We've spent our first month after SoundSelf's Kickstarter success making plans for the future development of the project and building this forum which YOU SHOULD GO CHECK OUT - WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU! We'll be keeping a weekly blog of our progress on the game, and I want to start by telling you why SoundSelf is important to me.
One night in Black Rock City, 2011, I found myself melting into a sensual trance. reOnion was a multi-chamber dome made out of what looked like papier mache. From the outside, it looked like a whole garlic that had grown big enough for a dozen people to crawl into, but inside it glowed with abstract projections and droning music - each chamber playing a unique audio/visual blend. I was in a chamber characterized by deep vocals which, under the influence of a mild dose of LSD, I couldn't distinguish from my own chanting voice. reOnion's voice emerged from my chest, with my vocal chords, into reOnion again.
reOnion, Burning Man, 2011
This was a major moment in my relationship with my self and my work, and it came at just the right time. Development of Deep Sea had plateaued. When I first prototyped Deep Sea in 2009, with microphones planted in a cold-war era gas mask designed to track the player's breathing, I was surprised by how intensely it aroused terror in its players. I kept working and working on it to pry apart *why* this thing I made worked so well. Deep Sea was clearly breaking some mental barriers - but after two years of showing the game and closely watching people's reactions to it, I felt like I'd nearly exhausted both the potential of that prototype and what it had to teach me. I wanted to move on to something that didn't require such esoteric hardware.
Deep Sea, Experimental Gameplay Workshop, 2012
Months after Burning Man, from the echo of reOnion, Deep Sea, and thoughtful conversations with a friend of mine, SoundSelf blossomed in my mind almost fully formed. Like Deep Sea, it would use a rhythmic physical interaction to prevent the player's intellect from interfering with the sensual experience, but unlike Deep Sea it would be a blissful wanderlust - the terror of that game replaced with a feeling of connectedness like I'd experienced chanting in reOnion. Only without the drugs. Optionally without the drugs, anyway.
I could visualize the experience in my mind, and while it was fuzzy around the edges, the core of the experience was clear as day to me. Describing it to others, however, was a challenge. SoundSelf has almost no commonalities with existing videogames or interactive art to anchor discussion from. Even now our team still stumbles over describing new ideas for the game, but back then it was like speaking gibberish. Nobody understood it, and I was frustrated by my inability to put the experience I wanted to create into words.
Taking SoundSelf out of this foggy not-quite-real place meant learning to take myself seriously. Many, many artists experience debilitating impostor syndrome, and realizing that my own path into modest cultural success and recognition was no less valid than anyone else's gave me the distance to identify my strengths and make them work for me.
The challenge amounted to this: I had an idea for a "game" that was impossible to describe. It would take a long time to develop, require programming and visual art expertise that I didn't possess, and it was unlikely to make much or any money. I needed help, and I needed development funds.
But I had a lot more strengths than I was initially giving myself credit for. Deep Sea had drummed up an internet following, I was doing the sound design for an amazing indie game called Antichamber, I had a volunteer history with Indiecade, and I was generally pretty charismatic. This added up to me being connected enough to make something awesome happen, with many friends whose generosity would support us through the fundraising process.
Indiecade Night Games, 2012
I began talking about "my chanting game" even though I had no path towards making it a reality... and suddenly I saw opportunities everywhere. When I met SoundSelf's quirky programmer Evan Balster, I saw a potential collaborator. When the Oculus Rift was Kickstarted, I saw an opportunity to dramatically increase the intensity of the experience. As 2012 was coming to a close, I saw a perfect storm of opportunity in the coming March.
March would be the month after Antichamber shipped. GDC, Pax East, SXSW and Flowstorm (a gathering of flow artists in Texas) would give me the opportunity to put the experience in front of players. With nothing built yet but a technical demonstration of the pitch-matching system, I bought plane tickets, emailed everyone I knew in the press, and built a model installation in my back yard. Running a $30,000 Kickstarter for an art game felt like building a Rube Goldberg machine that would only run once.
Just two weeks before the Kickstarter was scheduled to launch, we threw a party around the very first playable build of the game to get footage of players for our Kickstarter video, and to learn what most urgently needed work before we took the messy prototype on tour. SoundSelf was shallow in its interactivity, it looked like a screensaver or clumsy music visualizer, and the audio was sloppy. But once people started playing it...
"Oh my God, it's sentient"
"It's like masturbating - can I say that?"
"It felt like it was coming out of my body"
"I get it, it's a dance partner"
"This is amazing"
SoundSelf party, February 2012
Evan and I heard this again and again that month. It worked. In its broken, early form, it really touched people.
The Kickstarter campaign showed us what was good about the game and where we had to grow. Additionally for me, it was a reminder to trust my self. One of the reasons I had such difficulty describing the experience was that I didn't think what made it so personally powerful to me would be taken seriously. My experience in reOnion was a reckoning with my spiritual relationship with myself as a perceptual being, and I recognized that the process of developing SoundSelf continues to be, for me, a personal practice of exploring and deepening that relationship. My fear of describing my spiritual growth may have been preventing me from connecting with people about my art.
If I could do it again, and I wouldn't, because that was fucking exhausting, I'd remind myself that I'm worth my own trust from day one. It may not have made a difference to our bottom line - and with $36,000 to make my dream come true I'm certainly not complaining about that - but it would have made the process easier and more fulfilling from an earlier stage.
Now let's make this fucking game.