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Monumental Sound M

John Broomhall talks to freelance game audio specialist Stafford Bawler about his Develop Award- nominated work for UsTwo’s compelling interactive experience, Monument Valley.

ention audio production for videogames these days and one’s mind perhaps

turns to the likes of GTA, Assassins Creed, and Tomb Raider – huge endeavours whose scope and level of detail can be jaw-dropping, with large teams striving to create an interactive blockbuster movie-quality soundscape and score. For those aspiring to work in such rarefied atmospheres, opportunities can seem remote. However, the burgeoning indie games sector continues to spawn smaller scale (but high-quality) consumer gaming experiences, providing a fantastic arena not just for rookies but also for console game audio veterans who are relishing the chance to eschew being a ‘cog in a machine’ to direct the entire music, sound, and dialogue instead. For Stafford Bawler, Monument

Valley has provided just such an opportunity. With a career stretching back over 17 years, Bawler has worked both in-house and as an outsourcer on some 60 game titles covering everything from MMOs like Dragon Empires, to a slew of AAA racing games, such as Colin McCrae: Dirt. But his latest gig in the indie game sector, working for the creators of Monument Valley – London-based UsTwo – has secured him a coveted nomination in this year’s Develop Awards. Bawler: “I’m absolutely blown away. Te game reviews and the feedback on the audio have been incredible. Te whole thing has been really inspiring. Monument Valley is a puzzle game but it’s a journey as well – there’s an experience there. Actually, it was conceived as almost like a work of art that you could hang on your wall, yet you can interact and play with it too. UsTwo produces a lot of software and interfaces for large blue-chip firms, but in recent years they started a small games division whose remit is really, ‘go make us cool stuff’. From the get-go, they were clear the audio for Monument Valley should be quite light, ambient, positive, and uplifting. Te player’s viewpoint is a high-up isometric view

26 June 2014

– kind of remote – making you lean towards treating the sounds as if they’re sort of miniaturised but actually, these are full-scale structures and the main character you see walking around, Princess Ida, is a normal sized human being – so these are absolutely massive monuments. So, the first pitfall I had to avoid as a sound designer, was to do with getting the correct perspective...”

Development Process

“I started out creating background ambiences based on realistic sounds – and this extended to my approach for materials, say stone-dragging sounds for large slabs of marble sliding against each other, but over a period we realised I was chasing my tail a bit... I was looking for better, smoother material sounds and more perfect ambience, but it became apparent that something more abstract was needed, including sounds with musical tonality. “Te result was that both individual object sounds and the ambient backdrop became very musical – and the more we went on, the less we found we wanted audio realism. Once this principle was established, it completely unlocked my design approach so that I could focus on the mood of each chapter in the journey, and how the story was being told. It became a much more artistic kind of approach.” Conscious that he was now moving

from his usual pure sound design role into the realm of music writing, Bawler turned to his trusty vintage hardware synths for inspiration – a Yamaha A4000 sampler, a Roland JX3P, a JV2080, and a Wardolf Blofeld, and in doing so, whether by accident or design, gave Monument’s audio a distinct sonic identity. Bawler adds: “Te Blofeld is a very flexible wave table synth – almost like a modular synth. Known for its idiosyncrasies, it can create complex tones and fluctuations that aren’t necessarily under your control, but I quite like the unpredictability! In-game, we have a soundscape bed, on top of which, many small musical elements and stings are triggered as

you interact with objects and solve puzzles. All this content shares the same instrument sets so you’ve got this amazing interactive experience with all these rotating and slide- able and drag-able objects that play musical notes as you manipulate them, including a clever system of arpeggios programmed by UsTwo, the musical sequences of which are generated at run-time to play back a set of musical samples in memory which are in tune with, and blend with, the backdrop audio. I edited the sounds and musical elements using Sound Forge and Vegas and we integrated them into the game

using Tazman’s Fabric plug-in for game engine Unity. We were able to run the most recent build of the game and manipulate and edit the audio in real-time using Fabric. “Monument Valley has definitely made me take a step back and think about music and sound design for games a little differently than I did before. Objectively, as a sound designer, I think when I’m working with composers in the future, and when I’m involved with musical FX creation again myself, I’ll be approaching it as a more intertwined part of the experience.”

Develop Conference in Brighton – THURSDAY 10 JULY 2014

AAA Audio Attitude for Tablet and Mobile

Stafford Bawler will be taking part in this session featuring a panel of game audio experts sharing how they have migrated between AAA console titles and smaller scale, more hardware-challenged titles, while maintaining their quest for both technically and creatively excellent results – whatever the format. Te panel will discuss how they have applied existing ‘console’ game audio

approaches, methodologies, and techniques to raise the bar wherever possible.

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