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  • How Audio Design Enhances Diablo 2

    [01.09.20]
    - David Craddock

  • Despite the resources at the bosses' fingertips, North's recording environment was primitive. Foley was recorded in a closet-sized room. Scott didn't mind. Tight resources forced him to get creative. Modern 3D games can tie the sound of characters taking footsteps to that character's movement animations and the environment they're walking on, such as metal plates, soft grass, or dead leaves. Diablo II offered no simple way to link audio to visual cues, leaving North's team to improvise by creating a loop of footsteps that played according to a set rhythm. They tweaked the loop over and over, playing the game until the footsteps matched each character's movements.

    "Jon was responsible for making sure that all that stuff was handled," Scott said. "He did a lot of the initial implementation of those kinds of sounds; syncing sounds to events that happened on-screen and actually adding the sounds to the game."

    Eager for feedback, Scott would seek out Erich Schaefer and play a few effects. Erich would nod and go on his way.

    "Unless you put in something that's really, really bad, you just don't hear too much about it," Scott admitted. "People don't have opinions about sound. They have opinions about a color, but not sound. Or they'll have really washy feedback, like, 'Oh, I don't know, that doesn't really sound powerful enough.' At least they have those comments so I can tease out more information from them. Like, 'Oh, what do you mean by that?'"

    One of the team's most ambitious and challenging objectives was to create a seamless sonic environment. Since players would be able to go from, say, the Irish countryside down into a cave and back up to the surface without triggering a loading screen, the soundtrack would need to flow from one leitmotif to another without any break in between.

    The trick, Jon knew, was that Matt and his collaborators employed wildly different instruments from one track to the next: percussion and Chinese wind gongs for Act Two's Arabian-style town and surrounding deserts; guitars and flutes to remix motifs from the first game; electronic instruments, and more.

    "The solution we hit upon was long cross fades between music tracks where the beginning of each track would be all percussion so you wouldn't have a jarring juxtaposition of two keys on top of each other. As the melody from the previous track faded out, the percussion intro of the new track would fade in. That was how we worked around the fact that we couldn't really predict when, exactly, the player would initiate a transition between levels."

    With a solution in place, the sound trio did more work to hide the fade from one track to the next. The composers-usually Matt Uelmen-begin each track with five seconds of percussion and then seamlessly flow in the next track. "I can say that I've always felt like I needed the discipline of a project to really grow in terms of my musicianship," Matt Uelmen said. "The transition to Diablo II-where I needed to do an action pastoral track, something vaguely Arabic, something vaguely tropical, et cetera-was a good incentive to explore new sounds."

    "As someone who has focused on visuals at Double Fine and Industrial Light & Magic, I have a lot of respect for that part of the experience, but I still feel that sound is what gives games their weight," Jon added. "It gives you the sense that there's gravity in the world, and that the objects you're interacting with are physical and grounded, not just weightless computer renders. It's something that's overlooked, and it may always be overlooked. It's something people usually don't notice when they're playing a great game: The degree to which the sound environment convinces you that the visuals are even better than they are."


    David L. Craddock's Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II - Heaven, Hell, and Secret Cow Levels, will be published on Amazon Kindle on December 10, 2019, and is available for pre-order.

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