Is it possible to make a game without graphics?
As the industry acclimatises to the visual fidelity of the next-generation of games consoles, we chat to Steve Willey and Jamin Smith of Incus Games about Three Monkeys – a PC game without graphics.
Three Monkeys is a very different kind of game – it’s ambitious, it’s innovative and it’s intriguing. Developer Incus Games has decided to take the game down an audio-only route, crafting an RPG that’s been specifically designed for the visually impaired community. The player takes on the role as Tobar, and in an interesting move for a title from a first-person perspective, Tobar is blind.
Steve Willey, producer and development manager at Incus Games, told us that creating a game purely out of soundscapes and sonic environments requires a very different approach from traditional gameplay development. “Blind players are used to interacting with user interfaces in a different way, and one of the main problems we have is bridging that gap with visual players,” he tells us. “We need to consider how much information they can take in without becoming mentally exhausted. Our approach to overcoming that was to start up with very simple control mechanisms, and then open up lots of different layers of how you can use weapons – like learning how to use your environment. Tobar has a bow, for example, and if you can hear some fire around you, firing the arrow through it will create a different outcome to a standard arrow shot.”
While the idea of contextual environmental attacks is nothing new, it’s interesting to hear Willey talk about the idea of hearing fire – games like Assassin’s Creed allow you to use items in the game world to dispatch your foes, but listening out for these prompts, rather than having a shiny signpost saying ‘Use Me!’ seems like a far more engrossing prospect. “We’ve also steered away from using the mouse,” Willey tells us. “We see it as an ambiguous control feature – unless you can see your cursor, it’s very difficult to see where you’ve ended up. So we’re using more buttons – if you’re turning, you know that if you push a directional arrow once, it does this much, and that builds up an impression of how much you’re moving”.
Combining this binary aspect of movement with the use of binaurally captured sounds creates a game world that, we imagine, will work a little like it’s on a grid – by moving toward and away from various sound sources, you can work out what’s where and decipher your surroundings based on audio alone, using an incremental scale which is far more suited to gradational keyboard inputs than a scrolling mouse input. This discrepancy between analogue and digital inputs throws up an interesting problem that, we imagine, a lot of developers wouldn’t have to consider so heavily. “Every problem we encounter, we manage to overcome,” Willey tells us, “but the more problematic the issue, the more interesting results come out of it. I think you tend to innovate more when you hit larger problems.”
Narrative exposition must be approached differently in audio-based games, too – a lot of titles rely on their visuals to portray a world, to communicate story, to grant subtle exposition. Three Monkeys doesn’t have that luxury, and writer Jamin Smith outlines some of the difficulties in making the world of Byzantia visible to a blind protagonist. “With this kind of game, you have to have your voice actors explaining exactly what happens – the environment will do that to an extent, but the character work has to be very heavy. Yosuke – the other main character beside Tobar – does all the ‘heavy lifting’; she’s the one that brings the narrative forward, and as such she’s a really enjoyable character to write for.”
The very fact that a game like Three Monkeys is being made shows a progression for the games industry – whilst there have been audio adventure games on the market before, we’re not sure we’ve seen anything quite on the scale as Incus Games’ effort. The importance of the game is two-fold – as it raises awareness of the visually impaired community within gaming culture, it also highlights the importance of sound design in the more conventional videogame. “Because there’s such a reliance on the visual elements of games, sometimes the sound design is really overlooked,” suggests Willey, “if you see really bad graphics, you’ll notice immediately, and we’ve created a situation now where people are going to be hyper-aware of our sound design.”
It goes without saying that Three Monkeys will deliver an epic audio adventure to sighted and visually-impaired players alike, but we’re more excited about the potential this game has to show off what inventive and innovative audio implementation in games can do. By playing on just one sense of what a player is experiencing, Three Monkeys has the ability to create a unique world for every player, shaped intimately by their own imagination. This could be the start of a whole new genre of game, and as Willey muses “the most photo-realistic graphics card is our brain, right?” we couldn’t help but think he was onto something revolutionary.