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.
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…”
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.
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?
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.