We like the idea of experimenting with storytelling around here. We’ve tried it with slow live blogging and we’ve tried it with audio. We’ve covered holographic K-pop concerts and strategy for startup blogging. So you can only imagine our intrigue when we came across something called Codename Cygnus–an interactive radio drama.
Radio dramas recall images of Orson Welles stories being broadcast out to the masses in their living rooms, huddled around a cabinet-sized AM receiver. Codename Cygnus is technically a part of that tradition: Part casual game, part interactive audiobook, it’s immersive audio storytelling, lacquered in the delicious intrigue of an old-time spy drama.
In a world of ubiquitous Siri copycats, Codename Cygnus seems archetypal of a new way of storytelling–in which listeners become participants and the whole story is bespoke to the user. We’re all accustomed to interactivity on the web, but broadcast audio? That’s the original one-way medium. But not anymore. The benefits of immersive audio narrative–low overhead, portability, and a commute-friendly format–might be enough to make this style of gameplay stick.
Reactive Studios is banking on an experience that sits comfortably between button-mash gaming and passive audio entertainment. Jonathon Myers is the game’s creator. Myers’ experience working on mobile games (along with playing his fair share on the T-line commute through Boston) got him thinking about an audio program that would be more immersive than the NPR stories we’re used to.
But what about the main character? How can you be fully immersed when the protagonist is (say) a burly hitman and you’re a teenage girl? In Codename Cygnus, gender pronouns directed toward the player are stricken from the game–in the main storyline, the player is always “The Agent.” Such subconscious reinforcement of the player’s imagination drives it further from the realm of audiobooks, but Reactive Studios didn’t stop there: In their fidelity to the spy genre, one of the most beloved tropes–mysterious, high-stakes romance–is prominently included, with players given the choice to become involved with whomever romantic options are germane to the plot.
“You can pursue who you want to pursue,” Myers says.
And, of course, the game was built around choice: try to talk the thug down or tackle him? Such choices affect both the story and the player’s stats: Myers describes it as “RPG-lite,” building the player’s character behind the scenes with zero bops or HUD indicators in the game’s quest to eliminate or streamline any UX mechanics that break immersion.
A narrative designer and writer with experience as a playwright, Myers pitched the idea for Codename Cygnus during a meeting of the , a roundtable for indie game designers. Not only did the idea have legs among his peers–they threw dollars in Myers’ face and told him to “make it now, take my money,” he says.
Myers conceived of the game after finding himself using his phone for entertainment during his commute. He preferred pick-up-and-play experiences with negligible learning curves. An audio-based adventure game would be one of the easiest, he figured.
Not many people are trying experiments like this one. Interactive narrative, as Codename Cygnus might be categorized, has slim pickings in today’s game market. The world is historically awash with text-based choose-your-own-adventure books, but Myers found precious few games that shared his team’s vision.
One ally was Dan Brainerd, whose choice-based progression in the Steam game Monster Loves You mirrored Codename Cygnus’s choose-your-own-adventure-style narrative flow. Still, the game was visually based–a different paradigm. Myers turned next to Naomi Alderman for inspiration, writer of Zombies, Run!–an audio narrative-based game broken up into “missions” that pop up with updates between songs during your workout. Codename Cygnus will likely come with a few illustrations, but as it stands, the voices, choices, and the narrative will be the bulk of the gameplay experience. Once up to speed, they wish to put out a 15-20 minute episode per week.
The game will be available for episodic purchase in late August, and features voices like Logan Cunningham (narrator of Bastion) and Sarah Elmaleh (of Skulls of the Shogun). Reactive Studios has established a Kickstarter to pay off the professional sound effects library, tech licenses, and plug-ins that made recording of the first episodes possible. Better music, voiceover brushups, and polish are also on the list. As of press time, the Kickstarter had reached one-third of its $11,000 target.
Even before this polish had been funded, Myers took a demo around at last March’s Game Developer’s conference. Wandering around the floor, Myers wrangled anyone he could to try the rough beta version of Codename Cygnus. At first, they were perplexed. And then he pressed play.
“When I put the headphones on their ears, I just saw this smile on their face,” Myers said.