When's the last time you thought about saying a word? Like, the actual, physical, tongue-on-teeth process of saying it? The plosives and fricatives of a complex word, the specific place your lips meet or don't to shape and push out a puff of air that carries a sound. Unless you're a performer, you might have gone your entire life without thinking about this at all. Most people learn to talk when they're infants. It's knowledge we wake up with when we emerge into the conscious world. Every able-mouthed person, with few exceptions, knows how to talk. You never think about it. You just open your mouth and speak.
Speaking Simulator, by developer Affable Games, puts the player in the head of a robot that has to puzzle out, syllable by syllable, how to talk. The droid's programmers apparently skipped out on that portion of its design, and in order to keep the human-shaped machine from being outed as decidedly not human, you as the player have to guide it through conversation after conversation. It's played for comedy, with a tongue that's a looping, overlong snake of a thing and teeth that fall out of the robot's head if you press them too hard. Every interaction is deliberately clumsy and difficult to control, so that even when you succeed, you have smoke coming out of your ears.
Speaking Simulator is a part of a tradition of "simulator" games that are poorly designed on purpose, set up not to actually simulate the act of doing something but to render the entire exercise absurd. Goat Simulator is the obvious genre foundation, which spurred a bevy of imitators—it's a game about controlling a goat, only you barely can, and you just fling your goat-self around the world causing chaos. These sims aren't meant to be played for long periods of time, or engaged with in utmost seriousness. You play them for a half an hour here or there, showing them to friends, giggling about them on stream. At best, you think deeply for a moment about how silly the act of X really is, whether X equals walking or talking to being a goat. At worst, you chuckle a few moments and move on.
Simulator games aren't supposed to make you think, really. They're certainly not supposed to make you uncomfortable.
I can't ever remember not having my stutter. As such, it's somewhat challenging to describe. But basically, sometimes, when I open my mouth and words are supposed to happen, they … don't. Something about it gets stuck as if my mouth is a clogged drain. It's hard sounds, usually, the consonants at the beginning of words, the t in “tower” or the c in “can.” It happens more frequently at the beginning of sentences, when my mouth and throat are just starting to get into the swing of a thought. Sometimes these blocks are small, little stumbles in my speech, whereas other times they become walls that I slam into.
I've never been told, satisfactorily, why I have a stutter. As far as I'm aware, there isn't a clear scientific answer. Some strange miscommunication between brain and limb. When I was a kid, they flattered me by telling me that my mind was simply moving faster than my mouth could keep up. Whatever the reason, I started seeing a speech therapist before I was old enough to do preschool. It was worse then; a lisp alongside the stutter. I saw a speech therapist regularly up until I was about 15. Most days, now, you wouldn't know I have it. It comes out mostly when I'm stressed, exhausted, or anxious. Even so, I consider speaking a secondary function of my selfhood. Walking, looking around, touching, writing—these are primary functions. Talking is secondary. If anything goes wrong, it starts to slip.
In the first stage of Speaking Simulator, I'm on a date with a coworker, struggling to push out comically written flirtations and prepping my drink order. But in my mind I'm back in elementary school. That's when it was the worst. Some days, I could barely talk at all. I'd constantly get drowned out by other people, interrupted and cut off. Speaking Simulator hits those same buttons for me. The frantic struggle to make this ridiculous robot's mouth move doesn't amuse me or pull some warm recognition out of me. It's infuriating. I spontaneously begin remembering the techniques I was taught to soothe my stutter: Elongate sounds to push through them, tuhhhhhhh-ake to get through a blockage in a word like “take,” luhhhhake for a word like “lake.” Remember to take deep breaths. Pause, relax, and breathe before trying again. Don't let other people interrupt you or finish your sentences. Don't pick a new word. The goal isn't just to be understood. It's to be able to say what you want to say, when you want to say it.
Speaking Simulator wasn't designed to hit my trauma points so effectively. It likely wasn't designed to reflect real-life speech impediments at all. Instead, it feels more broadly aimed at social anxiety itself, the fear of being seen as an outsider in stressful situations, of being outed as a weirdo at work or on a date. And, of course, it's aimed at getting a few nervous laughs. But it's not a game about social anxiety, either, despite the presence of periphery mechanics like eye contact that are more broadly interested in social interaction as such: It's about speaking as a mechanical nightmare. And that can't help but raise some questions. Questions like: Why isn't there any evidence that real-life speech impediments were considered as even a touchstone for this title's development? Or, when my experiences are represented by a poorly made robot, should I feel insulted?
I don't believe for a moment that Speaking Simulator intends to insult me. But it feels clumsily made. Take QWOP, a game that similarly defamiliarizes and makes silly the act of walking. I can't speak to how it feels to play QWOP with a motor disability, but it's a game built entirely around the joy of unexpected success. There's nothing you can do but get better; the game doesn't track your failures but your greatest distance traveled. Speaking Simulator, on the other hand, has a suspicion meter that gets higher with every failure. There's nothing you can do but barely get by.
Barely getting by is how I've felt about talking for most of my life. Which, I suppose, makes Speaking Simulator the most accurate simulation of having a speech impediment I've ever played. But don't take that for a recommendation.