I’ve continued to playtest constantly-updated live versions of my audio game and also begun to interview people about their experiences of, and relationships to, war - ranging from serving soldiers to anti-war activists to volunteers working with refugees and more. Something I hadn’t necessarily anticipated about the interviews was the challenge of describing what it is I’m making to people who might not even have a frame of reference for video games, let alone audio games - and, moreover, the questions that the idea of ‘game’ can raise when dealing with sensitive and complex subjects.
Audio games are still a relatively rare form of game, and the notion of a video game without any visuals can be difficult to imagine if you’ve never played one (Papa Sangre, The Nightjar, Blindside and A Blind Journey are easily available examples of the genre). Occasionally I’ve used the idea of an ‘interactive audiobook’ to help describe it, which at least conveys a general idea of the piece’s form, if not the precise gameplay and the role that the listener/player takes on in the world of the game.
But even before tackling the slightly difficult idea of an ‘audio game’, I’ve found that sometimes there’s a different hurdle to be cleared: the connotations of ‘game’ as being linked to entertainment, frivolity, fun, competition, in such a way that making a ‘game’ about a subject like war - sometimes sombre, always complex - can seem inappropriate. We use the phrase ‘it’s only a game’ to lessen the importance of something, ‘I was only playing around’ to claim we weren’t serious. Playing and games are often not coupled with darker subjects - so I’ve had to learn not just to describe the form of the game I’m making, but the tone and nature of it too.
It’s not a game that challenges the player’s skill or ability to strategise, nor is it a game in which players compete against each other, or can ‘win’ in any objective sense. It’s a game where players’ reasons for actions are as important as the actions themselves (something that’s resulted in some very telling and revealing post-playtest conversations!). There are many beautiful games out there - Passage or One Chance come instantly to mind - where you don’t play them for an escapism that offers zero consequences, or for a challenge that you can surpass and win (though One Chance might offer that to some players), but to explore a relationship, or a situation, and discover what your responses to it are. Games like Coming Out Simulator 2014 are amazing examples of how games can engage our empathy and tackle difficult, deeply emotional subjects.
So recently, I have worked on how I describe and talk about games to others, as well as continuing playtests and hearing from a wide range of voices to help develop the ideas, characters and scenarios within the game. It’s always difficult trying to describe something that’s still in the process of being made, that’s changeable and unfixed, but it’s so useful during development to keep in mind the kind of experiences that the games I’ve listed give to players.