Robin Arnott, sound designer and lead developer, takes us through a very educated and radical journey about SoundSelf and its far-out origins and even more complex goals as a medium for self-discovery.
Kyle: Now, SoundSelf is a “game” unlike any other, one directed entirely by your voice, or voices, as it were. What sort of places did you draw inspiration to even conceive SoundSelf?
Robin: OK, so let's imagine a Civ-style tech-tree for human history. There's a whole line of technologies for warping users' experience of the universe, and we don't even usually think of them as technologies because they're much older than our contemporary definition of what technology is and what it's for. Tibetan bowls, mandalas, psychedelics, stage hypnosis, and performed techniques for altering consciousness like those used by Whirling Dervishes and Buddhist monks... SoundSelf draws it's inspiration from these technologies. The short history of video games offers me a valuable discipline for structuring the user interaction and guiding user attention, but the goals of the experience are much more inherited from this line of meditation technologies.
Kyle: How do you expect experiences in SoundSelf to differ when “playing” individually or with other people?
Robin: We've had SoundSelf working multiplayer before, and it worked BEAUTIFULLY! To get it working again though is going to take a lot of work because the tone-recognition system has dramatically changed over the course of development. It is a different experience playing in a small group, but it's hard to put my finger on how to describe it. Playing it alone is meditative and reflective. It's intimate, but playing it with a small group is intimate in a totally different way. I think I prefer playing it in a group to playing it alone, even though playing it alone is more perceptually intense.
Kyle: What is the ideal environment to experience SoundSelf?
Robin: My favorite was our deep-playa installation at Burning Man last year, which was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. What was magical about the installation was, being so far away from the city, people would just stumble upon it unexpectedly and chant with whatever group of people happened to be there. You can't replicate that context, that was a one-of-a-kind thing. But as magical as that was, I don't think it's strictly better than strapping on a rift and playing SoundSelf lying down. The Oculus Rift with a pair of headphones offers way more immersion even than the deep-playa installation, and this is an experience that demands high immersion. They're just magical in different ways.
SoundSelf at Burning Man, 2013
Kyle: Is creating a type of synesthesia your aim? Achieving a sense of “one-ness” with one's self? Perhaps with the universe?
Robin: Yes, absolutely. Synesthesia is the perceived blurring of sensory stimulus, like hearing colors or seeing music. We usually think of synesthesia as a disorder some people have and some people don't, but that's not the full picture. We're all to some degree synesthetic: screenshake is an example I like to use because it's something almost all gamers have experienced, that's visual sound. With SoundSelf, I'm trying to ram a wedge into those little perceptual vulnerabilities and pry it open. That sense of one-ness that you describe, the perceived unification between self and other, is a sort of synesthesia and is just as hackable as audiovisual synesthesia is. By no means does everybody who plays SoundSelf have that "spiritual" response to the experience... but it does happen and all our work and iteration on SoundSelf is basically to make it happen more often.
Kyle: How does authorship play into the titles you create? That is, in what ways are you priming the users to partake in the experience rather than work towards a sometimes non-existent end goal?
Robin: Good question. If we had a goal or a narrative or really any designed pattern that the player is supposed to be able to figure out, it would direct player perception and attention towards that other thing, necessarily away from this moment, right now, for it's own sake. Getting players to let go of that, to stop using their mind in the service of some other pattern, is a tremendous design challenge! It's a tremendous personal challenge too! Meditation takes years of disciplined practice to be able to clear the mind like that, and even then the mind wanders and thinks and searches for patterns because that's what minds do. So think of it this way: as an experience designer, how do you direct the willing mind towards that? The answer is hypnosis. In SoundSelf that means pummeling the user with so many patterns that to consciously figure them out would be impossibly difficult and frustrating; on the other hand if each moment is beautiful on it's own even without the promise of a future reward or puzzle to be solved, the player will naturally do what feels good which in this case is surrender - to keep dancing without trying to lead the dance. If clearing the mind is infinitely more pleasant and rewarding than cognitively engaging with the system, eventually most users will just fall into that, they give up. And once that happens, they are hypnotized. But of course hypnotizing players carries some really grave responsibilities. I have to be very careful to avoid lacing the experience with suggestions and meanings so that the abstract patterns behave as a blank canvas for your own subconscious whimsy.
Player experiencing SoundSelf
Kyle: Do you feel this can translate to other titles that have a clear end goal?
Robin: Csikszentm ihalyi says that the flow state comes most readily when engaging with clear goals. I think Terry Cavanagh's Super Hexagon is a wonderful example of a hypnosis experience which, for me anyway, facilitated about the same level of dissociation that SoundSelf aims to facilitate, but is clearly goal-oriented. So it certainly can be done. But just as stories are not my chosen tool for organizing a trance, nor are goals.
Kyle: What do you feel about immersion of the self in games that already have established characters, like Grand Theft Auto V or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? You clearly have an influence on the world, but your experiences are almost always predetermined.
Robin: When I talk about what SoundSelf does, I talk about trance. It establishes mental loops that suck in the user's attention. You're not even playing a human in SoundSelf, you're just being. Trance, however, is not only possible with the kind of experiences you describe, but is almost inevitable. Storytelling is probably the most historically refined method of inducing trance that we have! So as long as immersive games like The Elder Scrolls V are telling a great story (or helping the player tell a great story) they will entrance. I think the degree of linearity in the story isn't important - what makes GTA V more immersive than Moby Dick comes down to personal preference. But story is an outrageously powerful tool for trance induction, and I'd love to see it used more effectively by the AAA than it typically has been. That said, just because story is the most common form of hypnosis (and perhaps most precise? SoundSelf is the sledgehammer to Moby Dick's scalpel) doesn't mean it's the most powerful form of hypnosis, and it's not my chosen tool.
Continue reading with Part Two of the interview here: http://n4g.com/user/blogpos...
Day 28 | Robin Arnott