How to create a sound environment adapted
to the oppressive White Night Mansion
By Nicolas Bredin – Sound Designer
The main question here is how to immerse the player in the game and maintain the feeling of tension. We have to decide which artistic direction to take in terms of sound, according to the overall feelings we want to generate: tension, fear, oppression and strangeness.
I will develop some elements of the chosen approach below.
One of the first steps in the creation of a Video Game is to give life to the main character in order to create a sense of identification for the player.
We decided to give the hero a very specific sound for each of his movements as well as each action he makes, while paradoxically he makes no breathing sound, and never uses onomatopoeia. We can only hear his voice via his role as narrator, and this situates the player as both an actor and a spectator of his own actions. The player is confronted with this strange paradox from the beginning of the story and our artistic choice aims to start making him think about things, since his interpretation cannot be limited only to what seems obvious.
On the whole, the variety of sounds in White Night contributes to creating a realistic environment. In addition, we found it interesting to move away from a certain aesthetic of video games and explore something a little bit different by avoiding too many exaggerated sounds, and by playing with the dynamics of sound, steadily increasing the volume as the adventure progresses. The use of silence and the uncluttered aspect of sounds also allow us to create an anxiety-provoking ambience and enhance tension.
The majority of sounds in White Night were recorded specifically for the game with very few changes made after the fact: mainly just some mixing between different layers to obtain the desired sound material. The objective was to obtain very detailed and uncluttered sounds in order to transcribe the environment precisely and make it credible for the player. For example, where matches are concerned, our recording was made with microphones very close to the source in order to capture the smallest details of how the matches crackled and how the flame flickered as it burned. The attention given to the all sounds made by the Mansion’s mechanisms follows the same approach: we aimed to give life to each object. Another example from the beginning of the game is that in the forest or the Mansion’s garden, only a main layer of wind is used with just the occasional sound of a few nocturnal animals triggered randomly, allowing us to remain in a realistic, uncluttered atmosphere; sometimes a subtle Drone is played to remind the player that something strange happened and is still tangible.
In fact, in this game, we constantly maintain a “fragile” balance between realism and imagination/fantasy thanks to the use of Drones. A Drone is a very specific component of Sound Design; it refers to the use of unusual frequencies for the listener, something which feels “cold” by nature because all the waveforms are generated by a computer. More precisely it refers to unusual relations between frequencies. Associated with images and gameplay events, it helps to enforce a feeling of tension. The more we progress in the adventure, the louder and more dissonant the Drones become, until they totally take over from realistic atmospheres in the final climax.
The universe of White Night has a unique location, the Mansion, from which the player seems to have no way to escape. In this enclosed environment, the player is faced with two main abstract enemies: the Darkness and the Ghosts.
We found it interesting to think of the sound for Darkness as a meaningful, informative sound serving to help the player progress in the adventure, as he can’t stay for more than a few seconds in obscurity.
The Sound Design for Darkness was thus imagined to evolve over time. The sound is composed of three different layers: a percussive sound with a filter that changes during the time spent in obscurity: a reverberated syncopated breath of which the intensity changes according to the same time parameter, and a Drone. The longer the player remains in obscurity, the more impactful, loud and unhealthy the sound for Darkness becomes, and this enhances the feeling of urgency for the player.
The Ghosts are more aggressive and pounce on the player. This is the main fear-inducing element in White Night.
The best way to frighten the player and make them jump is to create an atmosphere with a constant audio level and then cut into it radically with very loud sounds from time to time. The effect this has relates back to how we focus our attention and how our ears acclimate to a constant sound level. The percussive sound associated with a Ghost attack thus enhances the surprise effect. In addition, once the player “learns” that a safe zone can protect him from the Ghosts, he becomes more vigilant, and this increases still further the sound effect of any attack.
The emphasis in White Night is on atmosphere, and Sound Design is a part of a deep-reaching relationship between the Story, the Level and the Game Design.
The different explanations above provide some ways to approach the original idea with a Sound Design which often oscillates between realism and fantasy, strangeness and anxiety, uncluttered and loud sounds, tension and fear: a sound design close to a musical approach given the use of Drones, which progress inexorably as the player moves through the game.
Of course, there is also the music included in the game, with leitmotifs on the piano which evolve according to the player’s progression and guide him as he moves on. There is also the work of the composer Zachary Miskin who has created a jazzy ambiance that helps augment the feeling that we have been plunged into a specific time and his use of the cello as a musical transcription of Darkness and of the Hero’s inner thoughts.