Road to the IGF: E-Studio's Tormentor X Punisher

Tormentor X Punisher draws the player into bloody, frantic gunplay with pounding music, screen-shaking effects, and a few hidden audio tricks that make the player's actions part of the sound.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Tormentor X Punisher draws the player into bloody, frantic gunplay with pounding music, screen-shaking effects, and a few hidden audio tricks that make the player's actions part of the sound. When not busy blasting demons into puddles of blood and gore, players might notice that they're steadily taking part in the game's gritty music, adding to the song with each shotgun or machinegun shot.

Joonas Turner, designer for the Excellence in Audio-nominated title, spoke with Gamasutra about the years of work that lead to being in a position to design the title, as well as how he turned player actions, no matter when they occurred, into part of the game's brutal soundtrack.

What's your background in making games?

I feel like giving a short answer would be a disservice for aspiring developers and to my roots, so I'll dive in just a bit, heh! As a young kid I used to go to this computer club that was nearby to where we lived, and I would find all these weird DOS games by all these Finnish developers (I'm half English, lived in Finland since I was four years old) and be mesmerized by them. Coincidentally there were older kids (or teens by then) who were making music with a software called "Fast Tracker" that blew my mind. These kids were making their own music!

It was a gray area (as in we weren't really supposed to copy software from the club), but we every now and then had this substitute supervisor (lack for a better term) who would go "Oh, who cares" and would help us copy games/software to diskettes. Well, I finally had Fast Tracker for myself, too, but, needless to say, it was useless for me at that age, but it did plant a seed in my mind that making your own music was achievable!

Around this same time, we got a 486 computer back home to replace our 286 with Windows 3.1 (which we upgraded to Windows 3.11) with a CD-Rom drive, and I got a bunch of games CD's from somewhere (from my aunt in England think?), one of which was called Klik & Play. You could make your own games with it. I could not begin to understand how cool that was, and I set immediately to try stuff. It took me ages to get anything remotely playable set up, but I did manage to get things to move and interact. Although I never took it in as a proper hobby - I was more into playing games - but again, it planted a seed in my head. 

At some point we got a PlayStation that I saved money towards ,and one of the demo CD's that I had, had a demo of a program called "Music". I was so excited that I made all kinds of variations of the demo CD's blocks, again, further growing that seed in my head. 

Jumping onwards a few years, we got a Pentium computer with Windows ME (after some time we upgraded to XP) and ADSL internet, effectively being our first form of internet in the household! I heard of this program called "ModPlugTracker" from my cousin and instantly hearing the word "Tracker" brought back memories of Fast Tracker, I went and downloaded "ModPlugTracker" and behold, it looked and felt very similar, except this time I had more years in me (I was probably uuuh 11 - 12 - 13 then?), and I decided to learn it this time.

At first, it was a horrible curve to get anything done as I didn't understand about sampling or synthesis or anything, but once I realized I could import Counter-Strike sounds into it - damn, that's where the fun started!

After a while, but around the same time, I got hold of a music making software called Fruity Loops and started to make my own horrible rap and techno tunes. That's enough about that though [laughs]!

Fast forwarding a few years again, and I had begun to play guitar in a band (originally I thought I was buying a bass but my friend sold me a guitar instead), and I was super into The Ramones, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and the like. We started to make our own demos, and I got to be a part of the process, too, slowly learning the ropes! Around this time, I started mixing live shows at our local youth club as well, going in blind but referencing familiar terms into knowledge I had already acquired (although very minimal). Live mixing shows with various bands I was in, and friends' bands, and friends friends' bands, and so on, I started dabbling in recording and mixing demos for said bands.

After a while, I decided to save up money and buy a laptop dedicated to sound software and a sound card. A little before this, I had acquired my first microphone as well (Bought by our family friend in the US, Thank you 'Big Wendy').

I recorded and mixed bands and artists a bunch, and I decided that I wanted to get into a school dedicated to this craft. After a few years of trying, I finally got into a sound school in Helsinki (HELTECH AV) that was leaning towards the TV and movie industry. Coincidentally at this very same time, I bumped into a friend of mine who I had a met a few years earlier at a show that we shared with our bands back then. He told me that he had been making his own video games, and I shared my past with video game creating, too, and he showed me this software called Game Maker (version 7 then if I recall right) and I started immediately dabbling in it. This friend that I bumped into was Jukio Kallio, who helped me develop my games through this time, and we would also explore music related stuff together too.

When I made my own games, I also made my own sound effects and music. This made me feel differently than movies or music alone - it felt more interesting and felt like there were so many possibilities to try, so I experimented! 

A good handful of years later, Jukio took me into this fresh new gathering called "Indie Beer" in Helsinki, formed by a local game maker extraordinaire, Petri Purho. I took a great liking in meeting other developers and hearing their stories.

Alongside Indie Beer we would join a lot of game jams, both location and internet ones. I enjoyed these a lot, too, and noticed that there were maybe 2 or 3 sound designers with around 200 or 300 game developers, so I ended up making sounds for like, minimum of 5 jam games per game jam. This was the best school a sound designer could have; I learned routines and commonly-used practices very fast with rapid fire trial and error and before I knew it, I would stumble upon my first paid, commercial video game as a sound designer. That game was BADLAND by Frogmind Games.

Alongside working on a gameplay teaser trailer for BADLAND, I asked a studio that I interned at if I could book a room to mix the trailer in, but instead they offered me a work place and I have since worked over at E-Studio to this day.

Not long after all this, I got asked to join a jam from MOJANG called MOJAM to work with my friends who had formed a company earlier called Vlambeer. We made a mutant shooter called Wasteland Kings. We had so much fun doing the jam game that we decided to make a commercial version of the game which turned into a game called Nuclear Throne.

Whilst working on BADLAND and Nuclear Throne, I worked on at least four handfulls of other games such as Broforce, Downwell, BADLAND 2 (after BADLAND was finished mid-Nuclear Throne), Turbo Dismount, Environmental Station Alpha, a bit on The Swapper, Angry Birds: Transformers, and so on.

Mid-Nuclear Throne I also worked on this little "prototype" with my friend Tuuka Stefansson that I saved with a dumb project name, riffing on 80/90's metal bands and that aesthetic, with the project name being Tormentor X Punisher.

How did you come up with the concept?

Geometry Wars. I had for years longed to try something similar in nature, but that is not the whole story.

So, Tormentor X Punisher started off like all of my games: a top down shooter. This time, I wanted to make an arcade game with very simple core mechanics, but have some depth to it while being very hard and fast paced. Truth be told, I just wanted to make a game in this setting so I could make sounds for it, which is kinda ironic now looking back with the IGF nomination. It all started with this idea of a gun sound that I had in my head and wanted to hear in a game, and it started a life of its' own from there.

Animations and comic books (Prison Pit, King Star King, Turtles, Super Jail, art in Necromunda) had a huge impact on the aesthetic and feel of the game, and I wanted to try adding text everywhere I could in the game to further enhance this notion. 

Looking back again, I like how much "Oh, that's not a good idea" I heard from various people. So, don't always be disheartened if you have an idea that you think will work but others don't. Try it yourself first before committing a team, that's what I did.

A huge inspiration for me for everything I have done as a game designer has been Tapan Kaikki 3, a (still good) Finnish video game from the 90's.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Game Maker 8.1 for the "proto" version. Game Maker Studio for the commercial version. Pro Tools for everything audio. Graphics Gale for the graphics.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

I started the "proto" around the end of 2014/start of 2015, and then after working on it every now and then, I got picked up by Raw Fury in Summer 2016. For the commercial version, I managed to hire the programmer of my favourite multiplayer game (Samurai Gunn), Beau Blyth, to join us.

Tuuka had already worked with me since the beginning, and now I could pay him money, which felt really good. Also, my friend Isa And did amazing voice acting in both versions of the game. With both versions I sparred a lot of my ideas with my co-worker Niilo Takalainen who also did some sound design on the game.

For our very first promotional logo for events and press, I had Jarred Lunt (from Broforce fame) help us out, but then later on, Jon Vermilyea joined us to do the promotional art! Then, with animating our intro, we had Jons' friend David Gemmill help us animate the video.

Tormentor X Punisher was released in June, 2017.

What attitude did you want the music and sound of the game to convey? How do you work to draw that emotion out of the music and out of the player?

Everything in the game is meant to be very "in your face" and very "dumb", very much like the animation/cartoon series' that inspired it. It is not meant to be taken so seriously; you are allowed to have fun!

That's a good question, how to draw emotion out of the music and the player. For this, as an easy, quick example, I built this music system where all the songs are of the same tempo as the main song that plays from the very start of the run. I made the machine gun shots to be in rhythmical sync with the music, but be so that when ever the player shoots it's immediate. Due to this, the player is actually creating polyrhythms (or something like that) without realizing it, essentially creating music.

This brings a somewhat "meditative" state of mind and after a while, wher the actual main song fades away, sneakily leaving the player to create rhythms themselves with the enemies spawning, and then when enough time has passed, BOOM, a boss spawns with their own hit effects and musical intros, continuing the steady beat with their own style.

For the longest time with the prototype, I kept this to myself to see players' natural reactions, and after seeing people play in rhythm, I knew I was on the right track, with the players became a part of the game.

Sound design is a huge part of making an action game click with its player. What thoughts went into getting the sound effects to feel right for the gunplay and other elements of Tormentor X Punisher?

When creating sound effects, my first thought is: How do I tell from the very beginning of the sound what's happening and to whom and where? That is the key essence of sound effects in "story" telling. When I have that figured out, then it's all about "How do I squeeze this to be as punchy and visceral as I can?", and that's where I believe the magic starts to happen.

I make sure that the sound feels good right when you press a button - that there is no waiting around that makes the button press feel meaningless or sluggish, I want there to be feedback instantly so that the player feels like they are in control of themselves in the game, instead of telling another entity to do something for them.

For the gunplay, it's a mixture of what I mentioned earlier with the rhythms and playing with the camera. The machine gun shakes the camera to the sides of the screen, while shooting the heavier weapon, the shotgun (that also reloads your machine gun), makes the camera zoom in and then back out of the player.

This makes the machine gun feel more "Aaaaaaaa" whilst making the shot gun feel more "UNFHHHH!".

Can you walk us through the process you go through in making a song for Tormentor X Punisher? How you feel your way through making a track or effect for the game?

Ah, it was so much fun I didn't stress about it, but instead, I just went for "does this feel fun to me?" and went with that as my number one rule.

I would look at the design notes for the particular boss I would be writing a song for and try to imagine it in reality, wondering what kind of a soundscape would fit this demonic evil presence with a 90/00's heavy metal mindset! Then, I would proceed to record with that mindset, and try to somewhat "get into" the whole physicality of the boss and play the guitar riffs in a manner that would fit the physique of it! A lot of the riffs and drum patterns and so on are deliberately a bit out of place to further enhance that notion.

I had a self-constraint of attempting to not use synthesizers on the soundtrack, instead using guitars and various acoustic sources, but apply so much overdrive to them that they lose their original tone and become very synthesizer-like, yet having their original timbre there, making them more lively and unpredictable, familiar but strange.

I had my friend, Mikko Saarinen, come over to play live drums on the soundtrack, and we would route the snare and the kick drum into guitar and bass amplifiers live to get even more grit into the recordings! Damn, that was fun!

As a give away to aspiring composers and sound designers, don't worry too much about being "professional and clean". Instead, do stuff that feels fun and original. I personally enjoy that way more as a listener.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Yes I have!! There are a lot of good ones in the mix, but I really have to give a huge shout out to Baba Is You. That game is genius, and something I personally haven't really seen before. It's phenomenal.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

There is simply too much shit to attempt to swim through, and at this moment, only one proper market place to sell your shit on PC. Most often when you have paved the way for your game, there's another game of a similar setting that swoops right in front of you. 

Mainstream press seems more fixated on the bigger titles even when they just do more of the same old. Is it them becoming lazy and just scouting for the viral hits, or is it simply because readers want to read about the bigger/viral games? Who knows, but it is hard to find your market, I mean hell, we aren't selling at all but it's persistence and the joy of seeing people play your game and seeing even a few enjoy it that, at least to me, makes it worth it. Then again, if this game was my only source of money, I wouldn't be writing this reply.


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