In games we have a chance to bring characters to life unlike film and television. They can occupy their own space and exist within a more fleshed out and breathing world. Sound enhances that experience both providing key game play information and enriching the overall experience. Here I’ll go into how to begin the process of creating unique character sounds that are engaging and unique to the world they inhabit.
Break down the character into their essence. What makes them, them? Are they big and burly, should we emphasize the low end of our sounds to sell that weight? What sounds can we have less of a focus on that may be another characters emphasis? A robed figure has more of an emphasis on the cape and cloth movement, perhaps other characters should not have as much foley detail. Lighter characters having more wisping, cutting movements and abilities in contrast to larger characters lumbering and impactful sounds. Allow the characters to occupy their own space and things become recognizable.
This can apply to a number of things. Gun fire/Foley, magic abilities and attacks, movement etc. While I think it obvious that big sounds sound big and small sounds sound small, the nuance of this to give life to a character or scene is so important in selling your audio. It creates a world people fall into and have a response to. Defining character not only helps give your characters their place to shine but it can also inform your player on how to better play the game.
Take Overwatch for example. Their design is top notch when it comes to character, they’re all about it. The way they implement their audio is aimed at informing the player in a clean and concise way. The difference in how the enemy characters sound compared to how your teammates sound better inform you of what’s happening in the world. Abilities popping and determining your immediate threats is all determined by the audio. Keeping your players informed keeps them engaged but also sells your characters. Suddenly your characters are recognizable on their own merit.
When I’m starting to design sounds for a character I usually break them down into their core pieces. What weapon do they use? How big are they? What kind of armor do they have if any? What are their abilities? Make a list of all these things and break down your design from there. Take it further and break down the key elements. Do they have a reload animation, a power up? What does the movement look like? Compare these things to other characters in the game. If you have a group of characters in a narrative how can their abilities compliment each other and also stand on their own? Keeping other characters or environmental sounds in mind avoids confusing the player when various abilities are going off.
Begin to build a palette of sounds you want to use for a character. Start off with gathering things you think would work for their overall design, whether you library dive or record things yourself. Focus on getting some good source and starting points. Staying with a palette across a particular character gives continuity and, in my opinion, makes things seem more real and believable. It makes things sound related and not so separate.
Another great GDC talk is from Pinar Temiz at Guerrilla Games. While her talk isn’t available off the vault, her slides are available for viewing. Pinar does a brilliant job in showing how she broke down the robots of Horizon Zero Dawn into workable parts. Definitely work a look!
Clean, concise and informative. Dissect your characters by breaking them into workable parts and let them breath!