SoundSelf - an interview with Robin Arnott

SoundSelf - an interview with Robin Arnott


Hooked Gamers sat down with project creator Robin Arnott to discuss SoundSelf

SoundSelf is undoubtedly one of gaming’s more unique experiences. Aiming to recreate psychedelic therapies, it's designed as a spiritual experience, replacing LSD with a Virtual Reality headset. Initially funded via Kickstarter in 2013, its now finally due for release this month and to discuss its launch, we had an in-depth discussion with project creator Robin Arnott.

Hooked Gamers:
For those of our readers who aren’t aware of, could you provide an introduction to yourself and SoundSelf?

Robin Arnott:
Sure! My name’s Robin Arnott. I’ve been in independent gaming for about a decade. I was the sound designer for Antichamber and The Stanley Parable - but I had an experience in 2012 that shocked me and put me on the path to creating SoundSelf. That was the year I had my first one-ness experience at Burning Man. I realized in the aftermath that a game could induce a oneness experience too! Games invoke a trance state, like meditation does, and a game designed from meditative principles could provoke a meditative trance.

SoundSelf is the result of eight years of work and investigation into those principles. It uses the sound of your voice to draw you into a trance state, just like monks of many religions have been doing for millenia! It’s an exhilarating journey into altered states of consciousness.

I understand that the inspiration came from a Group Ohm on LSD, which led to a Burning Man installation and now we come to the game. Am I right?

RA: Yes! That’s absolutely correct. We took the prototype out to Burning Man in 2013, as a way to “give back” to the place where the idea first came from.

So with that in mind, how does a game come out of this idea?

RA: Burning Man is an incredibly inspiring place for experience designers. The event itself is like an altered state of consciousness, and it’s a place where so many creators are mashing so many of their most immersive offerings together! People are also exploring altered states of consciousness in many ways out there, so it’s a natural place for a game design that triggers those states to be born.

Did you find it a challenge to replicate psychedelic therapies through a virtual format without the use of drugs?

RA: Challenging, yes. But it’s an engineering challenge. I have a friend who says “there are two kinds of problems, easy problems, and hard problems. Easy problems are the problems that you can solve with enough time and commitment. Hard problems are different - you don’t know if they’re solvable or not, and you might need to be a totally different kind of person than you are in order to solve them.”

The big limitation to using a videogame to induce a mystical experience is really just habit. The game industry is in the habit of seeing the outcome of a game as being more-or-less “escape”, or “fun.” So while there’s a ton of institutionalized knowledge in the game industry for capturing and engaging attention to induce a trance state, there’s not a lot of institutionalized knowledge on using the trance state itself.

But there’s plenty of that knowledge elsewhere! In religious traditions, and in hypnotherapy, and in meditation lineages, and in indigenous ceremonies. So that’s where I went with my research.

Once you fuse that ancient knowledge of transcendent states into the more contemporary knowledge of… well… game design, the problem of triggering transcendent states with a videogame becomes “easy,” to use my friend’s lingo!

Now, once it’s easy, it just takes a metric f&*%ton of work and experimentation to get it to do the thing! So… it’s taken a long time. But it works.

Is SoundSelf the first game your team has developed directly? I’m aware Andromeda Entertainment helped publish Audio Trip recently but was unsure if you had a more direct hand in development too

RA: Andromeda was founded to be a publishing platform for games that bring you into your body, and bring you into deeper intimacy with yourself. There’s not a sufficient narrative in the public to help people understand that games can make you feel more well, more alive, more you. They don’t have to be a “distraction.” Andromeda was founded to build traction around that idea.

SoundSelf was the first game we had in mind with Andromeda, but we fell in love with Audio Trip. It just so happens that Audio Trip was ready for market before SoundSelf was.

The initial Kickstarter launched back in 2013, meaning it’s been in development for at least 7 years. Were there technical challenges you didn’t anticipate during development?

RA: Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of them. When I first began the work of building SoundSelf, I thought it would take two, maybe three years. Pffft. You have to keep in mind, we are doing something radically different from what most games are doing, and at the time, there weren’t sufficient tools to help us do that. So we basically had to build everything from scratch!

Having now tested SoundSelf myself, to me this experience feels tailored for a VR headset. So did you have trouble adapting this for non-VR users too?

RA: It’s great in VR! But it can be great as well for non-VR users. The most important thing that VR gives SoundSelf is isolation, and the diminishment of distraction. If you’re playing on a screen, you can do that for yourself by turning off the lights and getting comfortable, maybe lighting a candle. It’s not the kind of thing you can play in the broad daylight while your kids are fighting in the other room! It needs that isolation! But that can come from VR, or it can come from just a little bit of intentionality on set and setting.

So what can we expect in terms of pricing or release date for SoundSelf?

RA: The release date is 22 April 2020 for PC, Mac and VR on Steam
Local pricing: AUS: $39.95/NZ: $35.99

Once development has finished, are there any new projects in the pipeline at this time?

RA: We’re looking to bring together all the developers who are working on using game design to these ends, and building the economic infrastructure to support them. I think in five to ten years, technodelics will be a bona fide genre. But it’s going to take some leadership in the field. That’s our big project now! There might be a sequel to SoundSelf, but I’m more interested in mentoring other designers who want to make the next generation of technodelics, and helping them bring their experiences to the market.

Last of all, is there any particular message you’d like to share?

RA: YES! Games can be so much more than we’ve been asking them to be! If you want to learn more, go read The Technodelic Manifesto (coming out on April 14th)! And play SoundSelf - there’s really no describing it that does it justice… you just have to try it yourself.

Thanks so much for your time.

Hooked Gamers will be reviewing SoundSelf closer to release. Look out for Henry's review shortly.