Progress Update: Cave Research
For those of you following along, a good deal of progress in the game has been made between this semester and last, in terms of theoretical mechanics, visual aesthetic, research, music, and of course narrative development.
Given that this blog has been my primary storage cache for research into PTSD, I will not be summarizing that here (though feel free to peruse the research blogs that can be found on the sidebar to the left if interested). That was not the only research I have completed however.
Last summer I began doing physical research into caves, not only in their makeup, textures and composition but particularly into the physical experience of being in a cave.
As a part of this effort I contacted the Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine, in conjunction with the CT Department of Economic and Community Development in order to head 75 feet below ground and record my experiences first hand.
My first experience walking into the depths of New-gate's subterranean prison was honestly shock. I don't really know what I had been expecting: Manacles on carved out wall--cages perhaps? What I had not been expecting to find was a naturalistic looking cave system held up by a plethora of metal and wooden beams. I had also not been expecting everything to feel as wet as it did.
The mine, which operated as Connecticut's earliest state penal system doesn't feel like a prison; if feels like a tomb. I was welcomed by the staff at New-Gate before normal visiting hours and was given the opportunity to have a personal guided tour, pointing out the various areas of the prison complex: the main holding area, the solitary confinement "cell" and the various tunnels that circled around and eventually led up to various outbuildings through massive ladders or staircases. I remember viscerally being told to wave hello to a caved in area of the cave where the bodies of several miners remain buried as unrecoverable remnants of the mine's early history.
The stark history, while different from the narrative content of my game, which takes place in a natural cave shaft rather than a mine/prison complex, brought an air of solemnity to my work. There is something indescribably visceral about taking in the tactile elements of a space knowing the deliberate human suffering that once happened there.
The focus of my time in the caves was spent taking in the environment through each of my senses, searching for stimulus I may not have anticipated or that were different from my assumptions when conceptualizing my game.
I remember being very surprised to discover that I had an inordinately difficult time leveling myself out. Due to the uneven flooring and slanted ceilings, it is extremely hard to tell which way is up. The canted angles, none of which ever quite match, give off the feeling of being off kilter. Yet I also noticed this was a bigger problem when the caves were fully lit. Because I was coming to the museum as a graduate researcher, I was allowed to experience the caves in total darkness and even try to navigate the area (with a guide of course) using only the flashlight on my phone.
The thing that surprised me the most was just how little light my phones flashlight really let off before disappearance into a black void. Between trying to hold the phone with one hand and slide along the silty, wet surfaces below and above me, moving around was difficult and almost puzzle like. Often times I had to run one hand along the ceiling so as not to bump my head. Even so I still managed to bang my head a few times when my depth perception, in the low light, failed me.
I was always unsettled to find shapes looking out at me from the darkness. The tunnel walls, which could become covered in lichen, often created patterns in the corner of my eye that would matrix into forms. TL:DR, a cave is visually disorienting.
Surprisingly, the cave system held a diverse audioscape. While I heard nothing living down in the caves, there was a constant dripping of water that echoed (or didn't) depending largely on the tamber of the environment. Some spots, such as solitary confinement had a resonant quality to it which would have sounded amazing for chamber singing. Other areas dampened all sound completely and added an unexpected stifling affect. It was this sound, or lack thereof, which gave off the biggest impression of the cave as a tomb. Almost more unnerving however, were the occational clattering of rocks or subtle sounds of shifting rock from deep within the restricted areas of the cave. The idea that somewhere in this cavern the earth could be shifting put me on edge in a way I had not expected. It wasn't so much that I was feeling claustrophobic, but the anticipation of tunnel collapse. Despite knowing that the State of Connecticut would not let visitors down into a cave system like this unless it was deemed safe, I could never quite shake the paranoid feeling that something would go catastrophically wrong.
Of all my experiences in the caves, I feel my most valuable one had to do with the experience of existing in such an environment. While we can all hear and see auditory and visual elements of caves from television and films, the experience of feeling other stimuli is not reproducible but normal media alone - and these are the stimuli I want to reproduce most through VR.
The whole environment was extremely wet. Everything you touch in the cave is covered in a slick layer of water, and even walking around can prove more complicated if your shoes are not safe enough. The walls are wet. the ceiling is wet. The air: wet. Water drips continuously around and on you.
And it feels like someone tapping you on the shoulder.
Feeling touched and finding no one there is not a comfortable feeling. Even when you know its just water dripping from the ceiling. Its also not something you get used to immediately either. The whole context builds on itself, and the feelings of paranoia get heightened with each unsettling element.
While I do not plan on dousing my audience in water for a 4D experience (I don't believe even the Oculus 2 is currently waterproof), I would like to find a way to simulate the feeling of being tapped on the shoulder some other way, through either haptics, sounds cues or some other medium that begs the player to turn around and ask themselves: "Am I truly alone here?"