How does one introduce an audience to the concept of the author trying to smell a videogame? Where is the magical confluence of ideas and language that will make that concept relatable to those who haven’t ever considered it before? I’ve been sitting in my workspace for hours trying to find it—my workspace which currently smells like a 50/50 blend of “Blooming Prairie” and “Field of Battle.” Maybe I should just start at the beginning.
This past weekend, I tried to smell The Witcher 3. This was something I had been considering in earnest for a year and a half, though I rarely talked about it with others. It’s difficult to tell most people that you’re curious about smelling your games, their locations, possibly even their characters without earning a soft pause in the conversation, a lightly canted head, and the most supremely diplomatic “Oh… Yeah?” you’ll ever hear in your life. For as much as we revere immersion in gaming there’s ostensibly a boundary to be guarded between the real and the virtual, a boundary even ardent fans of the medium are occasionally uncomfortable crossing.
In other words: It’s weird. I know it’s weird. I’m at peace with the weirdness.
The idea initially came to me while I was playing a fantasy RPG that I was already absurdly fond of. I wondered if I could manipulate my own fondness by adding scent into the equation, since smell can be such an incredibly powerful trigger for our memory. For instance, every now and then I catch a whiff of something vaguely smoky that I can’t quite place and it immediately draws me back to laying on the living room floor on Christmas morning in the late ‘90s, leafing through a coloring book and listening to the Sailor Moon soundtrack. The scent of musty basements steeps me in the memory of sitting in my grandmother’s lap in her rocking recliner, listening to her unsteady voice meander through “Waltzing Matilda.” Maybe there’s something cheap about trying to harness that same sentimental reflex for the sake of a game, but… I mean, look, what’s the fun of being curious if you aren’t occasionally curious about ridiculous things? Some engineer out there is working on the next hoverboard or Otomatone, and me? I’m here smelling videogames so you don’t have to. Not all heroes wear capes, I’m just saying.
Anyway, that’s how this started. That was the little seed I had written down in a notebook so I would remember to actually try it someday, but then never got around to doing until a company coincidentally reached out. When Adventure Scents contacted me about reviewing some of their products—a line of scent beads intended to enhance the experience of playing games, watching movies, and even cosplaying rather than just freshening up your sock drawer—it seemed like kismet. It also seemed like a wonderful excuse to try and make more progress in The Witcher 3 in the wake of its latest expansion. With that in mind, I asked Adventure Scents what they would recommend for playing The Witcher 3, and they sent me a set of eight scent packs to cover the experience: Alchemist’s Lab, Blooming Prairie, Enchanted Forest, Field of Battle, Horse Stables, Moldy Crypt, Sandy Beach and Vampire’s Lair.
Before we go any further, yes, Horse Stables smells almost exactly like you think it does.
As I mentioned, I’d put a lot of forethought into this idea before I even realized there was a company out there catering to it, so when my scents arrived I knew exactly what I was going to do with them. I put each one into a plastic container with a lid, labeling them so that I could swap scents out on the fly as Geralt and Roach ran across the countryside from point to point far easier than I could have with the little baggies they came in. I then loaded my save and cracked open the little container of Enchanted Forest, taking a deep breath and beginning to play. Unfortunately, unless I bent over to take a huff of the little jar sitting on my desk I couldn’t really pick the scent out at all. It was just too small, with too little product in it. User error, no matter how clever I thought I was being.
I went downstairs and grabbed a couple of glass ramekins instead, emptying the contents of the Field of Battle pouch into one and Blooming Prairie into the other. Geralt does do a lot of killing in the game’s numerous blooming prairies, so this seemed like a sound way to maximize my scent experience. I set both ramekins on my monitor stand and kept playing… But I was only catching a whiff whenever my fan turned towards them. Let no one say I was not committed to making this work, because a moment later I had propped my fan up on a box, set the scents in front of it, and was finally basking in the scent of a battle prairie.
But the scenery has a habit of changing rapidly in The Witcher 3, and no more than five minutes later I’d been led to the coast. So I dumped the prairie scent beads back into their pouch, replaced them with Sandy Beach and kept playing. Soon enough I was in the woods and I had to repeat the process, stowing one scent to sub in another. Then I lead Geralt to the Bloody Baron’s hilltop village and found myself at an impasse. Lacking a Miserable Settlement or Disgruntled Blacksmith scent I went with Horse Stables and carried on.
And this is where I met my first true flaw, more a flaw in my own vision of how this should work than a flaw in the products themselves. (We’ll get to those too, but let me own up to my own foolishness first.) It turns out there are few things less immersive than pausing your game every few minutes to switch out the contents of your smelling bowls. It’s much more practical to instead pick a scent or two to leave out to more abstractly represent the experience, and in that sense I can absolutely see how these might be a welcome enhancement for tabletop gaming groups. Lesson learned, I went back to my dishes of Field of Battle and Blooming Prairie and decided to only switch them out every hour or so depending on what I was doing at the time, and in doing this I eventually spent time with each of the scents I’d been sent.
It has to be said that each one smelled reasonably good. Even Moldy Crypt has its charms, kind of like a spicier version of Vicks Vapo-Rub, if that’s your thing. I didn’t need these to smell good, though. For me, that isn’t meant to be the selling point. All of the Adventure Scents I tried out smelled far better than I think anything in The Witcher’s world would—and no, I’m not just talking about the stables. There was a perfumish quality to every pack, as if you could go to a fancy candle shop at the mall near Halloween and pick up a triple-wick Vampire’s Lair candle (while Enchanted Forest would naturally be there year-round.) I may not be able to vouch for how authentic Moldy Crypt is, but when Geralt is standing on a beach carving up drowners and retrieving treasure I want to smell the salt spray and the inlet-choking water weeds washed up on the sand and starting to rot. I want to smell that bitter brininess and not a relatively pleasant and vaguely floral votive candle version of it. If I have a scent with the word “forest” on the label, I want to smell the trees.
But then again maybe a degree of olfactory impressionism does make sense. While the actual smell of rotting flesh might “enhance” your gaming experience, you probably wouldn’t want to let that waft around you in a room for any length of time. I mean if nothing else it’ll worry the neighbors. That’s doubly true if you’re running a tabletop game or using the scent to enhance a costume as the Adventure Scents website suggests. More to the point, when someone is making a product meant to replicate or at least invoke fantastical, fictional worlds that don’t exist sometimes they’re going to have to get imaginative with the composition of their products. Yet there are lots of natural and realistic scents that aren’t unpleasant and don’t necessarily need that kind of re-interpretation. Among the samples I received it seemed like the least pleasant smells were the most realistic ones, while the ones with naturally pleasing analogues were the most unnecessarily perfume-like.
Much of this comes down to taste, but the more I played the more I found myself longing for scents that I didn’t have, or that someone selecting for me might not have prioritized when they played in the way that I do. More than anything else I found myself wanting the smell of the rain, or the popping cedars, wood stoves filled with bread, taverns filled with drunks, any number of things that would have been available to me if I’d taken the time to figure out what experiences in the game I wanted to intensify and prioritize over others. For some The Witcher 3 is just about fighting monsters and slipping into long-forgotten caves and tombs. For me it’s about riding a horse on rain-soaked paths and stopping to rescue the occasional peasant in distress, or play a hand of cards. I can only speak for the packs I tried so it’s possible there are others in the Adventure Scents portfolio that might have suited my play style more, but overall it didn’t quite feel like I was getting what I wanted out of the experience.
I wouldn’t steer anyone curious about ways to enhance their gaming away from Adventure Scents, but my recommendation would certainly come with caveats and lessons learned.
First of all, be practical. Switching out your little scent containers every five minutes when you get to a new area is not practical. Pick a scent or two you’re willing to leave out for a bit to set the tone of your session, or maybe whip them out when something big and special is about to happen to heighten the moment. Second, temper your expectations. If you’re after hyper-realistic scents then there are likely other places out there to consider, but if you don’t mind something with a bit of an interpretive flourish that you could still totally get away with scattering in your sock drawer, then you’re all set. Third, figure out exactly what parts of the experience are important to you, and choose your scents based on that. Two people can enjoy the same experience for entirely different reasons, and you’re just not going to get the most out it if you ignore your own tastes. Finally, if you want to really fill a room with any of these you’re going to need either a good fan or more than just one little bag’s worth.
So you might be wondering, has my curiosity (my weird, weird curiosity) been satisfied? I’m honestly not sure. I’ve come away from this with a better understanding of the limits of the idea, but I’m not completely discouraged, either. Maybe I didn’t get to smell The Witcher 3 exactly the way I’d hoped to this time, but who knows what the future holds, right? The Game Skunk could catch on yet.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.