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Road to the IGF: Robin Arnott's SoundSelf Exclusive
February 27, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

February 27, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Audio, Design, Exclusive, Video, IGF



Kickstarter-funded SoundSelf is Robin Arnott's experimental foray into synesthetic chanting, a game that aims to shatter the boundaries of the self in a spiritual sense. It's also a finalist in the Independent Games Festival.

You hum and breathe, and the sounds you make affect the audiovisual experience that envelops you. The Nuovo Award-nominated game has deeply personal roots, in memories of Burning Man and in thoughts about music and consciousness, and it also has a heritage in Deep Sea, Arnott's unsettling breath-controlled submersion game.

Continuing our Road to the IGF series of interviews with IGF finalists, we catch up with Arnott on all things uniquely SoundSelf.

What's your background in making games?

I was just finishing up my degree in Film and TV at NYU, where I was focusing on sound design, and realized all-of-a-sudden that video games were just a lot more interesting to me. I got very very lucky in that my first exploration in video game-making, Deep Sea, was chosen by Charles Pratt for the first No Quarter exhibition.

Deep Sea led to me working on Antichamber (as its sound designer), which was how I was introduced to this amazing community of brilliant artists, and how I cultivated the courage to rush ahead on my weird not-exactly-a-game meditation-experience thing.

What development tools did you use to make SoundSelf?

A field recorder, a text editor, and a brilliant programmer named Evan Balster, without whom this would be impossible.

How much time did you spend working on the game?

We've now been working on it for about 18 months. The first six months was spent blindly flailing our arms about in the dark riding our trusty Entirely Theoretical Set Of Expectations About How Perception Works.

Our first prototype suggested that our trusty ETSOEAHPS may be onto something, so we launched our Kickstarter in March of last year to make it a reality. I no longer feel like we're designing in the dark, and our Kickstarter money has given us the luxury to experiment and experiment and hone the idea closer and closer to the (literally) transcendent sort of experience we want.

How did you come up with the concept?

I remember the moment the idea came to me -- I was dozing off in an airport, and I just shot straight-up. The basic idea came from a meeting point of two challenges I'd been sitting with, and one recent powerful experience that seemed to suggest an answer to both of them:

So I was coming off the tails of the surprising cultural success of Deep Sea. It had left some huge unanswered questions for me because I didn't really understand why it worked. I knew what the crucial ingredients were: Depriving the player of their primary sense (sight); having them focus on their breathing as the main interaction; hiding the most important gameplay information from them, and the creepy ritual of putting on the gas mask.

And I knew the end result -- it left people shaking and terrified. But I didn't know why, and that bothered me.

It was in this period that I met with the musician Sxip Shirey to talk about collaborating on an interactive composition. He was imagining a whimsical discovery process -- like literally walking through a space and hearing a composition change depending on some obscure properties you were driving. It was while imagining how a player may interact with and explore Sxip's music that I dozed off...

I'd recently had a powerful LSD trip at Burning Man. I was in this structure (reOnion) with complex kaleidoscopic shapes projected on the walls, and a beautiful droning soundtrack. I began chanting, and just as I did that, the structure filled with choral voices. I felt a physical bond with those voices -- like I'd caused them, like I was them.

I felt the boundary of my self expand to include them, and to include the structure, and to include the festival, expanding outward infinitely. I was everything and everything was me.

When these three ideas met, that was the prototype of SoundSelf. A musical experience driven by your voice, that resonated and sang with you, that would play with you but not be played by you. That would aim to shatter your perception of self by building a synesthetic bridge between your sense of sight, your sense of sound, and your breath (i.e. sense of self).

What is the prototyping process like? Do you experiment with different inputs? Do you get your friends to come over and hum at it? How do you refine something that has so little precedent?

The first experiment Evan made based on our conversations was very simple. You would chant, "aahhhhhhh", and the computer would remember the note you chanted. That note would charge up a little persistent geometric visual and play a tone that matched the tone you'd chanted.

If you chanted a new tone, it would add to the existing geometry and tone. It wasn't much... but it was extremely hypnotic to interact with. That was enough for the two of us to justify jumping off a cliff.

We planned a date to launch the Kickstarter, and used those three months or so to build a complete (though not to say "good") version of SoundSelf with the intention of starting from the drawing board when the Kickstarter ended.

That was an important choice. We were trying a lot of ideas out, some of them worked very well, and of course a lot of them didn't. But to fully explore the ideas we had, we needed to create a safe space to have and fully explore weird ideas, without worrying about the long term implications of the choices we were making.

The Kickstarter was an opportunity to show our work in progress to hundreds of people, and see how they responded. The important takeaways were: It worked - and it worked surprisingly well. It needed to be much much much more reactive. People were vocally expressive with it in ways we had not planned for, and that required fundamentally changing how the system listened to people's voices.

SoundSelf felt alive and sentient, but its "personality" had clear preferences. Like... it didn't seem to "like" it when you took a break from chanting... and would punish you for even taking a breath. Playing with multiple people was magical.

Can you share some of the spiritual and cultural inspirations for SoundSelf?

In many ways, ,SoundSelf has been a working exploration of my relationship with the universe and the nature of mind... There's this wonderful history of meditation technologies -- from the mandala to the group-aum to the modern day sense deprivation chamber -- external tools for internal exploration.

I think SoundSelf is very much a part of that history -- but its design discipline is inherited from game (i.e. interaction, i.e. "game mechanics") design.

How do you imagine the game affecting players? What experience do you hope they will get out of it?

The idea is to shatter the player's perception of "self" as something discrete. To do that, we first hypnotize the player, and while they're in the trance state we create a synesthetic bond between something that they confidently attribute to their self -- their voice -- and what they would normally confidently attribute to the other -- the things they see and hear.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've especially enjoyed?

I have a completely unbiased fondness for The Stanley Parable [Ed's note: Arnott and Davey Wreden are roommates and friends]. I love Luxuria Superbia. Sexual arousal is a seriously powerful experiential tool that our industry mostly uses in a totally crude and incidental way, usually as a slave to narrative and power fantasies.

The way Tale of Tales builds a truly erotic relationship between the player and their computer... as opposed to between the player and a computer representation of something pretend-human, is just incredible.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've poured far too many hours into Klei's Don't Starve. That game is amazing.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

It's nourished and fed me very well. I'm proud to be a part of it and to hopefully pay that nourishment forward. In some ways it has cultivated an extremely diverse set of ideas (I mean, look at the IGF this year!), at least relative to what we see in the triple-A.

But I'm a white dude. And the Indie Scene is still almost completely made up of white dudes. It's very difficult to tell if the work we're doing to be more inclusive is actually working, or more or less just lip service. I guess we'll know whether it's working or not in five to 10 years.


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