I first met Jordan at PAX Prime two years ago. He was quiet, friendly, helpful, and willing to turn his hand to anything. Pretty much like the rest of the company, to be honest. But then…then I saw him in the office working with Kevin. He was intense, passionate, and completely hardcore. Jekyll and Hyde, if Hyde was really nice and into sound design. Okay, fine, the analogy doesn’t work, but Jordan does, and you’re going to love what he does when you hear it. Here’s Jordan telling you about his job. – Sanya
Sounds of Decay
by Jordan Stock
A long time ago, before I ever had any business being in a video game studio, an audio engineer told me, “good sound feels good”. It seems like a simple and even obvious statement, but it is much more than that. It’s a mantra that has guided my conception of sound ever since. At the time I could only relate this sentiment to music since that was what I worked on back then, but it fundamentally changed how I worked. I stopped looking for how a musical idea might relate to the piece, and began listening to how my sonic choices made me feel. I’d listen to my gut, and trust my instincts that what I was hearing either sounded good, or not. A year later I’m making sounds for games and the mantra still holds true, but it has also evolved: good sound makes you feel something.
Often in games we need to be able to communicate to our colleagues how we would like something to sound. It’s a skill in itself to be able to accurately draw from a vocabulary that communicates sonic ideas. However, even without that level of familiarity with audio, all of us can talk about how something makes us feel. Most of the time, that is exactly how my colleagues and I talk about sound, too. “This should feel more aggressive,” “this could sound less triumphant”, “I’m not feeling a sense of urgency here.” None of these statements describe the actual sounds being used in the design, because they don’t matter as much as how the final version makes us feel.
Undead Labs’ take on the zombie apocalypse is a version of the real world coming up against something fantastical and impossible (improbable?). Sonically I follow suit, and bring in both real world sounds and designed sounds. For an everyday sound like a footstep or a car door, I simply go record it, edit it, and put it in the game. Despite the everyday nature of those sounds, they still need to provide the right feedback to you, the player. These common sounds need to feel satisfying in a way that validates what you see on screen, and therefore help immerse you in our world.
For anything else that doesn’t have a real-life analogue, I have to come up with the sounds for it from scratch. Designed sounds work similarly to the real ones. They need to convince you that the thing making those sounds is a believable part of our world. But more than just immersing you in our world, the sounds need to elicit an emotional response. For instance, I could design all the vocal sounds of a zombie freak using recordings of liquid slurps and sputters as source material, as long as it scares you and forces you to react. Whether that reaction is running away in fear, or blasting the freak right away. Fight or Flight. That source material is just me playing around with water and a drinking straw, but that won’t matter as long as the resulting designed sound convinces you that zombie freak belongs in our world (i.e. doesn’t break your immersion), and makes you feel something.
As an interactive media, video games need to provide satisfying feedback. When you perform an action in a game, you should be met with an appropriate response. Everything that can make a sound should make a sound, because as developers it is our goal to immerse you in our game world. As a sound designer I want your emotional attention; I want you to feel something. Common sounds like a distant bird song make you feel a sense of place, while a semi-automatic AR-15 feels dangerous (and satisfying) when you shoot the head off of an approaching zombie. It’s my job to help provide that emotional feedback when you play our games. I know when I’ve designed the right sound for any given moment when I have delivered the right emotional feedback you get from hearing it.