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Hearing the music of a sprawling desert world in Sable

Road to the IGF: Sable developers Gregorios Kythreotis and Martin Kvale talk about breathing live into environments using music, and the emotional power you can bring to an action through careful attention to the sounds that accompany it.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Sable, which was nominated for Excellence in Audio at the 2022 IGF Awards, takes players to a sprawling desert world to help the title character with a rite of passage. As they explore this world of ruined spaceships and blowing sands, their hoverbike will be their constant companion and travel aid. 

Game Developer sat down with Creative Director Gregorios Kythreotis and Sound Designer Martin Kvale to talk about how they breathe life into the environments using sound and music, how they used audio to make the hoverbike feel more like a living companion on the journey, and the emotional power you can bring to an action through careful attention to the sounds that accompany it.

What's your background in making games?

Kythreotis: I’ve always worked at Shedworks, working on a variety of smaller mobile project prior to Sable, but I studied Architecture at university and that informs a lot of my approach to game making and design

How did you come up with the concept for Sable?

Kythreotis: The idea appeared after seeing The Force Awakens, particularly the opening of the film where Rey is scavenging giant fallen ships and thinking ‘What if you never left that planet? What if you weren’t the hero?" The rest of the concept developed from there.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Kythreotis: We developed the game in Unity, and we used a variety of other software such as Inky, Maya, Blender, Photoshop, Procreate, and FMOD to generate assets that went into the project.

What thoughts went into creating the soundscape for the desert world of Sable? Into breathing life into it through audio effects?

Kythreotis: The soundscape needed to work as a complement to player exploration—to the slow pace in which the world unfolds in front of Sable. Sound needed to communicate the materiality of the environment, as the visual style of the game is so stylized that it can be hard to convey things like crumbling rocks or grains of sand moving underfoot without great audio. We also wanted to weave the music of the game into the experience in a way that wouldn’t become overbearing over the course of a long play session, but would flow in and out in a much more ambient manner.

A lighthouse-like tower emits black smoke, with a green canyon in the background.

Kvale: On a technical level, we spent a lot of time iterating and implementation audio. The more I work in game audio, the more I feel like it's in the implementation where the magic happens and that sounds are not worth much before they are implemented well. 

To find out if a place feels natural, eerie, safe, or tense meant a lot of slow exploration of the locations as they were being built in-game. Most in-game locations change depending on what you do, how high up you are, or what time it is. The soundscape and music listens to what the player is doing and where they are, and envelops the player when it needs to, or carefully whispers hints of what may be near.

Can you tell us a bit about the creation of the sound effects for the hoverbike? What went into the sounds of your constant machine companion?

Kythreotis: We always talked about the hoverbike as an instrument for the player, as you can customize different parts of the bike to affect the look and handling, and the sound effects of the bike also change when you change parts. This meant that the voice Simoon has is unique to the player. We also wanted to make Simoon feel like a character you were traveling with, and some of the sound effects work went into trying to create that connection.

Kvale: For instance, the hoverbike has vocalizations when you call for it, a soft purr as it is idle, and it lets you know when it is in duress. The sound design sources of the bike ranges from animals purring to synthesizers and a faulty percolator. We give it character by layering several sounds together which behave differently from each other as you move around. This gives the feel of a complex creature you are traveling with and a lot of space for us to add personality to the hoverbike. 

The bike also has layers that are distinctly musical. We tuned those to the music you are listening to as you are riding on it. This adds a layer in your experience as you navigate the world with your bike, and makes the transition between on bike/off bike feel impactful as the music fits in differently with the world depending on this.

Are there any particularly memorable or challenging audio effects that have stuck with you? Can you walk us through that effect's creation? 

Kvale: I think the sound effects that stick with me the most are the sounds for Sable´s bubble. The process of making it was an important one since it is a part of the mystical world that is unknown to the character. The ability is something she learns early in the game, and it's her first encounter with something beyond what she knows. 

The sound sequence consists of: - Open bubble - Ambience while you are floating - Close bubble The foundation of the opening and closing sound is a dual-toned flute, the breath that blow it in a sharp burst like a “pff”, and a strange distortion caused by the wind hitting a microphone. Together, they open the bubble with the feeling of something human, and at the same time an ancient power that wakes up suddenly, shifting into existence. The sound of you floating in the bubble state is a mix between an electric warble, a slight static hiss, and a heartbeat. 

I wanted the player to feel cared for and safe, that whatever it is, you are safe as a baby in the womb. The slight static fills in the emotion of being exposed to unknown energies, and it replaces a lot of the ambience around you, which we duck a bit as you are floating.

A person overlooks a complex, spherical machine built into a crater.

What drew you to work with Japanese Breakfast on the game? What made their work feel well-suited to bringing music to Sable's universe?

Kythreotis: We admired Michelle Zauner’s work before she had come on board and we really thought, with her skill set and commitment, she could bring an outside-of-games perspective to the project. And that her work would also allow us to have music in the game that had lyrics and singing in a way that we might not have been able to otherwise. 

Her music set the tone in a lot of ways, and we knew we wanted to have a moment where Sable was leaving home for the first time and to use music to emphasize the emotions she was feeling as she did so. Without the music Michelle produced, we wouldn’t have had even half the impact.

What mood were you striking to create with the audio? How did the music fuel the mood and themes you sought with the game?

Kythreotis: I think the audio allowed us to create different moments of intensity throughout the game and change the tone and mood of a location, storyline, character, or moment in subtle, but incredibly impactful ways. We’re also able to link moments thematically through music and audio cues.

Do you feel that music and sound can be a vital part of bringing all of the game's elements together? A vital part of creating resonance with the player and the experience? How so?

Kythreotis: It’s imperative. You can really feel the impact that sound has on a game world as you are making it because, especially early in development, you don’t have it. When it starts to get in and you start being able to hear crickets from bushes and the crunch of sand underfoot, the world comes alive. It’s an incredible tool for world building, for adding emotion to special moments in the game, and for making the game feel better as a whole.

Kvale: Sable has a unique art style that leaves a lot of space for the audio to fill out details. For example, the simplicity of the space between the visually-striking linework makes the sound inform your interactions with the world as you move across finely-grained dunes, dense metal, or hollow wood.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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