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I smelled the world of Dragon’s Dogma 2 and it was putrid

The GameScent sits in front of a TV playing Dragon's Dogma 2.
Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

It was a romantic Saturday evening when I told my partner the seven words every girl wants to hear: “Are you ready to test the GameScent?”

Look, writing about video games for a living comes with some inherent embarrassment. Sometimes it means testing a game like the salacious Stellar Blade and having to assure loved ones that I’m not, in fact, watching porn on the clock. Other times, it means getting some obtrusive piece of tech to review that just lives with you for a while, like my now-defunct iiRcade cabinet that looms in my living room. But nothing has quite caused me the same degree of existential dread that I felt testing the truly foul GameScent.

If you missed its viral moment in February, the GameScent is a bizarre new product that lets players smell their games. After hooking it up to any gaming device, it uses AI to analyze a game’s audio and release one of six scents to match what’s happening on screen. It’s the kind of tech experiment that you know is a bad idea the second you hear the elevator pitch, but you feel compelled to try. It’s like when a friend asks you to “come in here and smell this!” You always oblige.

Despite my trepidation, my curiosity got the better of me, and I assigned myself the unglamorous task of testing the glorified atomizer. I thought it might be the perfect companion for a game like Dragon’s Dogma 2. One rancid play session and a splitting headache later, I now live in fear of the black hexagon haunting my apartment.

The return of Smell-o-vision

My ill-fated journey began when I was invited to test the GameScent in person and chat with the creators behind it. I stepped into a large hotel suite and sat down on a couch. A black box appeared on the table before me, with glowing blue lights on its side and six chambers on its top lid. It’s a little ominous at first sight; not quite evil, but unnerving in the way that 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolith is.

I was ready to smell the future.

The actual demonstration was short. The creators fired up Far Cry 6 and began running around. It wasn’t long before a puff of mist appeared from one chamber. They asked me what it smelled like. “Is that the ocean?” I answered politely, hiding the fact that all I could smell was Axe body spray. They looked a little puzzled by the response and corrected me accordingly, saying that it was actually “forest” I was smelling. I nodded along as if that made perfect sense, all the while sneaking in some subtle sniffs to try and figure out what part of that scent even remotely resembled a forest.

Here’s how the GameScent works. Each chamber has a liquid vial in it containing a different scent. Each of those scents is mapped to a different soundscape or effect. The device uses AI to listen for certain audio cues in the game that match a loaded scent and then automatically releases it when it detects one. When the demoists got into a firefight, a whiff of “gunfire” filled the room. This also smelled like Axe body spray but with a smokier palette.

While the demo leaves me a little confused, it’s short enough that I can see the appeal of a device like this, as weird as it is on paper. The creators behind it make a convincing case for the tech when I speak with them, talking about how video games tap into every human sense except smell. This could be the tool that fills that gap. It makes perfect sense in some way, especially as the rise of haptic feedback has made gaming a much more tactile experience. Why not go for the nose next?

Cartridges appear inside of a GameScent.
Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

As we chat, I bring up failed experiments like this from entertainment’s past and question why now will be different. I bring up Smell-o-vision, one of cinema’s many attempts at adding scent to movies. Another convincing argument arises. One member of the team notes that Smell-o-vision was actually quite popular with audiences at the time. Its downfall wasn’t due to public interest but to theaters themselves not wanting to pay to operate the expensive gimmick. GameScent’s more cost-effective $180 price tag seemed more practical on paper.

It’s that surprisingly insightful chat that convinces me to request a review unit and test it out myself. Maybe this was the work of mad scientists who were on to something. Perhaps the GameScent really would add a level of immersion that could take my play sessions to the next level. I was ready to smell the future.

It was a moment of blind hubris that will hang over me like the lingering scent of pizza that’s so hard to scrub out.

What does Dragon’s Dogma smell like?

My GameScent arrived at my apartment while I was away for a week at this year’s Game Developers Conference. The moment I arrived home to a girlfriend who had been patiently awaiting my return, I excitedly pointed at it. “Do you know what that is!?” I said before cracking open the box and revealing the GameScent.

“Oh God,” she said.

Over the next week, I’d threaten to break out the GameScent for us to test. My initial pitch was to hook it up to the TV and turn it on while we do our Thursday ritual: Watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The GameScent works with any kind of audio stream, so you could technically use it to smell the New York Streets of SVU. We ultimately decided not to disrespect Mariska Hargitay like that and put it away for another night. My second rejected pitch was that we watch The Passion of the Christ on Easter Sunday with the GameScent. This idea wasn’t outright rejected, but I could sense the hostility in the room.

A tuft of mist puffed from the GameScent, like white smoke rising to announce the selection of a new pope.

I put aside the idea of doing a high-concept bit and instead use the GameScent as it was intended. I finally began Dragon’s Dogma 2 and used the device as my sidekick. The setup process is a little complicated, as the GameScent comes with an app that includes some lacking instructions on how to get it all working. To ensure that I had connected it right, I opened YouTube and put on a 10-hour-long video of machine gunfire. I let it play for a good minute or two as I worked to troubleshoot it. My girlfriend stared daggers at me from the couch.

Suddenly, a tuft of mist puffed from the GameScent, like white smoke rising to announce the selection of a new pope. There was a moment of anticipation, as it takes a second for the smells to filter through the room. Then, the smell drifted over to me. I took a whiff, and my eyes widened. My girlfriend, sitting a little further away from the device, had the same reaction seconds later.

Jesus Christ.

Gunfire is, as you might expect, not a pretty smell. Thankfully, Dragon’s Dogma 2 is more of a medieval fantasy RPG with no pistols to speak of. We’d mostly be dealing with environmental scents like “forest” and “storm,” which seemed much more pleasant. Or so we thought. As the title screen popped up to some blaring orchestral music, a scent puffed out of the box. It was putrid, smelling faintly of ashes and, you guessed it, Axe body spray. By looking at the app, I deduced that the AI had interpreted the menu screen’s epic sound as “explosion” and let off a fiery smell. It was only the beginning.

A GameScent omits a smell.
Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

What I quickly learned is that testing the GameScent in a very large, open hotel suite is very different from testing it in a small New York City apartment. What was faint during my first test was now all-consuming. While I’ve painted my girlfriend as an unwitting participant in all this so far, it’s important to note that she was entirely in on the bit initially. She was all in on the absurdity of the device and seemed excited to test it together and laugh as a couple. I watched the light leave her eyes as the reality of the situation wafted over her.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind. As I began exploring, scents began popping out seemingly at random. I had no idea what was triggering them. Presumably, the sounds of birds must have indicated I was in a forest, but nothing we were smelling really matched up with anything we were seeing. As I recognized that things were quickly getting out of hand, I rushed to open the app and press a button to unleash a “clean air” scent meant to mask any released odors. It’s Febreze, essentially. The moment after the smell released into the air, another chamber fired off in my face as I hung over it. It was “explosion” again despite no such thing happening in-game.

The GameScent had waged war against me.

The aftermath

It wasn’t long before I had to pull the plug on the experiment. My girlfriend, who had pushed herself as deep into the couch corner as she could, noted that she was experiencing a splitting headache. That was the hard line. I quickly unplugged it all and moved the device to my kitchen to get it out of the room. We cracked a window on a 45-degree night and left it open until the room aired out. We had survived the hexagon’s wrath — but that was only the beginning.

Even when the GameScent is powered off, its dark presence doesn’t truly go away. Due to how strong its included scents are, it always emanates a faint odor even when it’s sitting stagnant. When I walked into the kitchen to cook some green beans for an Easter potluck the next morning, I was greeted by a subtle scent that had taken over the space like an invasive species. When we arrived home after the potluck and opened the front door, the smell greeted us.

It was no longer our apartment. The GameScent had taken control.

A bottle Explosion scent sits on a table.
Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

The device’s ominous black design hits differently in this context. As I write this, I can turn back and see the box sitting on the kitchen table. It peeks out from behind a vase of roses, watching me as I write. It knows that I will need to turn it on to take the photos you’re seeing in this article right now. I had opened Pandora’s box, and I would pay for my sins.

Yes, I am being a bit melodramatic here. Put all the existential dread aside and the reality is that the GameScent is nothing more sinister than a fancy atomizer with a fun gimmick. With some more pleasant scents loaded into it, it might actually function as a cute gaming peripheral. The issue with its current implementation comes more down to the kinds of smells that the company behind it is initially focused on, as “racing cars” and “gunfire” are just plain stinky starting points. The creators seem genuinely committed to creating tons of new scents and perhaps even selling packs aimed at specific genres. I could see the value in an Animal Crossing pack that includes the smell of rivers and flowers.

Instead, the GameScent feels like a much rougher product in its infancy. It’s a rough prototype that comes with a console-connecting adapter that needs a bit more work. That leaves it feeling like a very expensive gag gift. It’s the kind of thing you’d buy for $30 at Walmart and drop into your family’s Yankee Swap on Christmas Eve. You’d gather grandma and all the young kids around the TV and watch in delight as their faces twist in disgust. It would sit under the tree for a few days before getting packed into a box and placed in the attic like a haunted Ouija board.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this harrowing experience, it’s that I have a very supportive girlfriend. Her eagerness to join me on the frontlines gave our relationship a good war story that I’m sure we’ll constantly bring up and laugh about. The GameScent may have won the battle, but I believe we won the war.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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