One of the aspects of the human experience that has always intrigued me the most are smells. Specifically, how smells are related to game design.

We take it for granted, smells. We take for granted their strength to convey environment. Their ability to spring memories back to life. The way they add character to a setting. The way they speak to us about the history of a place or a person. We use smells for recognition. We let smells influence us. We invite them in, often.

Who, for example, doesn’t enter a store and take a lungful of air to judge the lore of the store? Or who doesn’t remember downtown Guayaquil by the coarse puffs of smoke and carbon-dioxide, and the acrid stench of diesel and motor oil plastered all over its pavement? Or what about that thawing, sweet scent of expensive splash spray that revolves around us when a beautiful lady rushes past our side?

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Smells to me are a powerful dimension, one that is lost to many of us entertainers. Lost to cinematographers, game designers, musicians, visual artists, and sculptors. I’ve seen smells hinted at in these mediums, like when a director in a movie chooses to place a certain dialog (e.g., “huumn! It stinks!”) or scene cue (e.g., rotten flesh, or frying eggs) to try to persuade us to imagine the smell is there. But I don’t find these methods are all that effective, because movies move too fast for us to vividly remember the smell.

There’s two forms of entertainment where I’ve seen an effective use of smells. The first, and most obvious one, is the theatrical experience, where the playwrights and directors of a theater can play around with some smells. For example, they might boil pine bark and let the steam billow into the theater chamber, and create a deeper sense of scenery. They might also play with the smell of cinder, gunpowder and fuel, by lighting up fire or pyrotechnics in the stage. And all of this is excellent, but there’s two specific considerations about this:

  • First, this is definitely a method game designers cannot use, at least for now, until that magical day comes where videogame consoles ship with a “smell dispensation apparatus.”
  • Second, when you present to an audience a real smell, you are very limited only to good smells. Smells are so powerful to us, that a bad smell in a theater might be too jarring or discomforting for the audience to bear. And good smells are all fine, but I’m more interested in the smells that speak to us of the bad things that have happened in a place. Metallic, corroded smell of blood. The smell of festering flesh. The acrid smell of urine dry on the pavement of a gloomy back alley.

But of course hope is not lost.

The other place where I’ve seen the effective use of smells to convey experiences is in literature. Over the many millennia of human civilization, we’ve invented powerful ways to evoke the sense of smell through words. We have invented specific words to describe smells: stinking, acrid, jarring, pungent. We have matched the words of taste to smells as well. We can say a smell can be bitter, acid, sweet. We’ve given texture to smells. Like a coarse smell, or a soft smell, or a smell that’s jagged or uneven. We’ve learned express how smells act over us, influence us. For example, we often say smells sting us, sneak on us, entangle us, surround us, brush us.

Personally, I deeply believe all these techniques writers have devised to talk about smells are a method untamed by game designers, a method that could elevate our craft.

As I said before, to fully remember a smell, one must have time. And words, written text gives the audience that time. When one reads about a smell, to vividly bring it into one’s mind one needs the time to close one’s eyes and take a deep imaginary breath, while remembering a specific moment in our lives where we encountered that smell. And this is probably the secret to the power behind smells in literature: that smells are so inextricably linked to memory. Storytellers are always looking for their audiences to become empathetic with their characters. And, in remembering a smell, we ask our audience to open up and examine their own memories, memories which may have many similarities with the situation our character is now facing. This tightens our audience’s empathy for our character.

A character enters a kitchen, and we read about all the sweet and salty and fresh and greasy smells that are overflowing through that kitchen. Smells of honey, fried eggs, hot bread, and bacon. We remember a similar situation in our lives, thanks to the powerful smells that the story has described, and we immediately feel much more projected to that character. We become much more empathetic to him, because we understand his situation so much better.

We are always asking the audience to imagine how a certain situation might be like. And though imagining is beautiful, when the situation is strange or odd, or when the situation is something the audience has never experienced before, imagination may require hard work. The audience might even have experienced a similar situation as our character, but when nothing links our character’s current situation and the audience’s past, the audience is forced to do imagine without any context. How many times have we stared blankly at the page of a book because we don’t understand how a character is really feeling? We surrender and plunge forward through the words, hoping the tumble onto a paragraph that we can emotionally understand.

This state of affairs not desirable: done excessively, it may distance our audience from our characters’, and out story.

Thanks to the powerful link of smell, however, we can sometimes relief of that burden, and strengthen the empathy between the audience and our characters by having the audience bring up memories similar to our character’s situation.

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In To Leave, one of the things we are trying out is to use smells to give more character to the setting in the game, and to provide to the player an easier way to project himself onto the world we are creating.

How does the Pyre smell like? How does Harm room smell like? What are the best words to portray this to the player?

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The results might be a disaster of course: describing a smell means you have to add more text to the story, something that’s always controversial in game design. So far, though, our initial sketches and drafts are promising.

It’s always been a personal dream of mine to borrow from literature, rather than from Hollywood, for effective, nourishing, enriching game design. I’m always trying to ask myself, how can my game feel more like a book? What parts of the reading experience might be boring for players? What parts of the reading experience might make this game something unique and beautiful for them?

I believe that the written word, the word that is read (not heard through voice acting), has the power of asking the player to put in part of his imagination. That way, the visual and auditive medium that is the game is only a part of a whole. When the player reads the words you write, there’s a part of the experience you can’t handle, and this is beautiful, because the player is filling those words with vivid images and smells and sounds and memories of his own. In his head, he’s experiencing something much more complete than what you have provided through your game, your sounds, your words.

When Harm touches something, through words I can tell the player how that felt. Through the use of a sound-effect I can reinforce the vibrancy and vividness of that sensation. If Harm hugs someone, I can tell you how warm it was. If Harm didn’t have the courage to hug someone, I can also tell you, specifically, how lonely or relieving that was for him. But you will make the experience your own your the meaning you attach to those words.

I’ll be writing more about the use of words in the context of game design, and the ways I personally try to seam together the multimedia experience of the game with the imaginary experience that the player creates out of the words we provide for him.

2 comments

  • Yatto

    Well if you can write as well in a game as you wrote in this article, I would totally love to smell what you let me read. A famous French poet (Charles Baudelaire) used this link between words and mixing up senses. The “mixing up senses” part is called synaesthesia, and this is how you can let the player feel a touch with a sound, or a smell with a picture. So saying that your game is made with poetry is technically right !

    • Estefano Palacios

      Yatto your comment has literally made my day! And I’ll definitely look into Charles Baudelaire’s style, and study his techniques for weaving senses out of words. Much of my writing skill and my literature knowledge is self taught, so I appreciate this new direction for me! Thanks!

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