay messages to the player. Instead of audio providing support to a primarily visual experience, the audio-driven game turns that paradigm on its head, forcing the visuals into a supporting role for a primarily aural experience. To explain it another way, consider those players who sometimes prefer to turn off the sound of a game and simply rely on the visuals. In an audio-driven game, that would be impossible. On the other hand, players could conceivably turn off the visuals (or simply close their eyes) and still successfully play the game and enjoy themselves while playing it.

Papa Sangre is one of the purest examples of this approach. The game has almost no visual content at all, instead presenting only a rudimentary black-and-white dial for changing direction, and the image of two feet that propel your character forward when tapped sequentially. With this bare-bones interface, you navigate a lush aural environment. As a new arrival in the land of the dead, you navigate through total darkness, searching for your lost love. The game was created by Paul Bennun and the team at Somethin’ Else. Here’s a video demonstrating a few minutes of gameplay (best enjoyed wearing headphones).

While Papa Sangre is designed as a story-rich experience, Ear Monsters is a more casual game that relies on sound to drive gameplay. Gameplay involves killing invisible monsters by locating them based on their vocalizations. Again, the visual presentation is utilitarian and static, while the audio portion is more vibrant and active. Brian Schmidt of Ear Games created this game – he posted an interesting blog about the making of an audio game to the Gamasutra site. Here’s a tutorial demonstrating how to play Ear Monsters:

On the other end of the spectrum, a few games have experimented with the use of audio by the player as the primary method for controlling gameplay. One of my favorite examples of this is PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPew, created by Josh Schonstall and Ian Brock of IncredibleApe. As the name suggests, players control a sidescrolling shooter by saying “PewPewPew” into a microphone, which triggers the character to fire weapons. The game is hilarious to watch – here’s a video:

Another game I want to mention is more of a work of performance art. It could never actually be released to the public, although the public can play it when it’s displayed as an interactive art installation during game festivals, game music concerts and museum exhibitions. The game is called Cello Fortress, and was created by Joost van Dongen. In this multiplayer game, one of the players is always a cellist, who controls various forms of weaponry by virtue of specific musical articulations on the cello. Fast notes control guns, chords control flamethrowers, low notes control mines, etc. The cello player improvises a musical performance while also attempting to destroy a group of opponents, who control tanks by using traditional console controllers. It’s fascinating to watch – here’s a video:

Finally, I had the opportunity to compose music for a gameplay sequence in God of War that functioned as an audio-driven minigame. During the Desert of Lost Souls sequence, the player is tasked with locating an enemy during a blinding sandstorm. The enemy is the mythical Siren, who sings to lure unsuspecting warriors to their deaths. In this case, the player must disregard visual stimulus and focus on the location of the singing voice in the desert, following the sound until the Siren is reached and can be killed. I composed and performed the song of the Siren.  Here’s a link to a video of that gameplay sequence:

Have you heard an audio-driven video game that you’d like to discuss here? Please share your experiences and impressions in the comments below!