Dev Blog #3 - Sea of Sounds
I'm Jaime, the Audio Lead here at Team Junkfish. I was the sound designer, composer, and one of the people that you probably spoke to at conventions for the first Monstrum. In this blog post, I'm going to go over some of the thinking behind the ambient and environmental sounds for Monstrum 2 that we established at the start of the project. We'll cover what the core pillars that we're working towards are, why we're targeting those things in particular, and a little bit on how we actually go about doing that.
Firstly, I'm going to talk about our core pillars for the ambient and environmental audio. During Pre-Production we established 3 main tenets for this part of the audio soundscape:
Dangerous and Threatening
Interactive and Reactive
Sense of Place
Dangerous and Threatening
Some of which seem a bit obvious, given that we're making a horror game! But what actually makes a space sound "dangerous and threatening"? And what would work best for the game?
For Monstrum 2, we looked at the different possible contrasts that we could introduce into the soundscape and how that would affect the players in what they do. One of the most common uses in horror media is "loud vs quiet". You'll know this with jump scares. The sound drops out, a character is moving through a silent, creepy space then BANG! Loud noise! While not as overt or obvious in this case, we can apply similar ideas to the different areas of the sea fort based on their function, such as the various types of workspaces.
If players are in a quieter area, they will be able to hear the other survivors and monster if they are nearby, and ideally adjust their playstyle around that - being more cautious in their movements and trying not to disrupt anything in the environment that could alert the monster to their location. Quieter areas also allow us to play up the sounds of the sea fort itself - creaks as the wind hits it, as the metal shifts and strains inside - and generally build up that abandoned atmosphere. The intro section of Resident Evil 7 has a great example of this as you first enter the house and the transition that happens. It's tense, with only the odd few sound cues poking out to break it slightly.
Resident Evil 7 Gameplay (from around the 3-minute mark)
If you are interested in learning more about the Audio development of Resident Evil 7, they have an excellent GDC talk linked here: The Sound of Horror
In contrast, if they are in a loud area, such as a mechanised room, their ability to hear other players and objects should be impacted. They should take more care going around corners or entering rooms as they can't always rely on audio cues to tell them what is there, and they should spend more time visually checking their environment for dangers. This quiet and loud dynamic should also carry into other events in the game, such as jump/scare moments or triggering a chase. Dead Space was great at using this relationship of loud and quiet, especially with the anti-gravity scenes:
Dead Space Zero Gravity Gameplay
Another contrast we can use is the physical state of each area, sections that have been retrofitted with new tech vs those that have been left to rot, and how that can instill a sense of unease in players. Dark, damp, and broken down places are fairly commonplace in horror films and games, and we'll be making use of them in Monstrum too. But another point is the fact that the reboot of the facility has brought in modern-looking and sounding equipment that is out of place for a 1970s sea fort. Where people expect (and may find) noisy, mechanical, and possibly poorly functioning machinery then can also encounter cleaner, "sterile" sounding lab and experimental tech. These tonal differences can go a long way in introducing unease and a contrast that we can use. While not a horror film in any way, you can see and hear examples of this in Wall-E and the difference between the sounds of Earth and the Space Station (and it’s a really great example of sound in film too!):
Wall-E Animation Foley and Sound Design
Interactive and Reactive
Interactive and Reactive are both fairly self-explanatory. As a player, you can interact with the environment in several different ways; from items to interactable world objects, to a few other things that we have yet to reveal. We can call these Expected Results.
Basically, if you can interact with an object, you should get some form of feedback from it, even from the most basic of things like moving a chair out of the way. Things like doors are important here, audio-wise, as they can block sound when closed, and can "hide" things until opened. Doors can be scary! And sometimes such openings can appear mid-game. But that's for another time.
How these things react to player input is also important. At a basic level, if you throw an object you'd expect the sound of the impact to reflect both what the object does (like bouncing off or shattering) and the materials involved (like wood, metal, or glass). It has to sound "right", or you'll notice and be drawn out of the game. Similarly, if you were to power up an area or object using a fuse box, you would expect there to be a reaction of some sort: the machine powering up, coming to life and changing the soundscape.
We should also consider interactable environment pieces, like puzzles and other events, and their various states of completion and effort. A player should hear that they are making progress somehow - like mechanisms moving into place, debris being lifted up, or tones implying that they are correct - and appropriate responses if they succeed or fail. We want these events to stand out a little from the general environment when players are using them, so we would sweeten them with some extra UI elements or layers to exaggerate these key moments and make the interactions and reactions feel a lot better when they happen.
Another reactive element is the sea fort and surrounding area itself. How does the soundspace change with the weather, for example? There's obvious stuff like wind and wave volume increasing, but also how that impacts the physical structure of the sea fort itself as it is buffeted by these more powerful forces. Things will rumble and move, the wind will howl and rattle more objects and through various gaps in the structure. Rain could have another obvious effect too, introducing more noise and masking certain audio elements. Thunder and lightning can change the mix dynamically to accent that loud crack. It's not just about what the players do, but also what the game world does to itself too.
Playdead's games, Inside and Limbo, both tie the audio to gameplay systems incredibly well. You can watch an explainer about some of the things they did for Inside here:
Inside: A Game That Listens - GDC 2016 Session
Sense of Place
Which leads us into the final core pillar: Sense of Place. How can we use audio to make the sea fort feel more believable, like the players are actually in the spaces they're in? We've spoken a bit about the use cases for audio, but this relates to the actual content, and that each area has sounds you would associate with that sort of space (and, ideally, allow you to identify where you are by sound if you get lost between similar areas!)
Reverb is a big part of this - making spaces sound appropriately large or small as needed. Large metallic rooms should sound suitably large with sounds taking a while to trail off, while small single office rooms should be a bit boxier. Similarly, hiding spaces like lockers should sound tight and enclosed, adding to that sense of claustrophobia and fear if a monster is nearby and driving up the tension. See: any horror/thriller where someone is hiding in a locker or closet. In terms of how far you can go with reverbs and their relation to a space, you could look at Nier: Automata’s reverb system (and audio in general). Here’s a GDC talk about that:
An Interactive Sound Dystopia: Real-Time Audio Processing in NieR: Automata
There's also the different ambient noise layers and happenings. We'll have a base layer to fill the void, as the world is never truly silent, some weather effects that we can change in real-time based on where the player is and what is happening in the game, as mentioned above, and some "flavour" tones based on the area the player is currently in. On top of these layers, we have what we call "one shots", sounds that are triggered at random intervals, at random positions around the player based on where they are too. We can change the rate of delay between each of these one shots too, and tie it into something like wind intensity to make them occur more frequently along with heavier wind, if it's appropriate. Random spooky rattles and clatters definitely add to the feel of a rickety and unsafe environment! Especially if you're not quite sure what caused it. Was it just the wind? Another survivor knocking something over? A monster in the area? Who knows!
For a slightly different example, here's a breakdown of how the city sounds were built up in the recent Spider-Man game:
We also have audio landmarks in each area, unique sounds-cues or sources that allow a player to identify which area they are in. The concept comes from the Disneyland theme parks and their use of "weenies", landmarks that draw attention to visitors and can be used as navigational aids. This also helps to establish what the area is, and what is or has happened in it. Here's a bit more info on how that can be applied to game audio.
Lastly, there's sound propagation, or how sound travels through a space. Instead of writing that up, I'm going to link to some examples from Hitman (which is quite a technical break down!) and Quantum Break (which is a lot shorter) that show what it is:
As you can imagine, knowing where a monster is in relation to yourself and the space you are in is very important, and could be the difference in successfully avoiding them or being caught unaware.
But I went on a lot, so we'll stop there for now. We hope that this gives you a bit of insight into some of the thinking that goes into just the planning out of an audio feature for a game, and some of the things we went on to prototype too.
We’ve still got a fair amount of work to do, but hopefully it’ll all be worthwhile!