The composer taking videogame audio into a new dimension
The gaming industry of today has high demand for actors and musicians, but formal and practical approaches to recording audio have remained largely the same for the past decade. Games have soundtracks that dynamically shift to match the actions onscreen, and attract big-name composers and vocal talent, their work relayed in rich surround sound, but that isn’t enough. While developers have rushed to use today’s horsepower for visual and gameplay features, audio has been somewhat left behind.
Olivier Deriviere, a composer whose credits include Remember Me and Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, hopes that what we hear in videogames will one day be as immediate and vibrant as what we now see in them. His current project, the psychological thriller Get Even from Polish studio The Farm 51, is created using the fully 3D audio technology Auro-3D. Developed at Galaxy Studios in Belgium – where the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra has been recording Get Even’s soundtrack – Auro-3D captures sound from around, above and below its source to give players a fuller sense of space and immersion. The technology has been used in movies for a while, but it’s new territory for games.
“Usually when you record music, you get something 2D,” Deriviere tells us. “You put 32 mics into a studio and there are maybe two that actually matter. But with Auro-3D not only do you use more mics, the processing and editing algorithm on the back end means you also get a lot more out of them. You get the sounds from every direction.”
Eerie and methodical, if you simply watch Get Even being played it may seem as if little is happening at all. But to listen to it – to appreciate not just the swell of Deriviere’s score, but also the directions from which sound effects emanate, and how they respond to your actions – transforms the game’s apparently sedate sequences into something much more involved.
“To serve a videogame, as a composer, you need to understand how a videogame is made,” Deriviere says. “You need to have harmony, melody and rhythm all connected, all happening in realtime. The sound in Get Even isn’t all rendered before you start playing and you’re just listening to it, in order. I’m editing it to make it as interactive as possible.
“Using Auro and a MIDI setup we can connect sounds directly to in-game assets and events. Sometimes in Get Even there is very little of the musical score, but still you feel like there is ‘music’ – if you concentrate enough on the environment, it is musical. In the opening level, for example, all the sounds are tuned to C. You enter a room and the lights above and around you are all buzzing in C. This is how we need to start approaching audio. Games have been 3D for a long time now.”
But Auro-3D, and Deriviere’s approach to sound, constitute more than technological showboating. This is a psychological thriller, and the goal is to get inside your mind. The more real the audio mix feels, the greater the distress. But it’s as much about a lack of sound as the presence of it. To simply stand in a room, silent in every direction, is to feel trapped inside a nightmare. And when the silence is shattered by distant bangs and rumbles, powered by some vivid Foley work, which grow steadily louder and closer thanks to Auro-3D, you feel suitably unnerved. Emotionally it’s the face at the window in a horror flick, or the queasy feeling of peering over a sheer drop in VR.
Indeed, it’s in virtual reality that these new techniques may come to the fore. With GPUs too busy minimising latency to push advanced effects, sound will play a much greater role in achieving a sense of presence. But Get Even shows that more traditional games can greatly benefit from the adoption of 3D audio.
“These are the games I like to see,” Deriviere says. “Something which is a full and intense experience but still with limitations. There is still a whole story being told either through sound or music, and players will have no idea where it’s going to go. Get Even isn’t about killing people or saving the world. It’s very intimate. The sound leads players through various developments until they reach something, a moment, where they feel like, ‘Oh my God’.”
“This is how we need to start approaching audio. Games have been 3D for a long time now”
There is shooting in The Farm 51’s GetEven (see Hype, p42), but the sound design makes it a much less thrilling, and much more unsettling, act than in videogames generally. Pulling the trigger feels a lot more significant too