John Broomhall talks with composer and sound designer Dom Beken
It’s Quiz Time from ex-Buzz! developers Snap Finger Click is a funky social videogame version of Trivial Pursuits featuring an intriguing ethereal AI host, Salli, who chit-chats with you, based on details she ‘remembers’ of your knowledge-base and other information she teases from you and your fellow players. Whilst questions come up on a communal big screen, each player uses their own preferred mobile device as a controller meaning their answer choices can be hidden until Salli chooses to reveal them.
Except for one pre-existing music theme, Dom Beken (of The Orb and PixelJunk Shooter fame) handled the entire music and audio, also becoming intimate with Salli’s speech synthesis engine. Dom Beken: “We worked with a partner who has huge experience of speech synthesis and ported their technology to our platforms. Then followed a lot of tweaking and experimentation and text-tagging. There are some weird words she’ll struggle with, so you need to use phonetic spellings and experiment with her pauses and intonation. We pitch-shift her and there’s some other DSP fx in the mix. We're really pleased with the result.”
Aided by the context of Salli’s sci-fi futuristic AI persona, the result is credible and entertaining and crucially, it means all speech is run-time generated - a perfect way of avoiding countless days and dollars recording v/o - and facilitating an endlessly expandable question-base for subscribers. DB: “It's been a process of constant improvement - she gets better all the time. Plus, the more you play, the more she learns about you, using her ‘knowledge’ to good effect in encouraging and chiding you, and generally taking the piss! We’re continually adding to her bank of one-liners and jokes…”
Audio engine duties are handled by Criware, a choice partly prompted by the team’s use of Sofdec for the quiz round bumpers: “As a sound designer/composer, Criware’s sister tools ADX and Atom Craft provide a very nice graphical user interface where I can mix up behaviour blocks of music loops in a multitrack format which can be controlled by run-time control parameters - typically eight stereo tracks in most rounds whose playback combinations I can manipulate dependent on how you’re doing in the round, what the questions are and the game events and circumstances arising – say, to increase intensity or tension. I can bring additive music things in with different combinations of fading in/out, EQ filtering and other effects as you move around game areas. We have loads of different interactive music sets for different styles of round.”
The interactive music is designed to create the illusion of manual control from a virtual studio mixing engineer allowing for unpredictable lengths of gameplay loops and contributions from Salli across multiple languages. “Designing the music has been quite a challenge harmonically and tempo-wise – my first implementation had the whole game stuck at 128 bpm and wow that became monotonous! Now however there’re a whole bunch of different tempos and musical keys. Style-wise, because it’s this virtual AI world with Salli kind of floating in space like a semi-humanoid robot, the sound design is quite Blade Runner-ish and the music style very futuristic EDM though oddly I kind of went back in time and tried to stick to all analogue synthesizers - lots of TB-303, Moog and old electric pianos. It’s all a bit edgy – it’s a slightly grubby future!
“Overall, I like how the voice and audio fit the game environment creating a quite special aesthetic. Salli is constantly interacting with you and because she uses real-time speech synthesis she doesn't repeat herself. And I’m pleased with how the music responds to game-play and provides a sense of progression – ultimately, you feel like you’re in your own bespoke quiz show with somebody in the gallery choreographing all the cues and fx - and that’s exactly what we set out to achieve.”