The sound of Returner 77 is a crucial element in the storytelling of the game, and we decided early on that we would put an emphasis on creating feeling and narrative through the music and sound of the game – a huge feat on mobile devices.
Returner 77 stresses non-verbal forms of storytelling. 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?
Niels Bøttcher is the sound designer of Returner 77, and we spent some time talking about the process now that the game was released. The sound is one of the biggest defining elements of the game and we’re very proud how it came out. We even were nominated for Best Sound Design by Spilprisen Awards Denmark.
Finding the right sounds for a game is a process, and doesn’t just pop into your head
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. I also replayed games like Dead Space and similar types of games for inspiration. Then, inspiration came from nature:
In Returner 77, I snuck 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.
Returner 77 was different from previous games I’ve worked on. Finally, I was allowed to make lonely, melancholic music. I’ve been working on games where I had to make happy tunes. It’s really important for an artist to have this kind of liberty and trust from colleagues.”
Working with the development team
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.
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 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.
Creating a game’s soundtrack takes 10x or sometimes 100 times longer than other sounds
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, randomize it and avoid repetition. When making a movie, you can just create a mix and master it perfectly because it’s always going to be the same every time, but in a game, there are so many things you can tweak, many levels, so you have many combinations of events and timings. You can’t mix perfectly different levels, there are so many combinations and different timings you can do.
About Niels Bøttcher
Niels Bøttcher is a one-man circus. Not only is he the Sound Designer at Fantastic, yes, but he has worked with various types of interaction design, electronic music and sound design for industrial products.