When sound designer Maize Wallin was first approached by game designers Jason Bakker and Russell Dilley, she was skeptical. They wanted to create a narrative-driven game called Wayward Strand where the game would center around a teenage girl exploring an airship hospital where her mother works as a head nurse. The game would follow her as she gets to know (and affect the lives) of the patients and staff on the ship.
Inspired in part by theater productions like Sleep No More and games like The Last Express, the story would also be simulated in real-time where “characters [would] move about of their own accord, on their own timelines, regardless of player interaction.”
While the theater-like mechanics of the game was fascinating, Wallin couldn’t help but be a tad suspicious given that both Bakker and Dilley were men wanting to explore a woman-centered narrative. When they initially explained how the game would include a relationship between a mother and a daughter (including it being strained because of the mother’s busy schedule), Wallin had an immediate defensive response.
“[I thought] who are you guys to walk in here to tell me about this story that I don’t think would even exist,” recalls Wallin. “But then after that reaction, I realized that a teenager’s relationship with her mom is different across everyone. Just because my reaction was, ‘No, that’s not how I’d feel,’ other women obviously would have different types of relationships.”
Looking back, Wallin concedes that her response was fueled by her own feelings about her relationship with her mother. Though her experience was contrary to the way Bakker and Dilley were portraying a mother-daughter relationship, the contrast was what eventually brought her on board. “I wanted to explore and confront that,” says Wallin. “One of the biggest things that has influenced the audio [in Wayward Strand] is this conversation between Russell, Jason, and I [where] I had a very different opinion…and I had to acknowledge that there would be many different opinions.”
Film and theater often use sound to emphasize emotions viewers should feel. In games, sound is additionally used to signal things like changes in battle scenes, portraying different emotions, or showing character development. Because of the real-time nature of Wayward Strand though (where players could be present in one scene but miss out on what’s happening concurrently elsewhere), it’s hard to predict what the player is feeling at any given moment. Wallin says that while she can design sounds that prescribe certain emotions, if it’s not what the player is feeling at that moment, it creates too much of a disconnect within the game.
This echoes back to the initial disagreement Wallin encountered about the mother-daughter interpretation. Because players are coming from varied backgrounds and experiences, it was then where she realized that they’ll look at certain storylines and bring their own feelings and interpretations regardless of the game’s dialogue.
“We [needed to] approach [the game] in a non-prescriptive way where we’re trying not to impose what the player should be feeling so the player can be quite self-reflective and make their own decisions,” explains Wallin. “I’ve had to focus audio-wise on leaving space for the player to be able to feel whatever they want.”
At the moment, the way Wallin has done this is by restricting the amount of prescriptive sounds tied to the player’s character, namely by not having music attached to the player. In this way, the player’s character acts almost like a blank slate with limited sound cues indicating what she’s feeling (so that you can project what you’re feeling). As Wallin explains, a lot of the sound design then revolves around the game’s environment.
“Some people are stressed out by noises of hospitals, some people are calmed by them,” says Wallin. “I think that’s important to allow people to have those different reactions to the same thing. [So] instead of [making] the hospital dramatic and evil where I’ve got high violins…and big bass drums [signaling that] hospitals are death…I just want to present it as it is. If you think hospitals [mean] death already, you’ll come to that with your own biases.”
The game though isn’t totally bereft of prescriptive sounds. Wallin says you still hear them accompanying other characters, signalling what they may be feeling (i.e. you can come up to someone and you’ll know whether they’re angry or sad). Another way they’ve done it is through in-game objects where focusing on them reveals sonically the memories and personalities of the characters. For instance, a patient with dementia might not reveal much but by looking at her belongings and hearing the sounds associated with them, they can help convey her past self.
Wallin cautions though that one of their biggest challenges is trying to figure out how to deal with the real-time nature of the game where, similar to Sleep No More, players can stumble half-way through conversations. Here, you might not necessarily know right away whether a person is angry until you hear more or perhaps you’ll never know because you walked off or missed a certain part.
This then presents a technical challenge of looking at how they’ll treat dialogue and how far sound travels in the game. “[We’re] playing with occlusion basically (where sound changes according to what’s in between you and the sound source, like walls and things),” says Wallin. “When can the players hear conversations , how far can they be, and what of it can they hear?”
It’s an important aspect of the game because they want players to stumble into conversations and hear snippets while walking past people. At the same time, because there are key events that significantly affect the patients and the staff, Wallin says they’re still trying to figure out how to make these moments easier to hear.
“It’s fine obviously if people miss things. We’ve figured out the other day that if you do three playthroughs of the entire game, you would still miss over 50% of the content because you can’t be in all places at once,” says Wallin. “[We’re thinking then that if] these things are important to us or with the hospital, can we highlight them somehow? That definitely comes from the audio side as well.”
While Wallin says they still have a way to go from solving all these design challenges, she’s glad to see the early progress.
“I’m finally figuring out what this system’s going to look like. It’s great to be brought on this early to craft everything in this way,” says Wallin. “It’s only coming out now how the audio and sound will be really important to the gameplay.”
Wayward Strand is currently being developed by a Melbourne-based team consisting of Jason Bakker, Russell Dilley, Marigold Bartlett, Maize Wallin, and Georgia Symons. A demo of the game’s soundtrack is available on Soundcloud. To find out more about the game, visit its website or follow it on Twitter or Facebook.