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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Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Vincent Diamante

Vincent Diamante
Audio Director
thatgamecompany

Notable games Vincent has been involved with:
Cloud, Flower, Skullgirls, Castlevania: Order of Shadows

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One of my favourite things about this generation is the great indie games we are getting to experience on consoles. Recently I have been particularly fond of games such as The Unfinished Swan, Thomas Was Alone and Journey but the first few games to really grip me were flOw and Flower, both of which were developed by thatgamecompany.

thatgamecompany really shine when it comes to telling a story simply by engaging the player with great music, visuals and gameplay. Vincent Diamante has been kind enough to suffer the fate of leaving luck to being rescued but before I send him away to survive he’s going to talk a little bit about the award winning game that is Flower, his time in education and what games make him tick.

Brad: Flower is a fantastic game but explaining the concept to somebody cannot do it justice. The game takes the player on an incredibly emotional journey simply by allowing the player to guide petals through the world; this is thanks to the soundtrack and level design working perfectly together.

As the composer of Flower’s soundtrack how did you approach the difficult task of creating the score? Did you start work based on concept art and game flow alone or were some of the levels partly fleshed out?

Vincent: Well, I started Flower really early. I began writing music even before there were any core game mechanics, art, or levels were defined. Granted, pretty much all those early tracks didn’t make it in the game, but they had an influence on everyone when it came to searching for all the different aspects that comprised the game. Back then, there were a lot of really rough mechanics prototypes that we were experimenting with. These were really rough pieces with mostly programmer art that I’d do music and sound effects for.  Back then, I think a lot of the influence came from the shape of the controls and the really low-level decisions being made with your hands while playing the game. That continued to be a huge part of the music and sound all the way to the end.

Brad: Typically, with many games it feels as though the sound design is created to complement the visuals so it’s refreshing to see that the audio and score actually had an impact on the overall game design. Were there any instances during development where you thought something didn’t quite work from a visual point-of-view and it was subsequently changed to better suit the soundtrack or vice-versa?

Vincent: There were some subtle changes here and there to better match the audio, but nothing too drastic. There were, however, a few places where the match of visual and aural originally struck the rest of the dev team as: not right. The most notable example of this is probably the exit from the canyon and the entrance of the wind level’s third music. I felt very strongly about the sound there and had to really stand my ground to keep it the way it was. From there, the guys decided to humor me a bit and work around what I was giving them, I guess! The audio and music there in the retail copy is the same as the first pass there, save mixing and mastering.

Now that I think of it, I believe that was the first time in the process I was really obstinate about my position on the overall game, and I got to really elucidate that with the audio. I’m glad they let me do that, even though my relationship was technically just as a contractor at that time rather than as an employee…

Brad: I know you had a hand in the level design and layout of the flowers throughout the game. Do you feel this was an important part of allowing the score to gel with the level design?

Vincent: When it came to level design, well, it was less about the big level design and more about flower design.  The arrangement, shape, size, and density of flower groups, lines and areas were really important because of their direct impact on the sound effects, which were designed to be an extra musical layer on top of the rest of the score.  Because of that… yeah. The flower arrangement in the levels was incredibly important to the success of the score.

Brad: Interacting with flowers to trigger audible feedback to complement the soundtrack is a nice touch. What other games stand out to you as doing something particularly interesting or unique with audio?

Vincent: I was a huge fan of X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in the day. Besides getting me really into the whole modding and level design thing (thanks to a program called TIE Mission Builder), I was hugely enamored with the interactive score and all the fast splicing of MIDI that was happening on the fly. Can’t ignore the NanaOn-Sha games; I really loved Vib Ribbon when it came out. I was just gobsmacked by the music for Vagrant Story, and I always do a close-listening of the extremely subtle interactive score for the game’s playable title sequence. More recently, I’ve been pushing Diamond Trust of London for Nintendo DS on guys; besides being a really neat electronic board game about blood diamonds, it has a looping/branching type interactive score that responds to the board game state. Oh, Rez… can’t forget about that! Loved the fact that the sound effects of the enemies and the player were an integral part of the musical score.

Brad: I know you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and you’ve worked in other industries but did game modding and level design help you decide that you eventually wanted to work in the games industry or was it just more of a hobby at that point?

Vincent: Game modding was part of it. I did have fun messing with TIE Mission Builder, doing 3D Studio Max stuff in high school, messing with Pascal… things like that. I actually knew that I wanted to work in the game industry ever since the beginning: playing games on my cousin’s Commodore 64 back as a 6 year old brat. I’m pretty stubborn.

Brad: So I guess the stepping stone into the games industry then began at University with projects such as Cloud? How did you get involved with the game and did you feel like you were part of something special during its development?

Vincent: Cloud was definitely a major part of it.  Prior to that, I got some repute for writing, having co-founded a website called insertcredit.com, which was rather well-regarded as an enthusiast/New Games Journalism type site with a crazy writing staff. (I guess my niche back then was hardcore vehicle simulation, fighting games, and visual novels.)  As a games maker, I was part of a team at USC that just got a game called Dyadin into the IGF student showcase. Most of that team continued on the Cloud project that came afterward, though that game had a very different development structure, with Jenova as a clear creative director compared to Dyadin which was much more design by committee.  Dyadin definitely got some positive press, but the contrast of Cloud to both games in the IGF and in the mainstream really caught guys by surprise.

I think we had a feeling that this game would get a good response, though we weren’t quite sure just how much. As the sound dude, I was asked early on to create music to set the tone for both the game itself as well as inspiration for the fledgling design. It was a really interesting position to be in, though it made immediate sense to me as someone who fiercely believed in music NOT being a post-production process in games.

Brad: How important was it for you to network with other graduates during your time at University?

Vincent: The networking was pretty important. I just started working as Audio Director over at thatgamecompany, which means I’m back to working with Jenova and others who’ve come from USC.  Of course, it’s not just the networking within that grad program. While I was an interactive media student, I provided music for some senior animation thesis projects from CalArts students; that experience was probably a factor in me getting hired on that Skullgirls team which didn’t have any USC connections but more than a few CalArts guys who happened to also be connected with that website I helped build. 🙂

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Brad: Well you definitely keep yourself busy, especially being audio director at thatgamecompany and on Skullgirls. It’s probably fair to say then, that you can tire yourself out and have some pretty vivid dreams such as this one…

On returning home after a day at work you look out of your window and to your astonishment you see a lush green meadow and a series of windmills. You close your eyes and upon opening them your apartment has disappeared and so you begin walking towards the only visible landmark, a derelict skyscraper. Once inside you find the building has been used as a warehouse to store a rather large games collection, as the building begins to creak you manage to grab 5 games. As you run for the exit you notice a pylon has crashed through and damaged a wall, peering through you find a game soundtrack on the floor.

You set up camp next to a windmill that is powering a generator and you decide to have a look through your haul of games. What did you manage to grab?

Vincent: Haha… all right… let’s see…

1)  Garouden: Fist or Twist (PlayStation 2)

This is one of my favorite fighting games ever. The concept of hitstun is very different in this game compared to other fighting games; here it’s a variable that changes over the course of the match as opposed to simply a function of the attack landed, and this changes the story and drama of the fight in a wonderful way.  For me, at least!  Not a popular game among the mainstream or hardcore fighting game guys, but I absolutely love it.

2)  Star Wars: TIE Fighter (PC)

I mentioned this as being my first real foray into video game modding and level editing. Back in the day, I just ROCKED at this game, and I kept on giving myself ever more ridiculous challenges to survive. (Ex: In a TIE Fighter, dogfighting escort shuttles in a mine field with both lasers and concussion missiles…) I could probably play this game forever.

3)  Sid Meier’s CPU Bach (3DO)

Less a game and more a wacky piece of music software, this 3DO game tries to compose music in the style of JS Bach… and it sometimes succeeds… in places. 🙂  It’s not a bad version of a young music student trying to employ high baroque composition techniques…

4)  Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary (Nintendo DS)

Probably my favorite competitive action puzzle game series. They finally got the online multiplayer thing going, so nowadays I actually have a challenge fighting against some very good competition over in Japan.  Or at least I did when I had the time to open up my DS…

5) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

This shooter is not only my favorite scrolling shooter, but it also has my favorite video game soundtrack.  It’s pretty short when it comes to the actual music (the official CD soundtrack release actually has the soundtrack twice… once in original ST-V/Saturn mix and again in a slightly upgraded synth arrangement) but it’s a near perfect combination of clever and elegant.

Soundtrack – Vagrant Story OST (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

As for the soundtrack… hrm…!  I already mentioned my favorite soundtrack above… and number 2 would be another Hitoshi Sakimoto score in Vagrant Story… hrm… (man, maybe I should have put that game above, considering the legs of the core game loop there…)

Brad: I tell you what I’ll do; generally I allow the castaway to select a special edition of one of the games. I’ll give you the Radiant Silvergun soundtrack along with the game, which means you can also take with you the Vagrant Story OST.

Vincent: I didn’t mention one of my other favorite fighting games, and that game happens to have a brilliant soundtrack as well.

Honourable Mention) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

Asuka 120% Limited for Saturn is my favorite 2D fighting game, and the soundtrack by Keishi Yonao is just ridiculously good fun. The best release of the soundtrack, most of which was actually written in the early 90s, even though the game continued getting updated releases all the way to 2000, comes from the Tilde Game Music Collection Vol. 3 – Asuka 120%. Just great fun to listen to.

Brad: You have certainly chose a varied selection with a mix of fighting, flight simulation, puzzle… and I’ve never played any of these choices, probably due to most of them being released in Japan!

Unfortunately, being exposed to the elements in an open field a large gust of wind rushes in your makeshift camp. Your games are caught up in the wind but you manage to reach out and grab one of them. Which game did you decide to save?

Vincent: Hrm… Radiant Silvergun? Probably that. For me, playing that game is along the lines of revisiting a Scriabin or Beethoven Sonata. I can play it for fun as well as furthering mastery of the game…

So I say, but then I just end up watching superplay videos locally or on Youtube showing the true masters what it’s like to really turn in a virtuoso performance in that game. When you play that game smoothly, it’s a thing of beauty…

Brad: There certainly are some masters out there. I always find with games I like, when checking an online leader board there is always somebody with a ridiculously large high score. It makes you wonder how many hours they have to plough into studying and practicing the game to get that good at it!

Thanks for taking the time to talk about what you do and what games you love. I can’t wait to see what’s next for thatgamecompany.

Vincent: This was fun!  Thank you!

About the choices

Garouden: Fist or Twist

Developer – Opus / ESP Software
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release (JP) – 15th March 2007

Star Wars: TIE Fighter

Developer – Totally Games
Publisher – LucasArts
Platform – PC
Release – July 1994

Sid Meier’s CPU Bach 

Developer – MicroProse
Platform – 3DO
Release – 1994

Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary 

Developer – Sonic Team
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Nintendo DS
Release (JP) – 14th July 2011

Radiant Silvergun 

Developer – Treasure
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 23rd July 1998

Asuka 120% Limited 

Developer – Fill-in-Café / Success
Publisher – FamilySoft / Kodansha
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 1994