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Using audio to emphasise the positive power of 'NO!' in Studio Fizbin's Say No! More

"When we spoke to the people who played the prototype, we didn’t talk about our game, but more about our personal relationship with the word 'No' and how hard it is for us to say it."

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

Say No! More, which was nominated for Excellence in Audio at this year's IGF, is a game about expressing your boundaries a little better by being willing to say No when you need to. Except when you say No in this game, you sometimes throw people a dozen feet away and destroy everything around you.

The team at Studio Fizbin spoke with Gamasutra about the way this empowering, yet lighthearted idea came to be turned into a game, how the audio design helped strengthen the humor of the game, and how they developed a game entirely focused on saying No.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Say No! More?

Winter: My name is Marius Winter, and I’m the game director of Say No! More and was part of the voice cast.

Maierhöfer: I’m Nick Maierhöfer, Art Director and Lead Game Designer.

Buchanan: I’m Julie Buchanan, the composer and sound designer for Say No! More.

Winter: We are Studio Fizbin, a German video game studio founded in 2011, and our first project was the point & click adventure game The Inner World, which won several awards like “Best German Game” at the German Computer Games Award 2014. Since then, we have been designing and developing games and apps for clients, such as the children’s apps The Elephant and KiKAninchen', or a unique multiplayer game installation commissioned by the state museum of Muenster.

After releasing the sequel to The Inner World in 2017, we started developing three more new original IPs: The just-released Say No! More, and the soon-to-be released Minute of Islands, and Lost at Sea. In addition to all of this, we co-founded two indie collective spaces, the “Saftladen” in Berlin, and the “Kokolores” in Ludwigsburg, where creative individuals come together at one place.

Buchanan: I have worked as a freelancer in game audio for about 6 years. I studied film scoring and video game scoring at Berklee College of Music, and pretty quickly after graduating started collaborating on projects with University of Southern California’s IMGD (Interactive Media & Games Division) students. From there, I slowly started earning money from game audio while I supported myself through other odd jobs. Along with Say No! More, I’ve worked on games like You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter (Indiecade Media Choice Award 2016), Cartoon Network Journeys VR, Godfall, and contributed an anthem pack for Rocket League.

How did you come up with the concept for Say No! More?

Winter: In 2017, my friend Nick and I were trying to figure out what the next game could be, and tinkered around in Unity. We wanted to make something that makes us laugh, and worked on a mechanic where the player is confronted with arrogant people and can only respond with a small set of answers: “Yes!”, “No!”, “Maybe!” and “Interesting. What do you think?”. We quickly realized that saying “No!” was the most fun response, because it is something you rarely do. At that point, we thought it would be funny to make a game ONLY about that word.

We then made a prototype where the player is an intern at a company, and saying “No!” shocks and throws everyone around. It was a game that simply made us laugh out loud. But it wasn’t until we experienced players’ reactions to the game when we finally discovered what the game could be about.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Maierhöfer: Say No! More was made with Unity, including the Cinemachine plugin for making all cutscenes. Our programmers, especially our lead dev Kathrin Rathke, developed a custom sequence and waypoint system specifically for the game so that all level designers could easily build the levels and put together the logic with premade “actions”.

Buchanan: For audio implementation we used FMOD. Both Studio Fizbin and myself had used it before, so it made sense to choose a familiar tool for this project.

What drew you to create a game about being more assertive and saying NO to more people?

Winter: When we showed the game around, we discovered the meaningful impact it could have. When we spoke to the people who played the prototype, we didn’t talk about our game, but more about our personal relationship with the word “No”, and how hard it is for us to say it. Only then did we realize that we are not so good at saying “No!” as well!

That’s when we finally realized what the game was about, and that it could be more than “just” a game to laugh out loud to.

Buchanan: I wasn’t involved in the initial conception of Say No! More, but I was really drawn to its wacky visuals and the comedy of yelling “No” in-game. I had only seen a short gif of it before I joined the team, but I just loved how cathartic and silly it was.

What thoughts went into creating the game's visual style? What did you want this playful look to evoke in the player?

Maierhöfer: There are many reasons for this! First of all, I´m a total fan of Mega Man Legends 1 & 2, from which the art style was inspired from. There´s something in its elegant simplicity that I can't describe. Simple polygonal shapes combined with pixel art textures are such a great look! Besides, the art style proved to be a perfect fit for Say No! More, both in the look itself and production values. We hired the excellent Roman Gonzo to do the vast majority of all the final art assets. We were very lucky to have him, and he added his very own style of pixel art to the project.

How did you design gameplay around simply saying the word NO? What thoughts went into creating moments, dialogue, effects, and all of the other ways you used to make saying NO feel special and fun?

Winter: I have to admit that, early on, we were worried about making a game with such a simple mechanic. We often talked about and experimented with more complex gameplay because we felt that a video game was “supposed” to have a certain amount of complexity. Eventually we realized that we were racking our brains to do something we didn’t really want to. The mechanic of the prototype fulfilled us already. So we eventually let go of these worries and confidently focused on the story, humor, and wholesome mood of the game.

Writing the game, and creating fun, small unique moments, followed our philosophy that the time between “having an idea” and “having the idea in the game” must be as short as possible. We tried to give the game a strong improv energy, and built our tools to achieve that goal. For example, each level has a huge Google sheet that not only contains each line of dialogue, but also states what animation NPCs should play, what facial expression they have while saying a line, and how many milliseconds they wait after a line has been said.

Buchanan: I focused on finding ways for sound to make the actual interaction of saying “No” feel as good as possible to the player. There are a few audio things that happen sequentially during that moment. If the player is doing a charged “No,” for example, the first thing they’ll hear is the charging up dialogue line coupled with a silly rising sound effect underneath (which plays as long as the charge is being held). I used whooshy balloon sounds to make it feel like the player is about to burst with the power of “No”, and there’s an additional squeaky layer (like air leaking out of a balloon) that comes out as the player completes the final ring in the “No” meter.

Next is the actual “No!” voice line. Depending on which type of “No” the player is using, there are real-time DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effects that get added to the voice event. For example, the wacky “No” is emphasized with a quick delay that pitches up, as well as some reverb. There’s also a sound effect that plays underneath the line which is specific for each type of “No”. As an example, when the heated “No” is released, it has a whooshy fiery sound, while the cold “No” has a frozen/icy sound that plays underneath. I wanted to add more character to the type of “No” the player uses and emphasize the comedy that’s already in that moment.

Next, there’s the impact of the NPCs when they get hit with a “No”. I made a really thick and punchy smack sound for when the NPC’s are hit, and another for when they hit the ground. I decided pretty early on in development that I wanted impact/destruction sounds to feel over-the-top, and those punchy sounds are a result of that. Finally, as a result of shouting “No!”, there are chaotic game objects that go flying everywhere, making a bunch of noise. We created a system that plays a different sound depending on the surface material and how hard the impact is. The system helps add variety to the sounds, while the assets themselves really add to the comedy by juxtaposing really intense/realistic chaos sounds with the silly weightless physics of everything flying around the office.

I think altogether the audio in this sequence helps accentuate the comedy in this interaction and contributes to a fun and feel-good experience for players.

What ideas went into creating the music for the game? What feelings did you want the music and sound design to evoke?

Buchanan: For the music, I was really inspired by the visuals and narrative of the game. Early on, I settled on a retro ‘90s aesthetic that fit the low-poly visuals. I wanted to recreate the aesthetic of some of my favorite soundtracks from that era while adding my own spin on it and taking reference from more modern music as well. My goal for the mixtape tracks (which play while the player is wearing their headphones) and the Coach’s “No! No! No!” track was to have the music help empower the player to say “No” by being energetic, fun, and silly. I also wanted to lean in to the idea that it was actually playing through the cassette by using tape fast forward/rewind sound effects whenever the mixtape music is started, and later when it’s sped up during the second half of chapters or boss fights.

Another theme that I wanted to focus on was “friendship”, which first makes an appearance in the music of Chapter 4, and continues to weave itself through later tracks in different variations. I feel like a core message of the game is learning to respect others through respecting your own boundaries, and that you learn how to do that through your interactions with other people in the game who are trying to do the same thing. For that reason, a variation of the “friendship” theme is what I used to build the music related to Maja and the ending chapters of the game.

For sound design, I touched briefly on some of the goals I wanted to focus on, including emphasizing comedy through the juxtaposition of silly sounds/mechanics and over-the-top realistic sounds. The impact and destruction sounds in the game are all really punchy and dramatic, which was a design choice I made to contrast with the really silly and cute visuals and wild physics system. I was often trying to balance adding comedy through sound by choosing sounds that aren’t exactly what you would expect to hear in a certain moment.

I also tried to balance good quality sound with good quality comedy - I learned sometimes these aren’t always the same. For example, initially the body thud sound that plays when NPCs are hit with a “No” was more tame - kind of a normal good-sounding body thud, but it wasn’t adding anything to that animation. Then, I ran it through several saturation/distortion plugins and hard-clipped it in my limiter as a joke and stuck it in the game and it felt way funnier because of how loud and aggressive it seemed. It’s a little bit violent sounding in a game where there’s no real threat of violence to any of the players or NPCs, so I think it works and makes me laugh because it’s surprising.

I also focused on making a lot of cute/silly anime sfx that could be re-used all over the game. I think my decision to make retro anime sounds for this game was based partially off of the low-poly visuals and how over-the-top some of the sequences are, but it also served a functional purpose to have a variety of non-diegetic sounds that could be used for multiple events. I was the only audio person on the Say No! More team, so realistically, I couldn’t make a sound for every specific instance. So, it was both a creative choice to go with something that fit the aesthetic and added some cute comedy, but also gave us the flexibility to re-use sounds and cut back on sound design time.

Likewise, what went into the direction of the silly voice acting? What were you looking for with the voice acting? What did you want it to bring to the game?

Winter: That type of voice acting was there from the beginning. It even existed before the “No!” mechanic was built. When doing any kind of prototyping, I record temp lines before we program the thing we are trying out. Using voice acting for humor was something that always fulfilled me, which is why we never really think about the voice acting too much. It was part of the game’s DNA from the start, and when I directed the other cast members, I encouraged them to be as wacky as they would like to be, and we rarely did more than one take per line.

What do you feel that players will get out of this playful look at being more assertive? In experiencing an absurd time in taking control of your life?

Winter: I hope they have a good laugh and leave the game with a warm feeling, the courage to say “No” more, feel more able to set boundaries, and believe that saying “No” doesn’t make them a bad person. I personally need that kind of encouragement once in a while, and I hope others will get some of it from the game.

Buchanan: I also hope that players for the most part just have a good time playing the game. If the message of learning how to set healthy boundaries for yourself gets taken to heart as well, that makes me really happy. I personally have found that working on Say No! More has helped me re-evaluate ways in which I’m afraid to say “No” in my own life. I’ve definitely had moments where I felt like I needed to come up with an excuse for saying “No” to something, but realized that it’s okay to simply say “No” without justifying it.

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