“Hey Alexa, look at the table and pick up the key.”

The United States’ Infinite Dial report of 2018 has been released! Hooray for data on media consumption! It shows a lot of steady growth for podcasting as a common media option for people to listen to in a variety of places. But there was also demonstrably rapid growth for smart speakers like Alexa or Google Home, and I wondered what that could mean for audio fiction. You probably haven’t missed the sudden spike in interactive audio fiction, both as an adaptation of an existing audio drama and as a standalone project. I come from a background of loving interactive text fiction (where are my Z​ork buds?) and I wanted to know what that landscape looked like in audio, in this particular medium that’s seeing a jump in popularity. And, well, I own an Alexa.

I decided to focus my attention on some that had been developed specifically for voice-activated interaction: Codename CygnusThe Magic Door, and BBC’s The Inspection ChamberCodename Cygnus received some attention since its original development in 2013 for the iOS platform and I saw it bandied about in the Twitterverse a few times when it was reactivated for smart speakers. It’s a fun little spy thriller romp — the actors in the audio recordings are wonderful and clearly enjoying themselves in their roles (Logan Cunningham plays the villain and that is not to be missed). The missions are familiar espionage tale fare, up to and including the need to flirt with people to achieve objectives (at least you can decide on “ladies or gentlemen” and it doesn’t determine your gender, I suppose). It’s only been a two-choices system so far, which means I checked out a lot during the handler’s description of what choice I need to make.

The Inspection Chamber is an experiment from the BBC in interactive audio fiction, a black comedy sci-fi story where you play a “being” or “specimen” and try to interact with a glitching AI and two scientists that really want to go home and stop categorizing beings. It appears as a multiple choice system, but they don’t really appear to have major effects beyond filling in blanks in speech like Mad Libs, and the audio file selections have options for when the device can’t recognize what you’re saying. The voice actors cleary enjoyed recording this and did a fabulous job — I genuinely laughed throughout and enjoyed identifying myself as “a basic form of hummus”. This game was short enough that I played it three times, selecting different options to see what happens. I wished this one in particular were longer and more involved, but as it’s a small project from the Research & Development division, approximately the length I expected.

The Magic Door is one of the highest rate Alexa skills and the one game I played that uses Alexa’s voice as a narrator and as your companion on a fantasy exploration adventure.  Its sound design is mostly a vast variety of sound effects that pop up when mentioned in the narration, and then drop out until later when it becomes necessary to illustrate what is happening once you associate them with an action. Many of the choices in certain parts of the adventure are binary, in the sense that they are “do you want to do this action or do you not want to do it?” However, once you’re actively investigating locations, it’s exactly like playing an interactive fiction game. You can look at objects, pick them up, use them on certain items in order to reach an outcome, and interact with other characters voiced by different actors. I had fun with it once I realized what I could do!

Unfortunately, the common theme with all of them is railroading. It doesn’t matter what choice you make or what you say, you’ll still end up in the same place.  As far as I’ve gotten in these, you can’t fail in Codename Cygnus, certain choices don’t appear to affect your results in The Magic Door, and you can’t free yourself from The Inspection Chamber.  There is very little to no risk involved in any of them and if I’m engaging with interactive fiction of any kind, I want to feel as though I am playing a game, not pressing the next button through a series of scenes. However, I recognize some positive patterns I’ve seen from video games and interactive fiction in text and apps. This is a growing field that’s using knowledge from a huge body of established work and modifying it for voice-activation and whatever limitations a smart speaker might have (I’m assuming here that there are some; I am not a computer scientist nor programmer of this level).

Of all of them, The Inspection Chamber felt the freest in design, consistent with sound design and effects in between and throughout character scenes and subtle background noise that doesn’t just fall away whenever people talk. The Magic Door is the one with the biggest breadth and variety of spaces to explore and scenes to engage in, and the one I think that is the closest to what I was looking for, even though it didn’t have the type of branching storyline I was expecting. My goal here was to get a feel for the field of interactive audio fiction in smart speakers. I’m not sure the options as they stand now will attract people to the wider world of audio fiction; it may make players desire a longer version or something more immersive or natural, but not know where to find them. But, even so, I think it’s a ripe and growing field with a ton of fun options I haven’t even been able to look at yet and, considering the growth in smart speaker ownership, has a of potential for filling in any audience knowledge gaps about audio fiction.

Do you have any questions about audio interactive fiction in a smart speaker setup? What do you think about the effect this might have on podcasted fiction? We have versions of interactive fiction in podcasts — like You Are Here where listeners submit their votes for options online and the majority vote is the result for the next episode. This is, of course, far more personalized. What about the increase in smart speaker ownership — do you think this might have an effect on podcasting? Some current podcasts like Hello from the Magic Tavern have an Alexa skill that’s an interactive adventure! Have you played this one? I haven’t had time. Let me know what you think! I had a lot of fun playing these games, so thanks for giving me an excuse to block out three entire hours to just play games.

This review was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #2, March 26 2018.