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Phonopath Sounds (And Is) Extraordinary

Listen Up

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.

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