Road to the IGF: Kevin Regamey's Phonopath

As part of our ongoing Road to the IGF interview series with nominees, Power Up Audio co-founder Kevin Regamey explains how he built the award-nominated audio puzzle game Phonopath and why.

Phonopath is a tricky game to sum up.

It's sort of like the part of every ARG where people try to analyze a sound file for hidden meanings, I tell my friends, expanded into a full game where each sound file is its own stage of the puzzle. Each file is tied to a password request, and you have to muck around with the sound itself by speeding it up, slowing it down and reversing it to find clues.

As you might expect, it's proven remarkably popular among composers, sound designers and other game industry audio professionals.

Designed and submitted to the 2015 IGF by Power Up Audio co-founder Kevin Regamey, Phonopath netted an honorable mention for the Nuovo Award and a nomination for the Excellence in Audio award on the strength of its unique design and innovative take on player engagement.

Here, as part of our ongoing Road to the IGF interview series with nominees, Regamey explains how he first built Phonopath as a Valve job application and shares some of the weirder puzzle ideas that didn't make it into the final game.

What's your background in making games?

I've played games my whole life. I worked at an audio outsourcing house for about 3 or 4 years, and then two years ago co-founded Power Up Audio with my business partner Jeff Tangsoc. We're now working closely with a variety of developers on sound effects, music, and/or voiceover for games such as TowerFall Ascension, Crypt of the NecroDancer, and Darkest Dungeon.

What development tools did you use to build Phonopath? 

I'm not much of a programmer myself, but my brother helped me out by diving headfirst into Flash for the site/interface. Apart from that, I used a ton of different audio software to construct the level content itself, as well as "the internet" to research whether or not some of these crazy ideas I had were even possible. A lot weren't.

Can you share an example or two of a crazy idea you wanted to implement but couldn't?

One thing that I tried for quite a while explored the manipulation of what are called "formants". In slightly simplified terms, formants are spectral peaks which naturally exist in spoken vowel sounds, and these peaks show up in different positions according to the vowel being spoken. That said, if you transition from one vowel sound to another (as in the words "coy", "fired", or "trout") these formants move around, creating slopes, hills, and valleys in the sound spectrum. 

Formants are basically the reason our brains/ears can distinguish vowels, and they also define much of how regional accents are structured. It's actually a super interesting concept in phonetics, so I really wanted to incorporate it into Phonopath somehow.

Anyway, all that said, my original goal for this puzzle idea was to have several voices speaking in such a way that these formants might overlap and form the shapes of letters in the sound's spectrogram. I'm still pretty confident I could find a way to make it work, but the execution proved too difficult to be included in the game.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Phonopath actually released for free online on January 6th, 2012, but I spent almost two years working on it prior to its release.

I didn't realize that -- is the 2012 version essentially identical to the one you submitted to the 2015 IGF? If so, why did you wait so long to enter the competition?

This is indeed the first year I've submitted, and the version I submitted to the 2015 IGF is identical to the version released online 3 years ago.

I'd originally created Phonopath as a portfolio piece with which to apply at Valve. They loved it, I got an interview, and I was urged to re-apply in six months. When six months came around, I'd already left the place I was working at to found Power Up Audio. To be honest, I'd never really anticipated or planned on doing anything else with the game, and so it was left to rust.

Over the next couple years, largely unbeknownst to myself, Phonopath managed to establish something of a cult following in the audio industry. I'll never forget - I was attending an audio party at GDC, and a room full of my idols remarked, "Wait, YOU made Phonopath?". It blew my mind to think that the kinds of people I wanted to be were this enthusiastic about something I'd created.

That response, paired with a multitude of my peers in the indie scene berating me for never having done anything further with the game, led me to finally submit to the 2015 IGF.

How did you come up with the concept?

I've always been a fan of ARGs, and also puzzle trails such as the website "notpr0n", but whenever there might be an audio-related puzzle, it often seemed that either (a) the puzzle itself was something basic, like reversing the sound or figuring out some morse code, or (b) the sound itself wasn't particularly interesting to listen to. There wasn't really anything out there that was both super hard and also "cool-sounding", so I figured I'd explore it myself.

Phonopath started as a fun hobby, just creating puzzles for my audiophile friends...but as I kept delving pushing this idea of "an audio file as a puzzle medium", eventually I'd come up with enough content to start thinking about building a game around it all.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I'm super proud of my fellow Vancouver devs in the festival (Invisible Inc., Desert Golfing, and Coming Out Simulator 2014), and I'm also really pumped about how many of the other games I haven't played! I'll definitely be making some time over the next couple months to check them all out.

Also, I'm thrilled Shovel Knight made it in there - that soundtrack is unreal, and I'm listening to it right now. 

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