Our house is desperate for a new video game to play to distract us from the pain of not yet owning a Nintendo Switch and adventuring in Hyrule. So, on a recent Amazon search for Resident Evil 7, me and Adam came across a £14.99 Resident Evil Official 4D Candle, recommended for use whilst playing the game in virtual reality to add to the immersion. The metal tin features the proclamation that it is ‘the scent of horror, fear and adrenaline’ with a burn time of 25 hours – so it would certainly last an entire playthrough of the game. We scoffed a little (mostly at the price) since it seems like another merchandising cash-in, but it got me thinking about multisensory marketing in video games. Products like these may appear like cash-ins or silly novelties but they could have important implications, not only for individual video games like Resident Evil 7 (VR or not) but for the industry and multisensory marketing as a whole. This blog post will whizz through a few of the thoughts I’ve had as a result of encountering a candle I’ve never actually sniffed for a game I’ve yet to play.
This kind of thing is not a novel phenomenon in marketing, although part of the attraction for this product is certainly novelty. Multisensoriality attempts to “engage as many senses as possible in its drive for product differentiation and the distraction/seduction of the consumer” (Howes, 2004: 288). In an ocularcentric world wherein a huge part of our media entertainment is audio-visual, engaging the other senses sets a product apart. Games are frequently referred to as immersive in reviews, pointing towards impressive visuals and sound design. There’s also the haptic feedback through controllers, rumbling in hand when shooting a gun or driving over rocky terrain. This feature has been picked up by game designers and used in intriguing ways: to imitate your player character’s heartbeat, as a cue for crime scene clues in the close-to-my-heart LA Noire, or in the unforgettable moment of Metal Gear Solid when Psycho Mantis makes your controller move with his mind.
Beyond games, engagement with multiple senses can take a product beyond just its name and packaging; the aim is for a brand or product to have a ‘feel’ to encourage consumption. Lindstrom states that “success lies in mastering a true sensory synergy” and provides examples of Kellogg’s cereals’ trademark(ed) crunch, Singapore Airlines’ signature scent, and Crayone’s patented crayon smell as successful sensory brandings (2005: 85). It seems odd to think about a collection of olfactory molecules as trademarked or patented, but more and more marketers are aiming for a multisensory, synaesthetic experience in their products. There are many arguments for why this might be. Some say that we’re so distracted and overwhelmed with audio-visual stimuli that products have to aim beyond that to have an impact. Others argue that synaesthetic experiences are more memorable, so multisensoriality might make for greater brand loyalty.
Multisensory engagement goes beyond particular products on shelves, however. Spaces have become engineered to possess particular sensory characteristics which are formulated in this way to be part of the ‘experience economy’: theme parks, themed restaurant experiences (such as the Rainforest Café, the Hard Rock Cafe, and Planet Hollywood), multiplex cinemas, and so on. Pine and Gilmore first described this as consumption going beyond the buying of commodities; the experience becomes the commodity (1998). They stated that people who bought into this experience should be engaged through all five senses. The best example of this is Disneyland’s carefully controlled sensory environment: sights, the music, smells, tastes, feelings, textures, etc. It is not sensorial madness but a carefully planned and managed performance wherein visitors encounter “sensory information designed to lift the burdens of modern life” (Mack, 2014: 77).
Disneyland stands in fantastic contrast to the sensory environment created by Resident Evil 7 and the Resident Evil Official 4D Candle: the aim is not childlike wonder, sweet smelling safety and Mickey Mouse approved cleanliness but a bloody, sweat-inducing panic as you creep around the horrors of the Baker House Mansion, inhaling the smell of what Amazon reviewers have described as ‘rotten flower’, ‘old people perfume’, and ‘wood fires, spice and a touch of iron’. It might not be exactly what people consider as the smell of ‘horror, fear and adrenaline’ right now, but maybe after playing that combination of scent might become that smell for the player.
Personally, I am terrible at horror games because I get very scared and unable to move my thumbs. Even when watching Adam play I have to divert my attention to something else or slowly edge away from the screen as the dread grows (I unknowingly moved two metres backwards every time we played The Last of Us on any given evening). I can’t imagine what it would be like to engage in a horror VR game without my stomach churning, but for some people that inescapable environment is an exciting draw to that kind of title. And it could be distracting if all you could smell whilst you fought Daddy Baker in a meat locker was the scent of your home, or your dog, or a Febreze Candle Odour Eliminating Vanilla Blossom. No, what you need is the Resident Evil Official 4D Candle. Adding this olfactory element to VR is a smart merchandising move even if it is a cash-in.
It intrigues me to think about where this kind of addition to the sensory environment of games could go. Talking about this kind of thing evokes thoughts of poor old Smell-O-Vision and scent strips that come with a game to be sniffed during cut scenes – not very revolutionary. But with the developments of strange air freshener plug-ins that I don’t quite understand the technicity of, surely there’s potential for olfactory elements to go somewhere. It might always be a background, an immersive tool, an atmospheric addition (I’m thinking a responsive scent-releaser that responds to events as you play, like an audio cue but with puffs of scent) rather than a function of the actual game, but that’s still interesting. I picture riding Roach around in the world of The Witcher, with different regions having different scents associated with them.
When we finally get around to playing Resident Evil 7, will we buy the candle? Probably not, because it’s pretty expensive. Plus, I’ll most likely be hiding behind a cushion or embroidering to distract myself from being absorbed in a terrifying horror house, so nose-induced immersion? Nope. Not for me.
Howes, 2004. ‘Hyperesethesia, or, The Sensual Logic of Late Capitalism’ in Howes, D. (ed) Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader.
Lindstrom, 2005. ‘Broad Sensory Branding’ in Journal of Product & Brand Management 14 (2).
Mack, 2014. ‘The Senses in the Marketplace: Commercial Aesthetics for a Suburban Age’ in Howes, D. (ed) A Cultural History of the Senses in the Modern Age.
Pine and Gilmore, 1998. ‘Welcome to the Experience Economy’ in Harvard Business Review 76 (4).
Note: this isn’t an ad or endorsement of this candle, but check out the Amazon Customer Questions & Answers for this candle if you want a small chuckle here.