Eden was an olfactory virtual reality project developed by the Champlain Emergent Media Center in conjunction with two local Burlington Vermont business partners.
The Champlain EMC was approached by an investor who had one goal: To explore the possibility of incorporating scent into a virtual reality experience. Our partners would take care of developing the scents themselves and the headset peripheral, collaborating with the EMC, while my game development team was in charge of creating the actual experience.
In terms of what the experience would be, our student team was given pretty much free reign in deciding the best format to answer this question. In the preproduction phase, we had several game concepts, some which we almost went forward with, but eventually we narrowed it down to one idea: A hyper-realistic, immersive environment with two distinctly different feeling and smelling areas, and an impactful transition between the two which would have a profound effect on the player.
Through research and discussions with our partner, the team learned a lot about the science of smell. We learned that smell is one of the most powerful human senses, but people tend to stop noticing “ambient” smells once they’ve been around for awhile. This is why we based the entire concept of Eden around the the idea of this transition: We hoped it would illustrate just how powerful of a tool smell could be when trying to create a highly immersive virtual reality environment.
The project started as more of just an experiment when we only had about a month to work during the school semester, but once our production period was extended to the end of summer, the project increased in scope dramatically. The original two areas, a dirty, rainy alley and a sleek, upscale bar expanded to include two new areas: The VIP room and the secret “Employee Only” zone. This change went hand in hand with the integration of the narrative, which was the biggest design addition we began once our deadline was extended.
To add to the immersiveness of the world, we wanted to give more context. Who is the player? Why is the player here? What happened here? Through many collaborative brainstorming and planning sessions, we came up with a narrative which we thought would be compelling and would make the world feel more real.
At the beginning of the game, the player hears a door slam and a cab drive off, and a voicemail from a mysterious woman plays:
“Hello. The time has come, my darling, for the ritual to take place. Arrive at 3AM tonight - you have received the location. Do not forget your offerings - your Earthly wealth - and we shall purify together. Do not be late, my darling, we will start with or without you, and I promise you - you won’t want to miss this. Love, Aditi.”
At the end of the message, color fades into the world and the player can move. With nowhere to go but forwards, the player must venture through the seemingly deserted bar, solving light puzzles and discovering environmental clues along the way. If they pay close attention, they may discover the true identity of Lady Aditi and the truth about what happened in Eden.
Aside from the intro, there is almost no dialogue in the game. The story is told entirely through narrative artifacts and environmental clues. Each “zone” is meant to tell a different segment of the story, with different types of information, different feel, and different smells. Every zone has one distinct ambient smell, and objects inside with their own specific proximity-based smells. Some of the smells appear multiple times in the game, with the intent that the player will make mental connections between places and things.
All in all, the whole team is very proud of the final product that was Eden. Working on Eden was an incredibly unique and valuable experience. As my first professional VR project, I learned all about the intricacies of developing VR mechanics, and how to create interactions that feel natural and don’t break immersion. I also learned how to design a space which feels real, but also naturally guides the player, even though they have the freedom to move anywhere in VR. I learned how to tell a story which can be intriguing to a variety of types of players with different playstyles and levels of engagement. And of course, I got to be one of the first game developers to dive headfirst into the emergent technology that is olfactory VR integration, and pave the way for smell-based design.