Using natural symphonies to create human connections in Sunlight

"We wanted the forest to represent humanity itself speaking as one, which we feel needs voices and actors from all over the world," say the creators of the Excellence in Audio-nominated Sunlight.

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

Sunlight, an Excellence in Audio nominee for Independent Games Festival 2021, gives the player a forest filled with voices to explore, with every tree offering its own unique song. Through their exploring, the player shapes the music, creating a journey through audio and a harmony with the world around them.

Gamasutra sat down with Adrian Tingstad Husby and Martin Kvale of Krillbite Studio, developers of Sunlight, speaking with them about that desire to create a duet between the game and the player, what drew them to bring so many voices from around the globe into the music, and how they chose a visual style that would suit the human connection they sought to create with the game.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Sunlight?

Hey! We’re Adrian Tingstad Husby (designer/creative director) and Martin Kvale (sound-person) from Krillbite Studio.

We founded Krillbite while we were still students back in 2011. After graduating with a thesis project called Among the Sleep, we decided to keep working on the project for a few years and release it commercially. Since then,we have released another large title called Mosaic, and a few smaller and more experimental titles like The Plan and now Sunlight.

How did you come up with the concept for Sunlight? 

Sunlight comes from such a wide range of places. We love video games, music, poetry and literature, meditation, philosophy, nature... and feeling like a part of an ecosystem, both literally and metaphorically. I think that's what has been such a joy with Sunlight: mashing all of those things into one thing.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Quite a wide range! The game was created in Unity, while the visual assets were actually hand painted in Quill/VR (a process we’ve elaborated on a bit here). We also built an automated processing step for these assets in Houdini, processing everything from brush strokes to LOD morphing (to make far away assets low fidelity, like an actual painting). In the end, the tech magicians ended up passing along 7 extra sets of UV channels to Unity for a lot of control on the shader level. For the audio, we used FMOD Studio, integrated with Unity. 

In Sunlight, the trees themselves offer their own songs. What interested you in creating this kind of auditory exploration?

I think audio has been an integral part of all our games, while for Sunlight it really was the central pillar from the start. We had quite a few creative goals for audio, from the choir music and the chanting forest of spoken poetry, inspired by guided meditation, down to the sound of wind in the leaves. All of this speaks to the main themes of the game, and were planned (and even "prototyped" in video form) before a single line of code was written.

What drew you to your choice of music for the game? 

Firstly, we knew we had to work with a choir, as it captures the core theme of being one with each other and our surroundings quite literally. This piece also has a divine existential element to it, which hits all narrative nails on the head. In addition, if you give it a listen, it really does sound like sunlight. We were lucky to work with the amazing Kammerkoret Aurum and Ambolt Audio, and in case it’s of interest, we even recorded the session.

The game features voice actors from across the globe. What do you feel this variety of tones and voices added to the work?

We wanted the forest to represent humanity itself speaking as one, which we feel needs voices and actors from all over the world. Walking from an old man's voice, blending into a young child, to a woman, all of them speaking in unison. We would have loved to do more spoken languages as well, but as a small experimental indie game, that was unfortunately way out of scope.

What ideas went into creating a visual style that went along with this auditory exploration? What made the art style feel right for the game and its themes?

We wanted the game to feel intimate and ‘human-made’. In digital game productions, that usually involves a lot of people and spans a long time, so this can be a challenge. We felt that actually painting the assets with our hands would help, as everything you see would be 'touched' by a human hand. We were also very inspired by impressionist paintings. It is such a delight to not be concerned with individual vertices or edges, but rather form and shape, using brushstrokes and the guiding principles of art.

How do you create curiosity in the player through sound? Encourage them to explore and create their own music through their wanderings in your game's musical world? 

That is one of the joys with games! We know what the player is doing, what they are looking at, where they are coming from, and what they are walking towards. The music and voices are constantly getting instructions to change depending on factors such as if a chapter is over, if there are flowers near you, if you´re standing in shadow or sun, etc.

Both the voices in the choir/music and the spoken words are tweaked and balanced depending on these factors. A voice enhances when you get close to it, and it subtly changes when you turn away from it, as your focus is elsewhere. We see the player's actions and movements as a dialogue or duet with the game audio itself. The choir acts as an extension of how we want the player to feel, and we bring in a sparser/richer version of the song based on what and where in the narrative you are.

What feelings did you hope to evoke with your work? With bringing so many voices together in song?

I could string together a series of words here, but I’d rather copy a line from a Steam-review. For us as creators, this is what makes all the sweat and hard work worth it: "It felt like someone was there to hug me through all the darkness."

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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