As we continue our series focusing on the creators and artists of blind-accessible games, we now interview sound designer Drew Becker. Drew has worked on titles such as Woodsy Studio’s Serafina’s Crown and their recently released Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. Drew is also the sound designer for the upcoming blind-accessible turn-based strategy game, A Hero’s Call, which is being developed by Out of Sight Games’ Creative Lead and Composer, Joseph Bein, and Lead Programmer, Ian Reed, who are both blind themselves. In this interview Drew shares his experience creating characters without visual references and what inspires him to work on such out-of-the-box projects.
Hello, please introduce yourself:
Drew Becker: My name is Drew Becker, and I am a sound designer and audio engineer. I grew up in the Midwest but I am currently making bleeps and bloops out of Seattle, WA.
How did you get into sound?
DB: As many in the audio profession, I grew up as a musician. I started playing the drums at the age of ten, and I went on to play in bands and college jazz ensembles, and even sang in my church’s choir for a few years. I always had a sincere dedication to music and playing with other musicians, but I was never certain I wanted it to be my career. When I was in high school, I had almost convinced myself I wanted to a be a filmmaker. I always tried to get my teachers to let me make short films with my friends for an assignment instead of something more “scholarly” (and sometimes it worked). I discovered I loved the editing process—fitting scenes together with just the right fades and hard cuts. In one school movie, we had a fight scene where my friend was swinging an axe, and I wondered how to get the right whoosh for the swing. Having no clue about SFX libraries or the concept of sound design for film, I decided that if I recorded my friend swinging a staff, I could strip the audio and take just the portion that contained the whoosh and insert it into the axe scene. I found it to be a very cool concept, and without my knowing it was probably the first discovery I had into wanting to be a sound designer.
So like many in our community, you decided to take your musically-minded intuition and delve into the black art of sound design. What did you think you were going to do as a career when you first started your education?
DB: When I left high school, I decided to go to university for a Bachelor’s in Audio Production at Webster University in St. Louis, MO. I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do with such a degree, but it seemed to make sense concerning my interests in music, games, and film. I had recorded in studios as a musician, and I found the whole process to be very cool, but I wasn’t convinced I wanted to spend my career behind a mixing console recording bands. After I started at university, I was made almost entirely sure by my professors that I did not want to do that. The trouble was my school taught a very generalized audio engineering course that focused heavily on music recording, with a little on film sound and absolutely nothing related to game audio. Not one professor had much of an idea on how to create interactive audio. Nevertheless, by the time I graduated, I knew game audio was going to be my jam. I started going to conferences, getting experience with really small indie projects, and teaching myself implementation software and techniques. In fact, I would say that’s somewhat the phase I am still in now.
I’m assuming since they had no game audio courses, your university also did not expose you to game accessibility. How did you then become interested in accessibility?
DB: To be honest, my interest in accessibility came about more by happenstance than my own will. I met a composer at a conference who got me in touch with a developer who was in need of a dedicated sound designer for their first large scale project. It turned out the developer, Out of Sight Games, was comprised of a programmer and a composer/writer who were both blind and were making a game specifically for blind gamers. It sounded like a great opportunity and I jumped on it right away.
It was about the same time I decided to start making a little game all by myself, partially for my creative enjoyment and to create something unique to display whatever sound design and implementation skills I had. After realizing I didn’t understand the first thing about 3D modeling or 2D sprites and was vaguely familiar with the concept of audio games, I thought, ‘Aw what the hell? I’ll just make a game with no visuals.’ I made a short demo for a first person adventure game that only used sound and showed it off at a local game dev night. People seemed surprised and a little confused but very interested. I had aspirations to make it into a full fledged game, but those plans have more or less subsided with other projects that have come in.
I attended GDC in 2015—immediately after I put the demo together and started to work on Out of Sight Games’ A Hero’s Call—and decided to sit in on an accessibility presentation, partially because I only had an Expo pass and the accessibility talks were fortunately open to all passes. It got me realizing that 1) accessibility is a major issue in the industry that is not getting near the amount of discussion that it should, and 2) that perhaps this should be where I take some of my skills as a sound designer. As it turns out, there is a very dedicated community of visually impaired gamers who are hungry for better experiences, and most games made within and for this community are very lacking in good audio. The irony is quite bitter.
That’s where A Hero’s Call comes in. Could you explain the concept of this game?
DB: The simplest description of the game would be to say that it’s a fantasy-themed turn-based RPG. You begin as a traveler who is thrust into taking up the call (of course) to defeat a mysterious enemy that is attacking the city of Farhaven. You form a party, explore a bunch of lands outside of the city, and embark on a host of quests.
The obvious twist is that there is a limited amount of visual components to the game. All battles, while existing in a 3D space with 3D-positioned sounds, are all text-based. You select your item or attack, and you hear a sound effect play on its own with no visual component, which would typically be tied to an animation.
The exploration aspect of the game is a bit different. There are two ways to view your environment, either in a top-down map perspective or in first-person. Even though there are visuals in this part of the game, they are very simple are not intended to be much more than visual reference. As the game was conceived to be a full-fledged immersive game experience targeted in large part to blind gamers, the game can be played without ever looking at a screen. In combat and all other text-based scenarios, menus can be easily read with a screen reader (this is the default setting, although it can be turned off at any time), and a large amount of dialogue is planned to be fully voice acted. In open world exploration, brief sound cues are given for any item or character with which you can interact, as well as environmental attributes such as doors, roads, and the direction you’re facing, which again, can be turned off at will.
This sounds like an interesting mix of gameplay elements that makes it accessible to both blind and sighted players. What are your goals and expectations for the sound design in A Hero’s Call?
DB: A large part of my contribution in A Hero’s Call so far has been the creation of sounds during combat—melee and ranged attacks, magic skills, creature vocals, etc. Because these are not accompanied by any visual component, this has made my role somewhat overlap with what would typically be a character/item artist. In most games, the weapons, items, characters and their accompanying animations for each skill would be produced before being given to the sound designer. Here, I get to be the one to decide what each of these are and what they “look” like. I can decide the length of each of these sounds and what specific components they contain without having to match it to an animation someone already created. All I’m given is a brief description of each, allowing me almost complete creative freedom. It’s both super rewarding and rather challenging.
With that in mind, my two goals for the game are 1) to not just to make a game that sounds polished but to make a rich and engaging world that can exist largely on its sound, and 2) to craft a coherent play experience for both blind and sighted gamers.
That is quite the creative workload and some seriously challenging goals. What other challenges have you been faced with during the development?
DB: It definitely took a bit of time to get in the groove of designing sound effects that fit the game. Without a visual component to go off of, I had to understand what the tone and theme of the game were by trial and error somewhat by delivering new sounds to the developers until we reached ones that worked. It’s a fantasy RPG, but does that mean it’s whimsical? Is it gritty? When an axe hits an enemy, should I go for realistic gore or a lighter slash? These were all things we had to work out. I still face these challenges, but the sounds seem to come about more naturally now.
Sounds like incredibly fulfilling work. Though I’m sure the game can be frustrating at times, what do you find most motivating about the project?
DB: The work I find most motivating is the kind that has the potential to connect with someone on more than just a superficial level. It’s awesome for an audience to simply have fun listening or playing (sometimes those are even the best experiences), but it’s things that are past that surface level that are inspiring to me. With A Hero’s Call, I think it’s the potential for blind gamers to feel more welcome into the gaming community and to bridge the gap between them and sighted players. Ultimately, I think that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the game.
That gap is definitely real, as most games target either blind or sighted gamers, but rarely both. While working on the game, have you come to better understand gamers in the blind community?
DB: Definitely. Like a majority of people, before I started work on A Hero’s Call, I never much imagined a visually impaired person playing a video game. I had an understanding of audio games, but I had no idea there was a community of blind gamers and developers all sharing ideas and games with each other, looking for better experiences that served their needs and were accessible. When I thought about it, it makes perfect sense that such a community exists. If you look at all the games available today, it’s an incredibly small percentage that are fully accessible to blind gamers. And why, just because you can’t see, would you not be drawn by the powerful allure of playing games?
Do you think there might be a change in attitude to this? Where do you think blind-accessibility in games is heading?
DB: I’m honestly not certain, but I don’t think it’s heading anywhere fast. While there are advocacy groups and in general word is spreading about making games more accessible to those with disabilities, I don’t think most developers see the appeal. Making a game blind-accessible in particular requires a specific thought process way before development ever begins. I went to PAX West recently, and it suddenly struck me while I was there that I wouldn’t be able to play any of the games I saw if I was blind. It made me a little sad. A least for now, the indie realm is definitely where any fully blind-accessible games will exist. My hope is that more small developers will make the daring (though perhaps not very lucrative) decision to make an engaging game that can be played with the screen off.
It’s important for people to see it themselves—how the gameplay and stories we experience, as well as our tech savvy and industry aspirations, are excluded from an ever growing group of blind and low vision gamers. But at the same time, we pride ourselves in game audio on the inclusiveness of our community, which has been an incredible source of inspiration, especially to freelancers. What games or people in sound design and game audio do you look to for inspiration?
DB: To be a bit cheesy, I would say the whole game audio community is my source of inspiration. I’ve never seen a slice of the creative and professional world that has the same degree of passion while being so open and willing to share with each other. I think it’s an unfortunately uncommon phenomenon. Specific creative influences include Jessica Curry (even though I’m not a composer) and the folks at The Chinese Room, and composer/sound designer Dren McDonald who has helped me a lot in finding my direction. Additionally, anything produced, designed, or mixed by Sony Santa Monica is my go-to for understanding the pinnacle of polish and sonic coherency.
What about other game audio designers interested in accessibility, do you have any advice them?
DB: The only advice I have is that if you’re a sound designer that’s interested at all in accessibility, especially in visually impaired accessibility, simply go for it. Those communities need more talented creatives to fuel the experiences they want but aren’t necessarily getting just yet.
Thank you very much for speaking with us and sharing your experience and insight. If people want to learn more about A Hero’s Call or hear some of your personal audio work, where can they follow you?