There were people. Everywhere.
Don't get me wrong: there are always people everywhere, as this is planet Earth and it is tremendously overpopulated. I suppose what I mean is, I was acutely aware that I was surrounded on all sides, exits blocked, walls of yammering humanity looming like mountains. That kind of everywhere.
I desperately wished that they'd all just disappear. I was about to make a fool of myself in public, you see, and that's a far less bitter pill to swallow when the "public" in question consists of maybe a couple crickets and a tumbleweed.
SoundSelf is a game about meditation wherein you, well, meditate. That involves two very specific things: 1) wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and 2) making loud-ish droning sounds of various pitches for about half an hour. Like, with your mouth. Soundself is essentially a psychedelic visualizer that reacts to human voice. Pitch and tone slowly but surely open new paths and "areas," for lack of a better term.
It's something of an odd sight to witness. As someone who is prone to bouts of violent self-consciousness that result in profuse sweating and a total inability to focus, I could already feel my hands going all clammy and gross. I'd knowingly brought this upon myself, however, so there was no turning back.
Creator Robin Arnott greeted me with a hug and a headset, and that was it: I was off. Before me I saw near-infinite blackness punctuated by a small, lightly colored circle peering back at me from a distance. It was like a tiny cyclopian eye studying me with piercing curiosity, waiting to see what I'd do.
I hummed. A low hum at first, but I gradually constricted my throat, leading to a higher and higher pitch. The circle shook, reverberated, like a Jello mold in a relatively light earthquake. Then it pulsated and grew, slowly consuming the darkness.
I spent my first ten-or-so minutes only paying cursory attention to the spectacle, infinitely more concerned by the fact that I was going "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" really loudly while a bunch of conference show-goers probably watched on in horrified amusement, bemusement, and possibly even c-musement, whatever that is. Yes, I was wearing an Oculus Rift and headphones so I couldn't see or hear anyone, but I was certain I'd attracted an audience - and not for good reasons.
"You look like a crazy person," said the more self-deprecating portions of my brain. "Everyone notices you." I wished I was a turtle or, like, a really big snail. I wanted to recede into my shell.
Then a couple of strange things happened: foremost, SoundSelf's ever-shifting audiovisual vistas grabbed ahold of me. See, the images in SoundSelf aren't the only part of the game that reacts to voice. There's this tapestry of sound ebbing and flowing at all times, procedurally moving to fill in the gaps left by your tones and pitches. If I hummed or growled deeply, distorted cellos echoed all around me, occasionally swelling in a way that made it feel as though they were emerging from my own chest. Higher pitches yielded even fuller sounds, like a backup cavalry for my thin wisp of noise. It was extremely, well, trippy is probably the best word to describe it. But also insanely cool.
There were so many different sounds, too. Sometimes voices chanting, sometimes breathing, sometimes buzzing, sometimes orchestras, sometimes rain. When I shifted pitch or tone, the sounds moved with me. Like a dance that I could feel. In my ears. In my chest. In my lungs.
And the second strange thing that made the hypothetical crowd of onlookers less of a concern? Well, I began to run out of air.
I'd been pretty sick the entire week before this demo, so drawing air through my hyper-congested nasal passages was still something of a task. Five or ten minutes with SoundSelf under those conditions? No problem. But 15 or 20? That's the beginning of a different story. My face started to tingle with a strange sort of un-feeling. It wasn't quite numb, but it felt like tiny fire ants were crawling around just beneath the surface of my skin, peeking up from between my pores from time-to-time. I decided to persist, but I wasn't going to kid myself: I couldn't keep it up for too much longer.
I have never done any psychedelic drugs before. I'm not opposed to them or anything. The stars have just never aligned for whatever reason. But between the pure palpablility of SoundSelf's imagery/sound and the increasingly woozy state my mind was in, I think it's fair to say I ended up in a, er, different place. My state of consciousness was ever so slightly altered, and the resultant, um, pain certainly made me more aware of my own body. As a result, though, I felt the sound that much more. My voice was emerging in strained gasps, and it felt like hums, chants, instruments, and who even knows what else were buoying it up.
I passed through countless colors and patterns. Lazy purple waves, hyperactive rainbow loopty-loops, splotchy masses of dark and light, mandalas that felt like they'd go on for eternity. I'd linger on some—because they were soothing, because I wanted to study the tiny complexities of a pattern, etc—and then I'd change my pitch to advance into some new, unknowable territory. Pulling a new pattern from the ether as sounds and visuals slowly reshaped themselves around my tone—now that was something. I can honestly say I've never experienced anything else like it in a game.
I have a couple quibbles, though. It occasionally got repetitive, and changing my tone eventually began to feel arbitrary. It was less like real meditation and more like a series of gated pathways, locks to which a minor tonal shift was inevitably the key. That said, there was no denying that I'd stepped into SoundSelf's world. It swallowed me whole. I saw shades of first-person nature walker Proteus in SoundSelf's harmonious groove, albeit presented in a far more abstract fashion.
Then everything went white. I tried to conjure something from nothing, but it wasn't long before I understood: it was over. My colorful chorus was gone, and I was all alone. That was the end. Creator Robin Arnott is still hoping to expand the experience, add more "paths" through it, and craft multiple endings, but that was all the version I played had to offer. I liked it, though. After that 40-minute sensory overload of color and sound, there was no flashing neon "THE END" sign. I had to figure out that it'd ended for myself. I shouted into the void a few times, and when nothing shouted back, I took off the Oculus.
All the people were gone. Hardly a soul was seated among that once-bustling bunch of tables. I'm sure they all had Important Meetings to skitter off to or something, but by that point I didn't really care. There could've been zero people or a thousand, and I would've been pretty darn chilled out either way.
Also breathing, you guys. Full, uninterrupted breaths? Totally underrated. It's like they say: you don't know what you've got until you're nearly passed out under a gum-encrusted conference hall table.