Game Audio Change Agents

The cancellation of this year's Game Developers Conference was a strong indication of what is now transpiring. The continued isolating measures bring many things into sharp focus, including issues present in our global game development environment.

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Reality. Nothing brings you closer to the shared dream of life than the change experienced by a group of people. Mass change propels us into the moment, faced with the realization that we are not alone. While personal change can often be an internal experience operating on a level just-under-the-surface of acknowledgement or realization, the mechanism of change among a group of people brings a shared awareness that must be faced together. 


The cancellation of this year's Game Developers Conference was a strong indication of what has transpired in the wake of the pandemic. The continued isolating measures bring many things into sharp focus, including issues present in our global game development environment. We are a community distributed across all countries and walks of life, united by a passion for creating experiences that connect people with a form of expression. These experiences can be singular, collaborative, cooperative, educational, and ultimately shared. This interactive art form extends beyond the walls of our homes, across borders, and subverts an easy understanding of the impact it can have on people's lives as a form of “entertainment”, especially during crises of one kind or another.


The Power of Perspective

As an artistic expression it is inevitable that games will continue to grow and represent the myriad of possibilities channeled through the medium. Over time, this opportunity to engender different perspectives from diverse authorship will expand to encompass connections with people who can appreciate these different points of view. An interesting play on Andy Warhol's famous quote "In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes" recently posited instead that "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people in the world", which is to imagine that for the output of any artist, a small and passionate audience will exist. These games, made as a form of expression, have the ability to help prepare folks for change by surfacing issues and perspectives through the lens of play in a way that can make these ideas uniquely attractive. 


Whether it’s empathy invoked towards the vanishing titans in Shadow of the Colossus, the recurring moral/ ethical decisions of Bioshock, or reconciling the hardships of That Dragon, Cancer, there is a power in engaging with these stories in a way that is different than passive entertainment. The simple expression of sacred geometry in Engare, the sublime beauty of visual storytelling in Gorogoa, and the boundless joy of Proteus, each have a chance at framing life outside the screen. Their contribution to the format can help us cope, understand, and process the changes around and within us. Additionally, the ability of VR to place oneself in somebody else's shoes has enabled a horrific reenactment of WW1 in the location-based War Remains, and placed you at the center of a nighttime border crossing in Carne y arena. Both experiences underline the power of the medium. These singular moments can bring both internal and external change in the way we view and experience life.



Game Audio Change Agents

As sonic artists, our role in game development is as a piece of the larger whole. We are a collaborator and contributor with equal opportunity to communicate the intentions and creative vision. We help blur the lines of immersion by providing an aural component to the visual. We are everywhere and nowhere in the context of interaction, as our frequencies unfold unseen through time. We speak to parts of the brain in whispers that enmesh sound expressions deeply within the entire experience. We have tools at our disposal to engage, absorb, and reflect the dramas unfolding on-screen and across the globe in an immaterial way when opportunities are presented or leveraged. 


It becomes clear at some point, either as part of an audio team or as the sole audio contributor, that advocacy within the larger game development team is key to the successful execution of sound ideas and implementation. You are always bumping up against other disciplines and their workflows, oftentimes leveraging their hard work in order to add sound. Think of the hours of work from the art team that go into animating a walk cycle and the process of tagging footstep sounds by hand (and the process of re-conforming those sound tags when/ if the timing changes). Now imagine you want to create an automated solution that plays a footstep sound when the toe and heel of the skeleton break the physics ground-plane. It’s something that has been achieved by a handful of developers, but requires collaboration across the art, programming, physics, and audio teams. 


The work involved with pulling off a cross-discipline collaboration at this scale requires daily care-and-handling of your interpersonal interactions. How you present our audio craft as something worth the investment, while also respecting the impact it will have on others pipelines, is something that must be illustrated and reinforced over time. While finding these opportunities to improve technology and fidelity help gain ground towards minimizing redundant or less creative workflows, there are other ways to wield this good will and respect.


Opportunities to Advocate

Imagine challenging the current “default male” player character paradigm by taking the lead on building the ability to change: gender dialog, vocalizations, and Foley materials into the audio system during pre-production. Today’s middleware tools make it easy to establish dynamic and flexible implementation from the start. Arriving first with an audio system in place (game parameters, states & switches, naming standards, asset management) can help drive the conversation early on as decisions are being made on the game engine and design side. 


Other current examples of the influence that audio can have in the way that a game is perceived include: the successful marriage of gameplay driven exertion vocalizations in the most recent Spider Man brings depth to the character and a reminder that, beneath the mask, Peter Parker is still human after all. Also, Bringing Greek voice actors to the game Assassins Creed Odyssey not only succeeds at more accurately portraying the culture and story of ancient Greece but also in representation for some: “Maybe it takes something like a video game, a thing you were just playing for fun, to make you realize unexpectedly that you could relate better than you thought you could all along.” More simply, audio sublimely supporting the underlying message of connection in Death Stranding. Sound and all of its aspects align to play a pivotal role in helping to deliver on these subtle subversions of what could have been far shallower experiences. 


By presenting diverse player choices, gaining visibility for the different ways that people play, and challenging assumptions, we have the ability to touch all people. It can help inform the way that people view their reality, understand the changing landscape of terminology, and present alternate perspectives of circumstance. Towards these goals we can create opportunities to advocate for these issues and weave them into the fabric of what we contribute.. As collaborators, as audio specialists, as game developers, we can be agents of change.



Linked in a Revolutionary Spiral

Looking forward to the year ahead, there are questions about what shape the world we live in will take. What contribution can we make to support each other during the challenges ahead? How does our effort each day contribute to stability and balance amidst the turmoil of global change? In what way does our creative output help frame peoples’ experiences? Are games simply a pure form of distraction and escapism or can they also allow for these larger questions to be answered? How do we, as a community, aid in the understanding of and help bridge the gap between our differences?


Moving forward from here, it feels vital that we find ways to support each other towards a shared goal of education, advocacy, and compassion: Education about the role of audio in games, advocacy for our craft and its dynamic potential and most of all, compassion for all lives. We are linked in a revolutionary spiral facing the changes of today, together.


This article doesn’t offer any easy answers. It barely speaks to the question of “why” we should even try. But if this sentiment has reached you, look for ways to increase your understanding of the people that surround you and feed this understanding back into your work. Practice tolerance, empathy, and mindfulness as part of your interactions and use this practice to weave a fabric of frequencies that can somehow embody these ideals. Grow respectful connective tissue that can help bear the weight of shared change among people. Recognize you are not alone in this struggle and be strong enough to both ask for, and give help when needed.


Wherever you are today: Stay good, stay safe, and keep it easy.


It's not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.― Miles Davis


You may know me from such rambling word plays such as: Opening a Trans-Dimensional Portal Using Time-Based Effects, How to Survive a Game Audio Layoff, or Envisioning Our Interactive Audio Future.

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