Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

11 November, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Sensory Experiences
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:12 PM

Humans have five traditional senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. (I’ve used my sixth sense to know that some might want to talk about the sixth sense or other “senses”, but let’s leave those aside for now.) Games traditionally focus on the first two: sight and hearing. Most advances in technology have focused on graphical presentation, or how to fool the eye into thinking it is seeing more than it really is; that is, a 3D representation of a world on a 2D surface. Some advances have been made in hearing as well; music and good sound are slowly being recognized as some of more important elements of games. (We’ve come along way since PC speaker sound, at least!)

The other three senses don’t get so much attention. We have a bit of touch response with force feedback controllers, but this is a very gross level of feedback. You can’t “touch” something soft in a game and actually get the sensation on your own fingers. Companies in the past have tried to push digital scents, but people don’t really seem to want the fresh scent of gunpowder and rotting corpses while playing for some reason. Similarly, although I’m sure someone out there wonders what the zombie tastes like, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of progress on that front.

So, here’s this week’s challenge: can you develop a way to include other senses in a game? Some initial thoughts after the break.

At the recent Project Horseshoe get-together, Raph gave a talk about Influences. One bit in particular was interesting:

[W]hy is there no game about the taste of a freshly picked peach, straight from the tree, with the smells and dust of the working orchard? How do you make a game about that?

[Audience response:] “Because my monitor tastes like crap.” “It’s a human interface problem.”

It isn’t just an interface problem! It isn’t just an interface problem! There are probably poems about the taste of a fresh peach.

So, can you make a game about the taste of a peach (or, more generally, the eating of a peach) that the average player would understand? How can you include other sensory aspects besides just visuals and audio? Is Raph right to point out the fact that poetry can communicate this feeling, and by extension games should be able to as well?

I’ll post my thoughts later after a bit of discussion by others.

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  1. Jpoku wrote:

    A poem about the taste of a fresh peach isn’t the same as eating a peach. You might have a rough idea but it isn’t the same.

    I agree with this on the basic level — but only for someone who has not tasted a fresh peach before. Verse can describe it, but it can’t invoke the same sensory actions as an actual bite of a fresh peach can.

    That said, poetry can invoke the taste of a peach for those who have tasted one! Well written words about the experience can invoke our own memories of peaches we have had in the past. Those words can draw on that prior experience and trigger unconscious memories related to the experience to the point that a well written poem about a fresh peach can leave you hanging with the taste of a peach in your mouth — even though you didn’t bite one.

    Raph was trying to tell those other developers at the Horseshoe that games could do this too!

    Brian’s asking us “How?”

    My suggestion for a game designer wanting to relate a sensory experience is to follow poetry’s leads — rely upon the strengths of the medium. You don’t see poems using Scratch ‘N Sniff ink for a poem about peaches (though I’m sure some nut bag has done it in the past, or will now and get rich on my idea) — they use descriptive text and well chosen words and form to convey the peach through the medium (plain text).

    So the question of how to relate more sensory experiences in video games turns into the question: What sensory experiences do video games nail?

    Video to be sure — no video, no video game. So sight is covered. Hearing via the sound card is well within range for video games, so that’s two out of five. I’d say that touch is covered as well, all the input goes through a controller or keyboard — and you can design a game to incorporate that, but we haven’t quite nailed it.

    At any rate, just with sight and sound we can use two senses to relate the other three… how though right?

    Coming back to the peach, you can place the player in the orchard, have the sun almost setting so the sun is on fire in a beautiful display of orange yellow light. A few bugs can be fluttering around, motes of pollen in the air. Flowers and grass below swaying in a slight breeze. The peaches themselves rendered in a way that you can see the skin and the hairs on it. When the avatar takes a bite you can have peach juice run down his/her chin (and have them wipe it with the back of the hand). Throw in a smile and a change of facial color to something slightly warmer. All kinds of visual queues there. Throw in some audio… the sound of the insects, your feet crunching grass, the small snap as you pick the peach from the tree, the mushy crunch sound as you bite it, the “mmmm” from the avatar as the mouth is wiped, and somewhere in the distance a cow moo’s while a windmill turns…

    Nothing radical there, but as to someone who has picked and tasted a tree ripe peach, that’s enough to invoke something I’d hope. By seeing the hair on the skin of the peach you infer texture. By showing the juice running after a bite you infer how wet the experience is. By showing positive emotions in the avatar and making warm changes in the art you infer that it’s good… For those who have no idea about the peach… even then it conveys something, just not the peach. It would be like me playing through an experience like that done for kimchi… until I taste it I can’t get as much out of the experience through the game… but even before it I can get an understanding of good/bad/etc.

    That’s probably over explanation so I’ll close with the point I was trying to convey: To demonstrate the five senses don’t think like a geek and build a smell machine, use the senses your tools can master and infer the others through them.

    Comment by Grimwell — 12 November, 2006 @ 4:17 PM

  2. I tried to convince people in the mouse team to add an electroshock device to the mouse…

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 13 November, 2006 @ 12:47 AM

  3. Hmm, close to hearing… but nevertheless: there were some demos that asked played to use microphone to produce sounds to control their character in game.

    Wii gets somewhat closer in the area of “touching”.

    Comment by Juuso - Game Producer — 13 November, 2006 @ 3:59 AM

  4. Actually, now that you mention it, Mario Party 7 has a microphone that you have to use for some of the minigames.

    Comment by Grimwell — 13 November, 2006 @ 4:36 PM

  5. A comment from the peanut gallery – not a professional in the gaming industry… What I remember most fomr a games is when it evoked an emotional response that had a lasting memory. When the game made me feel something. If I had to define what was present in those particular moments, it was the visuals (mood and tone), music and a simulation of something that – if it weren’t taking place in a virtual world, could have been real. The only game that I’ve played that nailed this again and again, was AC2. There are moments from that game that are etched in my memory – what I was doing and how it felt to “be” there. Now some of that could be attributed to my more romantic and rpg nature. However, my son an avid gamer whoo has playce many games since and is a classic Killer type in games, still asks about AC2. I mean more than a few times he’s asked why that game isn’t around anymore. He still has his CDs and wants to play it. There was something there; something in what that game was able to evoke, that felt real and memorable.

    I think when people can see some semblance of reality in the virtual, can feel something beyond the fleeting excitement or rush moment, a game is mature and can attract a mature audience, who will in turn validate the experiences and lend legitimacy. Just my 2 cents.

    Comment by Saylah — 13 November, 2006 @ 8:31 PM

  6. Project Horseshoe: Peachy fallout

    [...] Brian Green posts the peach problem as one of his Weekend Design Challenges. It seems to evoke a passionate response from Grimwell in the comment thread… [...]

    Pingback by Raph’s Website — 14 November, 2006 @ 9:55 AM

  7. Well, this challenge was a bit of a trick. While you probably can simulate eating a peach in a game, the questions are: Can you do it very well? And, do you really want to?

    I think we can do it, and we do it largely the same way that Raph points out that prose does it: use other data to replace the sensations we can’t directly affect. In prose that means using words that trigger memories the reader’s previous experience with a peach. Using phrases like “the peach juice drips down his chin” to trigger the memory of the time when you at a really juicy peach and it dripped all over the place. Using related memories as Raph does in his talk and Grimwell does in his comment above: a dusty, hot orchard with a fiery sun overhead.

    In games you just uses the sense you do have to replace the ones you do not have. A group of people at Project Horseshoe talked about using different visuals to represent touch and taste: the “peach” on the screen may deform a bit under your control to show that it is soft and ripe. When biting into the peach, a burst of color could represent the taste exploding into your mouth. This isn’t so strange, games have been doing similar things for a while. In an FPS or RPG, what does it mean when your screen goes red temporarily? It means that you’ve been hurt and the red haze is clouding your thoughts. We can’t inflict pain on the player (well, not physical pain, at least), but we can indicate that the character in the game is hurt.

    But, where’s the benefit or profit in simulating a peach? Danc over at Lost Garden wrote a great comment that sums my opinion up well: Millions of Peaches

    Go read the entry. And, seriously, bookmark the blog. Great stuff.

    I think Danc hit the nail on the head: we may not be able to simulate a peach as well as a poem can, for example, but games have other strengths that other media do not. His example of the game Asshole shows that a game can have meaning beyond the simple set of rules or the interface, even if it wasn’t necessarily intended in the design of the game. I suspect few people really sit down to a game of Asshole with the expectation of learning how the other players act at different levels of social hierarchy. Yet, that is a side-effect of playing the game, even for entertainment. Can a poem do that? No, not really.

    That’s my thoughts on the matter.

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 November, 2006 @ 1:13 PM

  8. Everyone else is hinting at this, but no one seems to be outright saying it.

    Poems invoke our memories about peaches and interweave them with our imagination. That’s it. A good poem does it better than a bad poem (assuming that’s the “objective”). Games do the same general thing: they invoke our memories and interweave our imaginations. They just do it a bit differently.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 14 November, 2006 @ 2:16 PM

  9. A game is not the medium which is suitable to convey the sensation of eating peach. Try look for something less structured by the need to determine a winner. Such as an interactive toy or whatever.

    Comment by Wolfe — 15 November, 2006 @ 7:03 AM

  10. Weekend Design Challenge: Food

    [...] challenge is related to a previous challenge about sensory experiences. Food is definitely about sensory experiences in the offline world. If you want to have more [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 9 March, 2008 @ 12:25 PM

  11. You have two concentric circles, the inner one is black the outer one is off white. The outermost concentric circle has little lines approximately 2 millimeters from each other around the entire circumference, varying in length from 2 to 4 millimeters. The cursor is a blue circle approximately two centimeters in diameter. When the edge of the cursor touches a hair it pushes it away, up to flattening it entirely, and when the edge of the cursor meets the edge of the outer circle it slows down creating resistance.

    The trailing edge of the cursor must remain outside the furthest edge of the outer circle. When the cursor is over the outer circle and the player clicks, a circular gradient of pink blossoms in the middle until the whole cursor is pink, and then it slowly fades back to blue. The area of the outer circle under the cursor when clicked is removed, and that area is added to the player’s score. If the cursor is over the center circle when clicked, it immediately turns red before slowly fading back to blue, and all of the area under it is subtracted from the player’s score. The center circle does not have it’s area deleted from under the cursor. Once the entire outer circle is gone, the player is given a rating perfect, great, good, medium, poor, terrible, based on the percentage of total possible points they scored.

    For added effect, on opening a new game, the screen around the circles could fill with fuzzy dots that slowly dissipate. Lilting woodwind music for standard background music could be used, a saccharine flute or piccolo section for when the cursor turns pink, and some deliberately dissonant tuba when it turns red.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 5 August, 2009 @ 5:59 AM

  12. Hmm, that’s really interesting, Sara. I’m glad I have the latest posts bit on the side to catch posts on old topics like this.

    While I think this definitely captures the mechanics of eating a peach, what about the other senses? Where does the taste come in, for example? That was the challenge in Raph’s presentation, and I think it’s the one element missing from your otherwise insightful explanation.

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 August, 2009 @ 5:03 PM

  13. Hmm, taste was the point of changing the color of the cursor and playing a few seconds of piccolo. Though I’m not sure the exact amount of visual reinforcement there needs to be. Those were there to convey the concept of sweet, I’m still mulling over how to convey juicy…

    I suppose what I’m mostly trying to get at is that trying to get a more photo realistic peach in our games is a waste of our medium’s strength. Lately I’ve been thinking that film and writing are entirely the wrong mediums to be looking at for analogues to game design. Music seems like a much better analogue to me, partially for the pacing and rhythm, but mostly because I think our real strength is in the abstract ideas. So for instance, we shouldn’t be trying to make our players see a “peach”, but instead to convey the most fundamental parts of the experience of eating a peach. Sweet, juicy, accidentally biting down too hard on the pit, the things you emotionally experience while eating a peach, not the physical part.

    Although… I could be missing something. I’ve never eaten a peach before.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 6 August, 2009 @ 2:53 AM

  14. Although… I could be missing something. I’ve never eaten a peach before.

    That’s interesting. Does a poem about a peach give someone without prior experiences insight into what those experiences are like. Can a game? Can a video recording?

    Your comparison between games and music is insightful. I can think of two MMO designers (Raph Koster and Damion Schubert) who are also musicians. That may be worth further thought.

    Comment by Psychochild — 6 August, 2009 @ 1:52 PM

  15. I can’t speak to your question for the general populace, only for myself. As for me though it absolutely does, and they absolutely can.

    When it comes to gaming, I keep going back to a particular event that happened to me in the game Neveron. I wound up in a fight I couldn’t win and lost months of effort and even some amount of real money investment, but I entered the fight to save my faction mates from facing similar destruction. Through that game I experienced the sacrifice of a soldier for his comrades, or at least something like it, and that wasn’t even an experience the designers had set out with the purpose of creating. In large part, that’s why I find arguing about whether or not games can be emotionally powerful to be kind of silly, they have been, I’ve felt it.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 8 August, 2009 @ 5:22 AM

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