Audio Narratives
By Steve Green, Sound Designer

Hi I’m Steve, sound designer at Giant Squid. In this post, I’ll be describing a process that we use to establish the audio direction for new areas in ABZÛ.

An audio narrative is a short sound design test piece based on a written description of a moment in the game. It functions as concept art in audio form, setting the mood and inspiring gameplay and art direction. It gives us an early glimpse of a more complete audio atmosphere, and serves as a great reference point as we iterate further.

This is a narrative that was created a to help define the open ocean areas in ABZÛ. Giant Squid’s creative director Matt Nava wrote the story prompt below.

The player dives into the water. It is open and clear, with a sandy floor. There is a gently rolling tide. She swims quickly for a distance through this barren area, occasionally jumping out of the water like a dolphin and splashing back in. Before long she discovers a reef. She must dive further down to reach it. It is an environment rich with life. Schools of thousands of small fish dart by, surrounding the diver. Some are scared as she swims close. A very large goliath grouper fish floats idly near the coral. When a smaller yellowtail snapper fish comes close, the grouper eats it in one lightning quick bite. The player lands on the seafloor and walks through tall sea grass. The grass gives way to a stoney floor where the diver finds the entrance to a deep cave. As she enters, the temperature drops rapidly and all light fades away. The cave is lit only by tiny bioluminescent creatures hovering in the still icy water. There is something magical about its quiet atmosphere.

After designing the sound for it, I presented it to the team. We all read and listened at the same time. It’s fun to match the events to the sounds as they play.

One of my main design goals was to make the soundscape feel inviting, so that a player would feel safe to explore. At the same time, I wanted to make it feel foreign because being underwater is such a drastic change from our normal environment. One way I tried to make the player feel safe in this alternate space was using processed versions of commonly heard everyday sounds. For example, to make the environment feel rich with life, I used a lot of typical animal calls like loons, donkeys, and cranes. However, I pitched-shifted, equalized, filtered, and ran the sounds through vocoders to make them mesh with the underwater environment.

Creating the underwater soundscape was one of the biggest challenges, but easily one of the most fun. The large grouper fish was mainly pig sounds. His swimming is a gurgling fish tank layered over the background water. When he eats the yellowtail, you’ll hear an apple chomp and myself gulping water as loudly as possible. The player’s footsteps were made by pressing my hands into a mix of snow and sand.

Recording apple chomping foley with Pete Angstadt, a gameplay engineer at Giant Squid

The audio narrative allows for a lot of easy experimentation with things we might change later. One thing I tried was placing the listener sonically within a helmet. To do this, I placed a microphone inside my motorcycle helmet and played a series of frequency sweeps from my speakers. As the microphone recorded the sweeps, I got information about what they sounded like from within the helmet, as well as how long it reverberated. This generated an impulse response, which I could feed into the sound effects to get the desired helmet effect.

Impulse response results and the helmet recording setup

It turned out placing the listener inside a helmet acted as a barrier between the player and the game world. ABZÛ is not a scuba simulator. Instead, it aims to capture an intimate experience with the world and life around you as you play. Due to this mismatch with the game’s direction, we abandoned the helmet idea. The beauty of the audio narrative as a part of preproduction is that we were able to test the idea within the context of a fuller soundscape without spending too much time on it.

I hope you enjoyed this explanation of how we use audio narratives as a part of our process. Much of what is heard here has been expanded upon for the actual game. Working on ABZÛ has so far been absolutely humbling and an experience unlike any other. I can’t wait for you to hear the whole thing.

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