When I first saw Speaking Simulator, I had a reaction that I'm guessing is pretty common. Another game with awkward controls and the word "simulator" in its name? Sounds like streamer-bait nonsense. Hard pass. But I was at PAX Australia to play new games, so I didn't pass. And I'm glad I played it, because Speaking Simulator turned out to be one of the best upcoming games I saw at PAX Australia this year.
In Speaking Simulator I'm an android trying to pass as human, stage one of a plan for eventual world domination. To convincingly infiltrate meatsack society I have to talk like a normal person, which is trickier than it sounds. If you've ever been told you've been pronouncing a word wrong your entire life and then found yourself overthinking and stumbling over it whenever that word comes up afterwards, you'll sympathize. Being a human is hard.
The section of Speaking Simulator available at PAX Australia was a first date, which is a stressful enough situation even when you're not a stressed-out android in a new flesh suit. To recite normal human sentences like "I must confess that as a warm-blooded human being I find you quite attractive," I had to drag my lips from side to side and flap my jaw with the mouse, while manipulating my tongue with the WASD keys. Those mouth movements are depicted via an internal camera, so I can see the freaky meat flapping around as I try to press buttons inside my mouth when they light up.
Fellow human, I made some mistakes. I gurned like an idiot. Smoke came out of my ears, and my WASDing was so forceful I pushed an entire tooth out of my mouth when I should have been spooning peas into it.
Then my date, Karen from HR, replied. (I'm dating someone who works in human resources, ha ha.) She hadn't noticed at all, just carried on as if everything was fine—as if she was to busy concentrating on seeming normal herself to care about my weirdness. Seeing my robot eyes bug out and whirl 'round while sparks flew out of my chin was a laugh, but for some reason her complete non-reaction made it even funnier in a way that shock or embarrassment wouldn't have.
Indie studio Affable Games are planning to add more complexity to Speaking Simulator as they add more levels. At the moment there's a slider that sets your face at 'frown' or 'smile' which you'll need to alter to suit the conversation's tone, and some of the other HUD elements will become important rather than being just for show. A story will play out through those levels as well, the tale of a robot who tries to become president and dominate the human race but learns some empathy for humans along the way, thanks to struggling through the awkwardness of day-to-day social interactions with them.
One of Speaking Simulator's two creators told me an earlier player had compared the preview to to their experience of social anxiety—they focused on their own screw-ups, trying hard to seem normal, and only afterwards realized the things they fixated on were largely unnoticeable to everyone else. Speaking Simulator took that feeling and defanged it for them, making it funny instead of anxiety-inducing.
The power fantasy of RPGs isn't being a mighty hero—it's being able to walk up to strangers and ask them questions without it seeming weird. Speaking Simulator makes you pay attention to the complicated feat we perform every day without thinking (apparently everyone who plays it subconsciously moves their mouths in sympathy, and I did the same) until you realize what a difficult thing it is we have to do—both the physical act and the social one.
I've never been a surgeon or a goat, but I've been someone trying to pass for normal my entire life, so Speaking Simulator resonated in a way I didn't expect it too. Also, when your eyes pop out it really does look hilarious.
Speaking Simulator will be out early in 2019.