The Witness Audio: 1000 Subtle Layers

(This is a crosspost from WabiSabi Sound’s blog).

I didn’t think Witness was going to be an easy project by any stretch, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be one of our biggest creative challenges. I’ve worked on nearly 80 projects spanning feature film, games, ads and other sorts, and my job as sound designer had always been to broaden the experience in every possible way. The Witness inverts this notion.

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A tree of any significance in a film or game will have a bird perched on its branches chirping away. Cicadas will buzz. Wind will rustle its leaves. Branches will creak, stress and morph right before your ears. All this happening without you actually seeing it…or really expecting to, interestingly.

In The Witness every element has purpose. A key game mechanic, in fact, relies on the player’s perception as they explore. So, we’re not just talking aesthetics…noise (literally stated) ruins the game’s playability. Noticing, as a buddhist would call it, is key to discovering solutions and even finding the puzzles themselves. Nothing in the Witness is superfluous.

All this said, the island is a tangible living breathing organic place following roughly the same laws of our universe. The trees exist. They have mass and energy. My eyes receive bands of light reflecting off them, and in fact they are quite beautiful. So then what do my ears hear? Silence is not only a bad artistic choice, it’s untrue.

At this point, you’ve probably asked, “What about music?” It’s no spoiler that there isn’t a gigantic speaker system in the sky fed by a mic’d orchestra. So….

None the less, the island is a fascinating place, with lots to see, hear and do. Geoff and I ‘the audio team’ have had an interesting time exploring 1000′s of layers of sonic subtly, and finding ways to engage players to listen ever deeper. This is a unique project for game sound, and we though it would be of interest to share our challenges and discoveries since starting with Jon in 2010 (and of course the challenges yet to meet).

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10 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    “Silence is not only a bad artistic choice, it’s untrue.”

    It’s funny- I was just playing Noctis IV. Silence was perhaps more of a resource constraint at the time, but it’s a game that flourishes without sound, and still manages to be one of the most artistic games of all time.

    • Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      Indeed, silence is a great artistic choice in cases. The absence of something important sends the mind in all kinds of interesting directions.

  2. Micah
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this Andrew good sir. It excites me to hear you say that this is the biggest creative challenge you’ve ever worked on. I appreciated to hear your mentioning of how The Witness has an inverted approach that is geared towards focused precision and functionality rather than the most aesthetic grandness you can cram into a package. That’s a good clarification to ponder. I’m very excited to see a game where ideas reign instead of a superficial fantasy world that bears no useful connection to our own, and I haven’t been excited about a game in a long time.
    Cheers

  3. Sami
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    I’ve never actually thought about music in The Witness. From everything I’ve seen, it just doesn’t seem like it’s a game that would want, let alone need, music.

  4. MrPapillon
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    I really appreciate that sound crafting is such a big consideration for this game.
    I myself advocate sometimes about the importance of “game sounds” which includes charismatic sounds (half life, nintendo), gameplay sounds (quake, …).
    I dislike the tendency to put movie sounds like orchestra and voice acting.

  5. Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Just wanted to say your hard work on the audio won’t be going to waste! I’ve never been excited to hear a game before, I can’t wait to see all the detail the team is pouring into this project. I hope The Witness is received well after release, because I’d love to see more game studios adopt the “every element has purpose” philosophy. Keep up the good work guys, I’m looking forward to giving you my money whenever you’re ready to take it haha

  6. Spencer
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    “there isn’t a gigantic speaker system in the sky fed by a mic’d orchestra”

    Judging from the trailer, it’s a small record player in the stump of a tree.

  7. dan
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Hey Jon, please (if you can) use lossless sound files. Playing games with a good headphone setup can really bare the distortion and fatiguing qualities of .ogg or even 320kbps mp3 files. FLAC is a good choice for balance between space and compression as they decompress in real time as you listen.

  8. Tim
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    You had me at the 792nd footstep sound.

    The posts about tree and terrain generation led me to believe that there would be no such thing as a background in this game with even grass given such painstaking detail, and it’s good to see the audio is getting a similar treatment. Usually, decisions about what sensory input is important aren’t left to the player, and I’m looking forward to reading more about what that means in terms of sound.

  9. matthew
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    sound is probably more important than visuals for authenticating an environment, yet its something i often feel is largely neglected (intentionally or not)

    but as long as you guys are giving it attention with specific purposes in mind then that’s all i need to hear to not be worried

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