Most of us rarely consider just how difficult it would be to learn how to speak from scratch. But that’s the mission of one very odd upcoming game.
Affable Games, a two-person team out of Brisbane, Australia, is currently developing “Speaking Simulator,” and they brought a demo of it to the Game Developers Conference. Sure, the idea of the game is mostly contained in the name. However, what it doesn’t tell you is that you play as a newly-created, and completely clueless, android who must learn quickly how to blend in to the rest of society to achieve total domination.
But before you can take over humanity, you have to learn how to speak.
In the game, you control both the mouth’s movements and the tongue’s position to imitate the physiology of how speech is created. You do this through a variety of escalating challenges, like managing employees, socializing at a club and giving a eulogy at a funeral.
Affable Games co-founder Jed Dawson said that inspiration for creating “Speaking Simulator” came from his time lecturing students. Dawson said he was teaching facial animation and his students would deform and manipulate the physics of the human mouth “to the point where they destroyed it.”
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It made him realize “how we take for granted our bodily mechanics,” and led to the creation of the purposefully-awkward game. The developers researched all of the mechanics involved with speech including inflection, intonation, control of the voice box, all to learn the best way to simulate what it take to make the words we use every day.
Dawson also admitted that his frustration with “The Dark Knight” film was a large, albeit unexpected, inspiration for the game. He was particularly bothered by Harvey Dent’s face melting off.
“It really annoyed me that he could still talk perfectly,” Dawson said. “This game is my attack on Christopher Nolan.”
Affable Games’ Co-founder Jordan Comino had a much simpler inspiration for wanting to create “Speaking Simulator.”
“I just like robots,” he said.
“QWOP,” a simple, yet maddeningly-difficult game where players control only the calves and the thighs of a runner with the Q,W,O and P keys on a keyboard, is actually a very good analogy of what it feels like to play “Speaking Simulator.”
After a very brief tutorial, the demo that I played put me on a date as I attempted to navigate both the shape of my character’s mouth and the position of the tongue to try and form words. You are given a front view of the face to drag the mouth around with the mouse. And simultaneously, there is a side view of the inside of the mouth, complete with a tongue and buttons along the oral cavity. You control a stretchy, slimy tongue with the W, A, S and D keys.
As the player, you are tasked with shaping the mouth and placing the tongue on the corresponding button to craft the sounds of words in a certain amount of time. Otherwise, the people to whom you’re “speaking” might get suspicious.
The scene devolves into extreme silliness as the android’s human face deforms during the level. Its teeth fall out, its face sparks, its eyes bulge, all while your date remains oblivious to the what’s going on in front of them.
Another game that the creators credited with inspiring “Speaking Simulator” is 2010’s “Octodad” and the 2014 sequel “Octodad: Dadliest Catch.” In these games you control the limbs of an unsteady octopus, trying to act like a normal father without raising the suspicions of those around.
“Speaking Simulator” has a very similar suspicion bar that keeps track of how well, or how long, it takes you to create simple sounds.
“It’s really hard to make a game that’s new,” Dawson said about the unique mechanics involved with “Speaking Simulator.” While there are plenty of games built around running, jumping or shooting that a developer could learn from, the number of games built around moving lips and tongue is slim to none.
That made it also difficult to tell how to make the game enjoyable. They said they struggled with the question of how realistic to make the speech simulation.
“We’re somewhere around the 10th iteration of how to make the mouth shapes,” Comino said. “The first iteration was almost a perfect representation. But that’s not fun.”
I only played the first level, though the creators explained how the difficulty and complexity of the game increased over time as new elements were added. Smiling, frowning, eye movement, and more all become part of the conversations your android must face to achieve its goals of domination.
Dawson and Comino said that perhaps most interesting about the reception of the game so far has been the reaction from people who have difficulty reading social cues or are on the autism spectrum. They said they have been contacted by the Art for Autism nonprofit and will be demoing the game for them during GDC.
“A lot of people find it very comforting,” Dawson said about playing an android struggling to appear “normal.” He was excited to share the game with Art for Autism. “They’re super interested in it.”
Affable Games carries with it something of a mobile pedigree; both Comino and Dawson worked for Halfbrick Studios, which is responsible for the hit game “Fruit Ninja.” That’s why their first title as a new studio, “Astro Crash” a twitchy shooter released in 2017, was a mobile game. “Speaking Simulator” is the full PC title from Affable Games.
The developers expect to release “Speaking Simulator” in the third quarter of this year first on Steam and then they said that they might possibly bring it to consoles.