Sunday, May 12, 2013

Surveying Literature: The Game Audio Tutorial (Richard Stevens/ Dave Raybould)

I just finished reading Richard Stevens and Dave Raybould's The Game Audio Tutorial.  This book is such a wonderful reference, and very practical too.  What I appreciate the most about it is that the exercises and material are of great interest to me, especially since implementing audio into games isn't a task I've done before.  The authors here repeat the idea I first encountered when reading The Fat Man's Guide to Game Audio: understanding how the audio is placed into the game is a critical step for those working in game audio.  One doesn't necessarily need complete mastery of it-- of course, that also depends on the size of the audio team-- but any knowledge in this area informs other decisions one makes as a game audio creator.  The authors have a perfect analogy, equating learning about the programming aspects of game audio to learning some basic phrases in a foreign language when you're traveling abroad.  Not only does it help you, but the natives appreciate that you've taken time to do this.

I appreciate that the authors want the information in the book to be practical.  They reject at the outset the idea that audio creation (asset creation) can't be separated from implementation.  I'm not sure I completely agree with them, but I appreciate their viewpoint.  Having the final product in mind is always important, but for a person getting into the field, there may be times when the pendulum is more toward one of these sides than another.  For instance, their book provides online links to learn more, and among other things, gives access to a sound library and game world where you can try out the methods described in the book.  This is in part because their focus is not on how you create your sounds, but how you put them into the game.  While the authors have simply supplied files for you to manipulate and play with, as I consider this, I realize I'm very interested in the creation of those audio files in the first place.  I see how these ideas are inseparable, but also appreciate that there are times when one's focus may be completely on one part of the equation.  

It's nice to read a book that simply commits to a method and software as a tutorial guide.  The authors freely admit that software/hardware will changes over time and with various projects, so there's no one method to learn that will help with all situations.  Of course, depending on what one's developing for, the details of how the system works can be very closely guarded.  However, if you learn any method/software, you can use those techniques similarly in whatever the actual situation you find yourself to be.  The "Here's a task, we're going to explore it with this technology, and then later you can use these same ideas in other situations" is a classic line from any technology education-- given how quickly the field changes-- and one I repeat often in my Tech for Mus Ed class.  

I'm looking forward to playing around with the interactive component of this tutorial this summer and hope to work through the implementation chapters in the beginning of the book.  Having done this will give me a huge understanding in implementing game audio-- the area of game audio where I feel the least knowledgeable.  Or to spin it more positively, I might say they're where I have the most room to grow!  

Here are quite a few of my reactions to the book:

This book struck similar points as The Fat Man's book.  Carrying a recording device with you everywhere, having regular planning and strategy meetings between the game designers and the audio team, and trying to get involved with the game as early as possible.  Although I shouldn't be surprised, the stressed importance of organization and great record keeping with audio tracks is interesting to see.  Clearly, this is critical in so many ways, perhaps most basically seen when you're looking for a sound and organizing sounds on your computer, but the authors also stress it early in the audio creation process.  For instance, you'd be wasting time by working with dialogue that's whispered, no matter how dramatically expressive, if it's during a loud gun battle.  

Many of the audio details that the authors group into "dialogue" are also useful for capturing samples of live music.  Particularly I'm thinking about microphone placement, recording equipment, editing of these samples, etc.  While I hadn't really thought about it, I do know a fair amount about this from teaching Tech for Mus Ed majors.  Reading a book like this is a constant reminder to me of how much I don't know, so it was good to realize also what I already bring to the table because of my training and work.  

One very interesting idea to me has to do with realism in game audio.  While it may seem that audio designers want audio to be as realistic as possible, this isn't actually true.  The player wants a guided audio experience through the virtual world.  Whereas our brains and ears already do this, sound designers are faking this in games (and movies).  Imagine a game world that could recreate a fairly true acoustic as a part of the game engine (I don't think this exists).  Put this scenario into a loud bar.  There'd be times to cheat this to have more emphasis on an important sound over others-- a glass breaking or a sentence of dialogue-- rather than on all the ambient noise of the bar patrons (walla).   

Game audio is often thought of as needing variation.  However, there are sounds that don't want variation-- the sound of a power up, or of damage being taken, for instance.  This sound needs to be the same each time because of the information it conveys to the player.  

The audio field in a game can convey much more information about the environment than the visual field.  Sounds are often presented in a complete 360 radius from the avatar, but the visual field is typically smaller.  I want to think more about the visual range of information vs the audio range the player receives.  

I love that there's a focus on Leitmotifs and their importance.  That's really one of the main features of game music that drew me into examining the genre more, as can be seen from my video about Leitmotifs in Final Fantasy 7.  

When you're conceptualizing game audio, don't just talk about it, create it!  This is especially helpful as many game designers may not have the same musical vocabulary as the audio folks.  This way, you've got concrete feedback about how to proceed.  Setting music to artwork and text is a great way to get the entire gaming team focused early in the process.  Don't forget that music draws the player more deeply into the gaming experience.  If engineers are creating the level as they listen to your music, it's influencing the mood and already getting them more immersed in the game world as they create it!  

Compared with the step-by-step approach in the rest of the book that largely teaches how to implement game audio, the Music Systems (Chapter 4), flat out says: we assume you know about music.  If you don't, the authors suggest studying, "pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre, texture, instrumentation, and how to structure these into a musical whole."  This list, while short, is helpful as I consider what the most important musical features are for studying video game music.  I'm already building an understanding of this through my blog work, particularly as I go through My Gaming Audio History.  

The consideration of game genre brings up all sorts of musical expectations.  A musical tune that might be perfect for a platform game could seem heinous in a FPS.  This applies to sound effects as well.  Navigating a menu in a racing game should sound differently from the menu in a Sci-Fi game or a medieval RPG.  What are the effects of game genre on audio and vice versa?  I want to explore this line of thinking more.  

I love how the authors remind the composers to think about differences in gameplay when considering music.  How is the audio experience of a game different for a person who blasts through a level quickly versus a player who takes time to move cautiously, versus a player who's a completionist?  

"As game composer, sometimes you have to advocate for no music."   

How do you move from one musical/sound environment to another?  Hard cut, cross-fades, interrupting it with sound effects, etc.  I'm going to keep this in mind as I continue My Gaming Audio History.

In step with the practical nature of the book, the authors remind that game music is not meant to be listened to separate from the gameplay.  Instead, it's a integral part of gameplay.  I appreciate this point, but I also think that game designers are aware of how important audio can be.  Great audio can only help games.  In recent years game music concerts have grown in popularity.  While I might be the exception I want to state outright: contrary to many who say, "no one buys a game for it's audio," I do.  I buy and play games that are supposed to have good audio, sometimes for the sole sake of experiencing their audio.  

One of the best things in this book is the final "Next Steps" chapter.  It asks questions that can help guide interested people in the field.  As an educator, I'm particularly interested in how the authors describe building a game audio portfolio.  While my game music class is very much an introductory level course, any progress toward creating something useful for the participants in this way is both practical and logical.