Head of Audio
Nothing is more important for creating convincing immersion than sound – and Elite’s is spectacularly convincing Space is, famously, silent. Yet you have four coders working on sound. What are they doing? When we first made this game, we thought, ‘Let’s give players the experience of being in a submarine, stay true to the science.’ That’s actually a really boring idea. So we came up with the idea of an audio HUD. The ship’s computer builds a sonic picture of the outside environment. There are at least eight different layers of sound effects in there to describe acceleration, deceleration, mass shift. Beneath that, there’s another set; so if you fiddle with your power options, or you’re carrying cargo, that’ll have an effect on your mass, which will also affect sound. Basically, we’re getting a lot of telemetry from the game, and we’re converting that into audio. There’s also over an hour of incidental music in the game. So the computer simulates what sounds a human would expect to exist outside a spaceship, if there wasn’t a vacuum? Yes. In space, nothing has weight, so it’s the sound that gives it the weight. That gives us the licence to have really cool stuff, like ship flyby sounds – giving all other ships their own specific sounds just makes the experience more exciting. Staying true to the fiction, if the canopy breaks, you lose that sound. You’ve got headphones, so you’re hearing your breathing inside your mask, and you’re hearing the ship’s voice through your headphones, but everything else – if you shoot your guns, for example – is very muted. If you try to dock, you’ll go back inside an atmosphere and the sounds will return. How do you choose what sounds engines make in the future? Everyone knows how a spaceship’s supposed to sound, but we’ve always steered away from that. We realised quickly that rockets are just noise, which gets very fatiguing, so we reserve that for things like boost. The actual engines, well, we looked at Ben Burtt’s work – the holy grail of sound designers. He worked on Star Wars and Wall-E. In the awful first Star Wars movie, he made the pod-racing so that each vehicle had a real character about it.
So we’ve got a whole different gamut of ships by different manufacturers, with a sound designer working on each one. We started with the Sidewinder, when it was the only ship in the game. We spent a long time getting it right, feeling fun. You wanted to interact with it. We used lots of guitar effects – tremolo, for example – to give the sense of motion, modulating the volume as you go faster. We did lots of experimenting and found a formula, this set of eight sounds, then copied that onto another empty ship, removed all the sounds and gave it to a new person. That meant that each ship ended up with the same system but completely different sounds. So the Viper sounds like a sports car, really throaty and gas-guzzling.