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Soundvoyager is still a wonderful trip


In a darkened room, lie back with the headphones on and the tiny shape of a GBA Micro in your hands. Close your eyes to the brightest, most perfectly lovable screen on any handheld ever made, and listen. Soundvoyager! The name alone! That sense of fragile spaceships travelling far away from Earth, leaving behind the familiar landmarks of the solar system, heading into cold adventure in the dark! Soundvoyager! One of the Bit Generation games, Nintendo at its most wonderfully strange, and the only one of the series I have been able to track down. Close your eyes.

Bit Generation was a series of boutique games that featured simple controls in the service of unusual ideas. How unusual? All of Soundvoyager's mini-games can be played without seeing the screen. Instead, you listen to the noises the game makes - often plinks and beeps, more of Voyager venturing into the unknown - and you use the triggers to move left and right.

Wait, move what left and right? For Soundvoyager, this commonly means you're moving the sound inside your head. It is a weird feeling. Nudge the controls left and right until - yes! - I believe the sound is absolutely in the middle of my skull. It isn't, obviously, but Soundvoyager seems to understand that the brain is this huge numb bubble in the middle of our physical experience, a densely writable void onto which we project headaches and worries, and in which some of us - but not all of us - even hear a central voice, a tube station narrator for consciousness. Soundvoyager is using stereo sound to break into this place. A beautiful bit of work. I really do feel like I can use the triggers on a GBA Micro to move a little puck of noise back and forth along a pole that seems to run from ear to ear.

The games in Soundvoyager are basic but playful. One has you on a multi-lane highway listening for oncoming traffic and trying to stay out of its way. Another features a sort of sonic spin on skiing, as you try to move yourself between two sounds that come along at once. My favourite is the game where you're a little dot scrolling through the void, and you close your eyes and listen for sounds getting louder as they approach. Move left and right to line them up in the centre of your head and you collect them, adding the sound loop to a growing piece of music. Then onto the next sound. Left or right? Left a bit! Got it. Right in the middle.

And this: Years ago, a man named John Hull lost his sight and wrote a frightening and beautiful book about it, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. For the first few years of being blind, Hull wrote, he felt he was essentially a sighted person who couldn't see. But as the years went by, his inner visualisation powers began to fade, until he found himself in a state he called deep blindness. He describes what it is like to be in this landscape very profoundly in his book, which, inevitably, I have misplaced at the moment. But in one section he describes leaving his house one morning as the rain starts to fall, and he talks about how the rain gives him the contours of the landscape around him, through sheer sound alone: the lawn, the path, a little drop, perhaps, to the road beyond.

Soundvoyager can't get close to the strange richness of such an experience, but in my mind I always link this odd little game with Hull's book. I think of the real Voyagers, passing into the chill of interstellar space, and of Hull in his garden, reading the sounds of the rain. I close my eyes and feel the triggers of the GBA Micro and I move a tiny packet of noise back and forth until it's exactly where I want it to be. I enter the internal world of Soundvoyager and it is filled with mystery.

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