What makes a great sounding game?

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That well known phenomena we as sound designers experience, if the game sounds great nobody bats an eyelid. If the game has any audio issues at all they are quickly picked up on in reviews and on forums. And so the most obvious question to ask is what makes a great sounding game? I put this to Alyx Jones, a recent graduate of the University of Surry. “It might sound a bit pretentious…” she begins, “…but I think the best sounding games are those with something a bit different or memorable about the music”. Alyx believes games that allow for more experimentation are much easier to write music for and therefore lead to better sound design. She also stresses the importance of silence adding “I think it’s really important to know when not to put music or sound in places, Limbo is a really good example of this”.

After graduating with a very respectable 2:1 honours degree in Creative Music Technology Alyx had wasted no time in diving into this fast moving, often cut throat industry. The caveat being however that she was to do things her way and work on small scale indie developments, and so Silver Box Games was born. Not content with working on one project Alyx also began working on her own Oculus Rift project titled Wanderift. Why games development though? Surely for somebody primarily interested in composition she would have an easier time working in TV or film? “…film and TV is a very static experience” she states. Alyx elaborates by explaining how within a linear experience there is only one story to tell, and that’s done by the director. A game on the other hand is shaped by the player. I ask Alyx why a non-linear approach particularly appealing to her. She responds by informing me that:

“…it gives total immersion and I suppose an escape in so many aspects that watching a film doesn’t provide. To be able to create your own character and shape your own story and environment is so much more exciting than sitting and watching the latest episode of Eastenders.”

Growing up Alyx’s Gameboy never left her sight and playing games quickly became her favourite means of entertainment. With her love of music and technology the games industry seemed like the obvious choice. Alyx finds far more possibilities to experiment with audio in the world of games rather than film or TV, after all she states “technology is always changing and improving so the ability to constantly adapt and learn new things is a fantastic process to constantly be involved with.” But I digress, why was I asking Alyx about great sounding games in the first place?

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As it transpires she’s also a freelance editor over at The Sound Architect, an online audio resource for professionals and enthusiasts alike. Since early 2015 Alyx has been critiquing a range of smaller scale games including PSN releases such as Rain, Sound Shapes and the recently released Volume. With Limbo in mind I asked Alyx to give a little insight into what it is about the sound design in that game that is particularly appealing to her.

“Well, Limbo is quite a dark game and I think the music and sound design create that intense atmosphere so perfectly. The composer used a lot of analogue equipment to reflect the distant, bleak imagery of the game. It’s used sparingly in places, sometimes you can be walking and the only sound is your footsteps. I find the whole soundtrack quite experimental and creative, it’s mostly drones and he doesn’t use any real rhythms but I always remember how I felt playing that game.”

Sonically, another stand out game for Alyx is Proteus, an indie game in which the landscapes are procedurally generated giving different objects in the world their own unique sounds. Alyx remarks that “the audio is procedurally generated so if the sound were separated from the game it wouldn’t exist”. I thought this was an interesting choice as in some ways Proteus takes some of the sound design, or at least the presentation of the audio away from the sound designer and into the hands of the player. I posed this to Alyx who suggested “…if you have a soundtrack that’s just generic it’s not quite going to fit. How can you write music for a different environment every time? There are so many possibilities, it would be very time consuming!” So does this mean Proteus wouldn’t have worked as well with a standard approach to its sound design? Alyx doesn’t necessarily think the approach was better, but rather “more interesting” leading to “a different kind of experience”. This kind of process could lead to some interesting situations though; could the audio turn into a disaster if the procedurally generated landscape was a mess? “Well yes it could be considered “a mess” by the average listener”, Alyx remarks. I asked her to elaborate on this, she added:

“There are multiple approaches from a completely random selection of notes, chords, effects etc to a very structured system that might utilize music theory that would tailor more to a “western” listening audience. A totally random approach could use any pitch (not even adhering to western tuning), any velocity, any rhythm and note durations (the list goes on) so it is likely to not sound “pleasant”. It’s likely that a random approach wouldn’t be used commonly in games unless they were particularly experimental. Most composers have their own recognizable sound, the same as they aim to give particular games trademark sounds, so it’s perhaps a better approach to find a generative system that you can set certain rules that would give the game its own consistent sound (probably more likely in the case of Proteus).”

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Having an understanding of how sound travels and interacts with its environment is also very useful. Take for example a racing game. Real world phenomena such as occlusion, reverb and Doppler can all be made use of to improve the sound design and make for a more immersive experience whether in a realistic game or a fantasy setting. How can you achieve an authentic sounding racing experience if sound is not reflected off walls or other cars as it would be in real life? This may seem like a subtle technique but it breathes life and subtle cues into the game world. When another car passes by how can you achieve a sense of realism and more importantly speed without Doppler? Wouldn’t you also expect a car’s engine sound to be occluded when it disappears behind a mountain?

So we’ve established that some boundaries have to be put in place to ensure a pleasant audible experience is achieved. So what would an audio designer have to take into account when designing such a pallet of sounds and how do they ensure that these elements work well together? I proposed this to Alyx:

“To ensure elements work together you might group stems together by key or tempo and compose them in such a way that at regular intervals they might be changeable. It’s a similar approach to reactive music in games that would perhaps bring in a percussive beat as an enemy approaches to signify their presence in-game. Multiple layers are synched alongside each other and can either be switched seamlessly or use a stinger to cover up the “switch” when adding another layer or skipping to a new part of the composition. If you were being more experimental you might compose without rhythm or tempo, or maybe even without a key. You could create a soundscape in the same way by maybe grouping stems by timbre or frequency range, or a combination of both approaches. It really depends what you’re doing!”

Whatever the approach, one thing’s for certain, Alyx is sure that the music and sound design are both integral to the overall audible experience. She explains to me how important it is to have a good understanding of sound design within an interactive medium if the composer is to write an “informed piece of music to function as well as it needs to.” I thought this really backed up what Alyx had already touched upon when talking about Proteus. If Proteus were an indie film for example there would have been a linear soundscape, no matter how obscure the film was. Take this very same concept and apply it to an interactive medium that can be procedurally generated and you have a very different beast on your hands. Alyx goes on to explain this point by adding:

“… You may need to have a lot of layers that can be switched between but that can all play independently and in any combination; it’s very different from writing a 3-minute loop or a “score to picture”. There are no time limits, your music and sound environment need to have the ability to play infinitely and adjust to the player and game environment.”

So does Alyx consider herself a sound designer, a composer or both? After applying for several jobs in the games industry she realised that it wasn’t actually sound design she was primarily interested in. Instead she had subconsciously already decided she wanted to focus more on composition. After figuring this out she resigned herself to freelance work which is a wise move as very rarely these days will a company employ a full time composer. Generally audio staff are employed as sound designers; they might also create music as part of their job role but quite often a freelance composer will be hired. I really doubted that Alyx would have been able to take on a full time job even if she wanted to as her schedule is already pretty busy what with writing game audio reviews, working on indie games and taking on her recent role tutoring school children in the art of sound design, game design and programming during after school classes. On top of this Alyx also plans on returning to the University of Surry in 2016 to complete her masters in music composition.

We’d briefly touched up sound design going hand in hand with composition so I asked Alyx to name a few games she considered to have great soundtracks. The first to come to mind for her was thatgamecompany’s masterpiece, Journey which she describes as “…just so beautiful”. I then asked Alyx if she is influenced by her favourite works when creating her own compositions. Not exactly, rather she takes influence “more from the product as a whole” in that she does indeed use orchestral instruments but not to create classical or epic orchestral scores. In the case of Journey, rather than taking inspiration directly from the score Alyx is instead inspired by the feelings Journey’s music invokes. Another favourite is the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim, she elaborates on its impact by adding:

“I suppose on some level all the music I listen to shapes me as a composer. Perhaps in a way, I might listen to Skyrim and be really struck by the powerful vocals and the way the human voice can be used in a new language (the dragon language in Skyrim) to evoke that sense of power. I might use a similar kind of technique or think about how the voice can be used in different ways.”

Reviewing game audio and taking influences from her favourite scores all goes some way towards improving her own compositions. Alyx believes that the review process helps her understand and make decisions with her own projects and analyse why something may not be working. Alyx notes however that critiquing other peoples work is quite a difficult task.  She approaches a review by taking an analytical and logical approach, playing the game to completion and listening to the score during natural game play (where the developers intended it to be heard). Alyx doesn’t listen to the music in isolation as many scores created for games aren’t really designed to be linear pieces. “It’s the same when I’m writing music”, she adds. In much the same way as she reviews games Alyx doesn’t construct her music in a linear fashion as a continuous 3 minute piece for example as that’s not how the player will primarily experience it. Although over critical of her own work she does share some advice for other composers, “Take a break”! While she adds “asking friends for feedback is much better than trying to be too critical of your own work.”

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And so to answer my original question “what makes a great sounding game?” Different games can sound great for a variety of reasons from Limbo’s very minimalistic but atmospheric approach to Skyrim’s epic theme song and Proteus’ almost user generated soundscape. Music and sound design need to work in harmony by complimenting each other, not only in terms of frequency range but also in terms of placement. That said, the sound design must also be sympathetic to the visual style of a game, take Minecraft. By no means are the sounds in Minecraft the most unique, high fidelity assets yet they perfectly suit the blocky textures that Minecraft sports. A great sounding game can certainly be subjective but we have covered several factors that can ensure the sound design works from a technical and artistic point of view.  Analysing other great sounding games is a good place to start, as is experimenting with different techniques. Knowing what to use and where to use it, how sound interacts with the environment and how music should be woven in and out of that experience all help the audio to sit within the game world, blending into the experience. And so we come full circle by creating a sound design experience that the average player is oblivious towards but the audiophiles out there might appreciate.

Alyx and her work can be found on the following sites:
http://www.alyxjones.co.uk/
http://www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk/

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