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Indie Game Stifled Plays Horror by Ear

SAN FRANCISCO — Most horror games rely on gory visuals supported by jarring, atmospheric audio. The new game Stifled turns that notion on its head, forcing players to survive a nightmarish world where they can see almost nothing, but hear everything. Dubbed as a spiritual sequel to indie title Lurking, Stifled furthers developer Gattai Games' journey into audio-based gaming.

Using sounds picked up from the player's own headset microphone output, such as steps, whispers or screams, Stifled creates visual representations of sound waves that deliver only brief glimpses of the in-game world. It's sort of like echolocation, but for humans.

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The demo I played at the Game Developers Conference started off looking like any other horror game. I was in a room by myself, with a door that led down a long narrow hallway. As I cautiously made my way down the hall toward a door at the other end, the screen distorted and the walls were suddenly smeared with blood. I was already on edge.

Once I reached the door, I was transported into a bar. Everything seemed fine, except for a hulking demonic figure seated by himself. I psyched myself up and approached the brute, only to be plunged into a world of darkness.

From that point, the game's world was built from sound. Every step I took emitted a sound wave in the form of a small white ring that expanded across the screen. When the edge of ring came into contact with an object, I saw a white outline against a murky black background. The sound wave was small and provided only a brief glimpse into my surroundings, and only while I was walking. The effect unlocked feelings of vulnerability and dread I hadn't felt in a horror title since Amnesia. 

Since I was in a crowded room, the Gattai Games rep set up a default pulse based on my movements. However, if we had been in a quieter environment, the game would have been set to use only the noise coming from my headset's microphone to audio-map my way through the horror.

In this mode, both the size and the intensity of the pulse created would be affected by the volume of the noise recorded from the microphone. Whisper and you can see a small, quick pulse, while a scream produces a large ring, letting you see more of the game world. Being noisy comes at a cost, though, as enemies will be alerted to your position.

Speaking of enemies, I slowly made my way down what revealed itself as an alleyway, complete with cars and scattered dumpsters. Down toward the end of the alley, I saw a flash of a blood-red ring. As I moved closer, I saw the outline of the demonic figure from the bar, now on the move, actively on the hunt for something, or someone. I crouched and slowly made my way past it. I'm not going to lie -- I was a more than a little freaked out from not having a clear picture of my surroundings. Plus, I could hear the beast's breathing, which was unsettling.

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I held it together long enough to creep my way past the beast — or so I thought. I heard the monster bearing down on me and I panicked, breaking into full sprint and dashing behind a dumpster. Knowing it had me cornered, the demon took its time sauntering down the alley. It stopped at the dumpster I was cowering behind and ... turned around to go the other way.

A wave of relief washed over me until I accidentally walked forward. The last thing that pulsed into view before I died was a massive arm, outlined in red, clubbing me. Then the world went black — permanently.

Overall, Stifled plays like a very intense game of Marco Polo. Instead of relying on jump scares and mind-rending monsters, Stifled plays on humanity's ancient fear of the dark. The echolocation feature gives you flashes of illumination, but you have to be moving or talking to get a consistent picture.

The brief instances of seeing the world can be terrifying, because when everything goes dark, you know that something out there is looking for you, listening intently. I would love to play this with the microphone, as I imagine the sound of my continued whispering would heighten the paranoia to a fever pitch.

Gattai Games is shooting for a September 2015 launch, but barring that, horror aficionados should look for Stifled on PC and PS4 with a possibility of Xbox One. Pricing for this innovative title has yet to be announced.