Something I talk a lot, other than “Did you use Decapitator on that?”, is my world view of the game audio for a game. I feel it’s really good to have a bedrock of some simple rules that you build all your game’s audio on. A philosophy of why the sounds that are playing are playing. Now of course this will change from game to game since possibly the most major rule is Serve The Game (that might be another post). And each game is going to determine a different way it needs to be served by audio. But I have 2 things that I always think about for every sound.
For me it’s the idea that on the highest level all your games audio should be doing one of two things. Building The World or Informing The Player. Two fairly simple things to keep in mind. So what does that mean? Well it’s the idea that you don’t want any fluff in your game soundscape. And that if you give yourself some flag posts to guide by up front you’ll have an easier time hitting your mark. It helps make sure everything has a purpose. We build up this big full worlds for our players and are constantly throwing a wall of sound at them. Well almost. Of course there’s games that don’t but just play along with me.
So if we’ve got this wall of ever changing sound being thrown at a player what are we trying to do with it? And for me this is where my two categories come in. I’ll usually start thinking about these before I start designing anything. When I’m planning out what’s needed. They can also be relevant later on when mixing and testing with players but will get you the most milage right up front.
For me the first usually is Informing The Player. There are times when these will swap order of importance on a given game but working on a lot of design heavy games this is generally the first I think about. I’ll probably start out with some rough gameplay either in the game, talking to designers, or in a doc. See what all the actions are/might be and start making lists of all the possible sounds. Of course I’m sure lots of you do that. Then I’ll start applying my Informing The Player filter. Do these actions inform the player of something? I fired a gun. Yes that sound informs the player the gun has been fired. Not only have you spent a bullet but you’ve possibly hurt someone. A shell casing has hit to floor from that shoot. Here’s an opportunity to inform the player of the type of floor they’re standing on. Is it wood? Dirt? Cement? Having the right impact sound on the shell tells the player something. I think a lot of people only think of HUD and UI sounds as Informing The Player but it applies to a much wider set of sounds with in our game world.
So the next filter I’ll apply to my sounds is Building The World. Largely it’s the stuff if you just sit and don’t do anything they make you feel like you’re in the space you’re looking at. What’s going on in the ambiences? How are they making you feel? Is that inline with the setting and story your game is trying to tell. Are you helping and adding to the tone of things? This can be in the small details too not just broad ambiences. In a post apocalyptic world does everything sound dirty and rusty? Or does it sound fresh and brand new and well oiled. Maybe that grenade pin pull needs some grit on it.
Of course there’s a lot of cross over with these as well. A reverb both Informs The Player of where they are and Builds The World as this is a proper space everything is in. Rattling the objects in the world when you shoot your gun but Informs The Player of the space they are in so they can tell where they are in a multiplayer map. And Builds The World that this is a real space and that’s how things act when a gun is shot next to them.
Ok so we’ve got these two filters we’re applying to everything going into our game. We’re thinking about it when first making lists. We’re revisiting once a game is rolling to make sure they still apply to a sound when designs change. So what might not fit? And what to do if it doesn’t? Second is easy, dump it if it doesn’t fit. By not hitting one or both of those filters it’s cluttering up your soundscape and either breaking your emersion or confusing the player. First one can actually be a bit tricker. It can easy to convince yourself that it does fit if you like it, think it’s cool or are otherwise invested in it. For me it’s usually the “cool” ideas I’ve had that I want to try out and I’m trying to force it in because I’m more invested in the process then what the event is actually doing in the game. Sometimes the depth of a certain subsytem might not actually fit. A crazy indepth foley system might really get you excited as a sound person but might not actual add to the player’s world or information they need to know.
These two ideas are what I start building my game’s audio off of. They give me a bedrock to make my decisions on for just about every sound I’m going to consider. Try thinking about them the next time you’re planning or evaluating the sounds in your game. Or find a different set of rules/filters to work from. Just be consistent in your application so your bedrock is firm.