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. In the first installment, Anthony John Agnello spoke to Limbo composer Stig Martin Andersen. This time, he connects with the makers of Dyad.
Don’t call Dyad a music game, and don’t call it a shooter. Dyad programmer Shawn McGrath and musician David Kanaga refuse to couch their synesthetic trip of a game in an easy genre classification, and anyone who plays it can see why. What at first looks like Jeff Minter’s psychedelic tunnel-vision shooter, Tempest 2000, quickly transforms into its own beast, a game where you control a tiny block of color that grapples onto other blobs in an endless tube, changing the shape and tone of music as you play. Kanaga and McGrath spoke to The Gameological Society about creating the bewitching sound of Dyad, the unimportance of realism in games, and why every video game story beside the one in Super Mario Bros. is junk.
The Gameological Society: What is the role of sound in video games?
Shawn McGrath: To make your ears feel good.
David Kanaga: Or feel bad. To make your ears feel how the spirits feel, right?
McGrath: To make you feel, I think.
What would Dyad sound like if it were an instrument?
Kanaga: The way I feel about it, and I talk about this with Shawn a lot, is I think that video games are already like musical structures. Music has a sonic aspect to it with sounds, and then it has a structural aspect to it, which is really just numbers and rhythms and pitches. So the way I see sound in video games is as a way of turning the structural music aspect that’s already present in all games and actualizing that as sound music.
Gameological: How were the sound effects in Dyad made? What tools did you use? How did you go about making all the sound in the game?
McGrath: I’d say half [music sequencing program] Ableton Live and half C++ code.
Gameological: Describe the process of coming up with new sounds for me. How did you go from what you wanted Dyad to sound like while it’s played to the actual implementation of sounds in the game.
Kanaga: I would play, or watch videos of the game because my computer couldn’t run it at the time, but I had played, so I could imagine the touch of it and everything. And so I’d play a game and imagine, “Okay, this is what it feels like, and I know what it’s like to play an instrument. I know what it feels like to play music and improvise. And playing a game feels basically the same. So what would Dyad sound like if it were an instrument?” And then you have a structural sense of what that should be like.
But as far as going into Ableton and making the sounds, it’s easy. Really easy. You know, I use Ableton 7, and if anyone else uses that, they’ll probably recognize preset sounds. I like making music really quickly and not working on content too much.
I think the most interesting stuff is how it gets manipulated in gameplay. So a lot of the music and sound is just the first thing that I would sit down and say, “So, you need to make a track for a level. Make a track. Now make a sound.” It’s really hasty, lazy work.
Gameological: What was the single biggest challenge in making the sound for Dyad?
McGrath: There’s a lot of it. That’s about it. There’s just a lot of sound. I don’t think there’s any particular challenge in it other than the fact that there had to be a lot made. It becomes a motivational thing: “Do I really need to make 800 more sounds for the remaining levels?” And then, for me, it’s like, “Do I really need to program 800 new sound effect program things? Well, fuck, I guess we have to.” I think that’s by far the hardest part.
Kanaga: Yeah, I totally agree. That actually goes back to what I was saying about using these preset sounds. When you have a lot of stuff to do, you’ve got to be quick, or else you’re going to get depressed. You know, I’m not going to sit and shape some sound for three hours if I’ve got to do a hundred more of them. It’s just a mass of content and what’s interesting isn’t what the content itself is, but how you move with it.
Gameological: What sounds did you guys try to implement in the game that just didn’t work?
McGrath: There was one thing that I had an idea for, but David just wasn’t feeling it. I had an idea to use a Wagner-esque motif structure for all the mechanics in the game. Which I guess is done anyway, but in a less tight relationship than I wanted.
Kanaga: It does have a motif structure, like when you lance it rings in arpeggios and there’s always a related start sound for the lance. So the lance arpeggios they faded in really quick.
Gameological: Explain to me what you mean by a Wagner motif.
Kanaga: Wagner. He’s German.
McGrath: He’s also a Nazi. So, yeah, I was trying to get this Nazi structure in there—nah I’m just kidding.
McGrath: Wagner had this idea, the leitmotif. All his operas are constructed this way. When certain feelings or certain characters come in—Star Wars does a really good job of this too—they all have these sounds and little melodies associated with them. The entire soundscape of the opera is created around those. So it’s a very, very tight relationship between people and events and feelings and themes in the opera. And I wanted Dyad to be like that. And it is, in a way, but it’s not as tight as what Wagner was doing. Because he spent 22 years on The Ring. We spent 22 months on Dyad. So there’s a bit of a difference.
Kanaga: I don’t know if I entirely opposed that idea. [Laughs.] I probably just wanted to be completely impulsive. There is this very real sense of using motif devices to accompany all Dyad’s mechanics. And it’s not going to be a particular melody, but quick arpeggios with lancing, arpeggios locked into the meter of the level with the zipline. And those tend to be in units of three: “Da-ka-da-ka-da-ja, da-ka-da-ka-da-ja.” So there is this stuff but it’s not totally tight, you know, because we’re not Nazis. [Laughs.]
McGrath: There you go. We have a non-Nazi approach to Wagner in Dyad. I’ll go with that. Yeah.
Gameological: Shawn, I was just reading an interview where you talked about how you wanted people to have a personalized story as they play through the game. A video game is constantly changing because of players’ influence over what’s happening. So how do you use sound to effectively tell a story in video games?
McGrath: I want to take a step back and talk about telling stories in video games first. I actually just started writing a short story about three hours ago and it starts off with me talking about how much I hate video games as story devices because they are not conductive to telling a linear story in any way whatsoever. Any attempt at putting a linear story in a game immediately makes the game worse.
The only good story I’ve ever seen in a video game is in the first [Super] Mario Bros., which is, “Go rescue some bitch.” It’s real simple and real, “Oh! I know what to do!” If you look at Mario games past the Super Nintendo era, they all added more story and they are all infinitely less interesting story-wise than Mario, Mario 3, or Super Mario World. Any other Mario game is less interesting because they try to tell a story and you don’t get to create your own story. So I think video games trying to tell a linear, pre-authored story, I think that’s the worst thing you could do in a game. The question of sound needs to put in that context, I think, because I think that’s what we’re trying to do with Dyad.
Any attempt at putting a linear story in a game immediately makes the game worse.
Kanaga: In these games I played when I was a kid, like Final Fantasy VII, it’s not the play that captivates me. It’s the story. In the Final Fantasy games and other [role-playing games], the way that they use music is you walk into a new town and it’s got this 4-minute piece of music that plays. A lovely piece of music, and there’s people dying, and people falling in love. And there’s all these emotions that are triggered in the ways that fixed media have already explored.
With Dyad, instead of a story that we read to you, the story is a box of crayons that you can draw with, or melt, or eat, or whatever. It’s these objects that are put into motion. The motion that you bring to it. That’s where the meaning comes from for me.
Gameological: So what is the difference between designing sound for a game like Dyad where sound is very much the point of the game, as opposed to something like Mario where sound is just extra flavor?
McGrath: That’s false that the sound is the point of the game. Sound is not the point of the game. Sound is done really well in the game, and maybe that’s why it’s being confused as the point. Because really, no other game does sound particularly well, and we were like, “Hey! Let’s do sound right.” But that’s really not the point of the game at all, that’s just doing sound properly.
Kanaga: Well, it is a reward, though. Hearing sound as a result of things that you do, having that feedback is rewarding. It gives back to you.
McGrath: It’s the same with every other element in the game though.
Kanaga: That’s true.
McGrath: Sound is no more the point of the game than visuals are the point of the game. And visuals aren’t the point of the game either.
Kanaga: Any more than touch is.
McGrath: Touch is more, way more, the point of the game than visuals or sound. I think the point of the game is something that everyone can decide on their own. Sound was so low on the scale of importance when I was making the game. As were visuals. I don’t care how visuals look. The look really cool, and they move around, and they do shit that no other game has done before, but I don’t give a fuck, right? They’re not that important. There’s a lot more important stuff going on in that game for me.
Gameological: So for you the mechanics are paramount. The lancing and hooking and rolling around in this tube.
McGrath: That’s not important, either. That’s one of the tools used. Music is one of the tools, visuals are one of the tools, the mechanics are one of the tools. They’re all tools used for some higher purpose that would be the point of the game.
Gameological: So what is the difference between creating sound for a game where all of those things are given an equal amount of attention and, say, something like Super Mario Galaxy where, perhaps, more attention is paid to just mechanics, and then look and sound is less important?
Kanaga: For me, sound is the most important part because that’s what I pay attention to. This is true for all games, because I used to play music and that’s how I live. So sound is the way that I can connect to any structure, system, or ecosystem or whatever.
You said what’s the difference between Dyad and Mario, but I think that any game can be a space for interactive music in that same way, and I don’t think there’s any fundamental difference. If I were working on any game, I would encourage it to be a space for interactive music. Even if it were Assassin’s Creed, take out the sound effects and just replace it with music that’s changing all the time and I’ll like it more.
The realism of image and sound is not valuable.
I agree with Shawn that Dyad is not about sound. It’s just a game that’s doing this with sound, and I think that all games could do similar things and wouldn’t really lose much except realism, but I think the kind of realism that people go for in games is this kind of bizarro content realism. A realistic tree with realistic sound effects. I’m interested in the realism that Dyad explores, which is a sensuous systems space where all actions seem united, and you can dissolve into that space and feel a sense of presence there in the same way that you can feel a sense of presence in your everyday life. And that’s the kind of realism I think is valuable right now in games. The realism of image and sound is not valuable.
Gameological: So how do you capture that meaningful realism? How do you decide what parts of a game needs to make sound? You talked about the realistic tree. If you spend all this time rendering a realistic tree, do you need to make sure that it sounds like the leaves are actually rustling in the wind?
Kanaga: I hope not. The project of photorealism and sonic realism is just silly, really. Just go outside. But as far as what deserves sound in a game or what needs sound, the way I think about it, all objects deserve sound in a game. All events, all processes, the whole space. Every aspect of the game is a piece of music. So, yes. The tree. There’s another game I’m working on called Proteus that’s full of trees. It’s mostly trees. And they all have music. Everything has music. That’s how I approached the stuff in Dyad. All the objects have a sound.
McGrath: If you put something in a game, it should be interactive. If it’s there, it should be interactive, and it should be interactive in as dense a way as possible. If it’s not interactive, if it’s not a dense, meaningful interaction, you should just get rid of it because you don’t need it. And if you design a game around that system, then all elements in the game are meaningful gameplay-wise, then therefore they all need sound and music. They all need visuals and to respond to events. Music and visuals also need to respond to events. Otherwise, they don’t belong in the game.
Kanaga: Totally agree with that. Of course, Dyad has a lot of static. There’s a lot of stuff in Dyad that’s not like that, actually.
McGrath: Like what?
Kanaga: The image of the orb.
McGrath: What are you talking about? That’s totally interactive. There’s nothing in the game that’s not interactive.
Kanaga: Well, we don’t have to—
McGrath: No, no. Now I want to know what you mean.
Kanaga: I’ll just talk about music things that aren’t interactive. There are rhythms that fade in and out, getting quieter when you slow down, but that rhythm isn’t an interactive rhythm. I do think there’s a lot of non-interactive stuff in visuals too, but definitely in music there’s a lot of non-interaction. There is also is a lot of interaction. This philosophy of making everything interactive is beautiful, but it’s difficult. It’s a kind of radical thing.