Game Dev Diaries: The Hidden World of Audio

Jun 15, 2022 - Hippy

Every game has a story to tell, a journey to take players through that—if done well—can inspire wonderful memories that last a lifetime. Unlike other storytelling mediums, the art of video games is an intricate interweaving of experiences, including psychological cues that are designed to entrance players and make them feel like they’re a part of the story. One way this is achieved is through the art of audio. And no, we aren’t just talking about the many incredible soundtracks out there, we’re talking about the oftentimes overlooked universe of audio design.  

Here to explore this underbelly of creativity are a few members of the Bungie Audio team, giving us a closer look at the joys, the drawbacks, and the complexities of what it means to bring a video game to life by adding another layer to the pixels on the screen. One reason we wanted to highlight this part of audio design is because when talking about a game’s audio, the conversation is often centered around a title’s official soundtrack. While a game’s musical styling is important, that is only one small aspect of the aural experience, and that’s what we are diving into today. 

In Destiny 2, you might be playing around with new loadouts only to be intrigued by a weapon’s sound effect when it’s fired. Or perhaps you are enthralled by the ambiance of Season of the Haunted, with that edge of horror that takes the apparent journey to darker, more subtle depths. There’s a lot that goes into these sounds, including a design precision that can take something from the real world and transform it into a magical experience that guides players into a multi-level sensory adventure. That journey wouldn’t be possible without people like senior Vanguard Audio Lead Jennie LaBonte, Senior Sound Designer Carlye Nyte, and Senior Sound Designer Juan Uribe.  

From crafty ways to get around creative blocks to some of the more psychological elements attached to sound design, we’re talking about it all today! 

What does an audio designer do? 

“Number one? We don’t work on music. That’s a thing almost everyone thinks every audio designer does,” jokes Nyte when opening up about beginning her quest into the audio world. “That, or for a game like Destiny, people just assume we only work on weapon sounds and nothing else. Which, [Juan] Uribe does, but a lot of us don’t. There is this entire gamut of other sounds that are in-game that people don’t really notice. Some do, and that’s always cool, but audio is about all sounds coming together for a ‘whole’ audio experience.”  

LaBonte laughs, adding, “Oh yeah, it’s complex. And all of these sounds we work on have to be done manually each time, it’s not something that is just auto-generated or auto-populated. No. Audio takes an army to manually put each puzzle piece together with care.” To add to this point, Nyte shares that this past week alone, her entire task was placing emitter effects on lights, ensuring that the sounds, the blinks, and the rate of emission all make sense. This ensures that when a player passes by each flicker, each light, that the effects tied to that part of the area won’t break the immersive experience. Wild, right? Those tiny lights you pass when on your way working through a Lost Sector? The small bulbs that illuminate the way in the new Duality dungeon? They are so much more than simple decoration, they’re important aspects of a much larger picture.  

“Our job is to go in and look at everything an environment could have to offer and define each area,” adds LaBonte. “It’s not simple either, it’s not just ‘here’s a small area, blanket one audio cue.’ Each room is different and maybe in one of those rooms, the narrative is that something is stirring in the background. How do you account for that experience and what would it sound like? What would it feel like?” When you think about it, the underlining audio of any video game can make or break the experience. In a horror game, it’s what adds to the psychological pressure. In a whimsical game, this type of audio magic can make the player feel safe and free. It’s extremely nuanced, not some easy switch to flip, and it takes a keen ear and understanding of the world to come up with the perfect fit.  

The language of alien weapons

If you play Destiny, then you know we’ve got some pretty weird weapons in the game. We’ve got a chainsaw Sword, we’ve got a Grenade Launcher that literally launches giant alien worms, and another weapon that seems to be sentient and is bent on wreaking as much havoc on the universe as it can (looking at you, Telesto). With so many weapons that don’t actually exist in the real world, how do you even begin to curate their sounds? How does an audio designer translate a Narrative note that says “alien worm gun go boom” into something that sounds believable?  

“It all starts with concept art or a stray idea from Narrative,” explains Uribe, who is currently working on weapon audio design for Destiny 2. “Maybe you get a fully fleshed-out concept or just some basic direction. Then, an entire team groups up, like concept artists and VFX folks and looks at any given concept thread together. You look at an idea and think, ‘OK, cool, this could be really fun.’ You might have technical people weigh in saying a scope is too big, or that there is too much on the screen. Or you’ll have the creative team come in and have some amazing new ideas that are awesome to see but sometimes can be too complex for the current goal.” 

Once a concept is approved for a weapon, the 3D artists build it out, and then the granular work of Audio can begin. This type of work is intricate and precise; it includes recording bespoke sounds, curating samples from sound libraries, and using synthesizers. As audio designers begin to craft effects for any given weapon, the rabbit hole of what does and doesn’t work is explored. It’s here that many sound designs can be left on the cutting room floor. I mean, as funny as it would be if Witherhoard meowed like a kitten every time it fired, it probably wouldn’t be the smartest choice.  

There’s a lot of collaboration in this stage, working with VFX, Animation, and Narrative to ensure that the right formula of sound is applied to any given aspect of the game. Sounds are gathered from all sources, including weird ones like mac ‘n cheese that was used to make the Parasite Grenade Launcher’s effect, tweaked as needed, and placed into the game in a way that fits. Another example is the Exotic Fusion Rifle called Lorentz Driver, which was a little trickier to nail down. “I was told that the vision was to have some kind of radio communication on the weapon to announce whenever you have acquired a bounty,” says Uribe. “I remember thinking that I didn’t have the scope for something like that.” This would have included an entirely new layer of depth, including full narration and dialogue work. Who would voice act it? What would that voice sound like? Complicated stuff, which is where Uribe’s quick thinking came into play.  

“What if we did an alien language instead,” Uribe reflected. And with that idea, the picture started to come together. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who would this alien be?’ Then, ‘What race do I need to mimic to make this work?’ Many of the alien languages we have in-game are far too complex, especially when looking at how many components were wanted for a weapon like this, so I started thinking outside of the languages we know. So, I went in with a sort of Star Wars-inspired R2-D2-style of beeping and booping. That was just sound design, yet it made the scope of the weapon more doable. So now, when you acquire Lorentz Driver and take on bounties with it, you get these cool little robot noises rather than some random voice talking your ear off.”  

Uribe laughs then, adding, “Oh, and then there’s the worm launcher (Parasite). That one took a whole army of dialogue people to figure out. You have the voice actor who actually records the lines and delivers them, and then you have the SFX people. That was a fun one, but Lorentz Driver was a special instance where I got to be the one to make the other teams react a bit more, whereas usually in the field of audio, we are usually always reacting to already-developed concepts. This time, they came to us with an idea, and by using smart sound design, I was able to counter with a different idea that was more doable and that they liked even better.”  

The hidden wonders of horror. 

But sound design isn’t just about weapons and weird alien robots beeping and booping at you while you’re trying to survive. It’s also about setting up the environment for the overall story. With Season of the Haunted and previous Seasons post-Shadowkeep, the Audio team at Bungie has been able to delve deeper into the realm of horror, something that LaBonte couldn’t wait to get her hands on. More so, because of the challenges of creating a scary atmosphere even in moments where there were no visual cues in the environment. (Abject terror, anyone? Especially when those lights went off for the first time in the Sever mission and all you could hear in the darkness were ominous sounds like you were about to die? No? Just me? All right then.) According to LaBonte, “This was fun because not all of the jump scares in things like the Presage mission or Sever had obvious visual cues, so it was about being able to set the tone of being super scary and achieving that organically and not as a reaction to something happening on screen.” 

She adds, “With Presage, we had to rely mostly on the designers to set up plot points where we wanted jump scares to be, invisible markers for us to plan out when and where the audio cues happened. We would tell them the overall goal we were trying to achieve and then work together to make that happen. With Season of the Haunted, we had more tech on our side to put these markers in ourselves, so the three of us here got together and started placing them. It gave us a lot of creative freedom; we were able to play around with each marker and see where jump scares would be the most effective and where they wouldn’t be.” 

While talking about the creative freedom with jump scares, it’s easy to spot LaBonte’s infectious grin and Uribe’s wide-eyed excitement. It’s easy to see how much fun the team had this Season. Being able to create an entire horror experience with things that players can’t actually see was an exciting opportunity for Audio as they worked together to craft an expertly designed auditive path that has players turning their heads every which way because they swear that they just heard something behind them.  

“We really account for the environment,” explains Nyte. “What kind of sound would happen if a place like the Derelict Leviathan was real? When you first walk into the Pleasure Gardens, what does that feel like? What does that sound like? You immediately cross into that threshold and hear wood cracking in the background in all different directions, all heard through a backdrop of giant trees. Because the player is hearing these sounds, but they can’t actually see what is making them, it feels like there is danger skittering all around you—but there’s nothing there.” 

 Nyte is quick to add her own love of horror, and the added horror elements in Destiny 2 was an awesome opportunity to delve deeper into that love. With that in mind, she adds that “missions like Sever are fun to work on because combat isn’t the sole focus, so you’re left to your own devices to figure out what’s going on [in-game], piecing things together. It’s kind of like the movie Alien where you’re having to figure out on the fly what is going on while knowing there is this lurking danger and feeling that pressure of finding the answers sooner rather than later.”  

At the mention of Alien, Uribe adds, “I’m a big fan of the fear factor of knowing some ’big bad’ is out there following you around, no matter where you go. Kind of like Alien Isolation where the alien is always on the ship and is always a threat. Or Nemesis in Resident Evil where he can just pop out of a wall at any given moment with no warning. But the player still has to keep going, they have to complete the mission, even with that ever-present threat on the periphery. There’s that permanent tension, and that’s a really fun concept to work with.” 

Audio design is a marriage of concepts; audio supports the gameplay, and the gameplay supports audio, but what’s really fascinating is the psychological impact when these two forces come together perfectly. Nyte adds, “When gameplay creates this consistent tension, the player enters this state of mind where they are carefully listening to every single little thing, whether they are aware of it or not. And when they get into that state, it’s ridiculously fun and easy to scare them.”  

The challenges of an open world

Audio design is technical and challenging no matter what, but with Destiny 2 having larger environments with factors that are constantly changing, there are unique challenges when landing that perfect sensory goal. “It’s hard, for sure,” says LaBonte. “An open-world game like Destiny makes it difficult to script those moments that have an impact, less so with more linear missions like Presage and Sever.”  

Nyte agrees, adding, “It’s surprisingly difficult to make it all sound good when there’s a bigger scope. Whether it’s one person running through a mission or an entire fireteam hitting a jump scare at the same time, there’s a lot of logic and planning that has to go in to make sure that sounds land the way we want them to for all players, regardless of how close they are to one another. If one player runs too far ahead, like in a strike or something, and triggers something significant like a jump scare, our job is to make sure that even the people that are left behind still experience it in some way.”  

There are also various travel systems to consider. Experiencing an environment on foot will not sound the same as it does on a Sparrow. How fast is a player moving? Are they falling down a hole? Going through a portal? How would the wind rush by sound when aboard the Always on Time Sparrow, drifting past aggressive enemies and other players in combat? This is just one of the many areas where Audio has a chance to shine, taking something already incredible and making it extraordinary.  

“There’s a lot of technology going on there when looking at a player’s agency,” says Nyte when talking about this particular aspect of audio design. “When players drop down a deep chasm or fly down a chute, we use data from their velocity and direction to highlight that movement with sound; a lot of which are wind recordings. Sometimes we’ll mix in other digital sounds or a creative layer that we run through a bunch of different effects processing to make something sound weird or more interesting.”  

While this is only one example of how various audio moments are calculated to fit any given situation, it’s one that I can’t help trying to pick out now that I have that type of imagery in my head. 

The bright side to this expansiveness is that there is more freedom to get some of those more unique sound ideas out into the wild. Not every in-game sound can be made with a bowl of mac ‘n cheese, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other interesting stories behind some of the common sounds we hear regularly. “One of my favorite sounds to work on is the one where you stun an Unstoppable Champion,” Uribe shares. “I don’t remember exactly how my brain got there, but I remember I made the sound that had this cool explosion effect, but for some reason, it just didn’t click well with the scene when looking at raids and dungeons. There’s just too much combat going on and the stun explosion didn’t set itself apart enough from the rest of the fighting sounds. I wanted the players to hear when the stun happens. I knew I needed to cut through the mix, through that noise. I was working from home one day when a few contractors were working in my apartment —it was loud, and the drill sounds never stopped. They just kept going and going until eventually, something snapped in my head, and it went from being an annoyance to being an inspiration. So, I did what an audio designer does: I started recording.” 

The whine of the drill started to gain ground as an idea, causing Uribe to stretch it out a bit and adjust the pitch ramp to make it even higher, and viola—the stun sound was born.  

“I remember when Matt Frickleton, our audio producer, had a baby and she was making the craziest sounds,” recalls Nyte. “When we started working on Season of the Haunted, he sent us a recording of her and I remember thinking I didn’t really know what I would use that for but that I thought I could make it work. Turns out, it was perfect because we processed it for two different sounds for the Season, as well as the intro mission’s purple hallway sequence.”  

Other times, it’s just good food that makes the cut. “Remember when I ate Pagliacci pizza, and my stomach started rumbling so loudly?” LaBonte shares laughingly. “It was kind of embarrassing because my stomach was totally interrupting a movie, we were all watching at the time. And, I mean, I felt fine, but it was kind of cool because immediately my mind went to ‘this is perfect Hive tech’ and thus, the Cryptolith sounds were born.”  

A fun bit of trivia that you may not know is that the journey to bringing Rasputin back for Season 10 was one that was rife with uncertainty and challenges behind the scenes. LaBonte worked on this, and she knew she had to get creative fast because the people that worked on Rasputin previously were either no longer working at Bungie or attached to other projects, so it felt a bit like starting from scratch—only that scratch has even more expectations because it’s not something entirely new.  

In her quest to bring Rasputin back into the storyline in a believable way, she had to dive deep into what this character would sound like and what was doable with the team’s current scope. After racking her brain for a solution, she started to dive deep into the different languages of Destiny 2 voice actors. She eventually found that Destiny voice lines in the Russian language had something special, so she reversed those spoken lines, and it was then where she began her process of helping to rebuild Rasputin for this new narrative.  

The next challenge came with the pitch of the Felwinter’s Lie quest. LaBonte explains, “It was really challenging because all I had to work with were these random lines I created for Rasputin throughout the Season that did not match the emotional storyline between Rasputin and Ana Bray in this mission. Instead of being heartfelt, the lines sounded angry and there was a lot of yelling. So, I had to go in and make over eighty different files and variations and cut them up individually in order to make them sound less like a random yelling man and more like the emotional confession of a tyrant who is pouring out his heart." 

It's the little things that can mean the most

Given that there is always something to do in Destiny and always a new Season on the horizon, the world of audio is constantly evolving. Some projects can be more difficult than others, but each pinpoint crafted by these teams is handled with precision and care to ensure the most authentic journey possible for players. “It’s always this super proud moment for me when a player says they like something specifically because of how I made it sound,” reflects Nyte. “I remember a sound I made a couple of Seasons ago around the portal that used to be in the H.E.L.M. during Season of the Lost. It was such a cool moment for me to not just see the initial reaction to it, but also to hear that people couldn’t stop running back and forth through it—even if they had things to do—because they liked the sound it made. It made me feel really good, things like that make me happy.” 

The H.E.L.M. portal sound really was a fan favorite, so how was it made? “Some things we make are really simple with just a few sounds we’ve recorded layered together,” says Nyte. “Tracks on tracks, sometimes, with all the different pieces that come together to make a whole. Remove one layer, and the whole vision collapses. For the portal, I don’t know why but I had it in my head that I needed it to have a human breath element. Since I always have a microphone on my desk, I just recorded myself taking different breaths, screaming into the mic, and other voiced sounds. Then, I just started processing each layer. Working in core elements like that play a small but meaningful role when crafting the desired design.”  

The journey to working in games

Not everyone that works in gaming sets out with this industry in mind. In fact, these three creatives began their careers wanting to work in other industries, but their love for games won out. Uribe, for example, got his start mixing music and sound engineering for bands. LaBonte started her journey in film, but then realized that post-production life just wasn’t for her, and “the schedule sucks, to be honest.” Nyte, on the other hand, went to school to become a recording engineer, though not specifically for games. All three grew up playing video games and they learned that their passion for digital adventures could lead to an exciting future of helping to create them.  

“It’s just exciting to see it all come together,” says LaBonte of her experience working in games. “All of the different attributes that contribute to how good of an experience a player has, it’s complicated but it is really exciting when it all comes together and seeing how gaming fans react.” 

Nyte adds, “That’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to work on Destiny specifically, being able to watch the community react and knowing that I could be a part of the reason why their audio experience was so cool. Audio design is something I really like, so being a part of a game that I enjoy so much and getting to watch the community enjoy it as well? It’s really cool.” 

“You don’t really see that in a ton of gaming communities,” she adds. “The ongoing community excitement is what really drew me into Bungie's world. I want people to hear my stuff. I want them to notice my stuff, and it drives me to do a better job because I know people are listening. Some people are paying attention, and every time I make even the tiniest of sounds, I remind myself that someone is going to find that sound and for them, I need to always make it sound good.” 

A new normal, adjusting to work during a global pandemic

There is a lot of joy that comes with working in the audio field, especially for those creative folks that love to work in collaborative environments. Bungie’s Audio team is exceptionally close-knit, so when the world froze at the start of 2020 due to COVID-19 and the teams flipped their entire processes upside down to work from home, there were some challenges. Not only did the isolation break up the natural flow this team had nurtured, but it also made it more difficult to work through things like creative blocks. 

“Working from home definitely has its positives and negatives,” says LaBonte. “We had these really great mix and Foley (the reproduction of everyday sound effects) rooms so we would come in as a group for what we called Foley Fridays to just bring in random stuff and make weird sounds. Not necessarily for anything specific, just as something to get the creative juices going, and it was always such a cool collaborative moment that it really felt like genuine team bonding. I was a little sad to have lost that aspect when working from home because that kind of collaboration is inspiring.”  

Uribe agrees heartily, adding, “I do miss things like Foley Fridays. Things like our Creative Lead noticing when we’re struggling with certain projects, or if we’ve hit that inspiration wall. He would notice those things when we were in the office, and he’d take us to go record oddball sounds for no reason other than to just be silly and let some of that tension go. Those sounds would get added to our library and that would make it easy to get right back into it. I think I would go back to the studio full time, but I know many want to stay remote and I support that too.” 

Being able to walk the halls and catch a glimpse at what the art team is working on and feel that jolt of inspiration is something that is difficult to replicate in the solitary of pandemic life, but not impossible. One way that the team keeps that collaborative support alive is through regular video calls. “We do these full Audio team syncs once a week and then a separate sound design-specific sync every other week,” says Nyte. “It’s obvious that the audio team loves spending time together and when we all get into a room together and just chat, it’s magic.”  

Despite many of us still working from home, the Audio team, much like all of the teams working hard to make these worlds feel magical, continues to innovate new ways to bring Destiny 2 to new heights. From the whimsy of Starhorse to the horrific depths of Derelict Leviathan, the Audio team has been there to ensure that each experience feels—and sounds—unique and brimming with the promise of what’s next.  
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