Soundself returns from the wilds, trippy as ever

There is a new version of SoundSelf out, but what exactly that means is hard to say. That’s because it’s a game about meditation, a practice meant to defy words. But not just about meditation—it’s also a game for meditation. A compilation of responsive sounds and graphics, SoundSelf is a companion of sorts. A tool to help unload your mind and transfix you. “Synaesthesia is one of the dragons I’m chasing,” Robin Arnott, the game’s creator, said last summer. This, the interplay of senses until they flatten one another out and unify, is the game’s unique ambition. It begins with a VR headset that blocks out the external world and ends with a series of sounds and colors that try to interact with and quiet the player’s internal one.

“Sometimes people have really bad trips with it,” Arnott told me. “They’ll go into it, and it’s very, very, very rare, but I’ve seen people come out of it shaking and crying.” While he thinks it speaks to the potency of the project he and programmer Evan Balster are working on, they are trying to minimize it. “We’re trying to design [SoundSelf] to reduce how often that happens,” he explained. “It happened once at PAX. This woman went into it and she just, you couldn’t talk to her afterwards…”

The game also needs you’re voluntary compliance

The philosopher and charlatan Alan Watts said in one of his many recordings, “The art of meditation is a way of getting into touch with reality.” He argued this was because “civilized” people were out of touch with reality, confusing “the world as it is with the world as they think about it and talk about it and describe it.” In its own way, SoundSelf is an exercise in liberating oneself from modern life’s minutia, it’s helpful but often distracting abstractions, and confronting the player through the immediacy of their sensory perceptions. Whereas Arnott described the goal of one of his early games, Deep Sea, as creating an immersive experience, he wants SoundSelf to facilitate “euphoric trance.” To do this it needs your voice. Its sound assets and geometry algorithms react to the player’s aural input, creating evocative chants and enchanting visualizations in the process.

The game also needs your voluntary compliance, however. Arnott contrasts the experience of people who give themselves over to the game with those who resist it. Try to utter commands and the game might mirror that back to you. “What’s powerful about SoundSelf is that it shuts down your ability to cognize,” Arnott said. Open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, on the other hand, and Arnott aims for the game to reward that trust with something transcendent.

Arnott began development on SoundSelf back in 2012 before launching a Kickstarter for the project in the following year. It garnered several thousands dollars more than what he originally asked for. This expanded the horizons for what SoundSelf could become, setting in motion a journey that would last much longer than the game’s target release date of 2014. It’s now the second half of 2015 and Arnott is hopeful a complete build of the game will be available around the same time the Oculus Rift ships next year. What started as a simple idea for an intimate game that interacted with players aurally slowly became more complicated; more subtle.

“Work on SoundSelf has not ceased,” Arnott said in January 14 update after months of Kickstarter radio silence. “But its scope has grown, and my attention has become more focused on the subtler sides of the experience that are difficult to put into words.” Like the VR technology the game is optimized for, explaining is more difficult than showing. As best as he can document it, SoundSelf grew not in terms of its central mission, but in the apparent seamlessness with which it could accomplish it. 

they aren’t breathing as consistently as we’d want them too

“Once we got a player into a trance, which was the only goal of the prototype, we then discovered that because the subtleties of the interaction here they aren’t breathing as consistently as we’d want them too,” Arnott said. “Maybe they’re getting a little anxious because they’re not as on guard as they would be, so they’re just surrendering to the experience, warts and all.” As a result, he and Balster expanded SoundSelf‘s capacity to process biofeedback. Later prototypes would account for breathing input in addition to the player’s voice. 

“We’ve crossed all of the really difficult design challenges,” Arnott told me. Instead of digging deeper into the experience, he and Balster are fleshing it out, trying to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible. Post-processing visual effects, a tighter tone-recognition algorithm, a dynamic visual layer for the periphery, these are the sophistications aimed at reducing the friction between SoundSelf and the player. But to do that successfully each needs to be brought inline with the game’s vision as a whole, unified and grounded, just as they hope the player is left feeling after each session.