Following on from last month’s interview with The Chinese Room‘s Director and Composer Jessica Curry I was lucky enough to grab some time to chat with the studio’s Audio Designer Adam Hay.
Designing Sound: Thanks for taking the time to speak to me Adam. So, looking back through your credit list the first games you worked on were at Traveller’s Tales?
Adam Hay: That’s correct, yeah. I started doing music technology at University and when I finished my degree I knew I wanted to get into games. I’ve been a lifelong game enthusiast. The first game that had a big impact on me was Monkey Island 2. I saw that first when I must have been 7 or 8 and I was totally enraptured by the sound and music of that game. I’ve been a bit of an adventure game addict since then. I got into early things like Click and Play and Games Factory so after University it seemed like a natural extension of my two passions, music & sound and games, to try and get into the industry. So I sent my post-University CV of to every games company in the UK and as luck would have it TT were looking for a junior sound designer at the time and I was lucky enough to get in there.
DS: So perseverance paid off for you? I’m not sure if that kind of route is as accessible to new graduates now?
AH: Yeah, it’s hard and it’s perhaps even harder now post financial crisis because a lot of the jobs have dried up but to replace that we’ve got an amazing indie scene. My advice to my younger self now would be just to find people making games and do that. Create a show reel and portfolio out of that.
DS: On that point as well as being busy on Rapture you’re also making your own games?
AH: Yeah. I do my own little side projects really because I find it fun. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to keep levelling up my skills and knowledge, learning how to script and program, all these little things help me in my day job anyway and you know, it’s just fun.
DS: Your current side project is Square Rave?
AH: Yeah. The original idea I had for that, well, like most great ideas came to me in the shower, and I was thinking I really love Super Hexagon, how pure that game is and how everything pulsates to the music and I wondered could I possibly do something like that? So it grew out of that really. I did a rough prototype that looked horrible and I showed it to a few friends and they thought it was fun so I kept going at it. It was always the goal to have a music synced game that got faster and faster and just got ridiculous. There’s a bonus level that’s at 240 bpm that’s impossible to play but I’m sure someone will figure it out.
DS: So from TT you moved to Frontier Developments and got into Kinect.
AH: It was Kinect land for a long time. After a few years at TT I had my fill of Lego. I always like to do new things and that’s what Frontier were offering through the new Kinect tech. I got to work on some cool licenses and Kinect based projects.
DS: Having worked on Lego titles and Kinect titles Rapture seems like quite a departure?
AH: Yeah, this is something that I actually brought up when I went down to chat to The Chinese Room. I’ve been working mainly on games aimed at kids. And the younger age range. I’ve worked on some unreleased projects that were adult oriented and other sound design that fits that spectrum. I really wanted to do something that was more in tone with what I wanted to play. The emotionally driven narrative experience is definitely what I’m into.
DS: Is it possibly related to knowing a bit more about how games work and what goes into them that makes you want to play this kind of game?
AH: I think they offer something new. As I said earlier my first love was adventure games and the thing that’s always got me about games is being in a place, a beautiful environment with some amazing music and sounds, and really being able to drink in the atmosphere. That’s always been my ultimate design goal. I’ve always had the most fun designing environmental sounds, doing ambience, setting up that feeling of a space. So Rapture was a match made in heaven.
DS: Are you working solo on Rapture?
AH: It’s just me doing sound design. We have support from Sony helping out with foley and mixing guidance. Pretty much every sound that’s in there at the moment has been carefully hand crafted, and you know, maybe sometimes not so carefully hand crafted but. But if it works…
DS: That’s quite an undertaking when you look at other teams, even on small projects, there might be 3 or 4 people working on the audio content. Do you feel there’s an advantage just being that one person who’s got a global sense of what’s going on in the game.
AH: It can be good because you get consistency. But I’ve always loved working with a team, having other designers to bounce ideas off. If you find yourself down a creative dead end someone else can throw you a lifeline and pull you out of that. But I have been working really closely with Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck and they’ve been my guiding light if I’m ever stuck for ideas or if I need a little point in the right direction. The whole team really have been so invested in every area of production and gotten involved. That’s what I love about making games. That collaborative effort where everyone cares about what everyone else is doing.
DS: There seems to be an intention within the Chinese Room, with the games they’ve put out, to retain this small collaborative team environment and yet to pursue really ambitious projects?
AH: This game is hugely ambitious. The amount of work that’s been put in by just 15 of us it sometimes feels there’s double the number. There’s a real passion for it. I think we’re all very invested in what we’re trying to make and there’s an enthusiasm that’s driving us along. It’s great when everyone is working to such a high standard it just keeps pushing you forward.
DS: On the point of ambition I’ve noticed that you’re doing some procedural work with ambience for the game?
AH: The procedural audio came out of some experimentation early in the project. I was trying to figure out how to get tonal elements into the ambience to create moods for all the areas in the game. I was experimenting with a script that was on the fly picking out tones and elements and synth pieces that I’d put in. When I showed it around a bit it seemed I’d struck on something that worked really well. And it grew from that. I’ve started taking elements of Jess’s score and using granular synthesis to turn them into pads and longer sustained elements and that’s been really interesting. I’ve recorded everything to cassette…
DS: Is that the two track you posted on twitter (a Tascam Porta 03 MkII)
AH: Yeah, that’s the first ever bit of music gear I bought. I dug it out of my parent’s attic and I thought, I’m going to use this. I dug out all the cassettes I had and listened to all the trance mixes I made as a kid and thought, yeah I can tape over this.
DS: Never throw anything away.
AH: Right. So all these recordings have gone to the Tascam then I’ve mangled the cassette a bit, then recorded it back. I’m trying to get that analogue sound, that Radiophonic Workshop feel, the idea of getting so many tape loops on the go, but without actually having to have miles of tape. A sort of digital version of that. And it just creates this really atmospheric, ambient background to everything which flows and mutates. It’s never static, there’s always movement. And it all weaves together, the sound and music is almost one entity. All the sounds in the procedural system are built out of the soundtrack itself so it’s all in the same key and tempo so it all interlocks and flows from one thing to the other. It seems to work really well.
DS: Do you think there’s an element of the work you’re doing, the sound design and the tape mangling, which is just for your own pleasure. That doing it this way rather than any other, is gratifying to you in some way?
AH: Absolutely. It’s one of the beauties of this project. It’s really within my sphere of enjoyment. I’ve been able to crack out all my synths and create tones and elements. And it’s allowed me to say, yeah I will mash everything onto tape, mangle it up. It’s definitely something that’s been an indulgence but it’s one with the ultimate goal of making something that sounds new and unique and different. And the cassettes, that’s what being on an indie project affords. This game is a bit of a risk, in terms of it’s design so it just felt right to match that with some new and interesting techniques in the audio.
DS: And given the time periods it’s set in, it seems appropriate to be using cassette.
AH: Definitely. Being set in the 80’s there was always that discussion between me and Jess about how we get that 80’s feel into the game. We went back and forth trying out some more Vangelisy musical ideas and it felt that actually the 80’s analogue feel could come more in the sound design and the subtle elements and Jess gets to do this amazing choral work. I’m diving in to getting all the music that’s been recorded (in March at Air Studios) into the game and it’s an incredible soundtrack.
DS: How much do you think players will be able to appreciate of this level of work you’ve put into the game?
AH: The ultimate goal of sound is to tell the story of the game and whatever I do is to communicate that atmosphere so even if it just comes under the radar. Maybe people don’t know exactly what’s going on but they know they liked being in this world, and they liked being in this game. If players feel like they can just enjoy the space, just soak up the atmosphere, that’s what I’m looking for. I think they notice, on a subconscious level. All good sound works like that where somewhere deep down it feels right. You only really notice it when it’s either really bad or really, really good.
DS: You’re using CryENGINE for the game. How’s that been? What’s your middleware solution?
AH: When we started using CryENGINE it only supported FMOD Designer, the previous version of FMOD. It’s a great editor. There’s really good integration between the 2 systems. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for me because I’ve shipped loads of games using Wwise and I really appreciate what Wwise brings to the table. It’s got great tools and support so moving to FMOD Designer was a bit of a lateral thinking challenge because I had to come up with new ways to do things that I could do very easily in Wwise but not so easily in this engine. Just simple things like in Wwise you can set a random container of sounds that always loop in a granulised way. That can happen really quickly and you couldn’t quite do the same thing in Designer so I had to find an odd way around that. There’s always problem solving as you go through these things though. That’s the nature of the work.
DS: How much original sound content have you been able to record for the game?
AH: There’s a lot of unique foley in the game. We’ve been helped along by Sony there; they’ve got some great foley facilities. I’ve done a lot of sound recording as well, and used stuff from my own personal library that I’ve gathered in the past. The really hard part is getting traffic free ambiences. It’s almost impossible to get in the UK. You can’t really go anywhere without getting that low rumble of cars. The closest I’ve got was in the middle of Thetford Forest. I’ve recorded a lot of electrical interference as well, I’ve got a microphone that picks that up and there’s a lot of that buried in the soundtrack, in the ambiences.
DS: I suppose given the nature of the game the ambiences are king. They’re what’s really conveying the emptiness of the world.
AH: Yeah, that’s a lot of wind sounds. A lot of different tones and textures of wind.
DS: Have you gone to synth for the wind?
AH: It’s mostly real stuff. I had a great session a few years ago where there was a ridiculously windy day when I was working back at Frontier and we took out all the mics and got these amazing sounds of it howling through cracks in doors and windows, over power lines and through this great old WWII pillbox. Lots of that stuff’s in there as well. It’s useful to have.
DS: So where are you at now with the game?
AH: I’m getting the final music in but I’m also just reviewing everything that’s in there and making sure it’s all good quality and replacing some sounds that were done early in the project that don’t really stand up any more.
DS: So is it nearly QA?
AH: Yeah, I imagine that’s on the horizon.
DS: You used to be involved in QA right? Back when you started out on Ben Jordan?
AH: Oh wow. Right. I’m going to go on a bit of back story here. So, in the proto-indie scene that existed before indie games became big there was (and still is) a tool called Adventure Game Studio and it gained quite a bit of internet following. I was in that community and that’s where I cut my teeth really. Those were games that people were making in their spare time but a lot of those people have gone on to make commercial games like Dave Gilbert who runs Wadjet Eye now and Francisco Gonzalez who’s just released a game called A Golden Wake. I think there’s something very pure about that, about a game made by just one person. One of my favourite games is Lone Survivor by Jasper Byrne. It’s made entirely by Jasper and it’s just this pure experience where the personality of the creator just comes right through and grabs you. It’s a great game.
DS: I’ll definitely check that one out. Well, thanks again for your time Adam and we look forward to playing Rapture.
AH: It’s been a pleasure.
Many thanks to Adam for taking the time to chat about his work. You can find more information about Adam and his work on his blog.