Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sing Your Song: The Sounds of "One Hand Clapping"

I watch a handful of Let's Play-type channels on YouTube because, as I've said before, my gaming abilities are not particularly top-notch and my brain sucks for vertigo. But once in a while, I'll be watching a video and feel the need to stop everything, grab the game myself, and play.

That was exactly what happened with One Hand Clapping, a USC-produced demo/experience where your primary tool is your voice.

You play as a sad, nondescript little blob-person who first appears in a grey cityscape filled with shadowy people. You have two sets of controls: arrows (or WASD if you prefer) and the space bar, and your microphone. The keyboard helps you with basic navigation. But to influence the environment and solve puzzles, you have to sing.

Well, sing or hum or whistle. They've made sure the game isn't inaccessible to non-singers. And while there's some pitch-matching in later puzzles, it's not going to shut you out based on ability. Your "lowest comfortable note" (and "comfortable" makes a difference here -- more on that later) is calibrated at the beginning of the game, and can be recalibrated at any point if you feel like things are a little off.

Early puzzles involve just making sounds at all to make things move, then pitching higher and lower to raise and lower elements of the landscape. Once you've moved into the second phase of the game, you're met by a cheerful little green critter who is leading you to... wherever you're going. It's largely pitch-matching from here, but you have infinite chances and onscreen cues to help you along. Plus, it goes at a relaxed pace, so you have time to self-correct.

My absolute favorite part of the game was, without question, a sequence in which you self-harmonize. You're led through a series of concentric circles, guided to hit and hold certain notes, and then hear the resulting harmonies played back to you in your own voice as you move to the next scene. This sequence doesn't sport the vast pastel landscapes of the rest of the game's back half, but there's something really joyful about hearing your own voice integrated into the game. And as it's a slow build of the soundtrack's leitmotif, it makes you feel even more like a part of the game itself.

I hesitate to talk about "spoilers" in the traditional sense because this is a game of scenes and experiences. There's something of a plot to be had, but it's subtle and sweet and works more as a conveyance for the overall experience. Still, I don't want to talk too much about the very end. As simple and pretty as it is, I was happy I stopped the video I was watching and saw it for the first time as I was interacting with it.

A quick note on calibrating the game to your voice. I played it through twice in one day (and will likely do it again and again whenever I need a lift and want an excuse to make noise), calibrating it slightly differently each time. The first time, I did exactly as I was told, which was singing my lowest comfortable note -- that is, what I could reach for certain without straining.

The second time through, I calibrated it to... how to explain this? To the first "tone" I hit when I'm speaking. Basically if I'm not thinking and I open my mouth and go "Ah," that tone. That's about... maybe two steps above my "lowest comfortable note." And, for me at least, that actually made a big difference in the voice controls when it came to lifting and lowering things. But I'm also a soprano, so I have a lot of upward range.

That "lowest comfortable note" is gonna be your baseline. Anything significantly above it is going to be how you lift rocks and build stairs. So mainly, calibrate the sound in such a way that you have a lot of "head space."

I'm an absolute sucker for innovative sound design in games (see Ookibloks for another example of this) and for new ways to interface with the story. One Hand Clapping is a simple half-hour play, but you become so much a part of the world of the game in that time. By the time you get to the end, it's not so much a game as a duet. And it's one you'll find yourself wanting to come back to, just to test the interactions of your voice and the world of the game.

One Hand Clapping is available for download on a pay-what-you-want system. But I'd encourage anyone who grabs it to give the creators at least a couple of bucks. Imagine what else they could make with our support.

>> One Hand Clapping Website

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