Three Monkeys is a game without visuals. No dynamic lighting. No subsurface scattering. Not a sprite to be seen. It's also a semi-open, first-person RPG. For junior developers Incus Games, that has to be daunting. Why not make a pixel art platformer and leave it at that?
"There's far too much fun to be had in life!" says producer Steve Willey. From his perspective, Incus are playing it safe. In many ways they're at an advantage over other up-and-comers. "We're actually exploring something that hasn't been explored that much. So, actually, we've got a lot more to say — more obvious things to say, I guess".
The gist of Three Monkeys does sound familiar. A fantasy world (Byzantia) is oppressed by evil (a White Witch has snuffed out the sun) and a hero steps forth with a brave companion (yourself, plus guide Yoska). Combat and exploration then put meat on the fairytale bones. Stop me if you've heard this one.
Regardless, for most players Three Monkeys will be something new. Slipping on surround sound headphones and closing my eyes was like donning an Oculus Rift for the first time. It felt immediately different — a fresh way to play, and without the risk of hurling onto my shoes. It takes some time to adapt, but after ten minutes I, well, didn't really miss my eyes.
Everything, from story to contextual cues, is presented through audio. Yoska provides encouragement from your shoulder. Birdsong guides your choice of direction. Enemies telegraph attacks before they swing, the audible equivalent of Batman's beat-'em-up button prompts. By providing a rich soundscape, Incus aims to empower rather than disorient the player.
Audio-only games aren't unheard of. Sites like www.audiogames.net house collections for enthusiasts and the blind, spanning subjects from sci-fi and warfare to — you guessed it — zombies. "I can't remember which developer said, but if we only built games for the visually impaired, there'd already be a massive market! Because they're big gamers, you know?" says Steve. "I think the size of this project is what kind of pushes things on … We almost want to create something where blind or visually impaired gamers can play with visual gamers too."
That's not easy. Relying on eyes makes us lazy listeners. Audio designer Rob Allen recounts how Incus' visually impaired consultant, Kevin Satizabal, steamrolled the devs in playtests. "One of the things we learnt to address really early on is getting this balance in terms of difficulty for sighted people — to not throw them in in a really really harsh environment. Equally, [we had] to make it challenging enough for visually impaired people to find it interesting."
The people at Incus talk with confidence, and having played an early build I'm sure they can see out their vision and release this year. Three Monkeys is an exciting anomaly that aims to bring the blind and sighted together. So keep your post-processing, G-SYNC and fancy 4K. Three Monkeys is rocking next gen graphics.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.