An audiogame is a digital game that relies solely or primarily on audio output. Most audiogames can be played by both visually impaired and sighted players.
While most digital games today heavily rely on sound in order to communicate information to the player, the role of audio in games is generally less significant than that of graphics (Collins and Kapralos 2012). Some digital games, however, invert this logic by either making graphics secondary to the audio or not using graphics at all, focusing on the sound instead. These are known as audiogames: games “fully playable by reliance on their audio output” (Karhulahti 2015).
For some game designers, stripping away the visual component of the game can be a way to experiment with the medium. Dark Room Sex Game (2008), a party rhythm game playable with the keyboard or Nintendo Wii’s Wiimote controller, is one example, focusing on audio and haptic feedback to simulate sexual intercourse in a dark room (Oldenburg 2013).
More significant is audiogames’ accessibility to visually impaired players, extending the reach of digital games beyond their traditionally assumed audience of sighted people (Friberg and Gärdenfors 2004). Online communities such as Audiogames.net have become hubs for visually impaired gamers, providing game reviews and publicizing events and competitions. The Game List section on Audiogames.net currently lists over 600 titles (most of them developed by hobbyists), though the list is not extensive and primarily focuses on English-language games.
Atari’s Touch Me (1974), an arcade and handheld sequence memorization game, is considered to be a precursor to modern audiogames (Karhulahti 2015). While it did not exclusively rely on audio output (the sequence was duplicated as audio tones and light-emitted diodes lighting up), Touch Me could be played without using visual cues, although that would require the player to memorize the correspondence between the tones and the buttons first.
Audiogames for the personal computer became a possibility following the 1984 release of the original Apple Macintosh, which bundled with speech synthesis software MacInTalk. This enabled the Macintosh port of popular text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure to support voice output, making the game accessible to visually impaired users. Other text adventure games followed, making the genre popular with the visually impaired gamer community.
The first notable commercial audiogame was Real Sound: Kaze no Riguretto (1997) developed by WARP Corp. for the Sega Saturn (Matsuo et al. 2016). It was conceived by game designer Kenji Eno after he learned of people with a visual disability who played his previous, visually intensive games by the ear. In terms of gameplay, Real Sound was an interactive radio drama where the player influenced the outcome of the story by choosing between several dialogue options at certain points within the game. While not a commercial success, Real Sound set an important precedent by being an audio-only game released by a major game publisher.
The 2010s have seen a rising number of audiogames appear: Papa Sangre (2010), Sound Swallower (2011), The Nightjar (2011), Blindside (2012), Audio Defence: Zombie Arena (2014), and many others (Beksa et al. 2015). The best-known of them, Papa Sangre (2010), is a survival horror game which takes place in a pitch-black dungeon, where sound positioning and reverberations provide the sole cues for navigation. Many contemporary audiogames, including Papa Sangre, are designed for tablets and smartphones; they also rely on touch controls, raising the question of their accessibility to players with a visual disability.
Some mobile audiogames, on the other hand, combine sound output with Braille writing to create a more accessible for visually impaired players while also helping them master Braille (Araújo et al. 2016). These games, however, may not be easily playable by sighted players who lack Braille literacy.
Tone/pitch: for example, Atari’s Touch Me (1974) and Simon (1978), another memory game inspired by it, used sounds of a different pitch to identify the four key elements used to construct sequences for the player to memorize.
Rhythm and duration: rhythm games such as PaRappa the Rapper (1996) and Beatmania (1997) emphasize the timing of pressing the controls, and some subsequent games such as 2010’s Rock Band 3 can process actual music parts performed on a MIDI-enabled musical instrument.
Spatial cues: such games as Papa Sangre and Blindside focus on exploring invisible environments using sonic feedback such as reverberation.
Narrative: Real Sound: Kaze no Riguretto and the BBC’s The Inspection Chamber (2017) rely on voice narration to communicate the story and use player choices as their core mechanic. Notably, The Inspection Chamber is controlled by voice input from the player instead of conventional controllers such as the keyboard.
It should be noted that many of the games mentioned above are not audiogames themselves; they just contain elements which can be used to construct one. These cues can also serve different functions: since audio output becomes the main vehicle for communicating information to the player, game sounds in audiogames need to fulfill a variety of roles, many of which are usually associated with game graphics. Friberg and Gärdenfors (2004), for example, divide sounds in audiogames into avatar, object, character, ornamental, and instruction sounds.
Various combinations of these types of cues and sound functions can be used to create a wide range of game dynamics, from role-playing games (Matsuo et al. 2016) to shooting games (Beksa et al. 2015) to platformers (Oren 2007) to puzzle games such as Preludeamals (2016).
While for most of their history, audiogames enjoyed little popular recognition, their recent resurgence, embodied by such titles as Papa Sangre and The Inspection Chamber, suggests that they do yet have a potential for mainstream acceptance. This leaves hope for the reimagining of digital games as a medium that is accessible to sighted and non-sighted players alike.
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