It's a familiar scene. Someone is trapped in a dangerous place — a derelict space station, a park overrun with dinosaurs — and a friendly voice on the other end of a walkie talkie helps guide them to safety. Only in Mayday! Deep Space, which launches today on iOS for $2.99, that friendly voice is yours. The game is powered almost entirely by your voice, as you use a map to aid someone stranded on a spaceship, giving them directions all the way. It's a short, intimate experience, and one that I can't stop thinking about.
The set-up is simple: you're listening to the voice of someone stuck on a spaceship, one that's been overrun by what appear to be zombie-like monsters. At least that's how it sounds — you can't actually see anything that's happening. The character you're guiding will explain what he's looking at as he explores, and you have a map that gives you the basic layout of the ship and where everyone else is. Characters show up as tiny dots — red ones are bad — and that's about as detailed as things get. The game leaves the rest of the visuals to your imagination, but thanks to some fantastic writing from Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson, you won't miss the graphics.
By the end you'll feel a strong connection
In order to talk, you hold down a big, satisfyingly chunky on-screen button and issue commands like "stop," go left," or "run forward." The goal is to get off the ship and to safety. Because of these simplified commands, the conversations in the game are pretty one-sided, but just the act of speaking and listening creates an incredibly intimate experience. By the end you'll feel a strong connection to the other character, one that feels deeper than in most games.
The terrifying horror game Papa Sangre has shown just how powerful an audio-focused experience can be, and Mayday is further proof. As you guide the man through the station, you'll hear the fear in his voice when monsters are approaching, and you'll get a sense of his uncertainty as key events unfold in the later chapters. Even though you won't actually see the game's most important events, they can still feel chilling thanks to the great voice acting. Mayday also features a pair of branching paths, letting you make important decisions that influence the outcome of the story (this also adds some incentive to replay it after you're done).
"The gameplay was only a means to an end."
The actual gameplay is simple and intuitive — I rarely had to repeat myself when issuing voice commands, and there was only one instance where I "failed" and had to repeat a section. But that simplicity is intentional: really, the game is just an excuse to tell an intriguing story in a new way. "By the end, it's clear that the gameplay was only a means to an end," says Wilson.
The author, who also holds a degree in robotics, partnered with game and design studio Mountain Machine to bring his idea to your iPad. For someone who's used to working alone writing stories, it was a big change. Wilson started out trying to manage key aspects of the game, from the layout of the ship to the architecture, but eventually realized that working collaboratively led to a better experience. "Letting go of that control required faith, but I was rewarded when I saw the first iteration of the app," he explains.
What drew Wilson to this project in particular was the promise of a voice control-driven narrative. "Speech recognition is going to transform modern storytelling," he says. In that regard, Mayday is almost like a proof of concept; Wilson describes it as "the simplest, most stripped-down version of the game imaginable." Despite its short length, it still works, and it's still engaging, but just imagine a similar game where you can have real conversations with virtual characters, where what you say actually influences the outcome of the story.
"This is just the beginning," says Wilson.