Radio Play

A recent submission to BigThink has gotten me to thinking about the possibilities of interactive radio, or audio gaming. I hesitate to call this ‘interactive audio’, because that particular term has come to signify art installations and the likes of Rez and Music 2000. However, to take the “video” right out of video games and present the player with an interactive, audio-only experience.. would that be possible? Has it already been done?

Here’s Jad Abumrad’s video, on how radio creates empathy through co-authorship of an imagined experience:

I have to confess an obstacle to my usual lines of research, given that there are already slews of interactive audio games and software, and so-called ‘interactive’ radio stations. If there are any audio games already out here, I’m finding it very hard indeed to spot them.

Radio is, of course, already a fairly interactive medium, best expressed in talk shows. Through telephones and with the advent of email, text messaging and Twitter, these shows have allowed their listeners to put their views across and so change the course of discussion, with similar interactivity to be seen in many music shows. Never do I recall seeing the radio equivalent of an RPG, though; a radio play in which the listener can choose which direction the protagonist should take.

I think the closest I’ve gotten is a board game named CD Adventure: Search for the Lost City, which is an audio-reliant board game. Most games which incorporate sound do so simply to replace the rolling of dice, or they do as this game and Mall Madness do, and direct players towards certain tasks. In CD Adventure, certain squares on the board ask you to take a card, which in turn asks you to skip to a certain track on a CD. Because each card corresponds to a location on the board (swamps, rapids and so on), these tracks can then set a proper scene, with sound effects and character actors to deliver instructions to the player.

The actual gameplay could be accomplished just as easily by reading the instructions off the card, but CD Adventure was designed so that characters from within the game would seem to come to life. By doing this we remove the common act of a player reading aloud from a card, in which they are the deliverer of information to everyone else. Instead that duty falls to an apparent external entity; an agent whose actions influence everyone else on the board. It’s a powerful tool for uniting each player on the board, rather than having them constantly compete. Atmosfear is another game which does this to great effect, albeit through a linear video rather than a stack of audio files.

My friends and I developed a particular hatred for one character whose name I cannot now recall, whose smarmy voice could often be heard sending my token back to the beginning of the board. This creates a far different social experience to that of a player whose own roll apparently dooms them or grants success, where they’re left blaming merely chance or the card in front of them for their misfortune. Other board games in which instructions are read from cards do not have this element of theatre to them, and so do not have recognisable characters. Yet we do develop exactly this sort of relationship with the animated – and often vocalised – citizens of our digital toyboxes.

At a basic level, I wonder what could be achieved by having ‘make your own adventure’ books available on audiotape, or creating horror games in which players may be startled into wakefulness and led down new paths in a story, similar again to the video board game, Atmosfear. At a more egalitarian level, I wonder at the possibilities for developing games for the blind.

One imagines that a truly rich audio gaming experience would have the capacity for spoken feedback, and this has been within our technological grasp for years now. Considering we can command our Xbox 360s to play media, and our iPhones to invite friends to our parties, surely we can ask Kinect to equip the lit torch, or direct Siri take the left-hand turn down a steampunk alleyway?

We’d have to rethink the genres we could port to audio gaming though, and we’d probably have to invent some new ones. To propose an audio-only shooter is ridiculous, but imagine the possibilities of an interactive detective story, or a strategy game which is played as though you are Mission Control, receiving communicae via radio from your moonbase. The latter could still be done using a screen, but what changes would we see to the drama behind a game which doesn’t involve an aerial view and flashing green placement grids?

I’m confident in one aspect, though: radio has proven that audio can be a powerful tool for evoking empathy. Games have made huge strides in the past decade, towards achieving the sort of richness which books and film take for granted. Could a push into audio gaming show us a new path?