I don’t usually do games. A few minutes into a board one, or on a Wii, and a lightning bolt of existential angst strikes. What’s the point? What’s it all for? Why am I here? Almost instantly, I lose the will to play.
But with Papa Sangre, it’s different. Mostly because Papa Sangre is different. It’s a video game without, er, video.
It’s 100% audio: binaural audio – which means that you hear in 3D through your headphones (you need them to play). The sound, the world of the game, is all around: you’re at its centre.
You navigate its various levels – Papa Sangre’s collection of palaces, like Dantean circles of Hell – collecting musical notes while trying not to be eaten alive by monsters (snufflehogs, slasher birds, grin reapers) and rescuing the occasional lost soul. All in the pitch dark…
“We wanted to explore the way sound works in the imagination.” says Paul Bennun, the game’s Executive Producer. “Letting the player’s brain fill in what the world looks like meant we could concentrate on fundamental game-play and powerful psycho-aesthetics…” In other words, the developers focussed on the narrative and how playing the game makes you feel.
“In most games,” says Paul, “the aesthetic and the game-play are independent of each other. If I took Tetris and made it dark and gothic, it would still be Tetris. In this game, the aesthetics and the way you play are integrated. Sound can be far more powerful and visceral than graphics…”
That’s largely because audio allows you to be immersed more thoroughly in this underworld than video – particularly on an iPhone or iPad, the platforms Papa Sangre lurks on – could. You can be inside sound in a way that you can’t, at the moment, in video.
It’s possible and powerful but, as the development team spell out on www.papasangre.com in upper case letters, it’s also “BLOODY HARD” to build a whole world of sound that a player can move through.
Nick Ryan – award-winning sound designer and composer – directed sound and music. “One of the biggest challenges,” he says, “was fixing the shape of the spaces in the game. I had to visualise them before I could plan what they sounded like. And once I started making sounds for them, my vision of what they looked like shifted.”
Nick ended up drawing the whole game out on huge pieces of paper. “They were so fluid in my imagination, it was the only way I could set them in stone.”
What I’ve found hardest about playing the game (I haven’t finished yet), is sensing where in a particular space I am. I thump into the walls a lot. That’s partly, as Nick points out, because you only know you’re near one when you walk into it: in real life there are all kinds of auditory clues (as well as visual ones) that let you know how close you are to obstacles.
“We have a few fixed points that generate sound and act as beacons – the notes for instance – and they’re distinguished from the monsters because they don’t move. [Also, they don’t eat you]. The ideal would be to put a lot more of those in, but there’s a curve. If you have a few of them it’s quite useful, because you can tell where things are. Then if you add a few more, it becomes completely unintelligible. But if you add hundreds more, you create a density of sound that is very realistic and, therefore, makes sense. We couldn’t do that, though, because we’re already pushing the processor to its limits.”
I’m fascinated by the way this game makes you use your brain. It’s both stimulating and meditative: your thoughts have to go quiet, and you have to be completely, in-the-momently alert to work out what’s going on, where. And you find yourself learning as you progress: how to creep round a sleeping snufflehog and reach that musical note; how fast to walk or run on a particular type of terrain so you don’t trip and turn dinner. You have to listen very carefully, pay attention in a way most of us aren’t accustomed to do, see with your ears.
And how does it work?
Paul Bennun explains.
“There are two ways of making binaural sounds. One is to get a binaural head and put it in front of the sound source and record what comes out. The other is to get mono sound sources and then to algorithmically calculate how it should sound according to binaural models. That’s what we’re doing that none of the other games have done.”
For any of you who haven’t swotted up on sound engineering techniques before reading your Beat Magazine, a “binaural” head is a replica human head, with realistically-shaped ears, each of which houses a high-quality microphone and records something approximating to what a real person might hear. Here’s a picture of one that I didn’t make earlier but Neumann – who make some of the world’s best microphones – did. The Papa Sangre mob were lent one and used it to record some of the game’s ambient sound. Should you fancy one, it’ll set you back just under £6k (including VAT). Or you can follow the instructions on Diggadagga.com and build your own for a few hundred quid.
And “to algorithmically calculate how it should sound according to binaural models” means that Papa Sangre’s development team had to create a powerful software engine that, as their first blog entry explains, could “simultaneously position a number of sounds behind your head — or anywhere else — and move them about in real time relative to where you move in the game”. This was, as they point out (in upper case, naturally) “BLOODY HARD TO DO” particularly for a handheld device.
Responses to the Papa Sangre experience vary wildly. Many visually impaired players get the hang of it rapidly, whizz through its 25 levels in a few hours and love it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a few individuals can’t even manage the initial training phase where you learn how to walk (hold your iPhone or iPad landscape; left thumb, right thumb tapping the bottom half of the screen lets you walk, run and, if you’re not careful, fall over), turn around (swiping the top half of the screen turns you round) and find the notes (just walk towards them. Unless there’s a monster in the way…).
The rest of us muddle through, sometimes outrunning those giggling, slashing grin reapers, other times falling prey to the vicious slasher birds. You get a fabulous death scene each time you snuff it: anguished bloodcurdling screams and crunching bones. Nigel Pargeter meets Groundhog Day.
Some players find all this being killed genuinely horrific. Others – me included – meet their repeatedly grisly ends with fits of reaper-like giggles. Somehow, it’s not quite so scary being dead, when you can get up and do it all over again with some idea of what’s in wait.
The team haven’t yet finished with el Papa (as they call him). Paul’s planning big and small field versions of the game: where you play outside (big field) or in a room (you get the idea), moving around, fleeing monsters and collecting musical notes in real space instead of letting your fingers do the walking.
Making that work is going be BLOODY HARD. Playing it will, I imagine, feel BLOODY WEIRD. Now please excuse me. I’m off to be eaten alive again. Can’t wait.
Buy Papa Sangre for £3.99 at the App store
Find out more at www.papasangre.com
Follow @papasangre on twitter