Human beings are visual creatures, and video games are a visual medium. However, now and again a game comes along – like the revolutionary mobile title Papa Sangre – and reminds us that our ears are pretty useful little organs too.
Unheard is the latest to venture into this lesser explored auditory territory. It places you in the shoes of a detective, sitting down in an interrogation room, experimenting with a sophisticated new surveillance tool called the Acoustic Detective System.
Here’s how it works: you’re given a shortish (generally under ten minutes) overhead clip of a floor in a building. This clip is monochrome, like an X-ray, and lacking in detail. You can make out objects like chairs and toilets, but people are represented by simple circles.
The only person you can make out in this clip is the one who isn’t there: you. Acoustic Detective Systems works by letting you both observe a scene and inhabit it, like some kind of nosey time-travelling ghost.
Hear Hear TV
In each scene you need to solve a crime and identify all of the people present at the scene, tagging them with names from a list. To do this, you have to get yourself within earshot of a person who happens to be talking and eavesdrop.
Names, motivations, and various other details are revealed in conversation, either in person or over the phone (though all of the phone conversations are with people who are also in the building.)
You start with almost no information, and have to piece together a working understanding by replaying the scene over and over, pausing, rewinding, travelling back and forth between conversations, and watching where characters go.
It’s a novel concept, and if you were concerned that it’s a gimmick – a fancy way of making you probe blindly around for a confession – you can relax. The puzzles and plotlines in Unheard are complex, elegant, and tricky to solve.
You can think of it more or less like a dynamic, fluid, single-player take on Cluedo – or, more recently, Her Story – but the crimes are never as simple as who killed who and where. For instance, in the first of the game’s five levels you need to solve an art heist involving several suspects and a couple of befuddling twists concerning forgeries, double-crosses, and so on. We solved it, of course, but I doubt we fully understood every ramification.
Each character is richly drawn, and each one has their own agenda and is affected by events in different ways.
Hard on the Ears
At times, Unheard is arguably too difficult. You need a lot of patience to sit through every conversation, slowly stitching together a picture of the crime, and you need a dollop of lateral thinking power on top of that. Even then, the clues you’re given – handily reviewed after each stage in a stylized cutscene – are persuasively circumstantial rather than absolutely conclusive.
Fortunately, as in puzzle adventures of yore, you can get to the end by clicking ‘answer’ and trying every alternative. By the time you’ve solved 80% of a crime, there are generally only a handful of remaining possibilities, and no penalty for failing to get the right one first time.
Developer Next Studios stresses at the outset that you should play Unheard with headphones on, and if you do you’ll get the benefit of more immersive, multi-directional sound. People to the left of your avatar will sound like they’re on your left.
But this is an aesthetic rather than practical advantage, and you can solve the puzzles just fine with speakers.
Unheard has a fairly short running time, but that time is mostly well-spent. The concept is ingenious, the scenarios are well-written, the puzzles are cleverly constructed, and the voice acting is solid in a hammy sort of way. There’s even an unsettling, vaguely GlaDOS-like vibe to the sections between the levels – but we won’t spoil the surprize by going into detail.
It’s not perfect, but Unheard is the newest concept since Her Story, and it’s well worth playing. Check it out on Steam here.