Soul Trapper

Posted by PH on December 10, 2008
Marshall McLuhan, Narrative

Soul Trapper is a very well-produced application for the iPhone that developers Realtime call an ‘audio adventure’: you experience it as if you were listening to a radio play, but at certain points you have to interact with it, giving it a game-like dimension as well.

The story, set in modern-day Los Angeles, plays out as a cross between the 1940s detective novels of Raymond Chandler and, say, Ghostbusters. This rather unlikely combination actually works rather well and after an initial acclimatization period I truly found myself getting involved with the characters and their Hellish plights. It’s more pulp than Chandler ever was, but the dialogue is littered with Marlowe-esque wisecracks and mannerisms and the locations are classic Chandler: missionary churches, surf-spattered coastlines, Cahuenga Boulevard, horseshoe-boothed bars. It’s a world where tough guys don’t drink their whisky, they inhale it.

There’s not much going on graphically. Each of the 23 chapters is simply represented by a single stark image. You’re listening. In fact, you find yourself listening really hard because many of the cues are quite subtle. In order to support this need for detailed listening the quality of the audio is very high throughout, and you’re best off with a decent set of headphones: many of the tasks would simply be unplayable over the iPhone’s speaker.

There are some great audio set pieces later in the game. Whilst in Hell (!) you play the hero swordfighting with a demon and you have to parry his strokes by listening to which side they’re coming from, and then very quickly parry them using onscreen buttons: very Luke Skywalker. Later, whilst recovering from this ordeal, you have to ‘centre your chakras’ by remixing synth tones in real-time. Brilliant, intuitive, fun.

It isn’t perfect: some of the voice acting is a bit cheesy; certain sections of the dialogue are merely functional; and in places the interaction isn’t all that meaningful or productive. But, overall, Soul Trapper is well worth the admission price and good value-for-money at £3.99.

So why am I reviewing Soul Trapper exactly? Well, here’s a couple of reasons:

Firstly, I am intrigued and fascinated by the idea of telling a story using only audio. In our Internet-driven world the default communications strategy privileges images and, in particular, moving images. It is a relief, therefore, to come across a developer willing to attempt something different.

As Marshall McLuhan has pointed out, media exist on a continuum between hot and cool (where by ‘hot’ he means high resolution, narrow bandwidth, requiring total concentration from the user, total involvement). By focusing on audio to tell their story, Realtime have exploited these characteristics of a hot medium to excellent effect.

Secondly, I am also intrigued and fascinated by the interactive narrative elements. The plot itself is not open to manipulation by the user: about the most you can do is effect the order conversations play out, or the way in which the protagonist moves around the limited maps. However, to make up for this, the story fair motors along, and you’re recompensed by some unusual interactive game-like elements (as mentioned above) that crop up in most chapters.

It really is quite an interesting and cost-effective solution to the problems presented by any type of interactive narrative. I shall be interested to see how Realtime develop these ideas in future releases.

To sum up: an excellent release for the iPhone. Highly entertaining and very interesting.

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