Phonopath Sounds (And Is) Extraordinary

My final pick from this year’s crop of GDC Experimental Gameplay Workshop appearances is the extraordinary Phonopath [official site].

Free, available now, and unlike anything else you’ve ever played, it’s a game about solving puzzles using audio files. Puzzles that induced gasps of admiration from the audience. And I suspect will from you too.

Developer Kevin Regamey insisted that the game was for no one but sound engineers and those who work with audio. He suggested it probably wasn’t for them, either. I think he’s wrong. I think puzzles as smart and complex as those on display in Phonopath have a broader appeal, especially to those who find themselves drawn into ARGs and the like. Because just watching him play his own game made me feel cool.

First puzzle is pretty simple. You can play it for yourself right now. You click on the image, then play the audio file that appears. It’s fairly obviously backward, so it’s fairly obvious you need to play it forward. To do that, you download the file, ereht_tsomla.wav, and then pop it into your audio program of choice. Regamey pooh-poohed at the use of Audacity, suggesting more sophisticated software might be preferable, but went on to use the free tool to solve the puzzles in his demo. Good enough for me.

Pop the file in Audacity, reverse it (Effect – Reverse), and hit play. And it’s a voice explaining the password for the door, and setting up a bit of the story. Click on the door, enter the password, and the game prompts you to create an account, and lets you in. It’s time to play the game proper.

It quickly gets more complicated. Phase 1 begins with 1-1, “Hello Player”. Again, download the file, a robotic female voice explaining that passwords will be hidden at each stage, and finishing, “The password is”. But look at the wave, and you can see there’s a small stretch of silence after she appears to stop speaking. I know nothing about audio, but hmmm, seems reasonable to assume there could be something there. So I select that silent section, and amplify it (Effect – Amplify). Still nothing. Maybe I’m wrong. I give it one more go, and yes! There’s something there. A little louder, and there’s the password.

1-2, “Must Go Faster” really establishes just how good this game really is. A superbly recorded piece of audio, sounding like it could come from a AAA game, with science fiction background effects, the sound of someone perhaps hacking, then triggering an alarm and lockdown, weapons being fired, someone running and attempting to escape, explaining to a voice on a radio that he’s managed not to get tagged, and to meet at the extraction point. But no hint of a password. Except the file name: must_go_faster.wav. Well, that’s a fairly hefty hint. So again, into Audacity. The wave looks normal, there’s nothing apparently odd about it. But still, let’s speed it up (Effect – Change Speed). I boost it by 200%, and well, it sounds like a sped up version of the original file… except for one thing. Toward the end there’s the sound over the top of all else of a voice speaking incredibly slowly. So faster. Another 200%. And yes, there’s a word in there! Still too slow. Another 100% speed increase, and now I get a laser firing sound, and a voice saying a single word. Fuck me, that’s clever. There’s my password.

In Regamey’s demonstration, he skipped ahead to later levels, where things become astonishingly more complex. There is one level, which, when the wav is converted to a spectrogram (in Audacity, click on the file name to the left of the wave and choose “Spectogram” from the drop-down menu), reveals a jigsaw puzzle. He’s hidden a bloody jigsaw in a sound file. One level, he went on to explain, finishes with your creating a magic eye image from the sound file.

This is just incredible stuff. It’s a crying shame that the developer is convinced its appeal is too limited to put it up for sale, but heck, that also means it’s free for anyone to try. That reversing audio task at the start is a deliberate barrier, he says, to put off anyone who can’t do something as simple as that. But instead, I think this could be viewed as a game that would encourage people to learn how, and in turn, start learning their way around audio software. I sure as heck didn’t know about spectrograms before I played this.

It’s professionally put together, despite the extremely minimalist web interface. There’s a story here, superb acting, and a completely unique way to play a game. It’s just amazing.

16 Comments

  1. Groove says:

    If the next Rum Doings doesn’t make any sense I’ll assume that it will turn into a crossword when run through an audio filter. In reality Nick will probably just be comparing page 3 and IS again.

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  2. AbsoluteShower says:

    I like how critical comments are deleted faster than spam on here.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Don’t worry, sometimes non-critical comments get deleted too! As they say, they do not have a freedom of speech policy here.

    • Fredward says:

      So how come these comments haven’t been deleted?

      • Sam says:

        All the “randomly generated” avatars in this comment thread have shapes that form the sides of equilateral triangles. Coincidence?

        Have you tried overlaying Obama’s latest state of the union and the Queen’s 1987 Christmas speech, then viewing it as spectrograph? I think that’ll answer a lot of questions.

      • joa says:

        That’s the trick – you delete the actual substantial comments disagreeing with your ideology, and then you leave the comments complaining about the deletion – leaving those people looking like fools complaining about nothing.

        • SlimShanks says:

          It’s genius! We’ve all been had!

        • Premium User Badge

          kfix says:

          I’m sorry but I couldn’t quite follow that argument. Can you maybe diagram that up in MS Paint for us?

    • Premium User Badge

      kfix says:

      Can you once more risk the awful black jackboot of oppression to describe the relevant and insightful criticism you were trying to make?

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        Just before you do, are you absolutely sure you didn’t use one of the filter list words? I shit you not that the word “p00p” is in there (heh irony). Use a filter list word and your post just won’t show up. Come back 5 minutes later looking for your missive, and if of a mistrustful mindset could perhaps be forgiven for thinking it had been deleted.

    • El_Emmental says:

      Several words are banned, but the list isn’t available and may be modified at any time, so you’ll have to figure it out. However, I suppose that – beyond the joke regarding p00p – most of these words come down to crit!cism regarding the work of the people writing here, the developers, and anything related to elite-ism or art.

      If the filtering is too strong, you could always try remaining neutral in the comment and link to a blog post of yours (on a blog solely dedicated to your comments) – the people handling the moderation may tolerate these words if they are not displayed nor hosted here.

  3. RichSG says:

    I played a few levels of this game and also thought it was awesome. So unique and also well put together. The few puzzles I tried were fantastic, like the post says.

    However, I would agree with the game’s designer that it IS too specialist to be playable by many people. I read about the puzzles later on in the game, and as the article implies, they are very very tricky. As in, you need in-depth knowledge of audacity and sound file manipulation.

    It’s such a great idea, it’s a shame the dev doesn’t consider options for making it easier. Maybe integrating it as a tutorial for audacity? It would be a great way to learn how to use it.

  4. grrrz says:

    thanks, this is really fun (plus I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out the first before realising I had to wait for the file to completely download before using it)
    I realisethe only I still have and use everyday is ableton live and it’s not really the right one for this (specially for some more graphic scenes…)
    on the downside, kinda reminds me of work.

  5. El_Emmental says:

    In the same vein, there’s the Ouverture Facile (Easy Open) website: link to ouverture-facile.com – It features all kind of puzzles, involving audio, video, metadata, url exploration, basic maths and other tricks. It’s quite accessible in the first few levels, then after a while it is recommended to rely on the clues given in guides (available on the forum) whenever you’re stuck for too long. Good luck :)