Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games

papa sangre_headphones

Sound and PlayEditor’s Note:  Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s fall forum titled “Sound and Play,” where we ask how sound studies, as a discipline, can help us to think through several canonical perspectives on play. While Johan Huizinga had once argued that play is the primeval foundation from which all culture has sprung, it is important to ask where sound fits into this construction of culture; does it too have the potential to liberate or re-entrench our social worlds? SO!’s new regular contributor Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo notes how audio games, like Papa Sangre, often use sound as a gimmick to engage players, and considers the politics of this feint. For whom are audio games immersive, and how does the experience serve to further marginalize certain people or disadvantaged groups?–AT

Immersion is a problem at the heart of sound studies. As Frances Dyson (2009) suggests in Sounding New Media, “Sound is the immersive medium par excellence. Three dimensional, interactive and synesthetic, perceived in the here and now of an embodied space, sound returns to the listener the very same qualities that media mediates…Sound surrounds” (4). Alternately, in the context of games studies (a field that is increasingly engaged with sound studies), issues of sound and immersion have most recently been addressed in terms of instrumental potentialities, historical developments, and technical constraints. Some notable examples include Sander Huiberts’ (2010) M.A. thesis entitled “Captivating Sound: The Role of Audio Immersion for Computer Games,” in which he details technical and philosophical frames of immersion as they relate to the audio of a variety of computer games, and an article by Aaron Oldenburg (2013) entitled “Sonic Mechanics: Audio as Gameplay,” in which he situates the immersive aspects of audio-gameplay within contemporaneous experimental art movements. This research provokes the question: How do those who develop these games construct the idea of immersion through game design and what does this mean for users who challenge this construct? Specifically I would like to challenge Dyson’s claim that sound really is “the immersive medium par excellence” by considering how the concept of immersion in audio-based gameplay can be tied to privileged notions of character and game development.

psIn order to investigate this problem, I decided to play an audio game and document my daily experiences on a WordPress blog. Based on its simulation of 3D audio Papa Sangre was the first game that came to mind. I also selected the game because of its accessibility; unlike the audio game Deep Sea, which is celebrated for its immersive capacities but is only playable by request at The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, Papa Sangre is purchasable as an app for $2.99 and can be played on an iPhone, iPad or iPod. Papa Sangre helps us to consider new possibilities for what is meant by virtual space and it serves as a useful tool for pushing back against essentialisms of “immersion” when talking sound and virtual space.

Papa Sangre is comprised of 25 levels, the completion of which leads player incrementally closer towards the palace of Papa Sangre, a man who has kidnapped a close friend of the protagonist. The game boasts real time binaural audio, meaning that the game’s diegetic sounds (sounds that the character in the game world can “hear”) pan across the player’s headphones in relation to the movement of the game’s protagonist. The objective of each level is to locate and collect musical notes that are scattered through the game’s many topographies while avoiding any number of enemies and obstacles, of course.

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A commercial success, Papa Sangre has been named “Game of the Week” by Apple, received a 9/10 rating from IGN, a top review from 148apps, and many positive reviews from fans. Gamezebo concludes an extremely positive review of Papa Sangre by calling it “a completely unique experience. It’s tense and horrifying and never lets you relax. By focusing on one aspect of the game so thoroughly, the developers have managed to create something that does one thing really, really well…Just make sure to play with the lights on.” This commercial attention has yielded academic feedback as well. In a paper entitled “Towards an analysis of Papa Sangre, an audio-only game for the iPhone/iPad,” Andrew Hugill (2012) celebrates games like Papa Sangre for providing “an excellent opportunity for the development of a new framework for electroacoustic music analysis.” Despite such attention–and perhaps because of it–I argue that Papa Sangre deserves a critical second listen.

Between February and April of 2012, I played Papa Sangre several times a day and detailed the auditory environments of the game in my blog posts. However, by the time I reached the final level, I still wasn’t sure how to answer my initial question. Had Papa Sangre really engendered a novel experience or it could simply be thought of as a video game with no video?  I noted in my final post:

I am realizing that what makes the audio gaming experience seem so different from the experience of playing video games is the perception that the virtual space, the game itself, only exists through me. The “space” filled by the levels and characters within the game only exists between my ears after it is projected through the headphones and then I extend this world through my limbs to my extremities, which feeds back into the game through the touch screen interface, moving in a loop like an electric current…Headphones are truly a necessity in order to beat the game, and in putting them on, the user becomes the engine through which the game comes to life…When I play video games, even the ones that utilize a first-person perspective, I feel like the game space exists outside of me, or rather ahead of me, and it is through the controller that I am able to project my limbs forward into the game world, which in turn structures how I orient my body. Video game spaces of course, do not exist outside of me, as I need my eyes and ears to interpret the light waves and sound waves that travel back from the screen, but I suppose what matters here is not what is actually happening, but how what is happening is perceived by the user. Audio games have the potential to engender completely different gaming experiences because they make the user feel like he or she is the platform through which the game-space is actualized.

Upon further reflection, however, I recognize that Papa Sangre creates an environment designed to be immersive only to certain kinds of users. A close reading of Papa Sangre reveals bias against both female and disabled players.

Take Papa Sangre’s problematic relationship with blindness. The protagonist is not a visually impaired individual operating in a horrifying new world, but rather a sighted individual who is thrust into a world that is horrifying by virtue of its darkness. The first level of the game is simply entitled “In the Dark.” When the female guide first appears to the protagonist in that same level, she states:

Here you are in the land of the dead, the realm ruled by Papa Sangre…In this underworld it is pitch dark. You cannot see a thing; you can’t even see me, a fluttery watery thing here to help you. But you can listen and move…You must learn how to see with your ears. You will need these powers to save the soul in peril and make your way to the light.

Note the conversation between 3:19 and 3:56.

The game envisions an audience who find blindness to be necessarily terrifying. By equating an inability to see with death and fear, developers are intensifying popular horror genre tropes that diminish the lived experiences of those with visual impairments and unquestioningly present blindness as a problem to overcome. Rather than challenging the relationship between blindness and vulnerability that horror-game developers fetishize, Papa Sangre misses the opportunity to present a visually impaired protagonist who is not crippled by his or her disability.

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Disconcertingly, audio games have been tied to game accessibility efforts by developers and players alike for many years. In a 2008 interview Kenji Eno, founder of WARP (a company that specialized in audio games in the late 90s), claimed  his interactions with visually impaired gamers yielded a desire to produce audio games. Similarly forums like audiogames.net showcase users and developers interested in games that cater to gamers with impaired vision.

In terms of its actual game-play, PapaSangre is navigable without visual cues. After playing the game for just two weeks I was able to explore each level with my eyes closed. Still, the ease with which gamers can play the game without looking at the screen does not negate the tension caused by recycled depictions of disability that are in many ways built into storyline’s foundation.

gruntsThe game also fails to engage gender in any complexity. Although the main character’s appearance is never shown, the protagonist is aurally gendered male. Most notable are the deep grunting noises made when he falls to the ground. For me, this acted as a barrier to imagining a fully embodied virtual experience. Those deep grunts revealed many assumptions the designers must have considered about the imagined and perhaps intended audience of the game.  While lack of diversity is certainly an issue at the heart of all entertainment media, Papa Sangre‘s oversight directly contradicts the message of the game, wherein the putative goal is to experience an environment that enhances one’s sense of self within the virtual space.

On October 31st, 2013, Somethin’ Else will release Papa Sangre II. A quick look at the trailer suggests that the developers’ have not changed the formula. The 46-second clip warns that the game is “powered by your fear” after noting, “This Halloween, you are dead.”

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It appears that an inability to see is still deeply connected with notions of fear and death in the game’s sequel. This does not have to be the case. Why not design a game where impairment is not framed as a hindrance or source of fear? Why not build a game with the option to choose between different sounding voice actors and actresses? Despite its popularity, however, Papa Sangre is by no means representative of general trends across the spectrum of audio-based game design. Oldenburg (2013) points out that over the past decade many independent game developers have been designing experimental “blind games” that eschew themes and representations found in popular video games in favor of the abstract relationships between diegetic sound and in-game movement.

Whether or not they eventually consider the social politics of gaming, Papa Sangre’s developers already send a clear message to all gamers by hardwiring disability and gender into both versions of the game while promoting a limited image of “immersion.” Hopefully as game designers Somethin’ Else grow in popularity and prestige, future developers that use the “Papa Engine” will be more cognizant of the privilege and discrimination embedded in the sonic cues of its framework.  Until then, if you are not a sighted male gamer, you must prepare yourself to be immersed in constant aural cues that this experience, like so many others, was not designed with you in mind.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games.  In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship– Melissa Helquist

Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview With Sound Artist Andrea Parkins– Maile Colbert

Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surviellance: Bastion and the Stanley Parable– Aaron Trammell

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11 responses to “Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games”

  1. Neil Bennun (@NeilBennun) says :

    An excellent article (I am one of the writers of Papa Sangre 2).

    I absolutely agree with what you’ve written about gendered feedback; I can’t imagine myself contributing to another sound game unless this is solved.

    But I have to disagree with your criticism that we have used “disability” to frighten non-”disabled” (blind) players.

    The game takes place in the dark.

    In the dark of this game, there are things that can smell you, hear you and sometimes see you.

    This game is equally frightening for blind people as it is for sighted people because the peril is equally acute for blind people as it is for sighted people.

    This is, actually, not a trivial point: if this game environment were real it would be equally dangerous for blind people as it is for sighted people. For 90% of the history of our species, this game environment WAS real – it was when the sun went down. I suppose this might be why it’s so effective and frightening.

    Leopards, I wager, do not privilege the taste of sighted people over the taste of people with impaired vision in the dark. Neither do snufflehogs. The dark is the dark whether you can see it or not. It has nothing to do with sight whatsoever.

    It is the dark itself that is frightening, not the decision to “take away” a sense from a “non-disabled” player with the assumption that this will be scary.

  2. Neil B. says :

    An excellent article (I am one of the writers of Papa Sangre 2).

    This, particularly is an excellent point:

    “The game also fails to engage gender in any complexity. Although the main character’s appearance is never shown, the protagonist is aurally gendered male. Most notable are the deep grunting noises made when he falls to the ground. For me, this acted as a barrier to imagining a fully embodied virtual experience.”

    ‘Immersion’ in an aural game is absolutely contingent on the ways in which aural feedback is gendered. I’m happy to say I don’t feel able to contribute to another game that doesn’t find a solution accounting for gender assumptions about the player.

    I must disagree, however, with the writer on the criticism that we have used “disability” to frighten non-“disabled” (blind) players.

    The game takes place in the dark. In this dark, there are things that can smell you, hear and sometimes see you.

    This game is equally frightening for blind people as it is for sighted people because the peril is equally acute for blind people as it is for sighted people.

    If this game environment were real (and it HAS been real, for almost all of our ancestors, which, I suppose, is why it is so effective and frightening) it would be equally dangerous for blind people as it is for sighted people.

    This is because leopards do not privilege the taste of sighted people over blind people in the dark. Neither do snufflehogs. They really don’t care.

    It is the dark that is frightening, not the decision to “take away” a sense from a “non-disabled” player with the assumption that this will be scary: the dark exists both for those with seeing impairments and for those with perfect vision.

  3. Paul Bennun (@benoonbenoon) says :

    Very interesting reading — the team has read it and discussed it in great depth.

    You point out one piece of bias in the game we have to own, but I hope you won’t mind if I point out certain inaccuracies. For example, you judge our new game without actually experiencing it (it has not been released yet), and you may be assuming the game is the same for sighted people as for blind people — you seem unaware the game has a totally different UI for users of iOS accessibility features. You say “Why not design a game where impairment is not framed as a hindrance or source of fear?” when we at least do not see blindness as an impairment.

    Papa Sangre (the original game) is set in a frightening place.

    It is frightening if you can see or if you cannot see. There are monsters who want to kill you and puzzles which, incorrectly navigated, can alert them to you. While I am sighted, it is my firm belief blind people have an equal fear of dismemberment as sighted people. It is no doubt correct to say the experience has a different flavour for sighted people than for blind people, and even that sighted people may find the game more frightening than blind people. Nevertheless, the game remains frightening for everyone who plays it (and, incidentally, is much more inclusive and immersive for blind people than any movie ever made).

    You correctly point out the lines “see with your ears” and “make your way to the light” do indeed assume a sighted player. This is, regretfully, a form of bias. We did not set out to create a ‘blind game’ but a game designed to delight blind players as much as sighted players. This language — which we regret — is an artefact of that imperative, and one we discussed with our blind players on release. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to conflate the tenor of the game with the fact it occurs in what sighted players call ‘the dark.’ We simply do not equate ‘blindness’ or ‘darkness’ with fear.

    You miss one important subtle UX point: this is a first-person game. “You are you” was the first commandment in our 10 design principles. It is therefore incorrect to say we create a visually impaired protagonist, because we don’t create any kind of protagonist at all. Put another way, it is a fundamentally incontestable fact a sighted player is indeed disabled while playing Papa Sangre. A blind player is not — but this is not design bias, and the game remains terrifying and difficult. I’m afraid you are either making the mistake you (at times correctly) ascribe to us or you are unfamiliar with the first-person gaming paradigm. And again, “recycled depictions of disability” you may see in the game come from your perspective of blind people, not the designers of the game.

    • Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo says :

      Hi Paul! Thank you for reading and I’m so happy that the design team has even taken the time to read and discuss my ideas. I enjoyed Papa Sangre and have encouraged many of my friends to play, both in person and through my Papa Sangre blog (enongo.wordpress.com).

      My point was certainly not that the game’s sound effects are not terrifying for both sighted and visually impaired gamers. Hearing a snufflehog feasting has got to be disconcerting for anybody who plays the game. Instead my contention lies with the use of particular language in the game to explicitly frame the protagonist’s interaction with the virtual world in a way that implies a sighted main character (when this does not necessarily enhance the storyline). For instance, the guide could have said, “I will teach you how to walk in this new world” since the interface will likely be novel for anybody playing for the first time, but instead the phrase “you must learn to see with your ears” specifically implies a protagonist who is learning how to adjust to not being able to see for the first time. I argue that the storyline does not even have to address “why” the gamer can’t see — it could have been presented without question. And if explaining why the gamer can’t see is viewed as a necessity for building the story, perhaps because many sighted players have never played an audio game before, I would rather the explanation be one that caters to those who may have limited engagement with other forms of entertainment media (like movies, as you mention). Your point is well taken about the implications of creating a visually impaired protagonist who is explicitly mentioned as such. I brought up this possibility only because this seems to be the ideal platform for creating such a character, if a protagonist were going to be suggested at all (either explicitly in the story or through subtext and sound cues). In this piece I wanted to reveal how biases that seem to be a feature of video games, and other visually represented media are present even in a game that functions primarily via sound, a medium that continues to be framed as “the immersive medium par excellence” without question. In short, Papa Sangre is a success as a horror game even without the use of a storyline or language that explains the protagonist’s inability to see.

      That said, I did have to note how Papa Sangre’s relationship with the horror genre can be problematic in itself, particularly as I found reviews from fans and gamers that discuss blindness as being the game’s most terrifying feature, while at the same time reading about Papa Sangre under headings like “Games for the blind” in academic texts. I really want to challenge what is presented as a natural relationship between visual impairment and fear in horror games to consider how such wording/framing can be interpreted by those who are visually impaired in reality. As I mentioned in the article, Oldenburg (2013) draws attention to a lot of experimental games that engage sound in more abstract ways, but I selected Papa Sangre partially because it has been so popular and successful. My point in making the above observation was that it would be interesting to play a game with the amazing capacities of the Papa Engine that isn’t based in the horror genre. Please keep me updated about new developments as I really enjoyed playing the first game and have every intention to play the second one (currently working on The Nightjar).

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