On matching themes with mechanics

To create a structure to work in, we divided the different scenes of Remembering into Themes. Each scene is about a different part of conception and development of a human in the womb. So one scene could thematically be about the development of touch, whereas another is thematically about heartbeat (or the scary absence of heartbeat...)
By structuring our game into these themes we created a guideline for ourselves to match visuals and interactions within a meaningful frame.  In each of these scenes we experiment with different mechanics we wanted to try out. Throughout all the scenes we tried to tightly integrate the theme with mechanics and visuals.
Two examples:

The 'Forest'

Example 1. The 'Forest'
In the ‘forest’ we spatially deconstruct a musical arrangement. Every ‘tree’ contains a single violin stroke. Together they form a melody, but this melody can’t be heard because every tree only produces its sound if you look at it. So you only hear fragments that hint at a greater whole. Until everythings comes to live simultaneously in a crescendo.

We placed this mechanic in the scene that thematically describes Conception. Our associations with conception were about separate cells, each with it’s own incomplete identity, coming together and creating a more complicated whole, a human. We quite liked the analogy between separate sounds coming together to form melody, and cells fusing together to form live.

The 'Womb'

The 'Womb'

Example 2. The Womb
Towards the end of the journey you enter a scene where you are in a soft pink space that surrounds you on all sides. This is, of course, the womb. For us, being in a small physical space is also about that space being able to touch you.  So, here we introduced an almost ASMR inspired mechanic where we have objects stroking your ears, accompanied by sound effects that support that illusion. This being Virtual Reality, this physical illusion becomes that much stronger because you can actually feel your body being there, in this virtual space. A little later we take this feeling of embodiment to an extreme by thematically introducing 'pain' (your birth is imminent after all). We pierce the players body with sharp, black spikes. We see players actually grope for the affected bodyparts, as if they are pierced in  real life. On a thematic level this fits. Your body is complete. It exists (in VR), and you are aware of it now (in VR).
Now it's time to be born.


Once a certain awareness has grown, the player will be able to distinguish a more detailed world of sound. So what would they hear, and how would it sound if it was the first thing they had ever heard?

What's there is:
- Liquid all around, slowly streaming and pressing against their ears;
- Heartbeats of their mother;
- The sound of their own body – heart beating and blood flowing;
- Sounds from outside – their mother singing, filtered sounds of the reality of the world outside the womb.

But what could it sound like to an unborn?

As the player grows more conscious, their perception sharpens. They're able to dissect what they're hearing, even if it all still makes no sense. More layers are revealed, more subtleties emerge, creating new connections with existing sounds. The player’s state of listening constantly shifts between causal and reduced - a state of awareness and a state of habituation.

Now then, how can we seduce the player to switch between these states?

To help get this into motion, we could make use of another pair of sound perception definitions: non-diegetic and diegetic listening.

Diegetic: any sound presented as originated from a source within the game's world.
Non-diegetic: sound coming from a source outside story space, like a soundtrack.

First of we’ll suggest the player that they’re presented with ‘real’ concrete sounds. Sounding within the constraints of the space around them, resembling for example a heartbeat, they’re qualified as being diegetic.
Next we'll cloud the distinction between these two, morphing seemingly clear and concrete sounds into abstract and surreal sounds or even musical themes.
Sounds of a beating heart, of blood flowing through vains, of growing of cells are introduced as they are. And then they are combined in a musical, rhythmical way so they cease being just these concrete sounds and start being music - a non-diegetic soundtrack.

And yet… not quite…

The sounds keep their places in space at all times, suggesting there’s still a local source that causes them to sound. This shifting between different ways of listening and interpreting creates an ambiguity, alienating the player from the acoustic principles they’re accustomed to and forcing them to rediscover the audible world around them. Hopefully a little bit as if you’re listening for the very first time...

~ SonicPicnic


A mockup of the final theme. The main motive is to be found everywhere in the game, sometimes obvious, sometimes converted and mangled beyond recognition.

~ SonicPicnic


As an unborn entity the player starts out in a state where all they perceive is new, unprecedented and impossible to be concrete in any way. Simply because they know no actuality or reality yet to which they can relate anything they hear.

How will listening evolve, how will the player's perception grow? How will things become more recognisable?

These were important questions for us to try to answer with Remembering. We started experimenting with different ways the player can hear and listen to sound. Two definitions of sound perception have been of particular interest: causal listening and reduced listening.
Causal listening means listening to a sound to determine its cause. Reduced listening means concentrating on the characteristics of the sound itself without thinking of its cause or its meaning.
When the player hears sound for the very first time it seems likely that they'd listen to it as is – as an independent entity. They'd take in the sound and its traits unbiased. No conclusions, no anticipation. In other words, the player starts out as the ultimate reduced listener.

Then, after some time, their brain begins to evolve and pose questions. Awareness sets in. They'd be wanting to know where they are and if that's okay. And specifically: what is causing that sound that they've been taking for granted all this time.

Not being able to make any sense of anything very well, simply because there's nothing ever before to relate to as an unborn being, these attempts to find out more are in vain. While the ability to perceive starts evolving more and more enters the brain, like a surge of incentives. As a new being you take it all in without focus, and after a while the causal listening changes back into reduced listening, turning into a sort of residing stare amidst a sea of sound.

~ SonicPicnic


What would be there even before someone grows into a perceiving being? What will be there at the start of all things?
How would a vacuum evolve into space?
How would a single point become something swallowing you whole?

This is how we imagined it:

~ SonicPicnic


Directly from the beginning we were looking for a aural constant in the game that could take on the role of a center point, something that a player could connect to, something to hold on to, and to look out for.

We have been exploring several musical themes to fulfill this part, looking for a melody that would be present everywhere in the world of Remembering, sometimes overwhelming and in your face, sometimes subtle and hidden.

The theme could be a metaphor for the player, as the unborn, like an aural resonance of your being. A musical motive as an essence inside you, formed and nurtured in the womb, to be carried with you for the rest of your life, as a pair of tinted glasses through which you will be seeing the world for the rest of your life.

This first attempt tries to capture some emotions, like frailty, hope, beauty, maybe a bit of melancholy. A lot of the more aggressive, blacker, angrier and darker facets are not yet touched upon but will be based on the same theme.

This attempt also doesn’t deal in any way with possible implementation in the game’s world, let alone the way players will interact with it. 

~ SonicPicnic


Early in the development we started to look for a way to capture moods and states of mind in sound. We were trying to create an aural representation of the emotional aspect, but more importantly we were looking into the physical motor behind these thoughts and feelings - the brain as a nerve-headquarters, with trembling cells and sparking nerves.

Below you can listen to some of these experiments.

~ SonicPicnic


Remembering is back! Three years ago we created a small game that got people pretty excited. We put it online for free, received a lot of lovely comments and even won an award. And that was the end if it. Or so we thought. Because it never let go. It was clear that Remembering had a lot more to tell and that we were not done yet.

The advent of VR was the tipping point for us. The ability of VR to completely isolate you from the real world, and place you in virtual one, was exactly what we had always envisioned for a game that is about using your senses in a different way. We decided to join forces again to create a new Remembering for VR.

The new Remembering, just like its predecessor, tells a story through sound, music and abstract shapes. It is a slow, poetic journey about the beauty of conception and the trauma of being born. During this almost lucid dream-like experience, you have limited control, and your gaze controls what you hear.

Most virtual reality is about looking. Remembering is about listening. By building a world based on sound instead of visuals we have created a place that relies on association rather than observation.
Part experiment, part art project, with Remembering we are researching the physical connotations and impact of sound in VR, an area in games that hasn’t been much explored yet.

In an effort to bring people in a more open receptive physical state, the game can be played lying down. This open, more vulnerable body posture helps the experience a become even more dreamlike. The connection between embodiment and sound in VR has been our main focus. Embodiment, or the sense of physically being somewhere, can be heavily influenced by sound. By connecting associative sounds to various forms of physical impact, we explore how sound can play a bigger role in the sense of being ‘here’.

Since this was an experimental project, we have a lot to share about the process of building this VR game and developing the audio. We will update the blog with our insights and keep you updated!

The first prototype of Remembering (2013) can be downloaded here:
Windows / Mac