In 2009 I was studying film production at NYU specializing in sound design. If you'd met me around that time you probably would have recognized the film school swagger. It was in my last semester that I had a crisis of realization: When I look into the future of film, I don't see as bright a future as I do for videogames. Which one of these things do I want to be a part of? And don't videogames need sound designers too?
It was a really scary realization at the time. Had I been focusing on the wrong things all these years? Was it foolhardy to throw all my film education away to chase this impulse? I enrolled in the Game Center's very first class - a hands on design class using the prototyping tool "Virtools". When I presented the initial concept for Deep Sea (my audio-only horror game from 2010), I announced a truth that I'd been taking for granted for years:
"I'm not a visual artist." I kind of just don't do that.
Deep Sea, Experimental Gameplay Workshop, 2012. Photo by Matthew Wegner
Making a game that accomodated this weakness wound up being a useful design directive. But now I wonder... if I'd been directly asked "are you a game designer?" would I have shut the door on that too? The irony of Deep Sea is that the decision to not grow in one direction drove me to grow in another. Thankfully I was never asked that, because without ever really trying to become a game designer, I found myself well out of my comfort zone creating the most interesting work of my life. 1
Since then, leaping outside of my perceived comfort zone has become my first commandment for creative work, and SoundSelf is very deliberately an embodiment of that. It's my first commercial game as lead. It will be my first full-scale installation at Burning Man. It's a practical exploration of a new spiritual side of myself. It's a thematic exploration of geometry, which I formerly knew very little about. It is my first real attempt at creating something explicitly musical, and it's the weirdest sounding thing I've put my sound-designer ears to.
Before working on SoundSelf, I knew what beginner's mind was, and I knew that internalizing beginner's mind as habit would help the most beautiful parts of myself shine brighter. What I didn't realize though was that beginner's mind takes long deliberate practice and hard fucking work. SoundSelf is literally a daily practice of this for me: every day presents me with challenges I must meet humbly, as a beginner. It's not easy, because the challenges that contain the richest opportunities for growth are always always always the ones that scare the shit out of me.
Fear is a compass.
Topher Sipes is a graphic and performance artist, and a dear friend of mine. He's best known for being the creative director of the Texas dance duoArtheism. Sam Beasley dances on the stage, while Topher dances with her through an iPad connected to a projector. Their collaboration is technologically organic and often sublime. Topher's methodical creative approach was (and continues to be) an inspiration to me.
Topher brought to SoundSelf an apreciation of nature. Our first design meeting was a hallucinogen assisted hike through San Marcos, following the historical path of the San Marcos river and ending at the present location of the river itself. We talked about the fluid dynamics shared between rivers, shifting continents, and galaxies. The come-down brought us to a drum circle and group om. In the evening we recounted our experiences, taking copious notes and drawings.
For SoundSelf to be as responsive as we need it to, we needed to create an enormous generative possibility space that is beautiful and unique from a million different perspectives. The trouble was, Topher couldn't flow with the arcane language of our scripting system.
When we discovered that SoundSelf's art is fundamentally a scripting job, Topher and I went our separate ways. He's still involved on the project as a mind I value, but his contribution is much less hands-on. So we had an opening for a generative artist.
A digital painting by Topher Sipes
This was a very difficult opening to fill. We needed somebody with a great eye who could learn to program generatively, think exploratively, work mostly for royalty, and adopt SoundSelf as their almost-full-time passion project.
After a lot of deep searching, we found Todd Cook - a visionary mind who was eager to learn and pour himself into SoundSelf. He was interested in fractals, complex geometry, and visual perceptual processes. He brought to the visual space an order that had been formerly lacking. But the pressure of learning our scripting system was too much, and he too went his own way.
Both of these artists have left their mark on SoundSelf, and I'm grateful to have opened our canvas to their minds.
I think that as I struggle to grow as a student of beginner's mind, the most pernicious habits remain invisible even as I stare them in the face. While knowing consciously that fear leads me in the most beautiful directions, there are towering monoliths of fear and doubt that evade direct confrontation. I don't even know they're there until I hear the words come out of my mouth: I just don't do visual art. I'm just not good at that. I can't do that. No.
Here's what SoundSelf looked like at E3, before I took full ownership over the projects graphics:
And now that I've decided that I can be a goddamn visual artist if I want to be:
(Protip: look "past" the image to get the 3D effect)
Every time this happens, those monoliths of fear become easier to spot, and then to face, and I become a little richer for it. But that takes a lot of it's own kind of work.
The current development build of SoundSelf can be downloaded from soundselfgame.com.
For some reason I'm imagining myself as, like, a tomato plant or something. And this whole "I'm not a visual artist" thing is like plant-scar-tissue or something... y'know when you see a plant that looks like it just started spontaneously growing in a different direction? Anyway, the truth is that I didn't just grow reactively towards game design, but that Charles Pratt and Frank Lantz of the NYU Game Center were laying out copious amounts of fertilizer. I'm done with this tomato plant metaphor now.