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September 25, 2006

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Radio Killed the Video Star

Corvus' Round Table this month is on conventions in gaming. And I'm playing a platformer lately, so my first thought has been DEATH TO BOTTOMLESS PITS AND SPIKES! One could make the case that bottomless pits and spikes are the crates of platform games. Why are Mario and Sonic surrounded by deadly holes? Why would someone put big metal spikes on the ground where people could get hurt (besides the obvious gameplay reason)? It's like Evil Martha Stewart did their landscaping design ("Now I've made these lovely stainless steel impalement devices out of ore that I machined myself. The etching is a simple but homey touch.")

But we could be here all day if we wanted to talk about the gentle surrealism of vintage games. The holes exist for you to jump over them, just as the spikes appear for you to avoid them. These are not admirable reasons for a simulated existence, nor are they at all realistic, but they have a certain Zen appeal.

The convention I really want to discuss is removing the video from video games.

Not in terms of stopping the emphasis on graphics, or advocating for text-based interactive fiction. And I don't mean disavowing the electronic foundation. I like gadgets, and we should keep them around. Tendencies aside, I'm not a luddite.

Basically, when we think about video games, as the name implies, we usually assume that they involve moving images on a screen. Other elements are often remarkably flexible--they might use a non-traditional controller, or the images might just be text, the audio could be marginal or muted, but there's always a screen at which the player stares and interacts.

So what if we got rid of the screen instead?

I'm interested in this partly because I work in an office, watching video or using a computer all day long, and sometimes my eyes hurt. I can't look at another screen some days. And I'm also intrigued by it as a musician and an audio producer. I was thinking the other day about making some fiction podcasts, like 30's-era radio shows, as practice for my production skills, and then I thought: those shows presented stories and drama without visuals, just with creative sound design. Why couldn't they be interactive?

Think about all the Metro riders with white iPod earphones. Digital radio. Podcasts. Brian Eno creating system sounds for Windows 95. Napster being sued by Metallica. Digital audio is here to stay. Yet it's an odd fact that while digital video and interaction have become increasingly sophisticated, audio has actually become more primitive--MP3 and other lossy formats are more portable, but they're steps backward in fidelity and quality. Even as it surrounds us more completely, it's less enjoyable to hear.

I don't know what kind of form you could use. I have these ideas in my head about using acoustic processing (whatever happened to EAX? remember when that was supposed to be a big deal?) to make a bat-like echolocation shooter, but I'm guessing that's probably unworkable. Choose your own adventure? Conversation-based RPGs? Music-based? Bit Generations? Who knows? I just know that from the crowd of solitary, iPodded pedestrians out there, I think there might be a market.

Note: this is not my first audio-related round-table entry. I sense a theme!

Who else wants to talk?

Future - Present - Past