Sound effects, wow! Pow! Bzam! Krakow! They’re important, they’re part of the game experience, and I’ve been plugging a lot of them into game objects lately and generally writing giant spreadsheets of sounds that need making. The talented Matthew Steele, or our sound and music man for Dredmor, is back again for Clockwork Empires so he gets to enjoy said spreadsheets. Nicholas is into music — brace yourself and ask about synthesizers some day — so he and Matthew have worked that side of things out. Meanwhile all I listen to is horrible ‘industrial noise artists’ from eastern Europe, so I’m taking point on making sound effects happen. And, horrifyingly, my terrible musical tastes are relevant because a lot of CE’s soundscape is in fact going to involve a good deal of industrial noise. I love it!
A Most Pleasing Noise
The tricky thing about these industrial sounds is that they have to actually be somewhat nice to listen to. Imagine a power-saw or a jackhammer — they sound awful and you’d better be wearing ear protection if you’re anywhere nearby. To have absolutely realistic industrial sounds would wear on the ears somewhat and, well, I’m glad I’ve got Matthew around to cook these up.
One of my favourite industrial sounds done so far is for the ‘small oven’; I find it really relaxing somehow:
(Makes you really feel the holiday spirit, as if huddled for warmth around the factory boiler on a cold winter night.)
Wood chopping was a funny one. I substituted in a few variations of “hammering wood” before Matthew had found some real wood-chopping sounds so for about a month lumber harvesting had an almost musical quality to it. (And on thinking about it, this might not be so out of space in this game’s aesthetic.)
I’ve since hooked up some more ‘correct’ wood chopping sounds, but we’ll see how it feels. It’s always nice to have a good noise library to draw on, to try different things, and revise as more sound elements are introduced and their feeling changes due to changing context.
My first thought for how to approach character voices was to have emotion expressed through tone, eg. anger, sadness, with words in a made-up language. This way a player could pick up the feelings of the character without getting bogged down in the exact words. Working with Matthew on this, I think he dug up an example of a way to randomly assemble Middle English phonemes into words that looked and sounded vaguely English but weren’t words at all – Like the Dredmor magic item names but way more pronounceable (conceding, of course, that part of the fun of Dredmor magic item names was attempting to pronounce them).
If this approach sounds like The Sims, well, it’s basically what they did. If the sims sounded like the anglo-saxon factions from Age of Empires (which totally used Old/Middle English words – remember “fisk”?). So it’s a cool idea and others have done it, but it turned out not to be the right one for us.
The case for: A made-up fake word noises don’t need translation, and seeing as how we convey the meaning of content of moods/thoughts through icons, visually, and through easily translatable tooltips rather than through audio as-such, localization wouldn’t be a problem. And in terms of setting, using Middle English phonemes might imply Things about The Empire which we’re not going to speculate about here; But it’d sure be neat.
The case against: To have strong individual vocal characterization we’d need a *lot* of separate voices. Humans are very good at picking out voices, they’re not easily fooled (see: Oblivion & etc.). This means we’d need many voice actors, and they’d have to be good; no using employees, no ‘crowdsourcing’. The Sims had a very small cast of sim-characters on-screen at any time, perhaps six or eight at most reasonable times, so in addition to the general stylized aesthetic they could get away with a lot that we can’t. (Not that anyone would want to be hearing 30 conversations in faux-English on the screen at once! See also: why we removed footstep sounds). In short, to do this right would require more audio assets than a tiny studio like Gaslamp can conjure and it could easily turn into an awful wall of sound with the number of characters we are running.
Therefore we’ve agreed that vocalizations without any actual words is probably the way to go. “grunts”, if you like. You get some emotional tone out of it, you still have character voice, but the assets required are much fewer and there’s less possibility for overwhelming glossolalia. I should say of course that, like everything, this is open to change as we iterate how it works in the soundscape of the game proper!
Bringing It All Together
Last year at GDC 2013 we met up with Tomislav of 2×2 Games and he talked about development of Unity of Command, saying that it came together as real once he hooked sounds up to the units moving around and fighting. At that point it became a complete experience. I like that point; That’s the game: the experience felt by the player, more than its parts. Here at Gaslamp we’ve been developing a pile of game-parts for a long time, and while sound effects aren’t the final piece of CE by any means, we’re slowly but surely making our way to creating that ‘smallest viable unit of Clockwork Empires Experience’ in which, not unlike Voltron, the pieces come together to form something more powerful than the sum of their parts.
(Didn’t get a chance to work in how that ambient hollow wind sound from Quake 1 started my obsession with ambient environmental sounds, but there ya go. Wasn’t that awesome? That was awesome. I need more tea.)