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This week’s podcast questions how identity is coded into the battle cries shouted by characters in video games. By exploring the tools that sound studies provides to understand the various dynamics of identity, this podcast aims to provoke a conversation about how identity is encoded within the design of games. The all too invisible intersection between sound, identity, and code reveals the ways that sound can help explain the interior logic of the games and other digital systems. Here, Milena Droumeva and Aaron Trammell discuss how femininity and sexuality have been coded within game sounds and consider the degree to which these repetitive and objectifying tropes can be resisted by players and designers alike.
Milena Droumeva is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University specializing in mobile technologies, sound studies and multimodal ethnography, with a long-standing interest in game cultures. She has worked extensively in educational research on game-based learning, as well as in interaction design for responsive environments. Milena is a sound studies scholar, a multimodal ethnographer, and a soundwalking enthusiast, published widely in the areas of acoustic ecology, media and game studies, design and technology. You can find her musings on sound and other material goodies at http://natuaural.com.
Aaron Trammell is a Provost Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015. Aaron’s research is focused on revealing historical connections between games, play, and the United States military-industrial complex. He is interested in how military ideologies become integrated into game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Analog Game Studies and the Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out!
Featured image borrowed from Geralt @Pixabay CC BY.
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Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance – Aaron Trammell
This post continues our summer Sound and Pleasure series, as the second **bonus Monday** podcast in a three part series by Leonard J. Paul. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how are pleasing sounds designed? Pleasure is, after all, what brings y’all back to Sounding Out! weekly, is it not?
Who doesn’t like retrogames? As a kid I kept to a straight diet of NES pixels and sounds. This installment reveals the technical and creative proficiencies involved with the composition of retro sound, and it. is. amazing! Our final installment on game audio design will run Thursday, 6/26/2014, and feature some notes on the process of designing sound for the game Vessel. Also, be sure to be sure to check out last week’s edition where Leonard breaks down his process in designing sound for Sim Cell. But first, Retro City Rampage! -AT, Multimedia Editor
P.S. The first 25 folks to follow @soundingoutblog, @VideoGameAudio or @RetroCR on Twitter following the publication of this podcast will win a free download code for Retro City Rampage sent to them via direct message courtesy of Leonard Paul!
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Game Audio Notes II: Hand Made Music in Retro City Rampage
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Game Audio Notes II: Hand Made Music in Retro City Rampage
Retro City Rampage (RCR) is a retro vibe two-dimensional open world game with plenty of parodies from the 80s and 90s. It’s basically what Grand Theft Auto would be if it was on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Because the world of computer game design has recently embraced retro-aesthetics, the game was released for almost every platform. Its Nintendo 3DS version, was even a critical success, scoring a high 83% on Metacritic. My goal with the sound design of RCR was to produce a sound that was both an homage to the original sounds of the NES, but with a heart-felt intensity such that it preserved the feeling of my own nostalgia as well. The sound design of RCR follows in the tradition of independent games that are working hard to recover an aesthetic from the halcyon days of gaming.
I wanted the sound design of RCR to be as nostalgic as possible. To do this, I started by researching the work of others with this sepia-drenched 8-bit aesthetic in their own work. The open source scores that Jake Kaufman (aka “virt”) used for his albums FX1 and FX2, were particularly valuable here. Later on I came across a chiptune tutorial that Matt Creamer (aka “Norrin Radd”) had made and was able to bring him onboard to complete our team of composers for the game. I was able to borrow the same setup that he used for his music and adapt it to my process for creating sound effects. I used the open source music software OpenMPT for creating the sound effects as well as use the C++ sound code for playing back the music in the game as well. Getting the code from OpenMPT meant that new code didn’t need to be created and it ensured that the songs and sound effects would play back perfectly without any issues in the game.
OpenMPT is a music tracker (or mod tracker) program for Windows. Mod trackers began on the Commodore Amiga in 1987 with the release of the Ultimate Soundtracker. The Amiga supported 4 channels of 8-bit sampled sound and usually had very low sampling rates to conserve memory as the original Amiga 1000 usually had only 256 KB of RAM. In other words, the samples were short and rough, but creative engineers found ways to work within these limitations. For RCR we used the Impulse Tracker format that was first released in 1995 for DOS.
Early sound designers needed to code the sounds in an arcane language called assembly code that was quite difficult to understand unless you were a computer programmer. Trackers were a first step toward making audio for games easier to make. They allowed sound designers to work with musical notes and effects abstractly, using a notation language far easier than hard-core assembly code. Later consoles, such as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), allowed sound designers to simply input sampled sounds to be played back during the game. We wanted the sound design of RCR to be from the “classic era” of video games (before sampled sounds became the norm) and to feed off of the nostalgia surrounding this era for the player.
I typed in thousands of notes and effect commands in by hand, when creating the score for RCR. This level of detail and control has a direct aesthetic effect on the audio. Game sound programmers working in the 1980s lacked the sophisticated tools of automation that are standard in the industry today. This attention to detail and nuance was essential for the nostalgic sound associated with classic video games that I wanted to produce in my work. Just as using paper can be contrasted with modern music composition software, the mode in which one creates has a direct effect on the results of the composition.
While creating the sound effects for RCR, I learned how to do tracking and decided I wanted to add some music to RCR as well. The catch was that the synthesis capabilities of the NES were extremely limited including only two pulse waves (often used for lead instruments), a triangle wave (usually used for a bass instrument), a noise channel (frequently used for drums), and a crude sampled sound channel (commonly used for muffled sound effects).
Even though we decided early on that we wanted the game to have a nostalgic feel, we made a set of careful decisions in order to avoid being locked into the tricky technical details that sound artists who worked on games for the original NES had originally faced. One key difference was that we didn’t limit the overall polyphony of sounds playing at the same time to the original NES specification. We limited each individual sound effect and song within the NES specification (for example, a single sound effect couldn’t use three pulse waves), but we decided not to drop a channel out when a sound effect would have preempted the score from one of the music channel. Typically in original NES games the music moved aside in order to accommodate the sound effects and so notes that used the pulse wave track were frequently dropped. Because this sort of interruption is unpleasant, we made choices that allowed us to work around it – inspiring our creative choices rather than limiting them. Although we took a few other technical liberties, nearly all of the sounds and songs of RCR could play on an actual NES with minimal modification.
Using an open source mod tracker format allowed us a lot of flexibility when creating the audio for RCR. Although using a mod tracker to type in sound effects by hand was a laborious process it added an authenticity to the result that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. Working with these strict limitations forced me to make different choices in my creative process that helped me invest a sense of ownership in the results. The hand crafted NES synth sounds I described above are ultimately just symbols pointing towards their real-world counterparts, and tellingly they rely on the imagination of the listener to bridge the gap between the real and the symbolic. Nostalgia allows us to fill these gaps and allow listeners the space to hear their own memories within the game.
- “Retro City Rampage Chiptune Frenzy! Panel” presentation from PAX Dev 2012 from videogameaudio.com
- Download the RCR Theme in Impulse Tracker (.IT) format from our website
- See audio section of the Making of ROM City Rampage
- The OpenMPT Online Help Manual is great for learning tracking
- Download tons of free MOD files from MODarchive.org
- Read my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio: For the Love of Chiptune
Leonard J. Paul attained his Honours degree in Computer Science at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada with an Extended Minor in Music concentrating in Electroacoustics. He began his work in video games on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System and has a twenty year history in composing, sound design and coding for games. He has worked on over twenty major game titles totalling over 6.4 million units sold since 1994, including award-winning AAA titles such as EA’s NBA Jam 2010, NHL11, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, NBA Live ’95 as well as the indie award-winning title Retro City Rampage.
He is the co-founder of the School of Video Game Audio and has taught game audio students from over thirty different countries online since 2012. His new media works has been exhibited in cities including Surrey, Banff, Victoria, São Paulo, Zürich and San Jose. As a documentary film composer, he had the good fortune of scoring the original music for multi-awarding winning documentary The Corporation which remains the highest-grossing Canadian documentary in history to date. He has performed live electronic music in cities such as Osaka, Berlin, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Amsterdam under the name Freaky DNA.
He is an internationally renowned speaker on the topic of video game audio and has been invited to speak in Vancouver, Lyon, Berlin, Bogotá, London, Banff, San Francisco, San Jose, Porto, Angoulême and other locations around the world.
His writings and presentations are available at http://VideoGameAudio.com
Featured image: Courtesy of Vblank Entertainment (c)2014 – Artwork by Maxime Trépanier.
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A Series of Mistakes: Nullsleep and the Art of 8-bit Composition– Aaron Trammell
Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play– Roger Moseley
As the practice of sound design becomes ever more refined as a key factor in the immersive aspects of gameplay, it is essential to develop a conceptual vocabulary of the ways that sound is implemented as a cultural facet. In particular, it is important to recognize the power relations at stake within the implementation of the human voice as an interactive narrative trope. And, while I’ve already discussed the ways in which the voice of GLaDOS in Portal invites players to reflect on how they internalize a set of mediated perspectives about how their body ought to be, it is equally important to consider the other ways that a narrator’s voice invites players to reconsider the intersection of agency and surveillance.
This post compares the use of narration in Bastion and The Stanley Parable in an effort to understand how the voice is used as what Karen Collins would refer to as an “interactive non-diagetic sound,” or, in other words, a sound that is triggered by player actions, but not experienced by the character in the game. Specifically, I argue that the voice in these examples is an essential point in the feedback loop between player and game. And, as part of the cybernetics of gameplay, it produces a dispositif of surveillance, akin to Bentham’s panopticon, which lets the player know their actions are constantly being monitored, calculated, and considered by the game’s algorithms. But, while the original panopticon produced the effect of surveillance through the clever use of light, these games use sound to effect surveillance.
Bastion, was developed by the small indie game company Supergiant Games, but was distributed and released by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, first through Microsoft’s distribution service, XBOX Live Arcade, but has since been released more broadly after receiving much critical acclaim. In Bastion, players take the role of a young boy, referred to only as “The Kid,” and adventure around gradually rebuilding a world that has fallen apart since a cataclysmic sundering referred to only as “the Calamity.” Although the world of Bastion is beautiful and visually stimulating, it is the game’s sound design that has earned it much critical acclaim. The game is narrated by a character named “Rucks,” who speaks in a deep weathered voice, with somewhat of a western twang. And, even though The Kid eventually encounters and is able to interact with Rucks within the game, Rucks still relays dialogue in the third-person.
When The Kid and Rucks meet, Rucks evinces with trademark grit, “Sure enough, he finds another. He finds me.” And, while that is a scripted plot point within the game, at other points Rucks’ narration modulates to best reflect the player’s actions. A player who begins the game slowly, exploring nooks and crannies, might hear “The kid walks slowly down the path, checking everything,” while a player who runs straight ahead could hear, “The kid barrels forward, not looking once behind him.” These quotes force the player to recognize that the game is watching, and actively staging narrative commentary about their in-game decisions. This commentary unfolds in aural space, through narration, discrete from the old text (and controller) triggers of “look” and “examine” which used to prompt text-box commentary about the environment of the game. In short, Bastion’s sound design succeeds because it is balanced in such a precise way: players are being constantly engaged with a narration which confirms that they are, in fact, properly interacting within the game world and story.
The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, works deliberately to turn the paradigm of narration on its head. Where Rucks, in Bastion, frequently alluded to how many secrets he was yet to reveal about himself and the game-world, his character ultimately plays a supportive role, helping The Kid to understand the chaotic environment of the game. The narrator in The Stanley Parable, however, plays the antagonist in many ways, attempting to foreshadow and predetermine the actions of the player, or “Stanley.” On the game’s website, a short sentence contextualizes the endeavor, “The Stanley Parable is a Half Life 2 mod about video games.” The game itself is a mod of the “Source engine,” which runs both Half-Life 2, and Portal, was developed by the very small development team of Davey Wreden and William Pugh, and released for free. It is meta-fiction that stages a critique of the context of narrative within interactive games and fiction. Specifically, the game questions the idea of narrative itself by showcasing the ways that players are able to undermine the scripted plots and spaces of a videogame by exploring and experimenting with exploits and bugs in the game’s code and narrative.
Although the narrator in The Stanley Parable will prescribe several decisions to the player over the course of the game, the player is given the agency to contest the story as told by the narrator, and, therefore, to experiment with the plot. As the player reaches a set of two open doors on the way to the employee lounge the narrator reads, “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.” If the player chooses to travel through the door on the right instead, the narrator will attempt to steer the player back to the main plot tree by saying, “This was not the correct way to the employee lounge, and Stanley knew it perfectly well.” And, then as an open door is revealed, “So he turned left at the first open door, and walked back in the right direction.” If the player continues to ignore the narrator’s advice, he comes to somewhat of a dead end and the narrator reads, “Stanley was so bad at following directions, it’s incredible that he wasn’t fired years ago. Maybe this was why everyone left. No one wanted to be around someone as bad at listening as him.” The player is given several other opportunities to make decisions and lead the story to completion in achieving one of seven endings; each based the decisions the player has made when interacting with the narrator’s dialogue.
The Stanley Parable allows players the agency to see the limitations of linear storytelling where Bastion does not. Where some paths in The Stanley Parable will lead the player into direct conflict with the narrator, other paths do not. There is never a point where the narrator ceases to comment on the player’s actions and activities. Because the sonic feedback of surveillance remains a constant in both games the player remains engaged, in both cases, with the logic of the game-system. In other words, no matter how many times the player defies the narrator in The Stanley Parable, it never seems like the game is breaking. The game world remains constant because the motif of surveillance holds; players know the game still works because the narrator continues to stage commentary – even if it is commentary about the player’s failure to keep to the plot.
For Marc Andrejevic, author of iSpy (2007)—who has written extensively about the abundance of surveillance techniques implemented in digital spaces–the danger of surveillance lies in the production of an asymmetrical power relationship between media producer and media consumer. And, while this is certainly best argued about instances of dataveillance–how companies like Amazon, for example, track customer clicks on and off their website via web cookies in order to better produce exploitable (and in some cases saleable) consumer profiles–it is important to also consider the ways that the implementation of sound also functions as a technique of control.
At its most positive, the sonic panopticism of Bastion and The Stanley Parable offer players a sense of comfort in knowing that the game is operating properly, and not glitching out. Further, players are invited into a more immersive game, which leverages both visual and audio interactivity to lull players into an environment of almost trancelike feedback and play. Clearly, this is the promise of good sound design; it gently alerts players to the presence of a tightly designed and well-implemented game, and produces affects of brand loyalty and trust within a game’s player contingent.
But, while there are clearly aesthetic and market benefits to the implementation of narration in both games, one cannot help but wonder, in the context of post-feminism and self-surveillance, what implications there are in the implementation of the male voice as surveil-er in both games. Just as it was curious in Portal 2 how GLaDOS acted as a critical female voice constantly judging the player’s body image and intelligence, it is curious how much authority is given to the voice of Rucks in Bastion. And while several good critiques have already been written about how the game features only one (somewhat silent, and certainly helpless) female character, and how the game’s villain is portrayed, concretely, as the racially exotic other, it is sadly fitting that the most comforting and well-acclaimed aspects of the game come from the interactivity produced by the voice of its distinctively white male narrator.
The sound design in The Stanley Parable, of course, is more cutting in the ways it stages a commentary about how the voice of the narrator (this time distinctively British), exacts a form of social coercion through techniques of surveillance, and how these techniques serve, namely, to hamper player agency. But, even its own narrative of resistance fails to compel; in fact, it is the uneasy ending of compliance and conformity that is, perhaps, the happiest. This, ironically, reveals one of the key cultural problems of our era: the reciprocal aspects of surveillance and interactivity. If affective resonances of trust, knowledge, and comfort come bundled with the male voice, is it in the vested economic interests of sound design communities to leverage these to make profit? Even though both games have earned critical praise, it is only Bastion that has won awards for sound design. In other words, are we caught in our own feedback loop of comfort, industry, and design?
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.
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DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks— Tom McEnaney
The Role of Sound in Video Games: Pong, Limbo, and Interactivity— Aaron Trammell
Orality and Cybernetics in Battleship— Aaron Trammell