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Tomasz Kaye, Blogger

October 28, 2013

5 Min Read

My name’s Tomasz Kaye. I was lucky enough to be asked to provide the sound effects for Sparpweed’s two-player cooperative puzzle platformer ibb & obb. Here I’ll cover a few of the ideas that motivated the decisions I made, and some of the lessons I learned.

Outsiders

When Richard asked me to be involved in the project he mentioned that part of the reason he was asking me was that the sound of ibb & obb shouldn’t be ‘typical game sound’. The fact that I hadn’t created sound for a game before (for several of us on the project, ibb & obb has been the first game we’ve worked on), combined with my background in digital music, seemed to make me a good fit for the role.

Kicking the retro SFX habit

Although ibb & obb resembles vintage platformer games in some respects, to me its aesthetic brings to mind an illustrated children’s fairy tale book much more strongly than an old video game. It didn’t seem appropriate to treat sound in the same way that old video games did. In particular relying on just a few samples, played repeatedly without variation was out of the question for me.

I wanted to avoid making sound design choices on the basis of convention alone. “That’s how it’s always done in video games” didn’t seem like a satisfying justification. Each treatment was evaluated, as far as possible, on the basis of how appropriate it was to ibb & obb alone. One trope that I knew I wanted to avoid was the use of some kind of Boing! sound for jumping. Instead, ibb and obb’s jumps are a silent interlude in the quiet pitter-patter of their footsteps.

With or without music

One of my aims was to create the sound effects in such a way that they’d carry the game on their own, even with the music turned off. They ought to fit perfectly in ibb & obb’s universe, so well in fact, that a typical player shouldn’t even notice them--the sound effects would just become part of the general ‘feel’ of the game, subtly adding weight and credibility to its events and environments.

The sounds also needed to work well with Kettel’s soundtrack. This was challenging. Often tonal sound effects I was working on would sound great at some moments in the game, but would clash badly with the music in other levels. In the end the solution I chose was to make sure that sounds that would play on multiple levels didn’t have any internal melodic structure to them.

Realistic-ish

An important goal when creating the SFX was that they should have a realism to them, not necessarily recognisable as sounds from our world, but credible as sounds created by physical objects and forces, rather than sounding like wave files being played from a hard disk.

Groups of similar, but varied sound files were prepared. In FMOD terminology these clusters of similar sounds comprise what are called SoundDefs. Then, multiple SoundDefs were arranged in layers that play back simultaneously in response to a given game event. A typical sound in ibb & obb would have two or three layered SoundDefs, each consisting of a group of four or more wavs, of which one is played at random when the event triggers. For sounds that were played often in the game, this was the minimum complexity I found I needed in order to make possible my own suspension of disbelief. As a player I could forget for a while that these were sound files.

The project contained 1,300 wavs, and ended up with somewhat fewer after memory issues prompted a cull of the least important ones.

 

With a hypothetical time machine, these are the pieces of advice I’d give to past-me just before starting this project:

Thinking isn't a substitute for playing

Many of ibb & obb’s puzzles require the players to perform a ‘team jump’: ibb stands on obb’s head, obb jumps, near the apex of obb’s jump, ibb jumps. The (physics defying) result is that ibb reaches a much greater height than he could have accessed alone. I heard about this mechanic before I had a chance to play the game much, and as a result I imagined that the timing of the teams jumps would be a tricky thing, which sound could be used to make easier.

I started planning a system in which team jumps would be accompanied by an audio cue that would help players pin-point the optimal moment for the second player’s jump. Happily I didn’t get very far with the plan. In the game the team jumps don’t have to be performed very precisely at all, the landscape is quite forgiving. And extra audio feedback would have been redundant.

The moral of this anecdote is that any SFX decision should be informed by paying close attention while actually playing the game. Ruthlessly abandon ideas that don’t fit--no matter how attached to them you might be.

Normalize

Unless you have a very good reason for doing so (if you’re not sure, then you probably don’t), normalize your audio files to something close to 0dB before importing the files into FMOD. All of your final level decisions will be made in FMOD anyway, so don’t commit yourself to relative levels earlier than you need to.

ibb & obb has been a thoroughly enjoyable project that I’m proud to have been part of. I’ve learned loads during the process. I look forward to exploring game audio further in the future.

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