InterviewSpecial Topics In Gameology

Jack Fusting and Lazar Levine

Aural Histories: Jack Fusting and Lazar Levine, sound designers of The Walking Dead

The recipe for a good zombie voice? Chocolate, peanuts, and caramel.

By Anthony John Agnello • March 28, 2013

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Aural Histories—we’re interviewing game creators about the role of sound effects in video games. Previous entries featured Limbo sound designer Martin Stig Andersen and the creators of Dyad.

Zombies are not real. The dead do not come back to life and start snacking on the living like they do in The Walking Dead. Telltale Games did a damn fine job of making very fake monsters seem very real, though. The world of The Walking Dead, and the emotionally fraught choices you have to make within it, gain their power from expert production, especially the sound—the eerie quiet of a summer storm on a Georgia farm, the sickening suck of the undead chowing down. The rational brain may know it’s all not actually happening, but the ears certainly don’t. The Gameological Society talked with the game’s sound designers, Jack Fusting (on the left in the photo above) and Lazar Levine, about how you get the very best zombie sounds and how to wield silence like a weapon [Note: This interview contains plot details of The Walking Dead game.]

The Gameological Society: What is the role of sound in video games?

Lazar Levine: The role of sound, as I see it, is to bring them to another level. To bring them to that cinematic level and bring them to life. It’s the last thing that goes on the game. It’s the special sauce. It’s what takes that game and makes it feel real.

We ended up feeding all of our employees Snickers bars.

Jack Fusting: Most often it’s clarifying, dramatizing, or intensifying our events. So when something’s happening, and we need it to be scarier, or we need it to be more sad or over the top, then that’s absolutely where the sound comes in to take it to the next level.

Gameological: What are the challenges in designing sound for a game like The Walking Dead? You need to have things that sound real, like a zombie chewing through an arm. It’s a lot different than designing sounds for something completely unreal and cartoony like Sam And Max.

Fusting: There’s a lot more detail that’s called for in The Walking Dead-type games. A cartoon-type game, you can get away with a lot more. It’s this cartoon world, and people aren’t expecting to hear every single whistle and detail. With Walking Dead, we had to step it up a bit and really fill in all the little gaps and details, so the player will never feel like they’ve been taken out of the game. And all these things that seem very small, like hearing someone walk over, or hearing somebody move just a little bit, may seem very small at the time, but those are the kinds of things that put the player in the game and create the suspension of disbelief.

The Walking Dead

Gameological: Tell me about how you made the sounds in The Walking Dead, even something as simple as hearing Clementine walk down a street next to Lee. Did you use canned pre-recorded sounds?

Levine: It depended on the situation. If it’s something simple, like Clementine walking, we’re not going to record footsteps. We’re going to use a bank to get pre-recorded footsteps. But when it came to more intense situations that really called for a lot of detail, that’s when we would record things. For instance, in episode five, when Lee can choose to saw off his own arm or have another member saw off his arm, we got chicken breasts and sawed through them. For the zombies, we could have gone with stock zombie libraries, but we wanted to get our own sound, and customize it a bit. So we pulled about 20 people from around the office, and recorded them one by one.

Fusting: We were treating the zombie vocalizations as sound effects rather than voices. One thing we found when we were recording was that we couldn’t really get the grit and texture of decaying vocal cord sounds we were really looking for, so we ended up feeding all of our employees doing zombie acting Snickers bars. We had their voice covered in chocolate and nuts and all sorts of crap. It made their throats sound really gross, and that really added to the texture of what we were going for.

Levine: There was one particular instance where that really sticks out. The babysitter in episode one. That’s actually a human resources lady who works here, and she was great. She had a lot of intensity, and we did the Snickers bar thing with her, but she took it as she was supposed to make the zombie noises while actually chewing on the Snickers bar, not making its own zombie vocalizations after eating a Snickers bar, which is what we intended. So she starts making these zombie noises while she’s trying to shovel down the Snickers bar. When you end up smashing her face in, and you do it two or three times, you can hear her really gargling and choking. That’s the Snickers bar. All these nasty sounds coming out ended up working perfectly for when we smashed in her face.

Gameological: The violence in the game is horrific. I love that all of those horrible sound effects came from candy. That’s makes it so much more digestible.

Fusting: It made it easier to get people in the office to record. “We’ve got Sniiiiickers…”

The Walking Dead

Gameological: As I was playing, I found myself reloading saves of the second episode. What really gripped me about it was the sound design in the back half. There’s this summer storm coming in over the dairy farm. You hear the thunder on the horizon, bugs in the air, all these quiet little things. It’s so dense.

Levine: The ambiences were a huge part of that.

Fusting: We were having different directors per episode for this project. One of the first phases when we’re starting an episode is to sit down with a director and get his vision on what he wanted the sound to be in an episode. Specifically in the dairy farm episode, the sound was absolutely playing a role in the arc of that story.

Levine: At the start you have what seem like really friendly people. The mood conveys that. I remember the directors telling me that when you get to the farm—“birds chirping, the sun shining, all that stuff.” The more and more you get into the episode, the more you realize something isn’t right. The ambience changes. The storm comes in. We know something’s wrong. Getting those ambiences to work, as Jack was saying, was huge. It made the player feel more and more uncomfortable.

Gameological: Silence is one of the most effective tools in the sound arsenal in The Walking Dead. How do you build a game so that its moments of silence don’t feel unnatural?

Fusting: Some of those moments that seem silent actually will have noise in the background. It’s so small that your brain might not even register it, but it’s there. For instance, in episode five, when you enter the hotel, it’s completely silent except for a small rumble in the background. So that rumble, while basically being silent, was there and created a mood without people even knowing.

Levine: People won’t always hear it, but they’ll feel it.

Gameological: What is the rumble?

You put enough bass into anything, and people’s subwoofers start waggling, and they get excited.

Fusting: It’s a low frequency, like a 60 or 100 hertz roar.

Levine: It’s a synthesized rumble at a certain frequency that’s constantly going in the background. It emulates room tone, like you’d hear an air conditioner, but it also creates an unsettling mood. I’ve seen some directors use really low frequencies all throughout an uncomfortable scene because it makes you feel uneasy when there’s a big rumble in the background, and you feel it but can’t tell where it’s coming from. When we got into those silent moments, it’s a matter of making sure that we have something like that rumble carrying us. Or really sparse stuff. Details placed in an effective manner.

Gameological: Why do you think you never see a silent video game?

Fusting: I feel like it’s the same reason you don’t see too many silent movies from now. Talkies really took off! Games are obviously becoming more cinematic the better the technology gets. That just means sound is going to get larger and larger and larger. The same thing happens with movies. You went from silent movies to movies with some sound, to about around the late ’70s, early ’80s where really big audio engineers started to get into it with surround sound. It’s just another thing to bring that world to life, and enhance that world, and make that player or viewer feel more like a part of it. It’s just another element that you expect to be there, and you’ve got all these senses, and it’s just another one to use.

Gameological: What needs to be making noise at any given time in your games?

Levine: We open up a game, and we’ll look at it, and obviously if somebody’s getting hit, or somebody’s walking, there’s going to be sounds that are easy to spot. But we also get a lot of director’s notes in our scripts. They say, “Off camera: We hear a gunshot,” or a director might go over a scene with us and convey what he wants to hear on screen and off screen, and how he wants things to sound. We really work with the director a lot and try to convey a vision. Some directors are very specific, and some directors give us a lot of freedom. Both are valuable experiences.

Fusting: Sometimes it’s surprising how much sound it takes to sell these scenes. When looking at a big battle with tons of stuff going on, you’d assume you’d need many sounds to make it work, but sometimes it’s surprising how just a little can sell events like that. Sometimes you just need some rumble, you need some yelling, and you hit a few events that are going on in your foreground, and people are going to buy it. Sometimes it can be really complicated, but other times it’s much more intuitive.

The Walking Dead

Gameological: Can you think of a scene from The Walking Dead that looks complex but didn’t need that much sound to color it?

Levine: The moment in episode one where you have to choose between saving Doug and Carley. That’s a pretty intense scene, but there’s not a ton going on there. There’s a big bass drop, and then we peppered in a few sounds that have a little bit of reverb and delay on them. That really sold the scene.

Fusting: We chose four sounds.

Levine: It’s not that many, but they’re some of the most intense.

Fusting: And it stands out as being a flashy, sound design-y moment, but it’s really simple with the elements that are going on.

Levine: You put enough bass into anything, and people’s subwoofers start waggling, and they get excited.

Gameological: When I was talking to Martin Stig Andersen, the guy who did all the sound work for Limbo, he said the biggest challenge for him is ensuring that sounds don’t seem fake. How do you decide when something sounds real enough for you?

Levine: It’s very easy to become too dialed-in. As you start working on this stuff, you’ll start getting really into it, and start concentrating on all the little details, and a lot of things will really start sticking out. What Jack and I will do is turn around to each other and say, “Yo, man, will you look at this and tell me what you think?” Because the other guy hasn’t been working on this thing for the last hour. He’s not nitpicking every little thing, so we try to get each other’s opinions.

You can convey mood with the sound of a sad door knock.

Fusting: In a lot of those action moments, there’s music playing, and the player is kind of swept up in the moment, and they’re not really analyzing what sound is going on when action starts happening. A lot of times, to our advantage, they’re already into the story 10 minutes into the game. They’re not going to be thinking about sounds. They’re playing a game.

Gameological: This is getting out there, but have you guys heard of a game by Kenji Eno called Real Sound?

Levine: No.

Fusting: Never heard of that.

Gameological: It’s a game from the Sega Saturn designed for blind people. There are zero visuals throughout the entire game. It’s nothing but music, dialogue, and sound effects. There are a handful of games that do this. It’s an obscure idea, because video games are such a visual and tactile medium. But if you guys were going to sit down and decide to make something interactive just using sound, what would that be?

Fusting: For me, I come from a film background, and I really enjoy cinematics. If I was making a game like that, I would try to tell a story, and try to convey a story through sound. One of the reasons I love working here actually is because it is so cinematic.

Gameological: How do you tell a story through sound?

Levine: It’s making sure you’ve got enough beats to convey the story. The game we worked on previously, the Law & Order game—the first entire scene took place through the eyes of a blind boy. We had no visuals, really, it was just a matter of reading the script, and seeing what’s going on in that world, and placing all those sounds and tagging them in a way that sounded natural.

Fusting: I think the sound selection would be a huge part of the storytelling aspect. Say you have someone knocking on a door. We have door knocks all day long in the library, but you can find a door knock that sounds sad or angry. That adds to the story, like someone pounding on the door saying, “Get over here right now!” or sheepishly just tapping. Stuff like that adds up.

Levine: Whenever anyone goes into a dream state, everything becomes lacquered with reverb. The whole world becomes very echo-y. That’s what Jack was talking about. You can convey mood with the sound of a sad door knock.

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37 Responses to “Aural Histories: Jack Fusting and Lazar Levine, sound designers of The Walking Dead

  1. caspiancomic says:

    So I know I have a history for only talking about, like, ten games (see if you can name them all!), so I’d like to officially add The Walking Dead to my tiny library of games I never intend to shut up about. It really was terrific, and the sound design was, I think, a big part of that. The music and (especially) the voice acting were absolutely perfect (Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchison both receive top marks, Hutchison in particular). But we’re talking more about traditional sound effects here, which were also great.

    I always feel a little bad for the real nuts-and-bolts designer people who work on projects like this- not just in sound but costume design, set design, whatever- because the old adage goes that if people notice what you did, you did it wrong. The best sound design, or anything else I mentioned above, tends to be visceral and indistinct, adding layers to an experience without becoming a distraction or the centre of attention itself. In other words, the better you are at your job, the more anonymous you become to the audience. It’s not exactly for rock stars, but when done well it absolutely means the difference between good and all-time-great. In that sense, it’s basically a huge compliment to these chaps that no one sound effect or zombified wail sticks out in my memory: every noise in the experience was perfectly selected and executed to heighten my enjoyment of the game as a whole, without stealing my attention away from what was really important.

    It must take tremendous restraint to be able to implement sound design with such a feather touch like that. Especially in a zombie title. Lord knows if it was my job to design the soundscape for this game I’d be in the recording studio crushing watermelons with hammers or gargling with Jell-o or filling dishwashers with ground beef and recording the wet, slapping, sucking, choking mayhem that resulted. If I were in charge every zombie kill would be punctuated by the sound of someone sucking up oatmeal with a dust buster, and the experience would have been all the more distracting for it. What I’m saying is, it’s a good thing these guys were in charge and not me: especially in a game like this, in which the emotional stakes and not the spectacle of undead carnage take centre stage, it’s important to be tastefully understated.

    Bonus Undignified Self-Prostitution: I submitted this drawing of mine to our beloved Mr. Teti for his consideration in case the site ever needs more illustrators, and seeing as how I’ve been gagging for an excuse to show it off a bit more, I’m doubly thankful for today’s topic.

    • Nice artwork, @caspiancomic:disqus !  Plenty of worry to go around on those faces.  After all they go through, it’s hard for me to imagine Lee or Clementine ever looking like they were capable of enjoying themselves. 

      Anyway, good job.  Now go beat the hell out of a Naugahyde sofa with ping pong paddles and record the results.

    • PaganPoet says:

      Was I the only one surprised to learn that Clemmie was supposed to be African American? I thought she was supposed to be Hispanic until I read the Wikipedia page (after I beat the game).

      Clementine is fantastic. It’s so rare that video games portray a child well, but The Walking Dead knocked it out of the park. She’s equal parts brave, scaredy cat, emotional wreck, naive, strong, etc. That is, she behaves in a complex way, like an actual HUMAN would, rather than a plot device you’re supposed to feel sorry for, like most child characters in video games.

      • caspiancomic says:

         When you look at the photograph of her family in episode 1, you see that her dad is black and her mom is east Asian. I always read her as Asian more than anything, and was kind of surprised that so many characters mistake her for Lee’s daughter. I think it’s actually one of the reasons Clem is so quick to trust Lee- he reminds her of her father.

        And totally agreed about how Clem is basically a great big ball of total loveliness. It’s a difficult enough task to create a character that sympathetic and realistic at all, and as far as I’m concerned child characters come out of the gate with a handicap to their likeability. I was reading an article the other day about how much of a process went into creating that character, and how much thought and care went into every facet of her creation: her introduction, her voice, her wardrobe, her various props, etc. It’s pretty corny to say it, but there’s a real spot in my heart for Clem.

        Oh, and one more thing, and Walking Dead spoilers from here on. I’ve been thinking about this scene the last day or so, and wanted to mention it somewhere, and I haven’t found a way to weave it casually into a post anywhere, so what the hell, I’ll just say it. The most heartbreaking moment in the entire series for me? Not anybody’s death, not even Lee’s. Not any of the particularly devastating choices, even between human lives. For me, I almost couldn’t stand it when the stranger revealed Clem was nine, and that her birthday was six days ago. The fact that this snake knew something so personal and precious about her while Lee- and I- didn’t was hurtful enough. But I just knew in my stomach that the reason Clem never mentioned her birthday was because she didn’t want to bother us. She knew we had adult responsibilities and life-or-death decisions to make, and didn’t want to distract anybody by indulging in a celebration of her own birthday. Which is tragically courageous all by itself, but the fact that she mentioned it to the Stranger reveals that she really did care about her birthday, and really did want it acknowledged and validated. She was too selfless to mention it to Lee, who would have felt obligated to do something for her and felt guilty about his inability to deliver on what he felt she deserved. So she kept her own birthday a secret from the group, and was forced to scrape together well wishes from the manipulative anonymous lunatic at the end of her walkie-talkie.

        Fuck me this game was good. Look at how much information about the relationship between Lee and Clem you can extract from one line that wasn’t delivered by either of them.

        • PaganPoet says:

          Heh, maybe she was designed to be ethnically ambiguous on purpose. The only reason she read as Hispanic to me is probably because I’m Hispanic myself.

      • Mookalakai says:

        Throughout the game, everyone you meet assumes that Clem is Lee’s daughter, except Christa, who immediately can see they look nothing alike. I now wonder if that was supposed to be a “white people think black people look the same” dig.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Can’t you let me have one thing?!
      Nah, seriously, nice work. Very expressive, despite no polygons.

    • Jackbert says:

      Persona 3, The World Ends With You, Mass Effect series, Final Fantasy series, Kingdom Hearts series, Suidoken series, Professor Layton series, Sonic series, Katawa Shoujo, and now The Walking Dead?

    • duwease says:

       Yeah, I’m trying to do my own sound effects for a personal game I’m working on, and every time one plays it just jolts me out of the story.  I have no idea how to improve it, either.  So I have tons of respect for the people whose work achieves the heady goal of being unobtrusive.

      • Chum Joely says:

        It’s all about the mix. And if you have a 3D environment, the effects had better be in place so that your sounds actually seem like they’re happening in the space you see on-screen.

        That’s what little I’ve been able to glean from being around sound designers, whose skill is indeed inscrutable and astounding.

        • Destroy Him My Robots says:

          I don’t know what @duwease:disqus is working with, but the amateur tools I’ve seen treat audio like the red-headedest stepchild of them all. You can play sounds at different volumes… and usually that’s it. No DSPs, no routing, not even panning. The best you can do is throw it all into your DAW, arrange and layer everything in a somewhat realistic fashion, and process everything there and then bounce the tracks and pray that it works.

  2. So, Real Sound would be an…audio game, then.  I thought Kenji Eno’s name came up in a Gameological profile some time ago (I could be wrong), but don’t remember there being any mention of this title.  Or, um, certainly any screenshots.  Any players out there able to describe this fascinating-sounding title?

    The most stand-out sonic moment in The Walking Dead for me was…


    …the sound after Katjaa heads out into the woods with Duck.  Wasn’t expecting the results of that, that’s for sure.  Levine and Fusting probably only needed a stock sound for that one (or a “sad gunshot”, I guess), but I recall enjoying a lot of their other, more personalized work.  The farm in Episode 2 was mentioned, but the Savannah waterfront later in Episode 4 also comes to mind:  moaning up the street at the barricade, a windswept area of former fun times ahead of you, nary a viable escape in sight…maybe it’s because my senses were tuned to 11 in searching for any clues in that scene, but it really felt–sounded–desolate.

    Also, a big thumbs-up to these guys for whatever ambient drone they inserted when the sides of the screen started to turn orange and Lee was on the verge of coming to an end.  More than the visual cue, that subtle nudge was enough to stir me into a frenzy of self-preservation…it made the situation feel hotter, if that makes any sense.  In designing a suspenseful gaming environment, danger need not come at you with screeching Bernard Hermann violins; Levine and Fusting taking the Trent Reznor route is a more than acceptable substitute for this player (and NIN fan).

    The Walking Dead has justifiably won a buttload of awards; I do hope a couple were tossed Levine and Fusting’s way.  They did as much as anyone to make it a work of art.

  3. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I completely loved this game, and the sound was a HUGE part of it.  It’s great to get an interview with these guys.  In the off chance that you read these comments – AWESOME JOB!


    As Mattman mentioned above, the buzzing when you start feeling faint in episode five is inspired.  Having passed out a couple of times in my life, that’s so similar to how I would describe the experience (like my consciousness faded into the TV snow from a non-broadcast channel) that it really heightened the tension.

    And Lee having his arm cut off…HOLY CRAP I nearly screamed myself at that!

    My favorite sound moment though would probably be the first time you hear Clementine talking with the mysterious guy on the walkie-talkie.  Sooo damn creepy.

  4. PaganPoet says:

    I’m with you, Anthony, I was all about the second episode of this game. The most memorable moment, for me, is seeing Brenda through the screen door, holding Katjaa hostage with a gun, backing up the stairs.

    I love this game. It’s too bad that the Daryl/Merle based game released this week seems to be shit.

    • caspiancomic says:

       Achievement Unlocked! *Sound of achievement being unlocked that is impervious to attempts at onomatopoeia*

      I think the second episode is the one that works best as a stand-alone story, as opposed to an episode in an otherwise clearly serialized work. Hell, it even features a character who exists exclusively in that chapter. Mark, we hardly knew ye!

      It also, relevantly, probably has the series’ most accomplished feat of sound design. The storm slowly rolling in over the dairy, climaxing with a punch-up in the torrent was a terrific piece of aural storytelling. Investigating the St. John house, both during the dinner scene and while Brenda is holding Katjaa hostage, both feature real masterworks of sound design, voice acting, dynamic lighting, inventive camera use… they’re basically just perfectly designed sequences from top to bottom.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4 says:


    • Kahoutek says:

      ** GAME SPOILERS **

      That part of the game, with Brenda holding the gun on Katjaa, was the only frustrating part of the game for me.  Whenever Brenda would say “Don’t come any closer!”, I would back away, and she would shoot me.  I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, so I kept dying over and over, which was made more frustrating by Lee’s slow creep up to the screen door.

      I had to jump out of the game and get Internet Help, which is never a good sign and made even worse by how immersive the game is; feeling the need to bounce out of the great atmosphere was a real joykiller.  

      I kind of feel bad even nitpicking my one complaint about this game.  It did so many things right, the jolting frights (Carley’s death!) as well as the slow, inevitable moments of dread.  And especially making us care for these characters so every loss hits home.

  5. Mercenary_Security_number_4 says:

    xbla has these on sale this week.  While I find the show to be enjoyable, I’ve become really burnt out on zombie games (L4D2 was my wife’s favorite game for a long time.  Yes, internet, that is the kind of cool crazy chick I married).   But everything I hear about this game makes it sound like its worth downloading, so I think I’ll take advantage of the sale.  On a tangential note, I always wonder how xbl sales affect royalties.  Does it cut across microsoft & developer equally, or is it entirely out of one side’s pocket?

    • Girard says:

      The game is tonally super different from a zombie shooty game like L4D, and generally has a more universally acclaimed critical response than the TV show – I suspect you’ll enjoy yourself!

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       Get on board, @Mercenary_Security_number_4:disqus , the Gameological Society will be the Clemological Society in no time!

      Seriously, it’s a damn fine game.

    • Nabokov_Cocktail says:

      Yeah, like the article says, this game is more about the emotional stakes and making impossible moral choices rather than point-and-shoot zombie carnage.  Very tonally different from what you might expect out of a zombie video game.  This game has stuck with me like nothing else I’ve ever played.  It’s fucking devastating. 

    • Mookalakai says:

       If you find the show at all enjoyable, then you will love the game because you will actually have characters to root for.

      • zerocrates says:

        I can give anecdotal evidence that you may also love the game even if you hate the show.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4 says:

       Just finished Episode 1 and downloading the others.  Like it so far.  Only wish I had more time to make conversation choices.  Seems like it’d be a great thing to play with someone if there was a time to talk out what to do next.

  6. Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle says:

    I didn’t realize that two of the gentlemen from Mumford & Sons had a video game sound design side project. Although I don’t like their band, good luck to them!

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