Six to Start

Smokescreen: The Spoken Word

Answer phone

Since we launched We Tell Stories, we've been known for reinventing and championing the written word online, particularly for stories. This doesn't mean that we disdain other modes of telling stories online - instead, our belief is that any medium, whether it's words or audio or video, must be tailored to the web in order to provide a really strong and original experience.

With Smokescreen, we've added audio to our storytelling palette. Most missions involve some kind of voice acting and sound effects, and in many missions, all dialogue with the user is performed over phone calls (such as Too Much Information, Fake, and Skiving Off). Clearly this is very neat, but other than that, why did we do it?

There are two big reasons: attention and atmosphere.

Attention

Much has been made of our ability to multitask in this brave new digital world; we can play games and instant message friends and talk on the phone and watch TV, all at the same time, and all you need is a laptop. The problem is that it's not at all clear whether any of that information is being processed properly, so it may not be a good idea to make an experience that requires a massive amount of multitasking, especially if you're expecting people to actually pay attention to the information (e.g. during a drama or an educational game).

One solution is to make a 'singletasking' experience - just have single type of media being displayed at any given time (e.g. video, words, platform game). This is fine until you realise that people are very easily distracted, and the moment that your game or story slows down, even just for a second, their attention will start wandering and they'll either get bored and stop processing the story, or get bored and do something else. Either result is not desirable.

The attention problem is especially important for ARGs, since they often rely heavily on world-building and deep stories. Most ARGs have involved watching a lot of videos or reading a lot of text (usually blog posts), interspersed with the occasional puzzle. Regardless of the quality of the video or text, switching back and forth between different media is frequently jarring and not really a great way to engage someone in a coherent story (the experience reminds me of the ill-named and in my opinion ill-designed 'vook' experiment).

Grand Theft Auto 4, of all games, offers a good solution. Many missions in GTA4 follow this formula:

  1. Get a call from someone who needs criminal work done (e.g. robbing a bank)

  2. Drive to pick them up

  3. Drive them to their destination (e.g. the bank)

      During step 3, your passenger will usually talks your ear off about why they want to rob the bank, what they're going to do with the money, their beef with someone else (who'll probably show up to complicate matters) and so on. Now, if this information (aka 'data dumping') had been conveyed in between steps 2 and 3 via a cutscene, it would've been pretty boring and jarring; and likewise, driving them to their destination in silence might also have been boring.

    However, driving and listening at the same time? That's much more natural and unforced, since you get to enjoy the story while retaining control over the game. GTA4 is not the first game to do this, but it did it particularly well, and it offered a good way to keep the story moving forward while not boring players.

    Atmosphere

    It's hardly news to say that good audio can be just as atmospheric and evocative as, well, any other medium. But audio excels in its ability to instantly conjure up the panic in someone's voice, or the feeling of a busy office, without detracting from someone's imagination (as video might). In an episodic game like Smokescreen, where we don't have the benefit of millions of marketing dollars, we need to immerse people in our world straight away, and audio is a brilliant way of doing that.

    Audio was used to powerful effect in I Love Bees, where the heart of the story was told through what was effectively a serialised radio drama, and it really demonstrated that ARGs and other online experiences shouldn't feel shackled to any conventions that dictate realism over entertainment. In Smokescreen, much of the audio comes through phone calls.

    Now, the most realistic and coolest way to do this would be to actually call up your phone, and several of Fourth Wall's games (Eagle Eye: Freefall, 6 Minutes to Midnight, etc) do this. Unfortunately, this is prohibitively expensive for an educational project, particularly in the UK, but it turns out that simulating phone calls through the browser works almost as well in terms of atmosphere (although it does mean we miss out on the very neat possibility of a voice recognition return-path).

    We knew that if Smokescreen was going to include audio, it had to be extremely high quality, and so we worked with some of the best in the business, Dirk Maggs and Paul Weir. Dirk and Paul produced much of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series, along with countless other radio productions; they also provided the sound for games including Lego Batman and Pure.

    Together with the voice actors, who did a great job in conveying the emotion we needed, the audio in Smokescreen really brings adds to the atmosphere and complements the other media (like text messages and emails) also used in the game.

    Real Multimedia

    All too often, the term 'multimedia' is used for any project that haphazardly throws together audio, images and video. In that regard, you could call almost any website 'multimedia', which makes it meaningless.

    We believe that a truly multimedia experience is one that combines multiple media to form an original and coherent experience. What's really exciting is that there is no single correct way to do this; with the internet, we have the ability to mix and merge media to tell stories and provide entertainment in countless ways.

    Smokescreen is just one way - it's not the first, but it's our contribution, and one that's seen us take a real step into the possibilities of audio.