John Broomhall talks cutting-edge audio for VR with Supermassive’s Barney Pratt
Supermassive Games is super-serious about VR audio – amply illustrated by their recent hire of ex-Lionhead audio expert Steve Brown specifically to manage future VR sound provision.
They believe, and embrace the notion, that overall player perception of sound in virtual reality is completely different to regular video games. With the player’s sense of distance and perspective enhanced in new and sometimes unexpected ways, VR creates dramatic opportunities for audio to help provoke strong visceral responses.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood audio director Barney Pratt (pictured) explains how his audio team threw away the rulebook and discovered new tropes and techniques.
“From the outset we knew we would have to adjust our approach, opening the door to experimentation,” he says. “Certain things we’d taken for granted simply didn’t work in the VR realm. As development continued, the concept of ‘choosing our moments’ grew – and directly affected our integration approach. Rush of Blood exists in the same world as Until Dawn, but the step to VR meant continually reshaping the experience from being cinematic to a more immersive one.
“One of the biggest mind-shifts was meticulously giving all sounds, without exception, a true 3D position, otherwise they detracted. The in-world spatialisation of all sounds is vital. Key to the experience is conveying the speed of the cart you’re riding on, beyond just the mechanical sounds.
“There was a ‘Eureka moment’ one day while cycling home. I was reminded of something we all normally subconsciously ignore: the turbulent effect of the wind across your ears. The buffeting is softer at lower speeds and becomes harsher and louder at higher speeds. The turbulence is directly related to head orientation with clear variation between sideways and front-facing turbulence. If the ear is pointing backwards and thus in the slip-stream, virtually no turbulent effect is heard. We accurately replicate this, using both the increased amount of space in the VR mix and the preferred VR audio set-up of playing through headphones, to place these sounds directly into the player’s ears.”
The step to VR meant continually reshaping the experience from being cinematic to a more immersive one.
Pratt believes the improved immersion of virtual reality brings the player closer to the audio in the game – though incredible attention to detail in the integration is vital to achieve a nuanced aural experience.
“The way sounds are attenuated over distance has to sound more realistic than in a filmic experience, creating challenges at long distance with sounds you want to prioritise,” he explains.
“Early on, we realised that when characters or objects are very close to the player, we can really invade their personal space, creating audio events which people feel they can literally reach out and touch.
“It can add a visceral layer of creepiness when a character leans in to talk to the player, and it’s fantastic for VR horror scares. We call it ‘pulling focus’.
“VR soundscapes have a lot more space but it’s a mistake to try and fill it with more sounds as any ‘clutter’ can be a tiring distraction. Choosing your moments is key to the emotional curve. RoB is an intense experience, so having emotional lulls is just as important as pushing the highs.”
When it comes to emotion, music is clearly a powerful signifier. However in VR, it can feel particularly ‘imposed’ and therefore disruptive, even potentially psychologically bumping a player out of the experience. For Rush of Blood, Supermassive concocted a smart approach.
“All music has a 3D position in the world – we were able to place visible loudspeakers wherever we wanted,” says Pratt. “As the concept grew, we evolved a backstory for the loudspeakers’ presence, further enhancing their diegetic appeal, whereby they embody the mood of the ever-present character who guides you. He scares you, laughs at you and plays spooky music – all to help drive the experience.
“This strong design edict of only having diegetic music resulted in a very immersive game element.”
John Broomhall is a game audio specialist creating and directing music, sound and dialogue. Find him at www.johnbroomhall.co.uk