We interviewed acclaimed indie developer—and creator of 'Deep Sea'—Robin Arnott about his current project 'SoundSelf,' which he likens to “spiritual pornography.” We also discuss the meditative potential of video games, and some of Arnott’s major influences both in and outside of the gaming world.
Thor Weston: It's exciting to speak with you about your work and the direction of video games, Robin. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you outside of the gaming sphere at flow arts jams and Burning Man-style festivals. These subcultures, and especially anything related to spirituality, are not often associated with gaming. Is your new game SoundSelf an attempt to bridge that gap and start a conversation there? Or even to encourage a kind of mystical experience through gaming?
Robin Arnott: Yes, absolutely, 100%. The flow community of transformative festivals and group meditation is the soup that I developed my artistic personality in. I've been fascinated by consciousness for a very very long time, but my earliest explorations were exclusively intellectual - exploring consciousness by thinking about it. It didn't even occur to me that I could explore consciousness by... y'know... being conscious. I grew up valuing, or at least thinking I valued rationalism and skepticism. From that perspective, exploration of consciousness not rooted in materialism and thought was woo-woo nonsense. I really based a lot of my identity around that. So the community that you and I met in was the first environment where I gave myself permission to explore consciousness directly by means of meditation and psychedelics, and let whatever aspect of mind that thinks about it play second fiddle.
A lot of our friends in that community are flow artists of one sort or another - musicianship, fire spinning, dancing, etc. I never made learning flow art a priority. But that was my community, and just participating in that community involved a lot of shedding of my prior identity. With that shedding came periodic "peak" experiences providing a direct sensation of deep connectedness. At the time, the label I gave those experiences was "God-Head." Experiences like that radically and permanently alter one's sense of what it is to be.
SoundSelf is designed to provoke a mystical experience. Its core systems are based on an experience I had on LSD at Burning Man. Although that experience was chemically assisted, some months afterwards I realized that I could induce the most important aspects of it with game mechanics! Without drugs, without years of meditation, without a clumsy belief system, just by overwhelming a player's senses and then resonating with their voice.
So yeah, you could look at it as a bridge, but I think of it more as a tram ride. Or I sometimes call it "spiritual pornography." When you meditate, you're building a sturdy structure that reliably allows deeper and deeper access to the foundation of your being. When you take a drug, your brain is stuffed into a cannon and you get a hell of a ride before slamming down onto the ground again. "Wow! What the fuck was that?!" SoundSelf is more the latter than the former. But imagine if you didn't know what an earthquake was, and then you experienced one! What would you think? I bet it would challenge assumptions you didn't even know you were making.
For what it's worth, I'm still a skeptic. Skepticism, however, means questioning not just assumptions that the hippies of the world throw at me, but much more importantly, questioning my own assumptions (which were planted there by the world anyway), and testing them. I think that my earlier self adopted the dogmas and belief systems of the "skeptic" (with heavy air-quotes), but not the practice.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="700"] A screenshot from SoundSelf, where your voice creates meditative visual and auditory feedback. Image source: SoundSelf press kit.[/caption]
TW: Video games have the special property of agency to them that other media lacks, blurring the lines between viewer and actor, yet almost all games have you adopt a role or play a character rather than just being yourself. In SoundSelf you play as yourself, and to me the experience is more personal, less vicarious, and perhaps even more valuable. What potentials do you see in this space of reality-augmenting games, rather than reality-escaping games, that SoundSelf occupies?
RA: That's a big question! I wish I had a big answer for it. But yeah, with the exception of pure puzzle games (Threes and Drop-7 come to mind), you're totally right. I think entertainment fills this role of escapism for a lot of people, so "playing a role" makes sense in that paradigm. Even without the need for escapism, humans are storytellers, and most of our media is storytelling technology. We can't even think about it any other way sometimes. I should pitch my 8-episode series "Strobing Colors for Forty-Five Minutes" to HBO and see if they bite.
Maybe it's an uncanny valley thing? Video games couldn't attempt visual realism for a long time because when graphics are good enough to look almost real, but not quite real, they make us feel uncomfortable (that's the uncanny valley). I think we're basically past the valley now, but the industry is filled with people who for 20 years have been working around it, so it'll take new blood to tackle the challenge again. I say all this because perhaps it is the same thing with technologies that alter your sense of self like SoundSelf does. We could sorta do it for a long time, but with VR and AR we can now totally do it! It's just going to take new talent who aren't used to making art the old way. Or maybe I'm being naive and we're only just reaching the base of the uncanny valley for that one. We'll see.
I can tell you, though, that I'm not the only person working in this space. I anticipate that the first 10 years of VR and AR are going to be chock-full of groundbreaking consciousness-hacking surprises. Whenever I meet my friend Mikey Siegel (who I bring up here because I want his name to be familiar to your readers when they come across him), he casually mentions 10 technology ideas he's keeping on the back burner, each of which completely blows my mind.
Our limit right now is not the technology, it's the breadth of imagination of people in the field. We just need more people who are bored by the art and technology paradigms as they currently exist. And the thing is, those people are showing up by the armload! I just can't wait to see what they make!
My greatest hope for SoundSelf is that it inspires people who are going into or dropping out of college right now - people who don't have all the same invisible assumptions that I and my colleagues do. Those kids will say "Oh, this SoundSelf thing, this is interesting, but it only goes a tenth of the way that it could have, and I have an idea for how to go way further." They're going to make me look like an idiot and I can't wait.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="700"] SoundSelf set up as an art instillation at Burning Man. Image source: SoundSelf press kit.[/caption]
TW: The indie game movement is an exciting one with many things happening at the fringes, large and small. What indie games have totally blown your mind, and what projects or developers are you especially excited about? Who are your biggest inspirations?
RA: Ahh man, I keep myself under a rock right now. Between my meditation routine, remodeling a house, and building SoundSelf I just don't make playing games as much a priority as I'd like. Once I ship SoundSelf, I plan to take a good amount of time where I don't have major commitments and can just see what other people are working on, or help other people with their awesome stuff.
It's often the case that what game designers find interesting to make and what they find interesting to play are totally different animals. Davey Wreden (The Stanley Parable) makes these heady, thoughtfully expressive games, but likes to play games that don’t ask you to think at all. Jenova Chen and Chris Bell (Journey), who make games designed to make you feel love, tear people apart on Counter-Strike.
My work is focused on pulling people blissfully into the moment by actively dis-engaging their thinking mind. But I want to play a game that forces me to think and plan long-term, and then kicks me in the balls again and again for fucking up. Klei's Don't Starve was my favorite game last year, and before that it was X-Com (on Classic difficulty, Iron-Man mode... obviously).
Games like Gemini or Mountain - even though they're totally in that lovey feely domain that I design in, and even though they may be awesome for what they are, I don't have such a desire to play them for more than a few minutes.
TW: There are some great clips of you in the trailer for the upcoming documentary GameLoading: Rise of the Indies. What can you tell us about your experiences interfacing with the filmmakers and the other developers featured in the film?
RA: Watching the trailer was fun for me because it's like "Hey look! These are all of my friends! And they all sound so smart! Anna and Lester made me sound so smart too! How did they do that?!" and it's a strange feeling to see this beautiful production being built around our community and the stuff we find interesting. To me, everyone in the movie are just my buddies! And I love them! I find our world fascinating and exciting. It's sort of weird to think other people would too.
I'm really looking forward to seeing it. Anna and Lester have their shit together, they took a pretty comprehensible picture of the Independent Game world right now. And their mission is super worthwhile. I think the film Indie Game was about personality, and the drama of making art. GameLoading: Rise of the Indies is about this little moment in history where indie games are becoming a, if not the, prominent expression of the medium.
So you have some established game-makers like Vlambeer's Rami Ismail featured in the film, but the picture of what makes indie games interesting right now wouldn't be complete if it only featured the established voices. The filmmakers are smarter than that. I love seeing lesser-known or up-and-coming artists being featured as a core part of our community - because they are!
TW: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me Robin. How can people check out SoundSelf and stay tuned in to you and your work?
RA: My pleasure! Right now, you can buy alpha access to SoundSelf for $30 at soundselfgame.com. It's buggy as shit right now, but it helps fund our development ;-). Here's an experimental teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LocpDpwbREc.