There have been a few attempts at marrying voice controls to video games. From the primitive N64 microphone that allowed you to uselessly yell at a virtual Pikachu, through to the limited interactivity of Xbox’s Kinect, voice commands have always felt like a gimmick that never truly sticks the landing.
And in a world where Alexa and Siri and various other devices are constantly listening out for us to ask them random trivia or passing our personal conversations onto their corporate masters for advertising, it’s slightly odd that games have never fully embraced the technology. Although preferably without the invasions of privacy.
Which is what new developer Godolphin Games are setting out to change with their new game Unknown Number: A First-Person Talker.
Voice is Central to Everything
“Voice is so central to everything,” says Tom Keane, the Creative Director of the game. “I shout at pretty much every device I have and yet weirdly it doesn’t exist in games.” Coming from a brand identity background, hearing colleagues talk about making devices “voice-ready” while playing games in his free time made him realise there was a lack of synergy, prompting a push to develop a game that challenged that.
But how does a voice-led game work? According to Keane, the game will feature a series of virtual phone calls, all of which must be responded to like a normal phone call, asking the player to make choices as they go. These calls are entirely within the game and don’t use actual phone infrastructure. This was an idea during the planning stages although Keane explained that it simply didn’t work out.
“Voice recognition down phone lines is one of the worst things of all time because the fidelity just isn’t there,” said Keane, prompting them to shift to a simulation of phone calls instead. The concept of phone calls was still important to the game though. “What we love about the phone call mechanic is that you’re playing as yourself, you’re not playing as an avatar. As a result, all of the moral decisions feel so much heavier.”
Most of the player input in the game amounts to delivering appropriate voice commands. This could be giving compass directions to someone moving through a series of rooms, with the aid of a map you have to look up, or through repeating passwords you’ve discovered elsewhere. Other novel uses of voice utilised in the game include breathing into the microphone to operate a ventilator, or attempting to impersonate someone and match the pitch of their voice.
Using the UI
But it’s not all voice commands. The game heavily utilises the phone as a general concept for its mechanics, with the various buttons and prompts on a phone screen turned into game elements as your phone is “hacked” and messed with as you advance through the game.
It’s something that Keane says was a natural extension of the voice commands. “We’ve got this unique scenario that the game is based around phone calls, and the UI looks like a telephone. There’s a series of numbers and letters and icons that we all know really well but what could we do to turn them into puzzles?”
One example is the tones that phone buttons produce, which the team realised could be used to create simple musical puzzles. Other proposed ideas will see the numbers move around the screen and rearrange into different code-breaking methods. There is a lot of imagination being thrown into how a phone can become an interactive environment in its right, attempting to go further with utilising the UI than games like Simulacra or A Normal Lost Phone.
Climate Change Narrative
But what’s the premise that all of these mechanics are wrapped up in? The story of Unknown Number is centred around a heist on an oil rig. A team of eco-warriors are attempting to steal money from a wealthy oil company CEO, and when it all goes wrong they call their support team. However, they dial the wrong number, and get you instead, and you must make tough choices about helping them out.
With this story, the game asks players questions regarding climate change and their personal choices around emerging climate threats. As Keane explains, “Just as in the 60s and 70s, the crisis everyone was in at that moment was the Cold War and every single movie at the time was about the Cold War. I feel like today everything should be about the climate emergency.”
The game doesn’t intend to be preachy in its approach, instead using its narrative to ask questions for the player to consider and make up their own mind. The game’s ominous teaser trailer (above) makes this clear, with it asking direct questions of the viewer from the outset.
The hyper-real nature of the game calls to mind alternate reality games, or ARGs. The kind you find being discussed on the Unfiction forums, or those used as intense marketing campaigns. Keane himself has experience in this field and expressed an interest in using the gameplay elements of ARGs to create a new experience, something Unknown Caller sets out to achieve.
“How can we revitalise the ARG?” was Keane’s question at the heart of this design choice. “My criticism of ARGs is potentially it can feel too hackery and lacks a bit of heart. So we were asking, how can we make it a human story?”
Challenges with Voice Control
Of course, there are potential concerns surrounding accessibility. Notoriously, voice systems can sometimes get utterly defeated by certain accents, and that is something that Keane is quick to stress is something the team have been working to address for a while.
“When we test, we test with different accents,” explained Keane. “We run Siri tests with simulated accents, and we just put it through the machine and see what success rates we get back.” He also noted that early testing involved a lot of bad accents from himself first. He also acknowledged that there may be potential accessibility issues for people with voice issues. These are sadly things that the team can’t really address as he feels there needs to be some degree of skill with voice control in order for the technology to respond properly.
Unknown Number is still a while off yet. The team are in the process of securing a publishing agreement and are aiming to complete the game in time for a release early in 2022. But from what we’ve seen of the game so far, it looks like something unique and interesting, and something we’ll be watching closely as it gets closer to release.
For the full interview with Tom Keane, check it out below!