Heard About: Hearing dead people with Somethin' Else - MCV

Heard About: Hearing dead people with Somethin' Else

John Broomhall talks with Paul Bennun, chief creative officer at Somethin’ Else, about audio-only games
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Grab youR IPHONE, don your headphones, and just listen. Your brain will do the rest in the latest audio game from the respected company behind Papa Sangre and The Nightjar, Somethin’ Else. 

With Audio Defence: Zombie Arena – in which sound is the only clue as to which direction zombies are approaching – the studio appears to have cornered the market in this interesting genre, but does chief creative officer Paul Bennun agree?

“We do think we’ve made the best audio games in the world, ever,” he says. “It was actually that ambition that started us down the road – we knew the GPU in your mind is better than anything in a computer, so we wanted to make a game with the best graphics ever. 

“We also wanted to make games blind people could play with no compromise. We’re absolutely proud of this. Please note: we do not make ‘games for blind people.’ We make ‘games blind people and sighted people can play’, with top-notch accessibility.”

The ‘first-person’ nature of Audio Defence is key. The information players receive is the same as if there were in the described scenario. Bennun says this means a completely different approach to games development. 

“You have to totally re-think the way objects look – to consider the physical function of every game entity,” he explains. “You have to take level design and game design all the way back to things you could physically do in a space. 

“And what we’ve learned about the psychology of players is very interesting. When someone who’s never been able to see hears a ‘snufflehog’, how does it look compared to someone who has seen a pig? Is ‘the dark’ a frightening concept to someone born blind?” 

SURROUNDED BY SOUND

Binaural audio is a complex but crucial field when it comes to the development of Somethin’ Else’s games – and it’s a concept Bennun believes is overlooked.

“You wouldn’t think there was a hugely important correlation between binaural audio and a game’s control scheme,” he says. “But there is – we learn how to hear spatially, and we expect a turn of the head to give a linear and proportionate difference to the sound we hear. 

“This extends to control schemes: if the input you make to a system, such as a turn, does not result in an analogue change to the output, then it doesn’t just sound bad – it’s unintelligible. That’s why our audio games have the scheme they do: swipe or physically turning. Shortcuts like tapping to turn don’t work: that’s a digital input to a system we are trained to understand in an analogue fashion.”

On a similar note, Somethin’ Else has also learned that humans are “actually pretty crap” at identifying a sound’s azimuth – i.e. how high it is above the ground. When it’s a recognisable sound like a helicopter, people instinctively look up. So, the team needed to add ‘cognitive clues’ about where an in-game sound is. 

“But you can’t go over the top,” says Bennun, “or the player will wonder why you’re being obvious.”

When it comes to the tech for audio games, an ebullient Bennun has no hesitation in crowning his Papa Sangre engine king: “We know it’s the best — we’ve seriously evaluated them all. Our platform does real-time binaural synthesis: you put in a mono sound and then use your game logic to tell it where it is in relation to the player – just like you would graphics. 

“It also has a brilliant API and positions sound with incredible granularity – far, far more than certain other platforms. Plus, it’s very lightweight: we got it working on an iPhone 3GS. The amount of sounds it can spatialise is arbitrary, depending on the CPU it’s running on. But silence is loud. Complexity isn’t always a good thing in audio games, and we can spatialise far more sounds than any game needs, even on mobile devices.”

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