John Broomhall talks with composer and audio director Kenneth Young about creating integral aural innovations for Secret Sorcery’s charming VR title
Following his celebrated work on the likes of LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway, Kenny Young relished the prospect of working with another team who also really values the role of music and audio. Tethered is an immersive strategy game in which you look down upon beautiful floating islands - a visual perspective immediately setting it apart from the first-person VR pack.
“Each VR project requires a tailored approach," says Young. "There’s pleasure to be had in the small details in VR, be that simply observing the world around you or examining an object up-close. The strong sense of ‘presence’ invites players to compare their experience to reality and so there’s a magnifying glass on audio not normally present. You need to meet players’ expectations to avoid bumping them out of the experience - which requires a real step-up in the finesse of the audio presentation.”
Each VR project requires a tailored approach.
You might think this wouldn’t be so applicable in a third-person style ‘God’ game but Young points out that all VR experiences are intrinsically ‘first- person’, irrespective of camera position and meeting the players' expectations just as important, even if the 'reality' presented is fantastical.
"For example," explains Young. "I spent a lot of time getting the exterior acoustic just right, ensuring the sense of distance and perspective of sounds emanating from the world below matched what you were seeing. Because the game always presents an exterior location from the same kind of distance, I was able to ‘bake in’ a nice, convincing- sounding reverb to my samples.
“Your relationship with the Peeps (the inhabitants of Tethered’s islands) and the emotional bond you form with them is a pillar of the experience, so making them feel like real creatures - not just cute animations and AI code - was an important role for sound. I brought them to life using my own voice (a tool I’m not scared of!) - the soundscape is filled with the subtle sounds of Peeps communicating, humming or whistling as they walk between tasks - and crying when they wallow in despair."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tethered’s musical content is the use of iconographic musical stingers to inform the player when and where key gameplay events are taking place. Alan McDermott (creative director) tasked Young with exploring using sound and music for this purpose to reduce reliance on visual user interface elements, which they felt work less well in VR, and risk pulling the player out of the experience.
“This technique worked great for us – you hear a stinger, you come to recognise what it represents, the positional audio directs you towards where it’s happening and then the visuals take over," Young continues. "The use of ‘off- screen’ sound guiding the player with sound/music is relatively unexplored territory and an area where I hope to see a lot of innovation due to the specific requirements imposed by VR - although pulling this off requires true cross-disciplinary collaboration.
“Alan was formerly the audio director at Evolution Studios. Collaborating with a creative director who brings all of that deep audio insight to the table was a brilliant opportunity to push the role of audio. I also worked closely with programmer Scott Kirkland, Secret Sorcery’s managing director, who hooked up all of my work and made the music system I’d prototyped in Unreal 4 more robust and scalable. That level of support, encouragement and investment from senior team members is what enabled sound and music in Tethered to be a central part of the player experience.”