Have you ever wondered what it takes to create outstanding audio for a mobile game? Niels shares his experience working on Returner 77 and talks about what inspired him.
Niels Bøttcher is a one-man circus. He is not only our Sound Designer at Fantastic, yes, but he has worked with various types of interaction design, electronic music and sound design for industrial products and applications.
Besides working at Fantastic, Niels has among other places been working at Ustwo in Malmø, where he recently designed the sound effects, music and voice direction on the Play-Doh Touch game released by Hasbro, in collaboration with Apple. He also performs live with Onkel Reje from the Danish kids TV-series “Uncle Shrimp.”
Returner 77 is set within a sci-fi world, on an alien spaceship. How will the sound of the game reflect the visual theme?
The first step was to define what we wanted to achieve with the soundtrack. We decided that the sound should be a crucial element in the storytelling of our game. As our genre is sci-fi, we started thinking how this crystal space environment should sound. We then tried to make it sci-fi but in a little bit of a different way – trying to get some emotions into the game. I decided to create some sci-fi sounds without making it too stereotypical.
How would you describe the sound in Returner 77?
An important thing for me was to try to avoid overdoing it. I think that too many computer games have constant music going on somehow. It is nice for games like Super Mario because you recognize it and it’s nice and catchy. but I think that,, for this type of game, where you have to concentrate for a long time to solve puzzles, it was essential for me to not to make it annoying, and of course not repetitive. So not irritating but still with lots of emotions was quite crucial.
While the player is trying to solve some puzzles, it was crucial to give him concentration, but still, push in a tiny bit of suspense and emotion. Naturally, it was critical to me to create the feeling of being alone on a spaceship.
Where did you get your inspiration from?
I don’t think I had the idea popping up in my head just like that. It was more a matter of growing and prototyping and trying lots of different sounds out.
I think I tried out about ten different sound themes and directions before we agreed on something in the end. I listened to tons of sci-fi movies, mostly 80’s, watched the Alien again and things like that. I also replayed games like Dead Space and similar types of games for inspiration.
What did you start on first?
I started with listening to a lot of ice sounds. Cracking ice, ice from Greenland and sound in caves. I tried to come up with some ice-like sound, but then, during the work, I moved away from that, because it became too icy.
I also started trying many different reverbs – like space classical spaceship environments, trying to make those huge ice rooms with deep and profound sound.
Could you tell us more about the process of creating sounds for the game?
To be a little bit in front, and not always ten steps behind the programmers and graphic artists, as soon as I hear about the puzzle I try to think how the sound for it should be. I look at the concept art and try to create sound for that. After that, I try to create an interactive mechanism for this sound event. Then, when I get the puzzle and all the interactive parts from the programmers, I put it in, test it, try it out and remake it probably ten times before it works seamlessly. Sometimes I also get a finished puzzle that I have to create the sounds for.
Returner 77 is another example of stressing non-verbal forms of storytelling. How does the lack of dialog reflect on your work?
It was essential to underline that feeling of being alone in an empty spaceship. It had to be a little bit scary, and incredibly lonely. Both the sounds and the environment. It’s a hard task – how does loneliness sound?
What was your favorite element you worked on?
I think the environments are the most fun part to work on. They also took a lot of time because you have to listen to it for half an hour without noticing any repetitive elements. Because of that a lot of work is put into programming the sound events so that they can play these environmental sounds without the player is getting the feeling of ‘oh I just heard it two seconds ago.’
Can you name some of the effects or sound manipulation software you used?
I use a few libraries, but I mainly create the stuff from scratch. Ice cracks are made from my fridge. I use a software called Reaper for creating the sound effects and music – that’s the digital audio workstation. It is similar to Logic and Cuebase and Pro tools. Then I also use a lot of plugins – too many to mention here.
For implementing the sound in the game, I use Fmod Studio, which is a game-audio middleware.
Is Returner 77 different from previous games you’ve been working on?
Finally, I’m allowed to make lonely, melancholic music. I’ve been working on games where I had to go happy tunes. It’s really important for an artist to have this kind of liberty and trust from colleagues.
In Returner 77 I sneaked in saxophones and trumpets in a very subtle way. I always try to sneak in some brass instruments 🙂 I’ve been working on games for kids, an open world game, and a puzzle game, but I haven’t worked on a sci-fi game before. When you do sound effects and love synthesizers as I do, then it’s really nice to work on a sci-fi game, and really use synthesizers to their full potential.
How did you balance the blend of music and sounds in Returner 77?
It’s mostly background and environmental sounds in the game, and only a little music pop up here and there. I also see the environmental sounds like ambient music, that is just not that catchy and melodic, but more like soundscapes. One of the big challenges for the sound design was to make the cinematic sound, that should also work on a mobile platform.
Mobile devices boost especially some low frequencies off, so I have to make sure that the sound is good quality no matter if you’re listening to it with your high-quality headphones or from a speaker while on a bus.
How does creating game’s soundtrack differ from films?
It takes 10 or sometimes 100 times longer to create. With a movie, you can create one sound effect for one event, and you can create one piece of music that you put in and time it precisely, whereas, for a game you can do it in many different ways, timing can be completely random.
I usually say that when doing sound design for games you use perhaps 10% of time creating the sound effects and music, and you use the rest of time implementing the sound because it’s much more complicated to time it, randomise it, avoid repetition and so on. Mixing is a very interesting topic. When making a movie, you can just create a mix and master it perfectly. When you do it you know it’s always going to be like that, but in a game, there are so many things you can tweak, many levels, so you have many combinations of events and timings. So you can’t mix perfect different levels, there’s only so many combinations you can do and different timings, so mixing is also quite essential.
I tried to do some dynamic mixing in the game, so for example, when you concentrate on a puzzle, it turns down the loudest background audio, so you can focus on a puzzle. When you solve the puzzle, it turns up the ambient sound. People probably won’t notice it while playing or they won’t realize that the sound is a part of the experience. With sound design it is like that – people only notice it when it’s annoying. That’s a pretty ungrateful job.
What is your favorite soundtrack?
I don’t really have one favorite, there are too many good ones to choose from. My favorite sound designer is Ben Burtt, who among other things worked on Wall-E and Star Wars. I love the sound of Wall-E. What I really like about Ben Burtt is that he is very good at putting emotions and fun into his sound effects. So if you see a robot in Star Wars that jumps or makes a small movement, it sounds like a robot, but it also has a small, micro change in modulation of the sound that gives the robot both character and emotions. That’s what I think he’s extremely good at.