I’ve flown starships. I’ve fired grenade launchers. I’ve won NBA championships. And I’ve played more than my fair share of Solitaire. But as video games make their way into virtual reality, and imaginary worlds are more immersive than ever before, there’s still one thing I’ve never done in a video game: I’ve never actually talked.
Thirty years of video game playing later, and I’m still the perpetual silent protagonist, body rendered with every imaginable muscle save for a tongue. Numinous Games—the same studio that developed the heartbreaking, autobiographical "game" That Dragon, Cancer—is challenging this with a new title developed for Google’s Daydream VR platform, Untethered. Its first episode is $5,available now.
Featured recently on Creative Applications, Untetheredplaces you inside the DJ booth of a small-town radio station. As you swivel in your chair, you can point the Daydream’s motion remote to play records, queue up commercials, and listen to messages left on the answering machine. The voice of an offscreen friend, the radio producer Rick, shoots the shit with you, while ensuring that you’re staying on task.
Like any VR experience, it’s a highly visual game. Glance around the room, and you’ll appreciate fine details of the mise en scene, like the pencils some bored DJ before you had javelined into the ceiling. But it’s the audio experience that will get you hooked over a slowly unfolding storyline. Modeled after radio shows like Prairie Home Companion, a mix of music, sketches, and personal confessions plays over a series of speakers piping into the audio booth.
And yet the real interactive breakthrough happens when the microphone’s red light comes on, and you’re met with a void of on-air silence that can only be filled with your voice. You have to read scripts for commercial breaks, an emergency broadcast—and you even have to fill the awkward gaps of silence with the strange folks who call into a radio station to share their stories on air.
"We think talking to your game and having it talk back is a really exciting idea," says head writer Amy Green. "Video game players will almost universally tell you that what they love about the medium is that they can enter the story as a character. In our mind, characters speak. They don’t just choose written on-screen text responses from multiple-choice options."
While the studio is using Google’s Cloud Speech platform to detect what you say and display it on screen, the game doesn’t actually take what you say into account (though future episodes might)—just that you speak, or you don’t. The phone's onboard microphone hears your voice, which is ironic. In a world of expensive VR rigs, with infrared-tracking base stations to follow hand movement with extreme fidelity, Untethered's UI breakthrough is that it's using a smartphone's microphone.
Speech becomes a lure into unfolding the story, and into caring more about both your job and this character that you play. For instance, a wonderful moment happens when Rick says it’s time to record an emergency broadcast. You hit the record button and pull up a script on your desk. But as soon as you start speaking—
PRODUCER: Hey wait, I just thought of something hilarious . . . Maybe try to do it kind of robot-y sounding, you know like mechanical machine voice. I am a robot talking like a human.
You start to speak as a robot and—
PRODUCER: Oh and umm, where it says beeps, just read those too—our sound effects board is on the fritz, so really put some oomph into it, you know like, beep, beep!
You start to speak again and—
PRODUCER: Sorry, just one more thing, don't feel tied to the beeps. Put your own spin on it like wah, wah, wah or augh ooga augh ooga, or, neeh ner neeh ner. Whatever you’re feeling.
To see this onscreen, like in a movie, it would be soft chuckle-worthy. But the bit is legitimately funny to experience as a participant, to be told to say something silly by a video game, only to then have this ante upped every time you get up the gumption. As the team explained to me, it’s meant to feel like you’ve been pulled onstage to an improv performance, and you’re along for the ride. (I’ve both been pulled onstage in improv performances—yes, plural—and recorded voice-overs for mid-market broadcast. I can report that Untethered gets both of these elements just right.)
"We need the player to play along because there are only so many lines of dialogue our actors can record. So in episode one, we experimented more conservatively through providing pre-written scripts for the player to read. In future episodes we plan to take more risks," says Green. "We hope that each episode will push the responsiveness a little further, but our ultimate goal for Untethered is not that the player feels free to have a spontaneous conversation, but instead that their guided conversation feels natural and immersive." In other words, Untethered is meant to be a story, not a free-form Q&A session that you might have with an AI like Alexa or Siri.
Indeed, voice recognition has never been better, and yet our interactions with chatbots have already evolved into this joyless arm of user interface. Microsoft's Cortana either responds to us with a weather report or a bad joke—extremes of functionality or cloying silliness with no discernible in-between. Untethered alludes to voice's greater potential. It's a peek at what might happen when the technology industry stops viewing chatting merely as a tool—or some means to anthropomorphize algorithms—than just part of the fabric of human experience. We're social creatures who like to converse. Untethered lets you talk to a story. Why? Because humans want to talk. And that's reason enough.
As the 35-minute story progresses—minor spoilers ahead—Rick confesses some of the darker parts of his past, all while you'll wish you had a better response, as you would for any friend. Meanwhile, rummaging through paperwork reveals a deeper concern—you'll learn a supernatural mystery is afoot. But it's hard to focus on that, as a deranged caller continues leaving messages for you—he believes you’re speaking right to him through the radio. That is until the radio antenna goes out, lightning crackles through the windows, and you realize, that mysterious caller?
He could show up at any moment . . .